Happy Sandwich Day

a stack of plates in different patterns of grey, white, and teals ©careerusinterruptus.com

Here’s what I wrote for Mother’s Day, a couple weeks ago, right before learning that my blog had a fatal error. Turns out, these things don’t fix themselves if you just ignore them, so I am very, very lucky to have a good friend who – in between helping care for her disabled sister and single-handedly caring for her 2e child – is a tech whiz, AND kind enough to come over and sort it out for me. She is the people I’m talking about.

Near catastrophe this week, when my laptop refused to switch on. (Yeah. On top of the website dying.) Black screen of death, no matter what I did. Had to repress a lot of swears, because replacing a barely three-year-old laptop isn’t in my budget. It was the first chilly day of autumn, tipping rain, and all we all wanted was to hunker down in front of our screens. But, knowing what the rest of the week’s schedule was like, I poured the kids into the car and drove a couple suburbs over to the laptop guy, who … turned it off and turned it back on again.

Yep.

It was just sleeping. All I had needed to do was press and hold … which I did, or thought I did, except onetwothreefoursquirrelpress press PRESS DAMMIT STILL NOT WORKING PANIC.

I was a bit stressed, you see. The previous day, I’d woken to three messages from my sister and two from her husband, about Mum. She had an ear infection. My sister had spent her day off waiting 7.5 hours with Mum for the call-out doctor, who’d prescribed both oral and drop antibiotics. The late-night pharmacy didn’t stock the drops, so after brother-in-law delivered the prescription, finding them and getting them into Mum was my job. While I did plan to visit Mum, I also planned to make a cake and take out my friend whose birthday it was, before doing the weekly shop. But my sister kept messaging and eventually phoned to get me moving.

When – cake cooled enough to transport, picnic bag packed, kids in the car, drops purchased, lunch bought – we got to Mum’s, I saw why: the ear canal was swollen shut. No drops could go in. In fact the whole pinna and surrounding area was badly inflamed. Poor Mum. And, EW. And, damn. Exchanging pictures with my sister, we quickly established it was a lot worse, so after a quick lunch, the kids and I took Mum up to emergency (NOT MY HAPPY PLACE).

At least the nurse who saw Mum’s ear immediately gave her some codeine. And at least we have mobile phones, so I could tell my friend why we were cancelling. The kids behaved flawlessly, letting me concentrate on Mum, who wondered how she’d gotten the infection and was frightened of being admitted. Dementia means we circled that conversation for the whole two hours we waited.

Leaving work early, my sister came to take over, while I took the kids back to collect the picnic bag from Mum’s and head to the supermarket, getting home bang on Start Dinner O’Clock. (Because these things only happen when one’s spouse cannot help.) Two hours after we left, the doctor diagnosed Golden Staph (DAMN), gave Mum a steroid for the swelling, and changed the antibiotics. My sister was taking Mum home, cooking her dinner, giving drugs and settling her, while I chivvied my kids through chores and cooked our dinner, finally closing the laptop to watch Lego Masters with them – the first connection time we’d had all day.

It was when I wanted to listen to music while washing up (instead of the now-quite-silly-kids’ dry retching competition), that my laptop didn’t work. Between more messages about Mum I put it to bed, told it to have a good sleep and please please please wake up refreshed.

Which brings us to Wednesday morning and the panicky dash to the guy who knows how to press and hold.

Of course we’re not done – keeping the antibiotics strictly separate from food is too tricky for a dementia patient, and four days on the ear’s still too swollen to get the drops in properly – so for the next two weeks we’ll keep visiting three times a day to help Mum medicate.

This is, ah, how can I put this: Not my idea of fun. I’m not a professional carer like my sister, with 30-plus years of training and experience on top of ‘a calling’. My calling was very much, ‘run awayyyy’, and frankly a tiny bit of me grinds her teeth that, despite my education and ambitions, I have still ended up doing the gruelling, repetitive, boring, icky, unpaid care work that society expects of women (see this for how unconsciously and ‘naturally’ the Sandwich Generation is gendered).

Outsourcing care is complicated, though. Until the industry itself is overhauled, it cannot possibly be as, well, caring. (Ironically, I had to reschedule our first appointment with an agency that might be able to help, who rang while we were in Emergency.) And Mum, who had miserable experiences at boarding school in the ‘40s, would be thoroughly traumatised in a home.

