Sshhh, commuter sleeping here…..
I had a horrifying thought this morning. As I sat there, wedged into a space the size of a gnat’s chuff beside one of Kent’s fattest men, I realized that in only four short years I will celebrate (though this is hardly the word) 30 years of commuting to London. Yes, folks, it’s true. I have spent almost 3 decades shuffling up and down metal tracks for varying lengths of time in order to earn a crust. My shortest journey was from South Croydon, where the journey was a mere 15 minutes on the train plus a short walk at either end. The longest – my current one – is almost an hour and a half door to door on a good day, twice a day, five days a week. Holy crap! That equates to 15 hours a week, which is a whole day and some of the evening of my normal time awake. That’s 52 days a year and some change. This is a month and a half per year. Ouch!
It’s a depressing thought and yes, truly, I do believe I deserve a medal especially given the state of the trains here in the sunny Southeast of England.
I could dwell on the negative side of commuting – the cost, the poor quality of service, the stress, the smell of the people who do not use personal hygiene product etc. – all too easy to fixate upon. Instead, I have decided I am heartily sick to the gills of hearing everyone else on the train moaning about this type of stuff and so I have turned my thoughts instead to the much-neglected positive side of commuting. While everyone else appears to be searching and competing for the perfect commuting escape – be that working from home, working for themselves, moving abroad or enjoying gardening hell (or early retirement as some call it) – I, on the other hand, can actually see the benefits of being a commuter, especially to a working parent. Shock, horror. Here we go.
Firstly, there is the peace and quiet induced only by an hour and a half (sometimes more given delays) of iPod solitude wrapped inside my earphones and with my eyes firmly shut to the outside world. Where else can a mum of two find the time or excuse to sit still in a nice warm seat and indulge her passion for old Level 42 tracks? Or watch a girly chick-flick without the constant interruption of the little ones, or our old friend Guilt sidling up and demanding action, movement and the use of cleaning equipment – immediately! I swear I have also read more novels in the past almost 30 years of commuting than the whole of the New York Times and the Literary Review put together – I defy them to put my knowledge of the novels of Jilly Cooper to the test. I believe this personal space and head time has been instrumental in keeping me out of the wine rack and on the straight and narrow. And not to mention the hours of much-needed extra sleep I have benefitted from when it has all been too much the night before.
Second, there is the time to reflect on the day before, the day ahead and the weekend to come. Working mothers, by nature, must be organized otherwise the whole pack of cards will collapse on us. Commuting gives me the time to consider each person involved in my worlds (yes plural – see below for explanation) and their needs and wants, sometimes shockingly even my own needs and wants! Shoes do not buy themselves, after all, and passports need to be renewed. Routes need to be checked to and from football tournaments, and meals for four that involve some semblance of a vegetable do not appear on the table without help. I use some of the commuting time to plan what needs to happen, and move forward accordingly. Sometimes I even write it down. Get me – blooming show-off. It’s actually a pretty good way to relieve the stresses of what would otherwise be an impossibly busy life. And a stick to beat the husband with when he has failed to respond appropriately to a written directive.
Third, I can switch off my “home” head and switch on my “work” head, or vice versa depending on which way I am commuting. The mental leap between home with all its little domestic issues, pleasures and moments and the demands and nitty-gritty of a day job can rarely be melded together – at least in my job and from my own bitter experience. Neither world wants to come second in the pecking order. I think one of the biggest causes of my early working mummy stress was trying to blend the two, rather than accepting that I pass from one world and its set of rules to the other when I step off the train. We women are fabulous multi-taskers, but why have the pressure of keeping all aspects of both worlds in the front of your head all at once? It’s migraine-inducing, and that’s before you’ve tried to decipher the PTA letter your son gave you three weeks late. Isn’t it easier and more efficient to accept I live in separate universes – literally and in a hopefully non-bipolar manner? Compartmentalization. It’s the latest thing daaahhhhling. And it works. Trust me.
Fourth, I have tried and failed to seek employment locally or work for and by myself. But in the field in which I work, the jobs and the money are in the Capital. London is one of the world’s major financial centres. If I want to be paid for the effort and hours I put in, and progress somewhat towards a future distant career goal, London is where the money is. And the one thing I have always adhered to is that, if I am going to leave my children for 52 days a year, I should at least have the benefits accruing on the other side. The nice house, the holiday, the decent car and my family well-dressed, well-fed and contented. It is a sad trade-off – time away from my kids for what seems merely filthy lucher – but if I was a man/father (sorry to play the gender card but really it couldn’t be helped here), it is the normal reality of being the provider and in my case, there is simply no choice. Materialistic Mum? Yes, that’s me; I’ll be right with you.
Minor asides - there are also the small but not insignificant matters of being easily distracted – the smell of a bacon sandwich drifting up the stairs is enough for me to abandon all rational thought for at least an hour – and the fact that I suspect I would eat – constantly – a sort of unattractive cud-chewing grazing, not to mention succumb to online gambling or at the very least an internet shopping account at French Sole – I do love those little ballet pumps they do. None of these would be good things for anyone involved.
And then I suppose, for me, there is something of almost pride in the fact that I have sustained such longevity in my commuting. It is an achievement of sorts. If you look back into history, our women ancestors fought long and hard through the drudgery for freedom of choice and the opportunities I have benefitted from. If the trade-off for a decent job in an industry I understand, decent money and the ability to keep my family in a certain manner is commuting – bring on the carriages, I’m happy to oblige.
I admire and respect the mums who can and do work from home, for themselves or for others. That is the pinnacle of universe-melding, and I wish you all the best of luck with that. It gives me the vapours just thinking about it. I have perhaps even greater admiration for those who choose to give themselves up to their children and are not the least concerned with the material side of what that means – or if they are, they are in blissful denial. You should all be congratulated – that is what choice means after all and you have made yours. Commuting has been my choice these past 30 years. I think I might even miss it. Now that really is a scary thought! But bear in mind these are under CURRENT circumstances – where I still have to work for financial reasons basically. I am 44 after all. If given the opportunity to give up commuting AND work at the same time whilst remaining financially solvent, live in my dream seaside house and potter about on a boat all day came along, well I’m sure I wouldn’t miss commuting at all then. That would be a choice well worth making.