When I was pregnant people often asked me, "Where are you going to live?" It was a strange question as I lived in a perfectly functioning rental with a spare bedroom. But the subtext to the question was, 'Your life doesn’t look very baby proof'. They were wondering when I would learn to drive and move to zone 4. Life with a child can look a million ways, but it’s amazing how often being a good mum is conflated with living in an extremely conventional way.
When people asked my six-month-pregnant belly whether I’d signed him up to nursery I looked at them and scowled. I didn’t bother; the thought of bowing down to a system where an unborn child was on a waiting list made me deliberately contrary. Of course, I fucked myself over here – it turns out that where I live, you really do need to sign up to a nursery early, the irony being that the more hippie and alternative the nursery, the longer the waiting list.
I’m not particularly unconventional; I wear mum jeans and have the same bob as my other mum friends. But just because I have a 3-year-old doesn’t mean I’m content with 'settling down'. Gap years, going travelling, becoming a digital nomad, living on the road and the whole 'finding yourself' on a beach all seem the preserve of the young and free. Does discovery and exploration really have to stop when you’re a parent?
I asked Julia Jerg, a self-proclaimed digital nomad who has worked out of 86 different countries, how people reacted when she first got pregnant. "My family and friends from home expected me to somehow settle down and finally start a 'normal' life. But other travellers, friends who lived similar lives to me, reacted differently, saying 'Yay! The next digital nomad is born!'" Julia now has a 2-year-old and a 2-week-old and hasn’t stopped moving; in the last year they have lived in the Czech Republic for a month, in Croatia for two months and in Portugal and Thailand each for three months. She makes it work by consulting on social reach and blogging as she travels.
I found Kirsty, the mum of a 3-year-old, through the picturesque-sounding hashtag #vanlife. She lives in the UK in a converted van fitted out with beds, a kitchen and a dining room. "I had a tough end to 2017, I was miserable and lonely and things needed to change. I started decluttering my life – things, people, anything that no longer served me or made me feel happy – and looking into minimalism. Then #vanlife started popping up on my YouTube and I became slightly obsessed. I always wanted to live out of the 'norm', tree houses, narrowboats, backpacking…anything but a house!" she tells me.
My son is getting to the age when everyone keeps asking me where he’ll go to school, which is of course giving me itchy feet. While I applaud Julia and Kirsty for finding alternate ways of making it work, I’m not sure 86 different countries or living in a van would be right for us, but this isn’t about lifting from another mum's life, this is about realising that there are myriad ways of making it work for my own three-piece family.
As I write this, I’m sat in the coworking space Second Home in Lisbon, surrounded by runaways and digital nomads, and feel very at home. My 'coworkers' are the perfect advertisement for a more nomadic life. Helene, who is sat next to me, works in fashion, has a 5-year-old and moved here from Paris. Seth, sat opposite, is Peruvian and has just come back from a morning surf. Flexible working is at the heart of renting a desk in a coworking space, which might explain why the parents I meet feel lighter – there is no one to apologise to when you have to leave at 4pm to pick up a toddler. Also because there are many people of different nationalities, it means there is no one dominant culture, no presumption of how you 'should' mum.
In Second Home I chat to Dutch, Portuguese and American mums – and I realise that seeking inspiration from how other people parent is vital for my parenting journey. The judgment that surrounds how we mum is relentless. Kirsty shared how some people have reacted since living on the road with her 3-year-old: "I’ve received comments on social media which weren't very nice or supportive and assumed we were doing it out of necessity or came from a rough background." When you become parents, and especially when you become a mum, there is an insidious play by society to slowly close the walls in on your life. It takes perseverance and a pretty thick skin to stay firm in your choices of how and where to parent.
I have embraced a nomadic life but as my bobbed hair suggests, I have done it in the most conventional of ways. I have a desk space in London’s Second Home and they have spaces in Lisbon and are soon to open in LA; like many coworking spaces with desks in different continents – The Wing, Soho Works, WeWork – they are allowing transient workers to thrive. The ready-made community that comes with Second Home meant it only took two conversations to find a nanny for my son in Lisbon. I have a 3-year-old, I’d like another kid and I’m probably never going to settle down, so yes, a mum can be a digital nomad, you’ll just have to put up with snarky comments and have the answer to "Oh, where will you live then?" down word for word.