Maximum efficiency at maintaining professional standards

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

The computer screen is swimming in front of my eyes. I pull together every fibre of mental strength to finish my sentence: “. . . streamlining the governance structures of the organisation for maximum . . .” For maximum what? Accountability? Efficiency? Cabbage? Impact! Impact. Phew.

This is my first attempt to work since baby Moe was born. Isla, a former colleague who now has a high-up job in the arts, has asked me to help write an annual report. I get a decent day rate and I can do it from home. If I don’t mess it up, there may be more work forthcoming.

This is a cheering prospect, as we are crazily broke. My clothes are actually threadbare: the other day, I was chatting to some rather stylish mothers outside Larry’s nursery and only realised when I got home that my jeans had ripped right across the arse – and not in an on-trend way. Also, the fateful day on which we will have to renew the car insurance is looming. So I am definitely not in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The problem is that baby Moe is still not sleeping properly. For a reason I have not yet managed to identify, he wakes up several times a night and often howls for more than an hour before, equally inexplicably, popping his thumb into his mouth and drifting off again. I have ruled out hunger, illness and teething. Cuddles work but only temporarily. Even Calpol seems to be losing its magic.

I am trying to implement a draconian sleep-training regime but it is difficult when you are so exhausted that you would gladly pawn your own grandmother for an unbroken four hours. Last night was particularly bad. At one point, I found myself semiconscious on the floor, with Moe draped across my face.

Anyway, here I am, a Writing and Editing Professional. I’m still in my pyjamas, yes, and smeared with porridge, maybe, but I’m nevertheless the Solution To All Your Editorial Needs.

“Er, I think he needs a feed.” Curly pokes his head around the door. He has been trying to keep Moe quiet in the other room so I can concentrate. I stagger across the room, crashland on the sofa and take Moe in my arms. As he suckles away, a delicious wave of relaxation sweeps over me. I lean my head back and close my eyes, just for a moment, until . . . “Babe, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go.” Curly has his hand on my shoulder. I wrench my head from the cushions and stare at him uncomprehendingly. Go? But his course doesn’t start until seven. And I’ve only got to page three of the report. And the deadline is tomorrow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

He strokes my head. Moe, who after this marathon nap will definitely be awake all night, nuzzles innocently into my armpit. “Perhaps you should tell them you can’t do this work. You’re not ready.”

“I can’t pull out now!” I disentangle myself and run wildly back to my desk, my hair a mess. “I’ve committed . . . my reputation . . . have some standards . . . I’m a professional!”.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.