I was twenty when I first discovered that children gave me superpowers.
It was 2006, I was severely depressed. I lived with my parents, who I was barely speaking to for reasons too complex and futile to get into right now. I spent as much time as possible with my then-boyfriend and his family, which provided some relief, but most of the time I was in hell. A friend of my parents’ hired me to look after her 3-month-old daughter for about 20 hours a week, for very little pay, but it was what they could give and I was really just looking for an excuse to get away.
That three-month-old baby girl saved my life. All of a sudden, I was responsible – for a few hours – for this tiny, pudgy little being with big round eyes that gave me a shot of oxytocin when I looked into them. When I spoke to her she stared like I was the most fascinating thing in the world, and when I smiled, she grinned back and waved her little arms in excitement. She didn’t judge. In fact, she thought I was the bee’s knees. It felt great. And her mum was so grateful. I felt useful.
Of course, she wasn’t always a perfect little angel. One day she was teething, and she cried for two hours straight in my arms. Her grandmother was there that day and had to leave the room after a while, but I just stood at the window, singing and cooing and patting her back, occasionally applying teething gel, knowing that even if she cried the whole three hours, her mum would soon be home to take over. I felt a strange sort of invincibility: until her mother returned, I was God for this kid. I had the power to make her feel better, and so I did my best to distract her and calm her down until my time was up for the day. It was hard, but I did it, and that made me feel worth something.
The second time was when I was working for a babysitting agency. The kids were five and seven, and I had to take one of them to her music lesson, five minutes’ drive up the road, and my car broke down. Since my period of depression (which was low key still going on in the background, but I was in denial at that point), I’d had a tendency to panic at every little problem. This should have made me panic. I should have been in tears, on the phone, begging the agency or the parents or my boyfriend – anyone more competent than me – to come and fix the problem.
But I wasn’t. Those kids were looking at me, the little girl fretting about missing her lesson, and I patted her head and said it’d be fine, we’d ring them and explain, and nobody would blame her. We left the car where it was, I walked them home, and while they were eating their snacks, I texted my boyfriend and asked him to google and send me the number of a nearby mechanic. He did, I took the tram home after work, we sorted it out the next day, and it was fine.
This phenomenon kept happening. As I gave up on what I’d originally wanted to be (a librarian) (it was post-2008, nobody was hiring librarians), and my experience in childcare progressed to the point where I could decently call it a career, I decided maybe this was my destiny. It was the only thing I seemed to be good at that I could make money with. I did a course so I could work with children under three, which would mean full-time work and a proper living wage. I enjoyed it, mainly because it allowed me to exteriorise the maternal instinct and I-WANT-A-BABY hormones I’d been subject to since I was about twenty, while I waited to be ready to actually have a baby of my own. And every time there was a crisis at work, I kept my head and dealt with it, like some kind of Wonder Woman. Or, in hindsight, like a normal, functioning adult. As I got better and better at my job, I discovered a fascination for developmental psychology, among other related subjects, and parents started asking me for advice. Damn, that felt good.
So when I started to get bored, it took me a while to admit it. I loved the kids, and the routine, though intense, was reassuring once you got into it. But that’s what it was – a routine. The milestones I’d observed with fascination in the first generation of babies weren’t quite as amazing to watch in their younger siblings. As the families I worked with grew, there were more children and a more complicated timetable. Even though I knew I was good at it, it was stressful. I began to make mistakes, and kept wanting to read my book (which I always took along for naptimes) instead of playing with them. Slowly, I realised I didn’t want to do this job any more. But I didn’t know what else to do.
By that time, I had met my current partner, and was planning to move to Belgium to live with him. He suggested I give the library route another go. There was no exam to pass over here, and that gave me hope. But my French two-year diploma had no equivalent in Belgium, and I was repeatedly told that in order to work in a library, I’d have to go through three years of studies again. And university was more expensive in Belgium than it was in France.
That year, I discovered what panic attacks were. I realised I’d had them before, as a teenager, without knowing what they were, and as I spent some time in therapy, I started to realise that I was mentally ill, and had been for a long time – even while I was working. The depression seemed to come and go, but the anxiety had been with me for most of my life, in some form or other. And both of those demons had a tendency to creep up and take over my mind when I was jobless – or, as I saw it, useless.
I did a coaching course with the job center. The coach suggested I become a preschool teacher.
“Nope,” I said initially, “No way. I’ve known loads of teachers. My dad was one. They spend all their time doing lesson prep and marking during their time off, when they’re not having nervous breakdowns.”
“Nawww, preschool teachers don’t do marking,” he said. “Believe me, I know one, she has the LIFE. You said you want a job that would allow you to start a family. This is the one for you. Don’t be scared! They don’t throw you in there and expect you to control 20 kids from day one. It’s 3 years of studies. You’ll do fine.” So I started the course.
I did not do fine.
Well, ok, from the outside I looked like I was doing great. I LOVED the theory. I ate up the developmental psychology. I got some of the highest marks in my class on the exams. And during the intern days, the teachers loved me. Of course they did: they were used to a bunch of nervous teenagers with little to no experience of childcare outside the odd babysitting job, and here I was with one childcare diploma already and years of full-time experience, having already developed the Look and the No-Nonsense Voice and the Distraction Technique and all the other tricks you eventually learn if you spend enough time around children. They saw potential.
