Self Portrait, Ottawa, March 2015
Self Portrait, Ottawa, March 2015

There is an alarm clock on the nightstand by the bed. It’s an old model—it has been there for as long as I can remember—, one of these clocks that double up as a radio so that the first song you hear in the morning will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day or until something more catchy and more annoying makes its way to your brain.

The clock is a “Durabrand”, or at least that’s what it says on it. But “Durabrand” has started to fail me. The seven-segment display’s red lines are fading, dead pixels I guess. It started with the last digit so I didn’t even notice the issue at first. I’m not a lawyer, minutes are quite irrelevant in the big picture. But now, the hours are affected. So I can’t tell whether it’s 8:02 or 9:46.

The clock has been wonky since we came back from South America. I haven’t replaced it yet. I could have. But I didn’t bother because no matter what time it actually is, I woke up startled, with a sense of urgency.

It’s late. It has to be late. It’s always late. We are late this morning, Mark will be the last kid in, again. It doesn’t matter, daycares don’t grade pre-schoolers on attendance and punctuality. When we step it, most days, the class is eating breakfast—most kids arrive early, around 7:30 a.m. Mark has just eaten, he can skip the first school snack of the day.

“Good morning everyone!” I say, dragging Mark who may or may not be happy to be here—depends on the days, some mornings he wants to go to “Harvey’s” or “museum” instead, his two favourite places lately, and he rebels when he realizes we are parked in front of the daycare building.

“Mark’s mom,” one of the kids observes gravely while spilling yogurt everywhere.

The teachers barely glance at us, they are busy cleaning a fruit-pureed mess. I wonder what they think of me, strolling in so late—late for Ottawa, at least, where people start work early in the morning. “I worked until 2 a.m. last night!” I want to say. But I just smile and give Mark his sippy cup because frankly, I doubt anyone cares about our schedule or lack thereof.

What they think is also irrelevant because, despite appearances, I’m late.

Or I will be if I don’t hurry, but rushing Mark is impossible. The fastest I want to get things done, the slowest and crankiest he is.

At the daycare, I take my time, but I bolt out as soon as I sign the attendance sheet.

There are only so many hours in the day and they are always booked by two main tasks—work and Mark. In between, a myriad of small duties, a series of minor events and a plethora of incidents will incapacitate me here and there, as if I was in a videogame—you know, when Super Mario shrinks after bumping into a poisonous flower.

If it’s extremely cold, walking from point A to point B will be a pain, so I may have to take the bus, which may or may not be on time—lose energy. I have to do a load of laundry today—lose time, because doing the laundry isn’t just about throwing stuff in the washing machine, you have to gather said stuff and sort out the clothes, put them in the machine, add detergent, put them in the dryer or hang them in the basement, come back up with a full basket, sort, fold, put away. A meeting with a client, is usually inconveniently located where I cannot go by bus and am too far from home to walk. A cheque to deposit at the bank, where I’m stuck behind the old lady who has a giant paperwork trail and twenty questions.

And work, of course. As a freelancer, my load is completely unpredictable. It follows the “ebb and flow” pattern, but I never know when I will be swamped.

“Life is busy,” everybody says. Everybody is right. And this is not a competition, we are all busy, kid or no kid, work or no work.

Some days, I feel trapped. There is just so much to do. I know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it—it’s the many steps to achieve the process that kills me. Making dinner means filling the fridge, taking the food out, cutting, chopping, cooking, seasoning, washing the dishes, and mopping the floor. Going out means grabbing the phone (is it charged?), hat, gloves, jacket, and putting on shoes. Putting Mark to sleep is… okay, I’m not even going there. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Everything is a process.

And I need breathing space.

Once in a while, the airline safety procedures play in my head: “in case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before helping other people.”

For the past couple of years, I did the exact opposite. Admirable, you may think. So selfless.

Yeah, so stupid too, burning myself out.

So now, I actually try to give myself breathing space, to escape the craziness, for my sake and for others’ sake.

