Karin huddles on a bench with the other parent rejects.
Bobbi and I are parked on a school bench on the corner of a lawn that is covered side-to-side with blankets, men in loose ties, mothers holding plastic wine glasses, boys playing soccer over picnics and little sisters wandering around loosely like specks of pink that floated on to a factory floor.
It’s the boys’ grade 4 picnic. Bobbi’s home-made ciabatta with ham, cheese and rocket was not a hit with either of her boys, nor was her inability to stop for beers on the way a hit with her man.
“I feel like I’ve lost my joy, you know?” she says, turning to me. She pulls on her cigarette, which is why we’re sort of hiding on the bench. Mothers-who-smoke are seldom part of the mainstream. We feel decidedly un-mainstream, Bobs and I. What we’re doing here on this bench, removed from the crowd, is not so much bonding and bitching, as cowering.
In front of us are displayed picnics of prowess and women who speak softly and wear floaty dresses. Bobbi and I, on the other hand, have both rushed here from various points in the city, making final phone calls, dabbing the sweat from our spines and gloss on our lips before we get out of the car. Our late arrivals are noted by our families only in as much as bags are ripped from our hands to root through.
“No chips? Why didn’t you bring any chips? Isn’t there anything other than water to drink?”
So we retreat and plunge headlong down the hole of “help me please” together, swopping horror stories of our incompetence, the anxiety that chews through our every action – even the non-action of sleep – and the shared belief that we are both, in our own ways, teetering on the edge of disaster every moment of the day. Other women’s ways
Last week I got the times wrong for tennis and left my grade 1 daughter roaming around her new school confused and lonely. On Thursday I sent her to school in civvies, but civvies day was only the next day. My son took a costume to school for the cricket match, care of mother. Disaster was narrowly averted each time, but at the cost of my demeanour, my petrol tank, my sangfroid.
I have a system for the 75 school notices coming in and needing to be returned weekly. I have a diary so full I have to squash my writing into ant-sized letters. I have timetables on the fridge. And yet, I do not have clarity. On anything.
I have searched for space, for solutions. I have beat myself up. I have studied other women’s ways. I SMS complete strangers for insider knowledge.
I am not a useless human being. I do not have too much to do because I struggle to say no, because I am a perfectionist or desire perfect children. I even work for myself and have a modicum of control over my own daily movements. What am I doing wrong?
Bobbi and I are sick of self-flagellation, and root around for somewhere else to place the blame. The patriarchy? Consumerism? The sucky transport system?
Our conclusion surprises us both: it’s school. School is a many-tentacled monster that sucks entire families in. It all looks pleasant and worthy - all those picnics and get-togethers and special talks by experts and cake sales and study evenings – but in reality, school is a beast in sensible shoes.
Especially for working mothers. What do you think? Is school a friend or a family-sucking monster?