Jo – July 1985
Jo was at the end of her tether. William, now aged five, had if anything become even harder to manage. He was in many ways a delightful child full of energy and enthusiasm. The downside was that he was unable to sit still and concentrate for more than a minute or two at a time. He was constantly on the go and Jo was exhausted most of the time. Their daughter, Poppy, was just two years old and was making the transition between being an angelic child to throwing regular tantrums in the ‘terrible twos’ phase.
Julius and Jo had long deserted their plans for having a large family they could barely cope with the two that they had. When she had a moment to think anything Jo wondered what they were doing wrong. Her brother Charles’s children were so good and easy by comparison. She knew from Penny that this was not always the case, but also that the older two were doing well at school and that the twins at two and a half were very rarely difficult. They entertained each other whenever the older two were not around.
Jo was regularly humiliated by William’s school teacher an older woman who expected children to ‘behave’ the school had threatened various punishments not to mention expulsion for her son who was barely more than a baby. Jo, having trained as a teacher herself, could see both sides of the problem. She knew that she would not like to cope with William along with 20 or so other children. On the other hand her son was lively not naughty and certainly not bad.
Julius was earning a reasonably good salary as deputy head of a large comprehensive, which allowed Jo not to work. Sometimes she would have preferred a salary to minding her own children she thought guiltily. School holiday had just begun and she was dreading six weeks of full time childcare even with Julius around to help most of the time. A weeklong visit to Charles and family in Yorkshire was her main focus to get her through the remaining weeks. Here she would have help and support from the grown-ups as well as from Simon and Lucy who were good at entertaining William. Poppy would play with the twins.
Penny recognised Jo’s symptoms almost as soon as her sister-in-law and family arrived. Penny had suffered a severe bout of depression when they had first moved up to Yorkshire. She could tell from Jo’s brittle brightness and bouts of withdrawn inertia that she was depressed and struggling to cope with the children. With much more provocation than she had herself had to endure Penny realised after a day or two of William in the household. Even Lucy complained that she needed a break from his demands. Simon had taken to practicing his piano music without being badgered by either parent.
Penny mentioned her concerns to Charles on the second night of Jo’s visit. They always chatted privately for half an hour before going to sleep whether it was over dinner or as they got ready for bed. Charles also had noticed the signs of strain that Jo was under. They both emphasised with the problem having had to cope under similar circumstances. They discussed for sometime plans for during their visit and also the best way to introduce the subject to Julius. What had worked for Penny was some respite from the children and new interests and hobbies outside the home. She had however had to have medical treatment to get her over the worst of it.
They decided between them that Penny should suggest a day or two out with Jo, just the two of them together. Charles had been on the committee for a summer school project based at the local comprehensive. It was largely sports orientated to entertain children with working parents over the summer holiday. He and Julius would take the children and Julius could remain there for the day with the three older ones. Charles would mind the younger ones at home.
Penny scanned her diary and the local paper. Her art group had a meeting arranged for the Thursday that she had intended to miss. On second thoughts it seemed like a good plan for her and Jo both to go. She knew that Jo was creative; it may prove a good distraction. The next morning Charles contacted the summer school organisers and organised places for Simon, Lucy and William for the rest of the week. Julius was game and the children excited. As soon as the house was quiet Penny organised Jo into a shopping spree they would go to York for the day and have girls lunch.
Over lunch accompanied by a glass of wine Penny encouraged Jo to open up by raising the topic of her own depression. She related honestly the way that she had felt sometimes about her own children and even Charles at times. Struggling with tears Jo was able to admit her own ‘shortcomings.’
‘Sometimes I shut myself in our bedroom so they can’t get to me. I think I may shake William or smack him hard he drives me so mad and then I feel so guilty and such a bad mother.’ Jo sniffed and wiped her eyes surreptitiously, conscious of their public surroundings although Penny had deliberately chosen a corner table out of the way. ‘And now Poppy has started to scream over the smallest thing, probably just to get my attention away from William but it just adds to the stress.’
