“Mum, I want to be an ice skater when I grow up” I said, in the dark, as she kissed me goodnight. “You can be whatever you want to be my darling, if you wish for it hard enough” My mother’s wise and encouraging words to me as a child, but a series of mini experiments revealed that this was not exactly true. I wished to be an only child, I wished to be best friend and trusted confidant of the most popular girl in school, and I wished to be good at drawing. My faith in my mum’s words dissipated with my childhood freckles. But it turns out that my mum was not far off the mark.
Are you the person you want to be?
At the beginning of each year, we attempt to make changes to our lives because we’re not completely happy with who we are. We cast our nets wide to see which resolution sticks. By the middle of January, these resolutions are all but dead in the water.
Most people are living the life they set out for themselves many, many years ago. The person you believed you were back then is the person you are now. But what if you don’t want to be that person anymore? What if you want to be a non-smoker rather than addicted to nicotine? or slim rather that flabby? or a successful business person rather than a loser? an ice skater rather than a pizza delivery person? Why can’t you be the person you want to be?
We act in line with who we think we are
“The strongest force in nature is the need to stay consistent with who we think we are”, says Tony Robbins in his New Year 2017 talk
Simply put, your brain makes you the person you define yourself to be. So, if you define yourself as a non-smoker, then your brain will seek ways to make that true through your thoughts, actions, feelings, beliefs, values, goals and dreams. This happens regardless of the level of your conscious awareness.
If you define yourself as an ice skater, then your brain will seek out ways via your Reticular Activating System (RAS) – that piece of the brain that lets us notice all the blue minis, or the reverse-bob hairdos, or anything else we’ve decided to focus on – to move you towards being an ice skater. This will happen by making you notice and do anything ice-skating related and eventually the vague and fuzzy vision of yourself as an ice skater will come within the grasp of your reality. The RAS takes instructions from your conscious mind, and passes them on to your subconscious mind. If you define yourself as intelligent, bright and articulate enough to be a successful writer then you will subconsciously work to fulfil that image of yourself, through reading, studying and seeking advice from other writers until that definition is true.
I’m a big fan of self-help books. I’ve used them most of my adult life to help me create a vision of who I wanted to become. Everything I’ve achieved in my life – from my First Degree to being a parent, I’ve done through setting my intent and believing I could and would be successful. I spent years visualising myself as a successful writer, with my own business. I’ve acted as if I were that person, to myself, my friends and potential clients, and I’ve worked hard to get over my imposter syndrome. There were many hiccups and false starts along the way but ever since my identity became entwined with the writer person I knew I wanted to be, I’ve made a good living as a writer. And this definition of myself gets stronger every day.
Define yourself as someone who can run their own business or be a successful freelancer, and your brain will work hard to fulfil that vision, through habits, rituals and seeking ways to move you forward, until the vision becomes your reality.
In an ocean of advice about how to keep to New Year resolutions, this is the only boat you need to cling to, all the rest will have you drowning in failure by the 15th January (the cut off for failed resolutions). Make sure you’re on that boat. If you set your intent and believe you will be who you aspire to be, and you continue to believe it, then eventually it will be your reality.
We’ve all had that conversation, “Oh I’d love to write a book, but I just don’t have the time”. Perhaps you’re one of those people who spout these same words every year. I know I am.
Not having time, I’m told, is also the reason why people don’t see their best friend from school, start the interior design business they’ve been talking about for years, write the horror fiction they’ve always longed to write, learn to play the ukulele, learn to speak Chinese or one of the many other things we resolve to do in the New Year. Not having enough time is responsible for an awful lot of non-starting enterprises.
‘Don’t have time’ = ‘It’s not important enough to make time’
But this excuse really doesn’t cut it. I know from personal experience that what people mean when they say they ‘don’t have time’ is that it’s not important enough for them to give up something else to make time for it.
I would like to write a book, and every January I tell myself that this will be the year I write it. But when it comes down to it, the thought of sitting at my desk scribbling away into the late evening, at something that takes enormous mental energy, when I could be cosy on the sofa with a green tea and re-runs of Poldark, is not something that I relish.
What is ironic is that so many of us spend hours on Facebook, connecting to and ‘liking’ stupid cat memes (which I must admit, are hilarious, but still I could be using my time more productively) and updating our feeds for ‘friends’ who aren’t all that important. Yet we don’t have time for the people or projects that matter.
