trying harder

It was like I’d suddenly announced a newly sprouted penis, such was my brother’s whooping theatrical incredulity at the news. Revealing the pregnancy to him and his wife at our childhood home, they seemed shocked and surprised and pleased. Their children, aged 11 and 8 and also in the near vicinity, understandably seemed more indifferent.  “Weird” was the verdict of my niece.

I sensed that although my brother and his wife had never probed and would never concede it, they had more or less assumed this was off the agenda for us, this would not happen. Perhaps it was wonder enough that I found someone with whom to share my life after so many barren years in my 20s, a period when they appeared to smirkingly speculate about my sexuality from time to time.

And now we appeared to have our modest lifestyle sorted: our dog, nice enough house and our relatively low income. It was clear I was not earning much money. My other half was doing ok in her steady job though, and we were getting by. Surely we would not upset that with a new human being. That would be silly.

But this pregnancy news presents a whole other dimension.

Later on, after the initial shock had subsided, a mile or so into a long walk with the dogs and kids, my brother said, “well if you sat down with a spreadsheet it wouldn’t work, but…”  While this was eventually followed by a more positive spin and ways it could work out with the help of our parents, those words stuck with me. They rang around my head for days because I knew they held a cold bleak truth.

I still scrap by month to month, sniffing out the next few hundred quid, and the next few hundred quid. I work hard but continue to exist with horrible insecurity. My mental landscape is defined by my bank balance, how achievable the next bankable few hundred quid will be, when it will arrive in my account, how much I will have to politely chase for it, what the next job will be.

How sustainable is that when your wife has to go on maternity leave, when you are looked upon to provide more, to ‘man up’, to try harder? It is not all that sustainable, admirable, manly or generally good.

Waves of sickening nausea are not currently hers alone. Profound worry now skewers me regularly, deep in the pit of my stomach. Guilt for my slightly indulgent lifestyle which I often feel when closing a book and finishing a coffee at lunchtime. Are you working hard enough? What more could you be doing? Are you just in essence a massively idle prick? Sometimes I voice this and am severely rebuked by my wife. ‘This is not helpful to you or me.’ Of course she is right, but it’s a program I have difficulty overwriting.

There was a meltdown of sorts while walking the dog alone a couple of days after telling my brother, back home. Leaning against a gate at a favourite spot, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills the bigness of it all came crashing in, the life-changingness, the responsibility, the finances, the money, the insufficient funds, the emasculating inadequacy, the potential being who will ultimately hate me for their boring empty scrimping frugal childhood. Breathless panic and despair and frustration and stupidity and an almost out-of-body sensation. My red face and tears confused the dog. Weird.

Should I look for other work and another reliable income stream? Easier said than done perhaps, but I suppose I should try. How I despise the idea of a boss, authority, judgement, tediously mind-numbing work. How will we manage with the dog? She could go and stay with my parents and their dog and that would be fine. I would hate it though. I would painfully miss the creature, the only thing that reliably makes me smile most days. And I would trade it for probable misery and money? Would I? Please no, don’t let it come to that.

Plenty of people do this though. They take on more work when faced with greater responsibility, arguably the ultimate domestic responsibility. They unthinkingly make sacrifices because they would do anything for their kids. I am no different and should accept it, buckle up.

Adaptability is something I have traditionally considered myself good at.  I have moved a few times across a central belt of Britain, had a number of very different jobs, experienced no small amount of change. A few years ago now, for around eighteen months I wrenched myself into a recruitment consultancy largely populated by idiots, which I largely hated.

This impending phase of work appears the most formidable: a biblical swell of digits which I will heroically surf upon or drown beneath or thrash through.  I cling with dumb hope to ideas: being miraculously saved by a huge job, a new professional relationship bearing spectacular fruit, an old one coming back around, offering something solid and dependable, some random opportunity. Wishful thinking.


caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s an early August Sunday in grey squally windy west Wales.

The caravan has been leased by the parents of my sister in law, my brother’s wife. It has all modern appliances: an electric fire, fully appointed kitchen, dining space, nice pictures and tasteful furnishings. While peeing I see there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main bathroom (there was another en-suite) and it strikes me that we have still yet to find a picture for our bedroom in the house we moved into over a year ago.

