Like most families with school-age children our working week in term time is a finely-balanced juggling act. The ideal morning scenario is that children are up early, washed and properly dressed in clean uniform. This ideal is rarely a reality in our household and we regularly conduct frantic searches for school shoes, bags and reading books. The girls often go to school as unintentional fancy dress urchins. I warn them not to take off school jumpers so they don't reveal unironed shirts with washed-in stains. My own working wardrobe isn’t much smarter. My ‘uniform’ consists of dreary black and brown separates designed to disguise squidgy mummy flab and yet convey a serious professional image. Unfortunately, a working lunch at my desk means that most of what I eat ends up down my front, leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail between stomach and chin in case I forget the way back to my mouth. I learnt a long time ago when H was a constantly dribbly baby that a patterned scarf is an essential cover-up accessory.
This week S has been poorly and her pale little face peeks out from the quilt arranged on the sick-bed sofa. L switches to resident nursemaid while working from home and I need to put worry aside and head for work ready to teach other well children. Once at work, I wonder how many times it is acceptable to check my mobile phone for texts from sickly child when a strict ‘no mobile phone’ rule operates for all pupils (school policy doesn’t say it but you know this means teachers as well). I secretly send emoticon hug; it really isn’t the same as a real one from mummy. Sickly dependants present a different kind of challenge for the self employed too. I came home to find that L had set up a temporary home office on the landing with laptop perched precariously on the banister so that his sales pitch wouldn’t be drowned out by the sounds of the Nickelodean tv channel.
When a child isn’t well the weekly routine gets more complicated, and the juggling more frenetic, but you can usually manage. However, when an adult member of the team falls ill, things begin to slip and slide and by the time Wednesday arrives, domino-like complete organisational failure threatens. You crawl towards the hope of Friday evening when you can legitimately crash on the sofa too and sob into your sauvignon.
Even when all are well there seems to an unwritten rule that if you have a particularly full week with deadlines looming then at least one child will have a particularly onerous homework task: build a motte and bailey castle, find and record all the food items in your kitchen that contain palm oil, design an Egyptian death mask (would a photo of mummy’s unmade-up face in a the morning be acceptable, I wonder). I kid you not, all these were real ‘tasks’ we’ve been presented with in the last year alone. As Scotland’s Curriculum for Excrement (sorry, Excellence) continues to spawn its tenuous links between topic and real world so homework becomes ever more ambitious. Across the land hoards of parents work as nightshift teachers, googling for help and inspiration (if you’re not a history teacher you’ve probably just done exactly that, using the search terms ‘motte and bailey castle’, haven’t you!)
Working as a teacher means that sometimes the edges between domestic and work life blurs. Responsibility for children, one’s own or someone else’s, becomes a 24 hour occupation. On an almost daily basis I witness the fallout from frayed parents not quite managing to pull it all together. Tell-tale red wine rings all over the front of one child’s exercise book, the mother who fell asleep at parents evening, school bags devoid of books or pencil case and, on closer inspection, containing a half-eaten six-month-old sandwich and a lone ballet shoe. Packed lunches where manic households have run out of standard lunch fare and, with no time for a proper shop, resorted to highly unsuitable substitutes for a sandwich – a torn up hotdog or Carr's water biscuits and the odorous remnants of dinner party cheese. This tells the lunchtime supervisor far more about the level of disposable income than culinary preferences. A teaching colleague told me recently of an amusing incident when a confused but delighted Primary 1 child brought in his father’s briefcase as an item for ‘Show and Tell’. Whether this was the mischievous imp’s intention or if there had been a mix-up during the journey to school was unclear, but it was all too easy to imagine the resulting crisis. Although I had complete empathy with the father, I also had to snigger as I pictured him briefcaseless with school satchel instead and the intended show and tell item – what would a five-year-old boy normally bring? - a yo-yo perhaps, a Lego model or maybe a toy character like Buzz Lightyear. Let’s hope the father was in something PR-related and could somehow weave in, ‘To infinity and beyond!’ as a potential company mission statement!