As a freelancer, it is sometimes necessary to develop the art of shameless self-promotion. We’ve all done it (or beaten ourselves into a pulp of misery when we should have done it). All it takes is some confidence, correct? Therefore, hear this: in a beige Portakabin at some point in the mid 90s, my careers advisor confidently told me to remember one thing: I could do everything.
Naturally — as was also the case with her suggestion that my future career should be an ‘art curator — my careers advisor was less than half right. Of course I could not do everything. I could not, for example, pursue the career that my now 4-year-old son imagines for himself: ‘I’m gonna be a Zebra, Mummy’. All hail the rise of transpecianism. Yes, it’s a thing.
I am not being completely fair. What the well-meaning advisor meant, of course, was that as a female member of Generation X my career choices no longer teetered on the brink of teacher or nurse. But what she said, ‘you can do everything’, gets to the sticky issue of why working parents — and especially, I think, a majority of working mums — often feel like we are spinning plates and waiting for one to fall.
There is of course no reason why we can’t do one, two or more of the myriad of jobs available to us; no reason at all why we shouldn’t be that focused and creative parent who freezes toys in bowls of water and spends the afternoon allowing a small child to cover the sofa in slush as they seek to free Captain Barnacles from his Ice Prison; no reason whatsoever why we can’t be at every parents evening, every school play, every board meeting, on every conference call and rise to ranks that are more prestigious, better paid and more highly decorated than any parent who came before us. Of course there isn’t. We can do everything.
Just not all at once.
There lies the rub. If you are a freelancer, a parent and whatever other labels you can attach to yourself, the chances are that you need to hear this. If you have ever been at work and phoned home to discover from the childminder that your kids have eaten all their vegetables without complaint or been at home while emails fall from the ether quicker than the pasta boils, then you will know what I mean. You can’t do it all at once: something has always got to give.
Before this turns into an opportunity for us all to huddle and wail introspectively about the hardships of watching our flat whites get cold, what is the answer? Cue fabricated hash tag: #ThereIsntOne.
However, there are ways of reconciling ourselves with the lifestyle that we have, and learning to live it for the best rather than its boundary-less worst. Last year, I went through a particularly interesting period of plate spinning and the challenge that came out of it was simply this: to practice being present.
To my knowledge no human has yet managed to squeeze more than 24 hours out of a day. Some freelancers (myself included) may, through sheer miscalculation of days-per-contract, have found themselves accidentally working an eight-day week. (For reference, a ten hour working day followed by a ten hour working night is only sustainable for so long.)
So if we can’t create time, then the question and the answer are both in our court: how can we be present in the time that we do have?
Being present means that I try to communicate clearly with whoever is in front of me.
If it is work, then I am in a place — geographically and mentally — where I can be fully there. This means not bashing out an email whilst microwaving porridge; not wedging the phone to my ear as I barge past other parents, dragging my child from school. Similarly, if the people in front of me are my children then I need them to see that I am all theirs.
What is the point, I realised earlier this year, of making an effort to be at home only to disappear a moment later when work calls? Of course there are times when we have to explain that the phone is ringing and we need to pick it up. However just as a crew would be flabbergasted if I stopped a shoot to answer a call from a friend who has found a new way to get her toddler to eat carrots — ‘I whittled it into a train!!! OMG!!! Titus LOVED it’ — there need to be times when my children know that the phone is off limits.
Being present does not mean that I am a role-swapping chameleon.
At work I am a director who is a mother. At home, I am mummy who does a job that she loves. The most dangerous place I have been in terms of keeping relationships going at work and at home was when I acted like these roles were mutually exclusive. Being present means that you are always all of yourself, no matter which skills happen to be in use at a particular time.
Being present means acknowledging frustration.
Not being able to do everything is rarely easy. I have given up jobs to be with the children. I have given up school plays to be at work. This is not always how we would want it to be and yet if it is part of the pattern that we choose for our lives then all we can do is to join Samuel Beckett in saying “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Lastly, being present means being thankful for it all.
Don’t give up on me now in the belief that I’m going to sow American quantities of sweetness across the page. That’s not what I mean by being thankful.
Being thankful is having a job that, when my daughter was ill and knowing that I had a script to write, allowed me to sit with her on the beach while she played with pebbles and I wrote. Being thankful is accepting that turning down that contract is less the end of the world than (gulp) an opportunity to have more time with the family. Being thankful is having supporters. It is working up the battle plan of lunches, pick-ups and logistics in preparation to leave for a week to do a job that I love.
In all things, being thankful is acknowledging that it is not a failure of self-promotion to say that I can’t do everything. It is instead a choice that whatever I do, whenever I do it, is valuable enough to be present in.
Photograph by Helen Martin.