Perhaps the reason we don’t see friends and family is down to the fact that we’re so busy trying to edit our online lives with updates and perfect pics so that it matches up to what we perceive others’ lives to be, that we don’t give priority to the real people who really know us and love us for who we are.
Or, is the reason we don’t start that business or write that book because we are scared that we will fail spectacularly, so we wonder what the point is of starting in the first place, as it will be too damaging to our ego.
Whatever our reason, we should stop kidding ourselves and own up to the real reason – we just don’t want it enough.
I’m not anti-make up. I don’t have some righteous crusade against it. I don’t have daughters so I’m not one of those conscious-of-the-pressures-we-put-on-girls-to-conform-to-society’s-standards-of-beauty kind of person. I don’t feel superior in any way. No, it’s simply the case that my I-can’t-be-bothered-ness overrules my need to look beautiful.
I am a beauty moron. I know nothing of the ins and outs of a beauty regime. While some of the other other mums refuse to do the school run unless swathed in Kiehls cream and Max Factor, I might, on occasion, drag some brown No.7 eyeliner across my eyelids for a crazy night out.
This is a travesty in this day and age when every magazine is busting with ads for the latest organic wonder product that claims to gives your skin a dewy, even skin tone and make you look like a 6-month-old. I swiftly flick past this section, where words such as epidermis renewal and radiance boost jump out at me, trying to tempt me with their promises but instead leaves me feeling incomplete as a woman.
There are a few things I do to attempt to keep my inner hag contained…
- I use coconut oil as a moisturizer, which makes my face all shiny for the next 12 hours but is cheap cheap cheap!
- I regularly take the time to tame my unruly eyebrows to avoid looking like a male politician.
- I occasionally have a day sans chocolate in order to unpack my bunged digestive system and reduce the face swelling brought on by existing solely on a diet of Fruit & Nut and red wine.
- Occasionally I might wear a lip balm, but they smell so delicious that my taste buds get confused and I end up licking it off. I’m pretty sure it’s not so good for my diet.
However, I’m not sure this regime is working so well.
I worked in an office for a brief spell recently and decided that, as all my co-workers would be young and glowy and dewy and beautiful, I should at least make an effort not to look like a decaying hag. So each morning I put on some tinted moisturiser, a spot of eye shadow (which usually requires a Master’s Degree in contouring to avoid looking like a drunk prostitute, so I rarely bother), and a dab of mascara, (I usualy end up absent-mindedly picking it all out, together with my eyelashes – so my eyes end up devoid of said eyelashes – which totally negates the point of wearing mascara).
This added at least 20 minutes to my normal hectic morning schedule and my skin felt heavy and clogged. I also spent most of the day worrying that I’d smudged the mascara or that the foundation line on my jaw was too obvious. I couldn’t wait to wipe it all off and be clean of face again.
To be fair, it probably didn’t help that I was wearing products that I’d purchased some time in the 90s, and yes, I know this stuff goes ‘off’ but I wasn’t going to go spend upwards of £100 (or whatever it costs these days – I have no idea) on new beauty products when I wasn’t even sure how long I’d cope with wearing it. I’m sure that make up and skin care (and creams and complexion correctors and serums and BB creams and CC creams) have advanced light years since the 90s but still, …
Ironically, as a teenager, when I didn’t need make up (fortunately, I didn’t suffer too much from spots or blotches) I wore loads of the stuff. Applied it with a shovel to try to cover up the billboard of my adolescent insecurities after I’d cleansed, scrubbed, toned and moisturized. One morning, at about age 17, as I was working my way through my usual ritual, an epiphany made me realize that I no longer wanted to be a slave to beauty. I wiped everything off my face and walked out of door as bare cheeked as the day I was born.
It took a few days to get used to the lighter feeling, the sensation of air on my cheeks that didn’t have to coerce its way through an inch of foundation and face powder. And I got a few comments from friends about how fresh-faced I looked. I took this to be a positive thing and I vowed never to be yoked to a beauty regime ever again. I decided that my face was a reflection of my lifestyle and although my diet was not terribly healthy, it was not not terribly unhealthy either (aren’t the raisins in Fruit and Nut one of the 5-a-day?). People would have to accept my face as it was, I vowed. I discovered that most other people just didn’t care either way if I wore make up or not.
