Today, in our house, Operation Stack is in place. We borrowed this code name from the Kent Police. They use it to refer to the system of parking lorries on the M40 when the Channel Tunnel is closed. For us it describes the days when all normal activities need to be halted due to a family member being so tired that they cannot perform the simplest of tasks without crying, yelling, or lying on the kitchen floor beating their fists on the lino. Sometimes, this is the three year old, but more often than not, it's me.
When Operation Stack is declared, it's an acknowledgement that no forward progress is going to be made, and that therefore it is better for all concerned if we just park up between Junctions 11 and 12 and stop trying. We light the fire, we put the telly on, we wait for clearance. And things just, well, stack. Stacks of laundry, dishes, paperwork, toys; there is an unmistakable sense of 'stackedness' everywhere you look, and from the overflowing nappy bin to the worrying layer of fuzz at the bottom of the fridge, all must pull over to the slow lane, listen to Ken Bruce, eat crisps, and stare into the middle distance.
In fact I've noticed an element of Operation Stack has crept into my life on a day to day basis ever since I had my first baby three years ago. To give you an example, when I was pregnant for the first time I saved up a big box of filing to do 'after i'd had the baby'. It still sits untouched on my landing, and winks irritatingly at me every time I walk past, like the lonely old bloke in the nightclub who thinks you're going home with him for sure. But, like the lonely old bloke, it's never the lonely old box's lucky day. It's in the stack.
It's not just mundane tasks that are waiting on the M40 either. I just found myself confidently using the word 'nightclub' as if I actually frequent such places; for all I know, they are not even referred to as nightclubs these days, and calling them such probably flags me up as a sad hasbeen before I've even tried to gain entry to one. If I did, they would probably turn me away at the door for being unable to name anyone in the Top 40, and having knickers older than Rihanna. Hang about, maybe Rihanna is in the Top 40...that is, if there still exists such a thing as a Top 40...? Oh dear.
My knowledge of popular culture, my social life, my career, my size-ten-i-can-wear-anything figure, my awareness of current affairs, (something is going on in Libya...I can't be more specific as my toddler does not like what she refers to as 'Grown Up Beebies'), my lovely collection of pre-breastfeeding bras, (from a time when I was less, ahem, 'stacked'), a large pile of unread books bought or given to me since 2008, regular removal of unwanted body hair, plans to learn the squeezebox, and the ability to hold a conversation about topics that don't relate to my children; all this and much much more is waiting patiently at the roadside in my metaphorical lorry park.
With so many things ground to a halt, looking after small children can leave you feeling as if nothing - from the making of beds to your personal dreams - is being achieved, and it's frustrating. Childcare involves endless acts of unselfishness, and our generation, who had at least a decade of careers, money and personal liberty before becoming parents, are not very accustomed to such a life of compromise and sacrifice. We were told we could 'Have It All'; but I have to say this glamorous sounding promise rings a bit hollow most days for me, when the peak of my ambitions - usually unfulfilled - is to use the loo unaccompanied.
But there's nothing like hanging out with a three year old to teach you to enjoy the journey and not be too bothered about the destination. A five hundred yard trip up the road to post a letter can take an hour as you pause to marvel at every pebble, plant, piece of litter and plane trail in the sky. Their endless curiosity and wonder at every detail brings the mundane back to life for us jaded adults and reminds us to, as they said in the 60's, 'Be Here Now'. Being stuck in a lorry cab in Kent would be a great adventure for my daughter, who would invent an endless succession of games, songs and explorations and as always not give a fig about time, deadlines, ambitions, plans, or indeed even remember where she was trying to get to. And so, for now, I try to follow her lead, and relearn the lost art of 'being' instead of 'doing'. The M40, I'm surprised to report, is a beautiful place.