The thing is, hard as I find this stuff, I’m not traumatised—just sometimes stressed enough to temporarily forget how to work my laptop. It’s mostly an opportunity for growth: for taking some deep breaths, shushing the inner three-year-old, and adulting. For talking to my kids and modelling both how we care for the vulnerable and manage our discomfort while we do the hard things. Not doing it would be so much worse.

And to my very great surprise, I’ve discovered that it’s okay. I quite like learning what I’m actually capable of And I am absolutely privileged as hell to be in the trenches with my amazing sister and the millions of other women, caring for their parents or others, alongside their kids. You people are awesome. Happy Sandwich Day.

I don’t like clever books. There, I said it.

Close-up of a single purple pansy, unfocused greenery in the background. ©careerusinterruptus.com

The first time I was shamed for reading romances, I wasn’t even. I was just holding my friend’s library books while she went to the loo. Our English teacher happened by, stopped, and gasped, “Rebecca Farley, you’re not reading those, are you?!”

I wasn’t, but Mrs Lamb’s meaning was clear: I was clever. I could and should read something cleverer than Renee’s Harlequins, or the Judith Krantzes and Jilly Coopers that my sister snuck into the house.

Similarly, in my 30s, when I confessed to a friend that while I liked the Brontës, Austen always put me to sleep, she sniffed, “That’s just immaturity.” Ouch. In between, there was a lot of clever book talk I couldn’t join in. Apart from The Remains Of The Day, I’ve probably never read anything you might expect me to. Seriously. Still haven’t finished an Austen.

The thing was, I did try. Sort of. In between all the theory I was reading, and the film and television I had to watch for teaching. I just never really liked clever fiction. I like women’s books about ordinary women doing ordinary things. And even though I knew that snobbery about women’s fiction is usually misogyny or intellectual elitism – or both – in disguise, I still felt bad about liking those writers. I’m a multiply-certified Clever Arse, for heaven’s sake! I SHOULD read clever books! All my friends do!

That changed when I finally left academia. I’d given my all to Clever; I was done. Heartsick, exhausted, my bucket impossibly dry, I went to the little stone library down the hill and borrowed all the literary sugar I could find.

I discovered that while I like certain authors (Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series has been my comfort reading for years), the romance genre’s defining focus on a single relationship is a bit too narrow for my eight-track mind.

But right next door to romance is commercial women’s fiction, or what us oldies call “chick-lit”, and THAT is AWESOME. Turns out, pastel-covered books with embossed script titles and drawings of frocks and teapots on them are all about women making a place for themselves in this inequitable world. Sure, finding a nice chap when you’re widowed/dumped/cuckolded/lost is part of it. But it’s mostly about all sorts of women – alongside medium-sized, white, under-40, and abled, there’s also Indigenous, disabled, fat, Muslim, and over-60 – doing everything from engineering to baking, parenting to publicity, dog-walking to duchessing. It’s about our struggles with the structures (such as family, religion, or race) that impact our life choices, and how our roles and values shift as we evolve. Starting over is a dominant theme. And much of it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Who knew?!

It’s almost as though women writers, and the women they write for, are … smart. Smart enough to know, life ain’t fair. Yes, we’re being put upon, but who else will do all the things? Besides, who wants to be sad or angry all the time? Ya gotta laugh.

In fact I’d argue that women’s commercial fiction sits perfectly poised between romance – where we aim to avoid life’s crap – and literary fiction, which seeks to rub our noses in it. Albeit cleverly.

I’ve always preferred ‘light’ reads, in part as a respite from the sheer bloody effort – the expectation – of being Clever.

But now, as someone who spends fourteen hours a day caring for other people, trying to get them the help they need, battling institutions designed to prevent that, and picking up groceries on the way home with yet another racist killing on the news, I have no time for clever. I just want cheering up. I want help – and hope – navigating the gaps between where I thought I’d be and where I am, what I’m capable of and how society values my skills. And I want to be able to enjoy it while I’m scarfing spaghetti with the kids’ ceaseless commentary on Lego Masters in the background, okay?

And because that’s what I like to read, that’s what I’m writing. Not too clever, not too mushy.

Something to make you smile.