by Hayley Doyle
‘Nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.’ - Doug Larson.
Mother’s Day 2022. I woke to cuddles and homemade cards, then given the greatest gift; a lie-in. The bedroom door was closed tight. I rolled over, spread out like a starfish. The kids were carted off to the park and I showered without little people barging in to ask for snacks. I indulged in fruity body butter and zesty creams. Refreshed, and dressed, I looked at my lovely cards; the bold felt-tip colours of an action-packed day out drawn and designed by my boy, and a splattering of shapes from my baby girl. I had that moment. When all is calm. All is well. Gratitude hit me like a warm, sea breeze. I took a deep breath, released, and god, it felt good.
Then, chaos erupted. Back from the park, an unprecedented flurry of unusual rashes and a tummy bug plagued my children. The mood turned on a knife edge. Our lunch was cancelled. Our plans unplanned. And I spent a good chunk of Mother’s Day scrubbing vomit from the toilet seat. Thank goodness for antihistamines and Calpol. At least my gratitude was still intact.
If there was ever a way to capture where I currently am in life, it was this; the unpredictable nature of parenting very young children. In the calm before the next puke-storm (cue more gratitude, this time for Disney+) I thought about how changed I am from the person I once was. If our day had gone according to plan, would I have been granted more me-time, to unwind, to take a bath, to watch the latest episodes of Greys’s Anatomy with a cuppa and a Twirl? Because without me-time, how do I connect with… me?
She seems to get forgotten about a lot these days. When somebody asks, how’s things? My answer will 99.99999% of the time relate to the kids. ‘Good, she’s finally getting over that cough,’ or ‘Not bad, they slept through the night so I’m full of beans today.’ Earlier this week - and aaaall because of That Slap - I realised the Oscars had been and gone. I used to follow the lead-up religiously and watch all the movies nominated to form my own opinions. I so rarely get out to the theatre that I’ve gone from being an industry professional to feeling like a tourist in the West End. Dry shampoo has become a regular necessity rather than a once-in-a-while emergency. And although I’ll never shake off being a night owl, I’ve started getting into my pyjamas with the kids, at 6.30pm.
What’s happened to the theatre-mad, movie-buff, always looking for the after-party?
Ah. I miss me.
But… which me?
As a kid, I couldn’t wait to start secondary school. I’d outgrown primary school and was ready for heavy text books and the challenge of not getting lost between classes. But no sooner did those days arrive, I found myself at the railings of my old primary school, a twinge of sadness for a life I no longer lived. I missed my green checkered summer dress and the teachers who told me I’d go far. Even the scary dinner ladies were nice, in hindsight. I had a sore shoulder from my school bag weighing me down. Finding the right classroom was an anxious maze rather than a game. I struggled making the right friends. I couldn’t sleep for worrying about how things would never be the same again. Oh, how I missed me.
Then, I hit my teens and nothing became more important than boys or getting into a club. Short and baby-faced, I longed for the time when neither of these things mattered, when going to the cinema and McDonald’s was enough. Heartbreak was taken to a whole new level and I didn’t like it, who I’d been forced to become, when it only seemed like minutes ago I was playing with my Barbie dolls.
The university years were transformational, paving the way for me to flourish into my true, authentic self. There were so many twists and turns along the way, though, and dead ends were often met. In every moment of self-doubt, I practically ran home, desperate for one of my mum’s roast dinners. I’d sit in my room, the room I’d been counting down the days to leave for months on end, and browse the books on my shelf, the clothes in my wardrobe, worried I’d forgotten to take something important with me to the Halls of Residence, something that defined who I really was.
I felt confident that I’d finally become my absolute ME when I graduated and moved to London. There, I’d be open to new opportunities and free to live the life I’d always imagined for myself. Getting my head around an hour commute on the tube to get… well, anywhere… was the first hurdle, and one that I just couldn’t clear. Rejection from auditions hurt, but it wasn’t as painful as the rejection for not even getting an audition in the first place. Minimum wage jobs were hard to land and working on commission, ie for free, made reality bite. I no longer laughed as much. I cried a lot. I gained weight. I lost weight. I didn’t know who I was and missed the old me - the real me - who’d loved and laughed and lived every single moment of university life with ultimate passion.
Good jobs came though, and then they went. I hit the jackpot by starring in a West End show and like all wonderful achievements, from the top, there’s always a fall. It became a job. A routine. A small cough or bit of a cold was suddenly a big deal and affected my ability to perform. My world was reduced to a bubble, which was both marvellous and claustrophobic. I felt like part of a factory, a cog turning a wheel, and my creativity halted. After more than 500 performances, I was eager to throw my energy into a new project. Within a week of leaving the show, I sat in a temp job on the reception desk of a corporate office, looking out of the window at the rain. A bus crawled past. A big red double-decker, with a giant poster across its side advertising the smash-hit, Mamma Mia! And there was my face. On the bus. The poster girl. I wanted to rip off the smart suit restricting how I sat on the swivel chair and get back on the stage, even if it meant doing that show for the 634th time.
And so it goes.