But they didn’t see the anxiety. They didn’t see me burst into tears as soon as I walked through the door at home, knowing I had three lesson plans, group work, and a creative project to turn in the next day. They had no idea how I cried at the table every night because I was so worked up I couldn’t even force food down my throat, and how even that felt like failure because I knew I was losing weight because of it. They had no idea that the days I missed school weren’t because of a tummy bug, but because that morning I’d gone to get my coat and found myself collapsing into a heap on the floor, completely incapable of opening the door, going outside, and joining my classmates on the bus.
Being with children gave me superpowers, but only temporarily. There was a price. The more I held back in front of them, the harder I crashed later on.
When I got pregnant in the middle of the school year, I was only too happy for the excuse to quit. The university teachers were surprised and dismayed. When I rang the preschool teacher I was interning with, she said I had to promise to go back to school once I’d had the baby, because “you can’t waste talent like that.”
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t have a talent for minding children. I just have loads and loads of experience. My first sister was born when I was eight, the second when I was thirteen. With her especially, I was more a second mum than a sister. I changed her nappies, took her to playgroup twice a week when my mum had other stuff to do, and I started babysitting for other families when I was fourteen. That’s not talent, it’s just experience. Anyone with my background could do it. I did it because it was easy.
Motherhood is another matter. My clients would joke that I was ready for twins or triplets, and of course, I didn’t have to learn how to change a nappy, give her a bath, or clean out her nose. Those reflexes did help when I was so sleep-deprived I could barely stand. But being a mother is waaay different to being a nanny. And that’s where my superpowers stopped working, because post-partum anxiety is a thing that exists, and for the first month of my daughter’s life, I was too paranoid to let her out of my sight for more than a few minutes, and too exhausted to question the validity of my paranoia.
It’s been nearly two years. My daughter knows that her mother cries. She’s seen me have panic attacks. It’s hard to explain to a toddler that mummy has an illness that makes her scared of nothing, but I have to try. Having her has pushed me to make my mental health a priority, because I don’t want her to feel like she has to take care of me. I want her to be able to tell me anything, no matter how hard it might be for me to hear, because I’m her mother, and in deciding to become a mother, that is the duty I chose.
It’s been a while since I last worked. I did a bit of babysitting the year I arrived in Belgium, before the whole teaching course thing and getting pregnant etc. I’ve been lucky in that Clém, my long-suffering and incredibly patient partner, had a job that allows us to make ends meet, most of the time. But we want more. We want a house with a garden, so we can grow vegetables and herbs and let the kid run around in the grass without having to go to the park and act like normal, sociable humans. We want to be able to go out for a meal without feeling guilty for spending that money when we could be saving it. For that, we need more income. We’ve been making savings here and there, but in the end, the quickest way to get more income is for me to get a job.
Last week, I got a job. I did up my CV and, out of habit or cowardice and little real motivation, dropped it off at a place I was almost certain they’d want me – a private language school that had just opened five minutes from my house. I was hired within less than a week. It was only 8 hours a week, but that suited me fine. I hadn’t worked in four years after all, I thought I should probably get back into it gradually before looking for another part-time job.
On Saturday morning, I woke up scared. There was a training course that day. I took my Xanax and went. I came home feeling exhausted and uncertain, with an unsigned contract. On Sunday I was sore all over from stressing the day before. On Monday morning I saw my psychiatrist.
On Monday afternoon, I went back in and refused the contract. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely the anxiety’s fault. Everyone I’ve spoken to has assured me that anyone with sense would have done the same.
Without going into details (the company itself wasn’t really at fault), they urgently needed someone as one of their teachers had bailed, so they hired a newbie. What they really needed was to transfer a collegue from another center, with prior experience in their method, but for whatever reason, either they couldn’t or they decided not to, instead counting on a brand new employee to jump into action like someone who’d been there five years could have done. What they were asking me was basically impossible, and although I spent quite a bit of time trying to convince myself otherwise, eventually I had to admit that it was give up now, or risk having a panic attack in front of five to eight young children, and possibly their parents, two days later. My supernanny days were over, or in any case, my power did not apply in teaching situations.
So I guess that’s the end of my career with children. If I’m honest, it was over the moment I got pregnant. Childcare tided me over until I was ready to have my own child, and stop pretending to be ok. Now I’m back to the drawing board, I guess. It could be worse. I’ve heard of people starting new careers after retirement, so thirty-one ain’t that bad, when you think about it. And sure, I have baggage, but that baggage now has a bunch of labels on it, with instructions on how to manage them, if I remember to read them. Labels like Panic Disorder and Complex PTSD and Chronic Depression: these are not rare things, a lot of people have those. You know what my boss said when I went in and refused the contract? She said it was ok. She’d been through something similar, and she was starting anew in this company, but maybe I just wasn’t ready yet, and she understood. She was a sweetheart about it, really.
I think I am ready, though. I just needed reminding that I’m not a teacher. I’m not a nanny any more, I don’t babysit, not for money. I’m a mum, and an aunt, and other than that and I’m vaguely creative. I draw on fabric, I make crochet stuff, I play a couple of instruments and I write, on and off, but more and more on, because one day I want to be published. I want to share the worlds and characters and stories I create in my mind, and I want people to love them the way I do.
And in the meantime, I’ll surround myself with books. Next week, I’m going round bookshops with a new CV. Wish me luck.