A thirty-minute walk can help. Just closing the door on chaos and walking fast, around the neighbourhood, where there is little traffic and where I instinctively know where to turn. Sometimes, in the evening, I see people’s living spaces if the curtains aren’t pulled, and I imagine their own chaotic and busy lives. Makes me feel better—hey, we are all in this together!

Sometimes, I head to my beloved Starbucks and I read for a little bit. A cup of burning hot coffee, a couple of chapters. If my book is good, when I leave, my life feels much easier compared to what the characters were going through—shit man, investigating a murder? Phew, I only have to wash dishes and invoice a client, thank God.

Sometimes, I clean the house. “Why don’t you just rest?” Feng moans. Why? Because when I clean, I feel like I’m unfucking my life. Vacuuming upstairs, the rug in the living room and the stairs take about 20 minutes. I have it down to a science. Seeing the carpet clean after is priceless. Wiping countertops in the kitchen makes a difference. So does doing dishes.

Sometimes, I think of my happy places. I have a series of snapshots in my head, moments of happiness that I will always have with me, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s -20C but I’m not cold, I’m sweating, we are in Uruguay and we are laughing. Bleak days? Who cares. I’m wandering around a busy night market in China. I’m having fish and chips on an island in Queensland. I’m riding a chicken bus. I’m at the museum. I’m sampling exotic food. I’ve just climbed a volcano, a mountain, and a pyramid, and I’m sore but proud. I’m playing with sand.

I can also close my eyes under the shower and let the hot water untangle my muscles, or listen to a podcast while grocery shopping. I can read a magazine or go through my favourite tunes.

And I’m breathing again.

All I needed was a bit of time.

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  1. Gagan April 7, 2015 at 12:48 am

    I don’t know why but I got (or maybe the post got) sad at the end.

    1. Zhu April 7, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      I guess my occasional stress showed 🙁 It’s not always like this, but yes, there are times where I feel I can’t breath and I would love to have a remote to pause the world!

      1. Gagan April 8, 2015 at 12:17 am

        Juliette you don’t want that remote 🙂 Remember what happened to Adam Sandler in ‘Click’

        1. Zhu April 8, 2015 at 4:21 pm

          Oh… right.

          See, I was thinking last night, regarding your “this is kind of sad” comment: this is a stereotype, but I assume India is quite crowded. Do you ever feel like you need to step away from the crowd, the chaos, and be alone in a quiet place? That’s how I feel with the usual day-to-day “chaos”, and how I felt in busy places like Bangkok, Buenos Aires or anywhere in China.

          1. Gagan April 8, 2015 at 11:56 pm


            When I wrote my first comment there was a sentence I wrote and then removed since it seemed irrelevant, not so much anymore though. It is a recurring day dream I have quite so often; I am alone, in the whole world. That is my happy place.

            In Orkut days my profile was captioned “don’t like humans anymore”, well that was actually timed with when I moved to Delhi NCR (Our big city). Juliette it is not a stereotype, we live in an overly populated place, let me shock if it can, Delhi NCR has a population above 20 million, can I close this sentence with “Enough Said”

            I guess I felt sad because I could relate to it in my own way and brought out something.

            P.S. Most of Indian cities and towns are populated or overly populated, however there are wonderful escapes as well.

          2. Zhu April 9, 2015 at 4:24 pm

            I’m trying to imagine what it feels like to live in a city that populated, but it’s hard. China is crowded too, but I found that in Beijing or Shanghai, you don’t feel it too much at first because the streets are wide and the cities are very spread out. Now you can see it with the traffic, as more and more people own cars. The one place where the crowd was too much for me was HK, I felt trapped on the island.

            I just… yeah, it must be crazy. Where do you escape? Have you ever been somewhere where the population density is very low?

          3. Gagan April 20, 2015 at 11:59 pm

            My escapes are mostly books.

            Another one is Goa, although just went there once.

          4. Zhu April 21, 2015 at 1:02 pm

            I escape in books as well! Goa is pretty famous in the West, mostly because of the hippie wave in the 1970s.

