Absent with leave?

I hate moaning! I’m generally not a negative person- even if I’m in a bad mood, it doesn’t usually last longer than a couple of hours; I get easily bored with being grumpy and shake it off or get distracted. I’m someone who gets things done; I am productive with my time, generally take workload and pressure and stress in my stride and have a ‘can do’ attitude. Get up, get on, get it done!

But the last 6 months have left me feeling a bit broken and with depleted levels of resilience. Returning to work properly in September alongside balancing a new life with 3 kids, a baby who has been perpetually ill and who doesn’t sleep, a husband who works away and the hassles of everyday life has been a real struggle.

I’m hyper aware when I moan about Ted being poorly just how lucky we are. We have 3 children who are healthy and thriving. We’ve had our fair share of trips to the children’s hospital after they’ve run at full speed into the sofa arm or had a temperature that just won’t go down or have woken up covered in a rash, but they’ve never been ‘properly’ poorly. I expected Ted to pick up lots of bugs and illnesses as a newborn; we had 2 other children in two other childcare settings with millions of germs being brought home each day! Factor in the need for the big two to continually poke him and put their fingers in his mouth and generally bother him and I had set myself up for a constantly snotty baby! However he proved me wrong and didn’t have so much as a sniffle for the first 10 months. But he started nursery in September and this heralded the change in the viral resistance; nothing major, nothing terrifying or life threatening or life changing, but snot and tummy bugs and viruses have abounded ever since! In October he picked up a particularly nasty bout of Hand, Foot and Mouth and I feel like he’s never quite got over it.

He also struggles with digestion. Esme was similar but seemed to grow out of it at an earlier age. He will go to sleep in the night absolutely fine but wakes up at any point between 10 and 2 with tummy ache. On the best nights, you are up for an hour trying to cajole him back to sleep; on the worst he will be up for up to 3 hours, screaming hysterically with trapped wind. On these nights (probably 3-4 times a week), nothing will comfort him. He claws and scratches at our chests and skin and pushes away from you, only to cry even louder if you put him down. He arches his back, thrashes his legs about and throws himself around and becomes more and more agitated until eventually the wind releases and he goes back to sleep as if nothing ever happened. It is exhausting physically to be up for 3 hours each night, but emotionally it’s horrible to see your normally content and happy little man in such extreme agony. We’ve tried every colic remedy under the sun and kept food diary’s to see if there is an obvious antagonist. We went to the GP and got fobbed off (‘Yes Mrs Thornhill- babies DO cry!’) the first time but eventually got a referral to a specialist at the hospital. 6 months after it started we are finally seeing someone who has ruled out some things and put a plan of action into place (treating for silent reflux before looking at a dairy free diet if that doesn’t work) but no improvements have been seen yet. He also seems susceptible to stomach bugs and struggles to shake them off when he does get them. Five weeks ago he had a very brief sickness bug but his stomach is still not right now. Apologies if you are eating while reading but last week, a bout of diarrhoea was so bad that it escaped his nappy, went up his vest and came out of his sleeves!!! He’s averaging 3 outfits a day and the week before last I had to strip and wash his bedding 15 times in 6 days! Watching him in discomfort is obviously the worst part but the additional washing and scrubbing vomit from carpets is also fairly wearing when you already feel like you are on your knees. I’d also got to a point where leaving the house felt dicey as cleaning him up after one of these ‘episodes’ would not be easily done on a pull down tray in a disabled toilet with a couple of baby wipes… it’s more of a shower, blow torch and full haz-mat suit kind of situation!

I’ve written about sleep deprivation before. All parents know how it feels to be tired; I’m not sure I remember how it feels NOT to be tired anymore! This is the most prolonged period we’ve had without sleep though. I’d say we average 5 hours a night at the minute over 2 to 3 bouts of sleep. We get the occasional night where he sleeps through or he goes somewhere else for the night and we get a bit of a catch up but even after a good night’s sleep I still wake up hoping it’s nearly bedtime! I think this is the closest I’ve come in life to being actually exhausted. My eyes sting constantly, I am lethargic and ratty! I have a mouth full of ulcers and my skin is dull and grey and covered in spots! I am emotional in a way that I am not normally- I don’t usually get cross or upset but I find myself really easily in tears and not being able to shake it off! I can’t concentrate or remember or focus. I regularly get to the end of a car journey and have no recollection of how the hell I got there! I am not productive because I don’t have the energy to be! I get to 2 in the afternoon and I hit a wall where I struggle to keep awake; my weight loss attempts are entirely scuppered as all I crave are carbs for energy and have zero motivation to exercise when I could be asleep in the evening.

