Yesterday was Mass Observation Day in the UK, where members of the public are asked to record a daily diary:
As we post this call, the UK is in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t know how life will be on the 12th May, but we would like your help to document it. Please tell your family and friends. It will be valuable to have a collection from people of all ages across the UK.
Please don’t include your real name, contact details, or the personal details of the people mentioned in your diary. Please remember that these diaries will be read and used for research and teaching, so please don’t include anything that may identify you or others.
You should include a brief self portrait: your age, where you live, your relationship status, your present job or occupation if you are working and any other information that you think is important to record.
This feels like a valuable social history project to me, and I figured I would share it on the blog too.
I am a thirty-seven year old woman who currently lives in Britain’s second largest city with my husband (K), a solicitor, and my daughter (G), who is five in August. I am a lecturer at a post-92 university; I also teach online for a major continuing education programme and work part-time on a history website. We have been working from home since mid-March and our daughter has been out of school since late March.
I awake at 4am from a tangled nightmare that seemed to hit almost every anxiety dream trope. In it I gave a lecture and discovered I was not wearing a skirt; I went to a supermarket and had to hold my teeth in my mouth as they risked sliding, denture-like, out of my face; and something about schools that slipped away as I woke, but given the recent news about potential school openings on 1 June (and all the attendant worries we might have about that), the setting seemed like a hat-trick. I stumble blearily to the loo and think – brain, that dream was a little too on the nose. Be more abstract next time.
I go back to sleep, waking as my husband gets out of bed at 6.30, ready to shower and start his day working. To try to both manage our workloads, he is starting work early in the morning and I look after G; we switch after lunch, and then at 4pm he goes back to work and I manage things until dinner. His hours are longer than mine; technically I’m paid, out of the various things I do, for around 26 hours a week. In ordinary terms that of course means I usually work more like 35, but it works pretty well around family life.
These are not ordinary times. But K’s workload is not letting up, and the nature of his work – with court deadlines – gives less room for flex than mine. Obviously I think about the feminist issues around one partner getting more work time, as I’m sure that in many cases it’s women’s careers that will suffer coming out of this pandemic. That it’s a pragmatic decision for our family – he makes the most money (we could not live on mine alone, but could manage on his) and also at the moment is in a more high-risk situation (law firms are making cuts) – doesn’t mean it’s not also a feminist issue.
I’m not thinking about that at 6.30, though. Instead I’m dozily listening out for the thump-thump of G’s feet as she comes up the stairs (we live in a tall, skinny house on three floors; our bedroom is at the top, and hers is on the floor below, which generally works well as it’s also the floor with the sitting room). She sleeps in very slightly later than usual, and appears at 6.45, sliding into bed with me, cheek pressed against my cheek. I love this start to the day, even though sometimes I wish she could save her most excitable questions for later. We have a long conversation – animated on my part, sleepy on mine – and then she asks if she can watch videos. She uses my iPad as I nap thinly for twenty minutes or so, and then I lie in bed quickly checking email and messages. Not usually my first priority so early in the morning. But as I said, these aren’t ordinary times, and it helps me work out what I might need to do with the day.
We go down to breakfast – K has already had his, and is at his desk. It takes us a while to get there, because we need to gather dinosaurs on the way. They join us at the table. I made overnight oats for me and K – yoghurt and peanut butter and berries and oats – and G has cereal and toast. I watch the birds on the feeders in our little garden on a bright cool day, wind blowing hard.
After breakfast I get G to do a couple of worksheets sitting at the kitchen table. We’ve been theming our home school week, and this week’s theme – chosen by her – is pirates. She’s responded well to map-making and storytelling; maths thinly disguised as piracy seems less compelling. But we do some anyway, and then go upstairs to get washed and dressed. K pops out to chat to me about some work-related issues. We think we’ll be fine. But it leaves a sad feeling in my stomach like a stone. It does feel like 2020 is kicking us in the teeth, though I’m loathe to complain about it when so many people are really suffering during this pandemic. It’s just – I worked very hard to get a permanent academic job, and this is the first summer I was going to have without needing to think about job hunting and could focus on research, which isn’t likely to happen now. We’ve cancelled a much-anticipated holiday, and seen a dozen other highly anticipated events quietly disappear from our calendars. I can’t help thinking of the spectre of deep recession, and what might happen to us then. But there’s no point dwelling on it, so I go back to my daughter.
We end up playing a game of wolves – G loves to pretend to be animals, and always I’m the mother-creature and she’s my baby. She wants us to hide in our den so we lie under her duvet in the dim light of her curtained room, and then I propose we go out while it’s sunny. We pretend it’s night time as we head out to the local green on our little housing estate, G pushing her scooter. We are out hunting, and catch a rabbit. We are on a wolf adventure.