  2. Silvia April 7, 2015 at 7:05 am

    I understand you soooo much! And no, I did not get sad at the end, I felt relieved 😀 Maybe because I know it all far too well! (And know how many good things come with the bundle, too :D)
    But I do not agree with you Zhu, life as a parent (I would say as a mother, but do not want to be sexist), is busy in a way people with no kid will never imagine, unless they are big managers in a big corp. But they usually have secretaries and people to delegate things to…

    The good thing is that they grow up, sooner than we imagine (people say, but I still am in the middle of it, so it’s only second hand news) and some day everything will settle to a more manageable pace.

    Until that moment, just hold out my firend, and never stop finding those sacred spaces for yourself, here and there! 😀

    1. Zhu April 7, 2015 at 2:39 pm

      I remember before Mark when I used to think that I was busy. Ah ah. Well, I was busy, working several jobs, always running from one place to another BUT I only had to take care of myself. I think that’s the big difference when you’re a parent, it’s the additional responsibility. I know plenty of people who are busier than me, who have more commitment at work or outside work, kids or not kids. But yes, being a parent means that your kid runs your schedule, at least when they are young.

  3. Holly April 7, 2015 at 9:24 am

    I am not so good at taking time to relax – I am always moving!! Sometimes I have to force myself to do nothing, but I think that is where knitting helps.

    1. Zhu April 7, 2015 at 2:41 pm

      I can understand that! The key is to use that energy, which you certainly seem to do!

  4. Bee Ean April 7, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    I’m so looking forward to school holidays in France, as my in laws will take the kids and let us have a moment to ourselves. I used to complain that France has too many school holidays, like 2 weeks of holidays for 6 weeks of school, now I really love it!

    1. Zhu April 7, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      If someone can take the kids, it’s awesome! … otherwise, holidays turn into “damn, what am I going to do with them all day??” 😆

  5. Lexie April 9, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Lire dans un café… c’est le meilleur de tout!
    On ne laisse jamais Billie après 9h à la garderie, sinon il faut prévenir. Alors qq part, on leur impose déjà bien une certaine ponctualité (qui n’est pas illogique ceci dit puisqu’ils commencent les “vraies” activités à cette heure-là). Et c’est vrai qu’ils ont la collation un peu avant ça 🙂
    Moi mon sas de décompression, c’est le train. Une demi heure pour lire, dormir, m’agacer car parfois j’ai l’impression d’y perdre mon temps aussi. Et ensuite une deuxième journée (courte quand meme) recommence 🙂
    Tu veux pas venir faire le menage chez moi? 😉

    1. Zhu April 9, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Malheureusement, mon côté “thérapie par le ménage” se limite à mon salon et à la cuisine. Des fois, j’ai même la flemme de m’attaquer aux chambres!

      Nous aussi on vient pour 9 h à la garderie. On n’est pas vraiment en retard (ça varie de quelques minutes, 8 h 50, 9 h 05), mais c’est “tard” par rapport aux enfants qui arrivent dès 7 h.

  6. Christiane April 10, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    I feel the same way when i wash dishes…it’s like a mini relaxation exercise. Naps here are not very often. Lately, i have been able to read books again, which made me happy.
    We are all in this together…one day at a time i guess.

    1. Zhu April 10, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      It took me a long long time before being able to read again but this is a great way to escape. And yes, it gets better. Every stage has challenges, but it’s just that, stages.

      1. Christiane April 13, 2015 at 12:56 pm

        Hmmm stages…i have to keep telling myself that…

        1. Zhu April 13, 2015 at 10:52 pm

          Do repeat it like a mantra 🙂

  7. Lynn April 14, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    “When I clean, I feel like I am unfucking my life.” YES YES YES. I will use this the next time my husbands wonders why I can’t just sit and “relax” amid the mess.

    I remember those days when my youngest was finally in preschool, and I had 2 1/2 whole hours to myself three times a week. HEAVEN.

    1. Zhu April 14, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      It’s hard to relax when it’s messy. And we all have different tolerance levels, like I don’t care so much about laundry mess or mess in the bedroom but I want a clean kitchen and uncluttered floors.

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