Our family hasn’t met up for some months and seeing my brother’s kids, 10 and 7, is a thrill. A first exploratory stroll on the beach with just my niece and our dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the deserted sand.

But this is not the classic summertime weather my mum has hankered for, having somehow never visited a beach with her grandchildren until now.  Mum and Dad arrive around lunchtime and come to meet us on the beach with my brother’s wife. It feels cinematic, watching their distant outlines slowly become more recognisable. We walk to a café overlooking a stretch of beach where Dad is embarrassingly rude to a young barista who gets our order slightly wrong. My brother and his family take great delight in mocking Mum’s old phone. We head back to the caravan for lunch.

Now it’s approaching the end of the afternoon, the time my wife and I were thinking of leaving anyway. We all sit in the caravan, drinking warming hot drinks after a bracing post-lunch walk and play on the blustery, sand-whipped beach. Sand is still stuck to my scalp and hair, despite me not having much hair.

This is when it begins and my sap starts to rise.

My brother has this regular shtick of proclaiming himself and his family poor. His perspective is wildly skewed by his Oxbridge peers, the social elites with whom he works and one friend specifically. Dave (his real name because fuck it) is a hot shot millionaire investment banker. I didn’t get a favourable impression of Dave around fifteen years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud, said an uncomplimentary thing about my Dad I felt he was wholly not entitled to say. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, and I sympathise. But it’s a decision he makes about living in Oxford and working long hours in London, it’s a compromise that comes of earning a strong salary which I suspect is no lower than £65,000. His wife is a university tutor, researcher and academic. Despite being on an unreliable rolling contract of sorts, I would guestimate she earns around £30,000 minimum. They live in Oxford, they are healthy, they have good jobs, beautiful healthy children, a high quality of life.

But compared to Dave apparently they are poor. Therefore they are sitting in a lovely static caravan donated by the in-laws for their holidays moaning about their poverty and how to fund the university education of their children. They supposedly do not have much extra disposable income. You might suggest because of their standard of living. Regular private music lessons, theatre trips and visits to amusement parks. (Or is that what you just have to do when you have kids that age? I don’t know).

In response to my brother’s introduction of university expense, Dad suggests starting up an entirely dedicated account, a fund for their higher education. Our parents seem to have lots of money, partly due to hitting the generation sweet spot. They were never spectacularly successful in their careers – although Dad still works and has for a number of years earned a respectable solid annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a tax consultant. They have always been prudent, made investments, and have a lovely house. They go on holiday frequently, and recently bought an expensive long haul package to Central America. I often feel like, if I had less inexplicable pride and hang-ups about asking for help, they could donate more cash to help me develop my own small business.

Across the caravan from me sits my wife, firmly ensconced in a game she is playing with my niece and nephew, unhearing of the wider conversation. We had discussed this on the way here, how my brother wheels out the poverty line, how it pisses us off, how she might say something if he presses it. I raised an eyebrow when she said that, unconvinced she actually would given how she is so averse to confrontation. Now it’s unclear if she’s taking the conversation in. She later says she wasn’t, she heard nothing, was too involved in the game.

Meanwhile I sit there and stew. Poor? He is really poor, is he? Is he fuck! Fuck. Off. What if he could experience my schizophrenically jittery bank balance, cluelessness about the future, pathetic self-doubt and crippling worry that we will never be able to afford children? He probably wouldn’t give a shit. He would most likely cackle and trivialise it, as he generally does my entire existence, smug posh personified.

My wife and I have recently begun speaking seriously of kids, if we can do it, financially, physically, mentally. It’s fast approaching now or never time and we are getting increasingly regular yearnings, feelings that we want that relationship with a small person. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me and my output as a human. (Is that a legitimate feeling or extremely self-indulgent?) We feel maybe my family has written us off, given up on us. ‘They don’t want any now. It’s over for them’.

But we have lately discussed whether my ever rickety, insecure work situation might be a good thing. We could save on childcare costs, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many women can’t and don’t and are royally screwed over.  There are so many overwhelmingly unknowable ifs and buts.

I feel my face getting hotter and redder and crosser as my parents discuss the financial options for funding their grandchildren’s education, as my brother continues to claim he is poor. Hitting the food banks anytime soon then, brother?  And I start packing up some bags. We leave with me Britishly repressing a swarm of waspish emotions.