Early Motherhood: The Overnight Babysitting Shift
This follows on from a series of posts about S’s birth and my first few weeks of motherhood. The first post is here.
While I was still pregnant, the ex had told me of his idea to allow him to spend more time with me and the baby – he would do one or two sleep-in shifts a month at work. This would mean he slept at work, coming home at 7am and could spend the whole day with us without his older children being around. We could play house at my place, go on day trips, out to lunch, whatever we wanted. I agreed to look after his kids overnight on the two nights a month he did his sleep-ins, and he spoke to his boss to change the rotas. Then S was born early, and I forgot all about it.
When we had been out of the hospital a week, the ex broke it to me that he was scheduled to work a full day from 7am that Sunday – and then to sleep in as well. He wanted me to stay at his house on the Saturday night and look after his 6 children for over 24 hours on my own. I said no, I couldn’t cope with that so he agreed to get a sitter to have the children for part of the Sunday. I told him I really wasn’t comfortable having them through the day on Sunday as well as overnight, so in the end he relented, and I didn’t have to go over to his house until 4pm on the Sunday.
There was nowhere for S to sleep at his house though, and although she could sleep in the pram, I couldn’t get that down the stairs from the flat on my own. As is his style, everything was left to the last minute. Eventually (at lunch time on the day) it was agreed the ex’s sister would come and give me a lift. She picked us up with all our stuff, and took us to his house. I remember going through the door and thinking, how the hell am I going to get through this? The children were nowhere to be seen. His sister helped me bring the Moses basket and changing bag into the house, and stood in the doorway asking if I was ok, did I want her to hang around? She’d already lectured me on the way over about perhaps going back onto my medication if I wasn’t coping. I was tempted to say to her, “if you were prepared to stick around why the hell aren’t you looking after his kids overnight instead of me?!” I wasn’t impressed at being cajoled into doing this so soon after leaving hospital, but knew there was no way I could refuse; after all, the ex was only doing the shift because I’d agreed to take care of the children. In the end the sister left. That was the last time I saw or heard from her.
I had been told I needed to cook tea for the children, and although I had been told to get there for 4, they would now not be home until 5. I cooked a big pot of pasta and tomato sauce, and waited. 5pm came and went. I texted and called the ex; he had no idea where his children were, or why they weren’t home. He didn’t seem particularly bothered either. I was growing increasingly irritated; I’d dragged my child out of our home into this hell hole with nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing clean, nowhere to put her down, nothing to do. And we were just standing around, waiting. I kept S in the sling because I didn’t want to leave her in the Moses basket or anywhere else in the house – it was a filthy mess, and since there were no doors on hinges, there was nowhere I could leave her that the dog couldn’t get to her.
While I’d been in hospital the chicks we’d been incubating had hatched, and there were now 6 baby chicks in 2 cages, under a heat lamp in the bathroom. The heat and smell were overwhelming, and although the bathroom door was kept closed, the whole house stank. I shut myself in the bedroom and opened the window in the hope of getting some fresh air.
Eventually word came through that the children were at their grandad’s watching a film, and would be home when it finished; they had also had tea. Eventually the younger children came home. It was late and I was tired. I let them come in to see S, and we chatted a little. I explained it was late, and asked the 4 and 5-year-old to please get ready for bed, then S and I would come and read them a story. We did that, and they went to sleep. The older children were less easy to cope with. I let one of them go back out to play on the proviso that he stay on the green out front, and come back in as soon as the street lamps came on. He disappeared. One of the other boys did the same. The eldest boy came in for a chat, and then also disappeared. The eldest girl came and sat on the end of the bed and chatted to me for a while. I think she’d missed having me around, and wanted to tell me all about everything that had been going on. I had asked the ex to at least make sure there were school uniforms washed and ready before he went to work, but he hadn’t so his eldest daughter started about finding all the clothes and making sure they were clean. It was usually her responsibility to do this for her younger sisters any way. She found their clothes, but couldn’t find her school trousers. She thought perhaps they were at her grandad’s house, and wanted to go back there to get them. I couldn’t let her out of the house now as it was almost dark. There was a brief tantrum before she found the trousers, under a pile of other clothes.