I make lunch while G watches a bit of TV. I send emails while I reheat leftover sausage casserole and cook a loaf of garlic bread. K comes down to join us, and asks if it’s alright if he carries on working a bit longer since he needs to send some urgent advice out. I say yes, and G and I finish making a little bracelet for her. Or rather, she tries a couple of times to string the beads, ostentatiously abandons the effort, and redirects her energies toward designing the piece and getting me to do the manual labour. The kid is going places.
K takes over then, and I go to my desk in our spare room – a cluttered place where there are all my academic books, a single bed, a couple of pieces of furniture not really fit for purpose, and a few boxes of junk. On the agenda this year was sorting out and decorating this room. I know some people are using lockdown to carry out home improvement projects, but I don’t see us having the time to do that! However, even if it’s not the most scenic space, I’ve got a large desk and a proper desk chair and so I know I’m doing better than a lot of people.
I plan to mark exam scripts this afternoon, but the next two and a half hours seem to just rush by in emails and admin for my three different jobs. None of them add up to a full time post, but they certainly do nibble away at my time. The brightest spot is a 2pm Zoom call with a colleague at an institution overseas. We’re hoping to do some editorial work together, and talking about research, even very briefly, feels good.
At 4pm K goes back to work and G and I do some reading for school. Her teacher has set her books on a website, activelearning, which makes it easy to update the content. She reads one book and asks for another. We also spend about 30 minutes reading her dinosaur encyclopedia. So I don’t feel too guilty when I take 45 minutes to mark exams. She sits on the spare bed with my iPad, using a colouring app. It plays gentle music and has cute pictures, so I splash out on the paid version to give her glitter pens and patterns to use too. During this time I also switch the oven on, and at various points pop things into it. K has prepped a pile of vegetables, so all I need to do is season them and put them in the oven with some salmon for us and sausages for G. I use Indian spices and oil on the veg so they come out of the oven yellow and fragrant.
We eat at 5.50 – since lockdown started we’ve got into the habit of an early dinner, whereas before all this G would normally eat after she came home from school and K and I would have dinner once she was in bed, largely because my husband would often get back too late in the evening for a four year old to wait to eat. It’s a nice aspect of this whole situation we’re in.
After dinner G has her bath. I see my mum tried to call while we were eating, so I video call her and my dad; they are in strict lockdown in Manchester. G chats to them from the bath while my mum is making rock cakes – both my parents seem to have caught the baking bug that has overtaken so many of us in lockdown. G starts chanting rock cakes, rock cakes at increasingly ear-splitting levels. I tell her to stop, though at least I have an idea for a project in the morning.
Then it’s time for lots of stories in bed. K is putting her down for the night – G refuses to go to sleep if someone isn’t in the room with her, and while we want to put a stop to that at some point, the current situation is weird and stressful enough that it’s not going to be now – and that means I can go upstairs and get ready for yoga.
I do an online yoga class every Sunday – it’s the same teacher I had in the “before-time”, and it makes for a nice continuity now – but I also try to do another class during the week. My local yoga studio offers lots of different classes online, and I’ve done this Tuesday one a couple of times before. I like the teacher, who works us pretty hard but compassionately. I did a class last week which was too easy (I never thought I’d say that, since I still very much consider myself a beginner), and found it too easy to let my mind wander. A bit of pain, I guess, helps me focus on the moment.
It’s harder to pay attention in my own house than in a studio, but I do my best. I light an oil burner, put on a lamp and some zen-sounding music on Spotify. Then I go to work. It’s a good practice. There’s one bit which I find resonates with me long after the class is over. We’re doing something quite hard, and the teacher says “you may find this difficult.” My Sunday teacher would probably say something encouraging at that point. Tuesday’s teacher is a cooler-headed sort, and she says simply – “let it be difficult.” It’s not an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s what I need. My brain has been a jumble all afternoon of the things I need to do and what I haven’t managed to achieve. My crisis-management mode is very much to fix things or find my way around them. The only way through this pandemic, though, is through. It will be difficult.
Accepting that is no more a defeat than it is to breathe through the weight-bearing posture we’re doing, leaning into the pain, recognising trembling muscles not as weakness but as a place where the body is beginning to learn new strength.
So I come off the mat feeling pretty refreshed. I probably spoil that a little bit by immediately sending a couple of work emails, but I do then shut down the computer and go downstairs at 8.30.
G was asleep by 7.45, and since then K has been cleaning the kitchen. I come down as he finishes, and we talk standing on the newly-clean floor, having a moment of smiling satisfaction. It has been a day full of too many things that needed doing, but at this moment of the day it feels like we’ve come out the other side in good spirits.
I go upstairs with a small tumbler of wine and sit in the bath reading a few pages of a food magazine. I get out to find K watching tv, and I bring us both up a cup of camomile tea after I’ve made our overnight oats for the next day. I go up to bed and K joins me; we have a cuddle and a chat before putting the light out at 10.45. I’ll read for a few minutes, I tell him, but find myself sucked into my book, and don’t surface for 45 minutes. That’s too late, really, when I’ll be woken up at 6.30, but I do appreciate these quiet moments in the dark.
Then to sleep, and tonight, no bad dreams.