Penny smiled encouragingly at Jo and patted her arm sympathetically hoping that she would be able to release some of the pent up emotion and guilt feeling by sharing the experience. ‘Julius is always at work and then when he comes home we’re both so tired that we just sleep. I can’t face sex’ Jo whispered, ‘and he never asks me so then I worry that he’s having an affair not just working late. And I’ve never been the sort of woman that’s suspicious by nature. What’s happening to me?’ Her voice rose on a wail of distress. Penny gesticulated to the waitress that they were going to the Ladies and managed to get Jo there before the full bout of sobbing commenced. She hugged her sister-in-law tight and shushed her gently as though she were a baby. It all sounded so familiar to Penny, except the possible affair bit.
The two returned to finish lunch a while latter. Jo’s tears subsided and a sense of relief from sharing her burden with a trusted friend and ally. Penny recommended chocolate as a short-term cure for all ills and Jo smiled compliance. They ordered a portion of Chocolate Mud Cake and cream to share and finished with a coffee. Jo by this time was feeling almost human and shared this welcome news with Penny.
‘I’m glad to hear it’ Penny responded, ‘we’re now going to shop ‘till we drop. When the going gets tough the tough go shopping!’ Penny used the idiomatic expression and smiled conspiratorially at Jo ‘I recommend a new dress as stage two of lifting the spirits.’ Jo was feeling so much better that she barely protested her lack of funds though it was another issue for her. She had been used to earning her own money and though Julius provided more than adequately for his wife and family she felt guilty about spending money on herself.
Penny and Jo spent a couple of hours trawling the shops of York. Penny encouraged Jo to try things on and provided honest appraisal to each outfit, which wasn’t difficult because Jo had an excellent figure and looked good in everything. Eventually between them they chose for her a very fitted off the shoulder dress, which made the most of her lithe figure, and the subtle pattern in aqua and pinks suited her colouring.
Jo hesitated saying that she had nowhere to go to wear the dress. Penny responded by inventing an evening out for the four of them on the spur of the moment, she could tell that the dress had given Jo a huge boost in confidence as she twirled in front of the fitting room mirror admiring the dress from all angles. Charles would be able to organise something.
It turned out that Charles had gone one better. He had managed to snatch some moments during the day to engage Julius in conversation drawing him out about his job, Jo and the children. Julius relieved to have the opportunity to air some of his worries to such an empathetic audience (talking to Charles was probably a bit like taking confession he thought) told how he was worried about Jo. She was so tired and irritable by the time he got home from work that she barely spoke to him except to criticise. He had taken to working later and later to avoid confrontations as well as to manage a huge workload.
‘It’s really William that’s the problem’ Julius confessed with a heavy sigh, ‘we’re both trained and experienced teachers and neither of us can deal with him adequately. He just never stays still for a minute at a time. Poor Jo is exhausted. We thought we would have some respite when he started school but more often than not they send him home. Not that he’s naughty but his lack of ability to sit and concentrate is disruptive for the other kids so what can they do.’ He shrugged in sympathy for his fellow professionals.
It did seem to be an insurmountable problem, however Charles was a great believer in coping mechanisms and was adept at helping others to find their own solutions. By the end of the day Julius was considering possibilities that would make life easier for them all. Almost as an afterthought Charles had suggested that Julius and Jo had a night out together. Penny and he would baby sit.
The following evening Jo, looking lovely in her new dress and some high heels borrowed from Penny, and Julius set off for a quiet dinner at a nearby pub that specialised in food. Charles and Penny lost no time alerting Charles and Jo’s mother Jane to the situation. She undertook to contact Jo as soon as they had returned to Reading and suggest a weeklong visit to them. She would help with the children and encourage Jo to organise childcare for Poppy for a day or two each week so that she had some respite from the children during the week when William was in school.
Meanwhile Julius dazzled anew by his gorgeous wife was able to ally her fears regarding the non-existent affair. Much of the angst of the last few years receding as they enjoyed each other’s company for the first time in a long while comforted by unloading some of their anxieties to Charles and Penny. They both agreed that they were profoundly lucky to have such a wonderful brother and sister-in-law.
Jo – July 1985