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24 March 2021

How to forge a family

When the pandemic hit I was hurled from the life of a metropolitan millennial cliché to caring for two little girls in rural Oxfordshire.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I have never considered myself “good with kids”. Pre-pandemic, my philosophy on children was one common among professional women in their twenties: positive in theory; not hostile to the idea of having them eventually; but with no interest whatsoever in other people’s. My lifestyle was the metropolitan millennial cliché: long days at the office followed by after-work drinks, ending with a late-night Tube or early-morning Uber. No time (or, indeed, space) for children there.

A month into the Covid-19 crisis, life looked rather different. I was furloughed, living in a cottage at the edge of a meadow in the Oxfordshire countryside, with the majority of my days spent looking after two little girls who had just turned three.

In its own peculiar way, it made sense at the time. At home in London, I live with my partner, who, pre-Covid, would return to Oxford each weekend to spend time with his young children. His ex-wife works full time, so when the twins’ nursery closed a week before Britain went into official lockdown, he temporarily moved back in with her to help.

As lockdown began, it quickly became apparent that the situation was unsustainable – for all of us. I was despondent, 60 miles from the man I loved; they were juggling childcare with remote working in a house that was once their marital home. While lockdown rules permitted children of separated parents to travel between households, the journey from Oxford to London was too far – and too high-risk – to drive every day.

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Then I heard of an empty holiday cottage a ten-minute drive from the house. The owner understood our situation and was happy to rent it to us short-term. My partner could live with me again, the children could spend half their time with us – allowing their mother to work – and the five of us could see out lockdown together. It was a dramatic decision, but in the surreal dystopia that was the early days of the pandemic, it was the obvious solution.

What I hadn’t factored in was the children themselves – two beautiful, inquisitive girls, old enough to sense their entire world had just been upended but far too young to understand why. Nor had I really processed what caring for them every day, in lockdown, would mean in reality. My days, previously a relentless conveyor belt of deadlines and copy-editing, were now filled with Peppa Pig and endless rereadings of Mog the Forgetful Cat. Early morning appearances on the BBC were replaced with explorations into home baking (of which I had about as much experience as the girls – the results were varied). I unearthed reserves of patience I had no idea I had and found they were nowhere near enough. Everything I wore became sticky in seconds; I instinctively began referring to myself in the third person. 

At the same time, my preconceptions about parenthood were gradually being eroded. I learned that, despite my keenest efforts, sometimes you can’t reason with a child. I recalled something my father – a former diplomat – used to say: that negotiating with government ministers was easy after trying to talk a three-year-old into putting on her shoes. I learned tantrums come out of nowhere, and that you can spend hours planning the most engaging educational activity only for it to end in sudden, inconsolable sobs because you wouldn’t let someone put her hands in the glue.

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Over time came the realisation, both terrifying and liberating, that childcare – parenting – cannot be done “right”. High achievers beware: there are no top marks, and the examination is rigged. It’s a game where progress is impossible to save – battles must be refought and ground regained on a constant basis, and the day’s achievements are all but wiped away overnight.

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But then, so are the failures. So used to being graded on everything – constantly assessed on social media, haunted by past embarrassments – I was startled to see how quickly anguished outbursts could melt to reveal a beaming, oblivious child who appeared to have no memory of their tears.

I’d never lived in the moment before. No amount of meditation or mindfulness had been able to snap me out of my own self-indulgent anxiety spirals or distract me from the horror of the pandemic. Caring for two toddlers did.

And something else happened: they started to trust me. Handovers stopped being fraught emotional extrications; they began to smile when they saw me. I experienced the flood of validation when a child chooses to sit on your lap, wraps her arms around you for comfort, or finally permits you to brush her hair. I discovered that being “good” with children matters less than being there.

As restrictions changed, so did we. After three months, the girls’ nursery fully reopened. My furlough ended, we moved back to London, daily exchanges became weekend only. We now resemble a much more typical “blended family”: two homes, two pairs of dinosaur toothbrushes, an infinite amount of love. It’s the set-up I envisioned when I thought about my future with a man who had children. It feels so normal that sometimes I have to remind myself how suddenly my life changed. I really did move to be with two children I didn’t know. We really did make it work.

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If our unconventional family functions now, it is directly thanks to the pandemic. The five of us achieved in a matter of weeks what would have taken months or years otherwise. Lockdown forced us to hit fast-forward, to accept the situation and one another because we had no other choice.

I am immensely, unfathomably grateful for that. Against the grief, stress, loneliness and depression that has been the backdrop of this crisis, it’s tempting to wish the last year could be erased. But I can’t – because there would be a twin-shaped hole in my life if I hadn’t been spirited away from a London office into a parallel universe where my job involved hours of role-playing The Wind in the Willows.

I still don’t consider myself “good with kids”, at least not with other people’s. But there are two who are part of my family now. And the pandemic gave me the chance to fall in love with them. 

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021