Are children your excuse for looking bad and doing no exercise?

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty and Sam

A thing that I immediately shoved right to the bottom of the to-do list when I had children was how I looked. I have never been someone who had regular manicures or blow-dries or pedicures or anything.

I just wasn’t brought up to think that things like that are important – and now I look at mothers who have terrific manicures and blow-dries, trim tummies and respectable clothes, and think that they simply must have more money and help than I do. But the fact is that they probably just prioritise their grooming over other things.

And rightly so! While I am reading the paper, poking about on Twitter, writing unnecessarily long emails or just lying on the sofa while Kitty watches telly, they are probably doing squats, giving themselves a blow-dry, doing their nails or plucking their eyebrows or something. And I roll off the sofa after forty-five minutes watching back-to-back Team Umizoomi and wonder why I look such a fright.

And I have found that with children, and thereby with age, it becomes less and less acceptable to look a total fucking mess. Youth is no longer on one’s side and there is no recovery time.

There is no ‘slog through today and then apply a face pack and catch up on ZZzzs tonight’ because ‘tonight’ you may be woken up God knows when, God knows how many times.

You don’t wake up looking refreshed and restored, able to calmly apply some CC cream and quietly pick out a tasteful outfit – you are stunned into consciousness by a cry of ‘There’s a poo in my bed!’ or ‘I don’t want the blue one on!’ (wtf?!) or a tortured scream. Or nothing at all – you just jerk awake for no fucking reason at 6.30am with a throbbing head and eyes like pissholes in the snow.

And then getting through the morning is like trying to fill out a form while riding a merry-go-round in a hurricane, and being required shortly to read the news live on air in German. I have not left the house in my pyjamas, yet, but I have certainly left the house in my night bra (which I wear in the belief that it will stop my bosom from sagging further) with a sweatshirt over the t-shirt I slept in, some leggings with holes in and trainers (no socks).

My hair is scraped up into some kind of straggly bun, but no amount of scraping can tame the tufts of static-charged tendrils that curl up at the side like a horn, or swoop over dramatically in an unattractive cowlick. If I apply blusher against my pallid, exhausted cheek I look faintly mad, like a five-year-old who has been at Mummy’s rouge and drawn big pink circles on her face.

Other things fall by the wayside, though. Genuinely important things. Smear tests. Trips to the dentist (pregnancy and birth, just by themselves, let alone all the extra cake-eating and sloppy tooth-brushing that are its by-products, are devastating to one’s oral hygiene). You can be pregnant for weeks with an accidental third or fourth child without noticing.

Personal mental health goes out of the window. Physical exercise that isn’t just a lot of bending and hefting and running up and down the stairs to the nursery doesn’t happen. All that quite important stuff gets tossed aside because if you have two spare hours to do the round trip to the dentist, unless you are a better person than I am, you are simply going to spend it doing something else.

I partly think that all that stuff just has to wait. Not just all the me-time stuff but the important stuff: the meaningful exercise and the flossing and the smear tests. They just have to wait until my children are both in education or at least pre-education.

I have started to suspect that I use my children as an excuse to dodge trips to the dentist, to look a mess, to do no fucking exercise.

But recently I have started to suspect that I use my children as an excuse to dodge trips to the dentist, to look a mess, to do no fucking exercise.

To leave my toenails unpainted and my hair uncut, to let my ‘study’ in our house pile up with junk, to wear cheap, shabby but comfortable clothes.

These are all things that I also did before I had children, when I had all the time in the world. Left to my own devices, I always look a bit of a fright. We were kept on a short rein, financially, as children and teenagers, and I have never really got out of the habit of looking in only the cheapest clothes shops, buying only okay, mid-range cosmetics and only buying one of everything – one pair of tights, one bra, one pair of sunglasses. All cheap.

I never looked at bank statements or at my bank balance, because the thought that there would be nothing there was too terrifying, so I would just buy clutches of cheap things in a panic and then close my eyes when taking cash out, and silently turn my eyes to the heavens when handing over my card in shop, hoping that there it wouldn’t be declined.

And because my mother never bothered what she looked like beyond looking clean, and we were not encouraged, beyond our most basic, personality-driven instincts, to look acceptable, it never occurred to me that looking smart was important.

I have found, as I get older, that I cannot get away with wearing cheap clothes any more. I now have real ‘problem areas’ where there used to be just imagined ‘problem areas’. I used to not eat very much and drift about being skinny and hungry with bad breath – but able to wear very tight, cheap H&M white jeans and a tiny camisole and look fine.

Now I can’t not eat properly, because to deny oneself food while embroiled in a lot of childcare is one step too far. It’s too exhausting and draining to also be starving all the time. When you are pinned down to some shitty junior desk job and dreaming of Mr Right, being hungry all the time is fine.

Exercise, too, is exhausting and draining. I went for a twenty-minute swim about three months ago and spent the rest of the day absolutely bug-eyed and demented with physical exhaustion. My husband always tells me that you initially will feel tired and drained before you get used to it, and then exercise will give you tons of energy!!!!

But I am not willing to get over that initial hump. I will do exercise another time.

Later, later, later in the future when I do not pick at my cuticles and I get regular pedicures and wax myself billiard-ball smooth three times a week.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. If you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here
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