Eventually the boys came home, and I asked them to put the tea I’d made into a container in the fridge for tomorrow night. I could hear them play-fighting and mucking about downstairs. By this point it was past 9pm. I had to feed S again at 10, and was desperate for them to be in bed by the time I did that, so that I could get some rest before the next feed at 1am. I asked the eldest girl to go to bed, and she did to start with, but she could hear her brothers messing about downstairs and went to join them. I had 4 unruly children banging about downstairs and a baby that needed feeding. I was so tired and stressed, I didn’t know what to do. I called the ex, and he told me to hit them. I told him he knew I couldn’t do that. He told me to go next door and get his other sister; she would hit them. I refused to do that, either. In the end, I left S in her Moses basket and stood at the top of the stairs. I shouted down to them, “I don’t care whether you go to bed or not, but I am going to bed now and you need to be quiet.” I went back into the bedroom and fed S. Eventually the children came upstairs and wanted to come in and see S but she was asleep, and I wanted to be so I told them no. There were tears and more tantrums, and eventually they all went to bed.
The next morning, nobody wanted to get up for school. I told them if they could get themselves up and ready in time, they could come into the bedroom and see S before they left. Still nobody moved. The eldest girl was in a shocking mood from lack of sleep, and was screaming at her sisters. I went in and asked her to please just get herself dressed and help her sisters for me. In the boys’ room, nobody was moving. I did some strategic removal of duvets, and bodies began to stir. The eldest girl was still screaming at her sisters. I was nearly in tears by this point; I’d had no sleep and was exhausted. I said to the eldest girl, “what makes you think I want you to spend time with my daughter when you treat your other sisters like this?!” She still didn’t stop shouting at them, calling them names, pulling their hair and making them scream. This was the norm for them; it was her job to get them up and dressed for school (as well as bath time, putting them to bed, de-ntting their hair, weekend meals… anything else you’d think of as a parent’s job), and she resented them for it. She was ten, and this had been her role for the last 2 years. I didn’t really blame her for it, I just wanted her to be quiet this morning.
The ex arrived home and began shouting at the children. They all soon got dressed for school and wanted to come in and see S. I said no, because we had made a deal that they could come and spend time with her only if they got ready for school on time; it was now time to leave the house. I thought I would be there again in a few days, and that they could spend time with her again then. I didn’t know what was coming. Their older brother took them to school, then came home to pick up his things before heading off to secondary school. As he was leaving he said to his dad, “oh, when I made the sandwiches for school there wasn’t enough ham or bread, so I made sure the younger ones had lunch, and I’ll just get something when I get home.” The ex went mad at him, shouting that the boy would be making him look bad at school if he turned up without a lunch. He gave him £10 and said “make sure you buy some lunch in the canteen with this so they see I’ve provided for you.” The boy went to school. By this point I had packed up all mine and S’s things, and was waiting in the living room for the ex to get himself ready to leave; we had to be at my house for a visit from the health visitor.
Eventually we left, and went to the bus stop. When the bus arrived, the girl the ex had got pregnant a few weeks previously got off right in front of me. I felt sick. I had tried my best to just ignore the whole situation, but now I was faced with it again. She pulled a face at us both, and walked off. When we got on the bus I sat at the front with the pram, and the ex went and sat right at the back of the bus. He said he had to do this; he couldn’t take up the seats for the elderly or disabled at the front. I would have believed him, but the bus was empty. He sat at the back of the bus, sending me text messages about how the other girl had deliberately lit a cigarette as the bus went past her; she was taunting him because he’d asked her not to smoke while she was pregnant. He complained that he had bought her pregnancy vitamins, but was sure she wasn’t taking them; she looked pasty and ill. I wanted to say to him, She’s always looked that way; if you find her so disgusting why did you sleep with her when I was your girlfriend and pregnant with your child? I thought that was probably a bad idea though, so I sat in silence and prayed I would never run into her again.
That was the last time I went to that house, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I remember spending the entire time looking around me, trying to figure out how the hell my baby could ever live in this place. There was no space for her, or for her things. Where would she learn to crawl? How would she survive without picking up and munching on the lid of a bleach bottle, or discarded cat food, or crawling through dog pee that hadn’t been mopped up properly because a 7-year-old had been sent to do it? How would I keep her from playing with the dirty, bleachy mop bucket that was usually left hanging around the kitchen for days at a time? It was so dark in that house, everything seemed so miserable and out of place. I kept trying to figure out how the hell I could ever make this work.