Balancing it all is becoming my ultimate nemesis. Work is fine when I’m there. I’ve done 16 years in the same place- ten years in the same role so I feel like I generally know how to do what needs doing! The issue at the moment is finding time to actually do it! Getting everyone up, dressed and fed, leaving the house and getting to work in a morning feels like a full time job in itself! I have a complete acceptance that my job involves having to do some work at home but finding time to do that when I’m not going through a bedtime routine or helping with homework or falling asleep on the sofa is nigh on impossible. I get in from work some time around 6 and feel like I have to fit in a full day of parenting into an hour when I’m basically done in! Teaching offers very little flexibility in terms of working hours (other than the holidays obviously!); I can’t just take a day off or go in later because Jon is working in Madrid that day or because Teds ill or because its sports day or a nativity! A friend helpfully summarised it for me- you normally have a capacity of 10 but because you are so knackered that’s reduced to 8; however the demands that you are under when you put them all together equal 25! When you boil it down to basic maths, something’s got to give!

So… Given that I previously described my nature as being pro-active and none-whingey, the time has come to do something about this situation to make life better! We are currently just about surviving but this doesn’t feel sustainable. The difference in this scenario to my usual approach to life is that I need to do less, not more. For the first time that I can think of, I’m saying I can’t… I can’t fit it all in and I can’t manage at this pace and I can’t do it all. Something has to give! I need more headspace and time in life and I need to feel like I’m doing one thing well instead of lots of things half heartedly or badly!

I can’t do anything about the demands having 3 kids places upon us- plus eBay won’t list things that are alive so I’ve drawn a blank there! I can’t magically make Ted better or stop him keeping us up all night- I’d have done it months ago if I could! Washing and cleaning and cooking will always need doing… what it boils down to at the moment is a change around work…

I love my job! I work with an amazing team of people and wonderful kids and I’m good at what I do, when I’m awake enough to do it! I took on a deputy head role after 5 and a half years teaching at 26- I’ve given blood, sweat and tears to make a difference to the children I’ve worked with but also to build a career for myself! A career that I’m proud of and that I’m not ready to walk away from. Also,if I’m being brutally honest, I’m also not sure ‘being a mum’ is enough for me… This is said with absolutely no judgement for those who choose to be stay at home mums- I have ultimate admiration for people who do that- I just know the kind of person I am. I need to be busy and to be challenged and to interact with people and to think in creative ways! I’m used to the stress and pressure that a busy job brings. Yes being at home with babies and young children is full on and hard work but I suspect my personality needs something else as well! I’ve had a job for the last 20 years- I like to work and to push myself! I’m also not sure how happy I’d be with not bringing any money into our house! We’ve had a joint bank account for years and it all gets chucked together but I’ve always contributed whatever the percentage- I’m not sure I can be a ‘kept woman’ (even though Jon would never see it that way- I think the fiercely independent part of me might!!) Long term- I’m fairly sure i need to work in a career I’ve built and love! Short term- it’s not working!

So… I’ve put a request in at work for a years sabbatical! Something I never expected I’d do! I considered a reduction in my hours but that didn’t feel like it would fix anything; likewise walking in with a resignation felt terrifyingly final! It would start in September and last for an academic year. A year in which Esme will start school meaning I can get her settled (although she’s been ready for school since she was about 2 weeks old so I think the transition period will be more about me!!) A year in which Ted will turn 2 and hopefully get over these bugs and underlying medical issues and start sleeping at night! A year where I can focus on being a mum and a get our life more balanced instead of worrying about answering emails while I’m cooking tea or wondering when I’m going to write that data report or how to maximise the hour of time I get in an evening when they are all finally tucked in to achieve the 6 hours worth of jobs that I have to do! Maybe to even carve some time out for me to take a class in something creative or to do an exercise class or to read a book for the first time in 6 years! It’s not ideal for my employer, but they are kindly considering it, pending finding a suitable replacements. It’s not ideal financially but we’ll make it work, possible with a bit of supply to top things up. I may get 2 months in and be climbing the walls and craving adult interaction and demand that they take me back! I may not!

It’s probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make and I know I’m in a privileged position to be able to make it… It may not go through, I may end up back at the drawing board, but for now it seems like the right move for us as a family… watch this space!

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