In the third week of March, the UK decided to close schools and colleges due to the coronavirus.
My teens are 17 and 15. Both their educational establishment's closed on the Friday of that week, at short notice.
My eldest son was then furloughed with us on 48-hour call up from the Armed Forces, my partner told to work from home and I was dipping in and out of agency work because my industry — working with school groups in the outdoors- shut down overnight.
Like much of the rest of the country, we were all stuck at home together with no definite end.
I’ve been a stay at home Mum and then a working Mum. I’d paid my dues juggling the bulk of the household jobs. I knew there was no way I wanted to go back to those days because there’s something that’s not often acknowledged about running a household — especially one with kids in it.
It’s not the physical labour of actually doing the stuff that needs doing. It was organising and managing it all that wore me down.
In recent years, my partner and I learned to share it out pretty evenly. The teens are expected to cook a family meal once a week during normal times — more often if they want to, which they sometimes do- and help with the chores. They mostly do their own laundry anyway.
As they’ve got older they’ve become better at organising themselves and I no longer drive them everywhere because they can use public transport.
So, over the last couple of years, the weight of doing the bulk of it had begun to lift as I’d been working longer hours out of the home.
It was still down to me to organise the food shop, the budget, the bill paying and who does what chores-wise (not to mention reminding them to, you know, actually get it done). I’m the one who keeps track of who’s in and out of the house and who needs to be fed on any given night. Of course, that last one isn’t so relevant right now but it used to be difficult to juggle things when everybody was getting in at different times.
With everyone home, I knew I wasn’t prepared to take back the full role of keeping house. I worried that I - and they — would fall back into the old ways of doing things pretty fast.
Especially as we, like so many others, were all dealing with our own stresses about achieving qualifications or keeping the money coming in.
My daughter’s struggled the most.
It felt like she was back to being eight years old only with a teenage mouth on her. Not unexpected when her whole future had completely upended and the government were dragging their feet on how qualifications would be processed. And her social life had stalled as well. It didn’t make her easy to live with.
The biggest time sucker in my life is food shopping and organising the meal plans. That was the one that I wanted to solve.
My daughter chose lockdown week to go vegetarian. And then she upped the stakes a few days later by adding gluten-free in the mix.
Great timing, kid.
- Have you tried to find pasta in the shops lately? The early panic buying meant even the gluten-free stuff was gone and this girl lives off pasta. Still, I wasn’t prepared to argue with her. Once she gets an idea in her head she’s an immovable object.
No idea where she gets that from.
Looking back on it, I think her life had narrowed so much she was flailing to grab back some control. We all were.
We had a family chat.
I offered them a budget.
And that’s when the whole idea really took off.
The oldest was up for it. He lives in shared accommodation, has his own money and, to be quite frank, eats enough for three people when he’s here on leave anyway. So, he already shops and cooks some of his own meals when he stays.
The 17 year old decided he wanted to get fit because, well, once online college was done for the day, there wasn’t a heck of a lot else to do. It took him several days working out complicated sums involving proteins and carbs but he built his own fitness and diet regime. Now, he shops for himself every few days and has started eating things I’ve battled for years to get on his plate.
Youngest daughter adds her ingredients to the household list rather than venture to the shops herself. Her diet is a bit narrow for my liking but she’s getting there. We still haven’t managed to get any gluten-free pasta though.
Is it working?
And as long as nobody eats food that isn’t ‘theirs’.
They’re enjoying creating their own menus. My brain is freer to concentrate on the things it needs to focus on. The atmosphere has definitely chilled since the first couple of weeks of lockdown.
The kitchen is now the busiest room in the house. It’s where we do most of our catching up through the day. I’m on hand if they need cooking advice or aren’t sure how to do something. Or when they’re attempting something overly ambitious and the pots start bubbling all at once.
Sometimes, when I’m cooking, they’ll do a taste test and ask for the recipe. As long as it doesn’t contain meat.
The washing up is a bone of contention. No hoarding of plates and cups in rooms is allowed because then it leaves others short. Use it, return it, wash it up. I’ll admit, that one’s a work in progress.
We’ve learned we need a whiteboard to list general items like milk or washing up liquid. If you’re close to using up the last of something and there isn’t a spare in the cupboard, you’re responsible for adding it to the list.
The food budget has gone up but we’re not blowing it out of the water. We were on a tight budget before, which is the main reason I had to be strict on meals, but Lidl is only a fifteen-minute walk down the road. If I was limited to Tesco or Waitrose, I’d be wincing at the till every time but the increase is worth it and other expenses like petrol and going out are almost non-existent now, so it balances out.
Both teens have a small budget which they need to stick to for their own meals. The general stuff that we all consume comes out of the main household budget. So far they haven’t overspent.
We still sometimes eat together but I don’t force it. We’re enough in each others company as it is right now. It’s not like we don’t have opportunities to discuss life away from the dinner table.
It felt odd at first, like living with a bunch of young flatmates that I happened to be related to.
But it’s enlightening too, to see my teens in a way I wouldn’t normally get to. They were beginning to learn these skills already but now that’s accelerated. It’s reassuring. I know they’ll be better prepared for the adult world, for moving out and moving on, than they’d have been when we were all rushing around like ships in the night.
I’ve had to admit to myself that I was stuck in Mum mode trying to let them go but still feeling obligated to do for them. Part of the problem was me getting in my own way — and theirs.
It’s been a journey for me as well.
I also acknowledge how lucky we are. There’s food in the shops, society is still civil, we still have an income, if a little reduced, and a roof over our heads that we can still afford.
It could get worse out there before it gets better but I’m not going to worry about that right now.
Things may not go back to normal any time soon. They may not go back to normal at all but, at some point, life will fit into whatever shape it’s going to take and we’ll be able to pick up some of the old routines.
Like eating a family dinner together.
I’m looking forward to all the fabulous meals they’re going to cook me. Gluten-free Pasta Alfredo?
Bring it on.