I live with my husband, my son and his partner, their five-year-old child and our slightly crazy dog. Added to this combustible mix is my husband’s 91-year-old father, who lives just around the corner and is usually, but not always, the crankiest member of our lockdown ‘bubble’. We bump along together in what the media likes to call a multigenerational household. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our wi-fi has struggled to cope with the online demands of reception class lessons (my grandson), university lectures (his mum), Civil Service remote induction (my son), school teaching and meetings (my husband) and virtual tutorials alongside book research (me). But it is not only the poor old wi-fi that has been stretched to its limits…
My life is a continual juggling act, but perhaps I shouldn’t blame this on the pandemic. For years now, I have been holding down a variety of jobs, as is often the writer’s fate. I have a number of hats, which I wear on different days of the week; sometimes when I wake, I have to think hard to remember whether I am a writer, editor, writing tutor or librarian at a local Sixth Form. It can get confusing, or perhaps that’s just age creeping up on me. My son and his family came to live with us three years ago, while he and his partner finished their studies, so like my eclectic employment, our multigenerational household has not been forced upon us by the pandemic. When pondering my multiple job roles, I feel there is a parallel with my various identities as a partner, mother, grandmother and daughter-in-law. In key areas of my life, I often end up asking myself: who am I today?
I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Unsheltered — as chosen by a member of my book group, who may well have been joking at my expense with her selection. This fine novel is a bit close to the bone, focussing on Willa, a woman in her fifties trying to keep her extended, multigenerational household together in the face of a crumbling house and disintegrating career. Members of the family include Willa’s academic husband, his ancient, cantankerous father, a young grandson, two adult children and a dog. I hope my book group friend chose the novel in ignorance of these character and plot details, or I shall have to have words with her… Still, the novel is a fantastic read, despite some of the unnerving similarities with my personal situation.
In Unsheltered, the beleaguered Willa is attempting to play multiple family roles, whilst fumbling her way towards resurrecting her writing life. Ouch. Rather like Willa, I have currently given up on the concept of a ‘room of my own’ for writing — although a structurally unsound, condemned house isn’t the cause in my case. A few years ago, my husband and I converted a bedroom into my office — it was a wonderful but brief delight. The room has since been commandeered by various family members, and in lockdown has finally morphed into a communal workstation. Largely because of the lack of a permanent workspace, my writing tends to happen at the weirdest times, and not always when inspiration would prefer to strike. I snatch time to write when and where I can, and not when and where I feel like it. I certainly don’t have the luxury of my own space to think and work. Not for the foreseeable, anyway.
Also, like Willa (who in many ways has become my hero), I have abandoned the mythical notion of an empty nest, rejecting this concept as a distant, indulgent fantasy. I get the feeling empty nests are probably quiet and productive places, but so far, they seem to have eluded me. When my grandson is throwing a tantrum, my son is having a meltdown over internet connectivity, his partner is suffering an essay crisis, and my husband takes solace in deafening DIY, it’s tempting to long for the peace and calm that an empty nest might offer. As they say though, be careful what you wish for. I would probably miss this chaos if it disappeared overnight — which one day no doubt it will.
But I paint a somewhat negative picture of my lockdown existence — it really hasn’t been all that bad. During the pandemic, living with extended family has had distinct advantages — for example, seeing people face-to-face on a daily basis, rather than peering at them on Zoom calls, has got to be a winner. And hugs with my grandson are priceless — I do realise that. As well as being good for my mental health, I must admit that multigenerational living has also been beneficial to me in my work as a children’s author. In particular, living with an inquisitive and story-obsessed small child has given an invaluable boost to my creative imagination. I am ‘on rota’ to play with my grandson from mid-afternoon until teatime every day, in an attempt to make up for his current lack of social interaction with his peers. I can’t replace his friends, nor indeed should I, but the more time I spend sprawling on the carpet playing with my grandson’s toys and inventing challenges for them to overcome, the more ‘in tune’ I feel with the five-year-old psyche I try to connect to in my writing.
As the months pass, I’m finding it easier to identify with the young readers of picture books, and to understand a little more about how their minds work (which will all be incredibly useful when I finally get around to writing those books.) They say the more you do something, the better you get at it, and my ability to take bold leaps of imagination has improved exponentially over the past year, along with my storytelling skills. It might be pushing it to say that my stir-crazy grandson is inspirational, but he has woken up the five-year-old part of my brain, which is a revelation to me, and for which I am seriously grateful. He is a great listener, so I can try new story ideas out on him and his reactions usually tell me everything I need to know: in other words, explain, elaborate, change or ditch. Unfortunately for my grandson, he is a captive audience, so as if to make up for that affliction he is always brutally straight with me. I try not to use him as a sounding board for all my ideas, but as he is the official Guinea Pig in Residence, it is very tempting…
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of spending so many hours with my grandson at this stage of his life is that I have had the privilege of watching him learn to read. I have read to him since he was tiny, but now he is starting to read to me and we both love the experience. Somehow, the wonder of this astonishing educational epiphany didn’t sink in years ago, when his dad was the same age — probably because he and his two younger siblings conspired to drive me into a constant fog of exhaustion, so listening to reading became a chore for which I often had no time or energy. My grandson is ridiculously excited by the fact he is beginning to decipher the written world around him, from cereal boxes to picture books, and that excitement is contagious.
I have begun to read a lot more lately, and I don’t think that is just because of the lack of alternative entertainment during lockdown. The act of reading is a joy, and even writers can be guilty of forgetting that at times. It took a five-year old in a multigenerational household to remind me of that important truth.