I feared saying goodbye to my twenties, believing the real me would get left behind somewhere in a decade of fun and frolics, where I was still allowed to be young and silly whilst being ambitious and grown-up. I hadn’t found love. I didn’t have my own family. Life had thrown me some difficult challenges that I hadn’t overcome. I was broken and I’d tried to get fixed. I wasn’t where I should be at 30…
But, as it turns out, my 30s had a hell of a lot to offer. I did find love. I did start a family. I also became a business owner and published author and travelled more within that decade than ever before. And yet, with every great step forward into my most desired state of self, came even greater periods of doubt and loss. I remember a friend telling me she’d been proposed to, and she’d been dreaming of this day for so long, but she felt a sadness alongside her happiness; grief, knowing the life she’d known before was gone, a window closed, a box now sealed. Her dreams and hopes had become a reality, paving the way for a new unknown. And whether this seems like a negative way of looking at things, we all do it, don’t we? When we’re single, we miss our Ex. When we’re in a relationship, we miss the single life. When we’re alone, we want to be at the party. When we’re parents, we want some peace and quiet.
This, my friends, is nostalgia.
If you Google, nostalgia, it gets a battering of insults; a seductive liar, the vice of the aged, one of the greatest humans weaknesses second only to the neck. It’s remembering the all the fun you used to have without reliving the pain. We hit a low, which creates a wall in looking forwards, so we choose to go backwards, and in walking down memory lane, we are handed a pair of rose-tinted spectacles. As Owens Lee Pomeroy famously said, ‘Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson; you find the present tense, and the past perfect.’
So, if my past was perfect, and my present is now tense, which ‘me’ am I missing the most? The little girl who loved to tap dance in the kitchen? The teenager who sang the Miss Saigon soundtrack in her bedroom every night? The young woman either partying or writing until the crack of dawn? The mother-to-be, wishing the time away to meet her baby? The mum who cannot stop kissing her children's heads and lives in hope that both of them will eat at least one full meal a day? Surely, I’m still all of them? Or I wouldn’t be me.
Actress Michelle Gomez says that, ‘A good antidote to nostalgia is going home and remembering why you left it.’ Have you ever returned to that pub you used to go to on Friday nights during college years, a place that holds hilarious karaoke moments and legendary quiz wins of days gone by, only to find it all a bit… scummy? Dated? Boring? Full of very young people?! There’s a reason you moved on. Sure, the place is the same, and it will evoke memories. But it’s not a part of your present anymore because you’ve fundamentally changed. You’ve evolved. If you hadn’t, you’d still be there.
My son was just over a year old when I flew back to Dubai to work for a few days. It was the first time I’d ever been apart from him for more than a day and I was understandably anxious. I was also equally as excited to stomp on old ground again. Get back in the studio. See my students and co-workers. My expat family. Go for dinner at my favourite spots. Brunch. In short, be me again. The first few hours were amazing. Ahh-mazing! I moved around without a stroller to manoeuvre. I packed a bag with just a lipstick and phone. I got through entire conversations. Then, it got hard. So hard. I was so far away from my baby, my whole world. I panicked. What if he needs me and I can’t get to him today, tonight or even tomorrow? Is he crying for me? Because God, I’m crying for him! I went to the mall and walked around aimlessly, looking for something to buy him. I cried again when I found myself in a toy shop looking at bright plastic fish to play with in the bath. Each day, however, got easier. I don’t know if it was because I threw myself into work - a job I loved - or because I knew that with each day that passed, I was getting closer to seeing my little family again. I believe the answer is, both. I had a profound experience of remembering who I was, my rooted self, whilst realising that I also loved what I’d become, a me for somebody else.
So what is it that’s distracting us from seeing our real selves in our present day? In preparing for writing this article, I recorded some thoughts on my phone’s voice recorder. I just listened back to me asking this question and heard, ‘mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy…’ in the background, and then I stop recording. It would be an easy, two-dimensional answer to give though, to blame my toddler for being the distraction. It would also be untrue. My children aren’t the distraction. It’s my own mental chatter. The self-doubt in the moment. The anxiety of doing it all wrong. The need to get everything done. To be perfect. And all of this existed way before I had my babies, distracting me from seeing ME.
When we’re feeling lost, we must try to remember that our present will become our past very soon and we’re likely to look back upon this time, right now, and give it all the credit it deserves. Will I look back on my early 40s and miss me? The me who juggles meeting the every need of two little bears while keeping some sort of career afloat and a love life with unshaved legs? Will I miss the me who has a pile of half-read novels beside my bed and an overwhelming list of movies that will never be seen?
I have no doubt; YES. Of course I’ll miss me.
The highlight of a yucky Mother’s Day was snuggling on the sofa, one kid under each arm, as we watched Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey fall in fairytale love. So I might remember the tummy bug and the weird rash. But I’ll never forget the warmth of their little hands, the softness of their hair, their cheeks pressed against my chest. And when they’re grumpy teenagers and asking me for another twenty, thirty, forty quid, or when they’re ready to fly the nest, I will definitely miss me.
Me. Right now.