And I stuck to it. Later, even when baby-induced broken nights gave my skin the parlor of a puddle and my under-eyes looked as though crows have been moonwalking on my face, I stuck to my guns.
On occasion I will meet a woman of my own age with flawless make up that flatters her glowing skin and makes her look 18. In these instances, I might have a moment of insecurity when I consider myself unwomanly and in desperate need of tutelage in the ways of beauty. The moment soon passes once I consider the amount of effort it must have taken to get that perfect.
But, I do wonder. Had I been regimented with a skin care routine, would I now have younger looking skin? Would the large pores on my nose and the tiny broken veins that populate my cheekbones be gone? No one will ever know how effective these products are at slowing ageing. We are led to believe that by not having a beauty regime as espoused by beautiful celebs and skin care consultants we’re missing out on loads of lovely treats for the skin. I mean, who knew that skin needs hyaluronic acid to help it look plump and radiant? Well me, obviously, because my skin looks as plump and radiant as a raisin.
Should I be part of the majority and take more care of my skin? I refuse to douse myself in expensive products or slather on the make up until I look like a clown but I could take a little more care of the face that I present to the world, if I want to retain what’s left of my…ahem…youth. Perhaps if I can’t ‘reverse the signs of ageing’ then I might at least try to slow it down.
My brain is skittish, foggy. I can’t concentrate for very long. I get ratty with books (my patience much reduced), and my attention span is microscopic. I need my next fix and I need it now, before I miss out, before something REALLY important happens. I’ve exhausted the BBC, I try Twitter – I need news, I need it like I need a fix of chocolate.
News is bad, bad news is poisonous. This is what I’ve read. I can believe it. I was caught in its toxic clutches. It started off as an experiment. I wondered, will I learn more, be more informed, will I wow people at parties with my knowledge of current affairs?
I liked the (fleeting) feeling of awareness the news gave me. I did the same the following day. Before I know it, I am seeking out new ‘news’ as though my sanity depended on it.
News bulletins are like sweeties. Little bonbons of compelling trivia that we consume without thought or question. We are drawn to it without considering its relevance on our lives. When consumed so passively we barely register whether it’s positive or negative. Mostly it’s negative. Journalists are like pushers – trying to tempt us with their little ‘treats’ which disguise the scaremongering and political propaganda.
So much of it is irrelevant to me. I don’t want the limited capacity of my brain to be saturated with such trivia. The ex PM resigning as an MP, who gives a stuff, really? Does this information affect anyone’s life in a positive way, or offer any kind of advantage?
Negative, tragic news skews my view of the world, makes it into an unsafe, riskier place to be. And this bigger picture that we feed with froth bears no relation to our reality. Apparently, a negative view of the world is further entrenched with every negative news story we hear, despite the lack of first hand evidence to support it.
The recent referendum is a case in point. With the amount of fuss made of the vote you would think an apocalypse was on its way. So much shallow discussion, so much propaganda. I was sick to death of it. Even friends who hitherto I found enjoyable company, who, on the eve of the referendum sought to entertain me with their strongly held views, bored the pants off me. They spent too much time listening to the news, so they’d be ‘informed’ on current affairs in order to have an intelligent discussion, should the opportunity arise. In reality they were taken in by the propaganda or they’d adopted the views of others – perhaps they based their opinions on those of impressing friends and colleagues. It is impossible to know all the facts with so much ‘information’ saturating the media, how can we possibly make an informed choice.
I am yet to see Brexit’s impact on my day to day. Some may call me naïve or blinkered – but if it means I don’t fill my head with fluff then I don’t care. If it’s really important – as in, if it’s likely to affect my life in a big way then the news will find it’s way to me. The important stuff tends to stick around.
We rate the importance of news items by its prominence in the media. We get used to the dramas, grow immune to the death, destruction and violence that is happening elsewhere in the world and increasingly we lack empathy. We have no power to do anything. We just sit, passively absorbing the stench of the frivolous bulletin.
Like an annoying bluebottle that cannot find its way out of an open window, the interrupting snippets of news trivia from every source steal my limited attention and focus from what is important; my children, relationships, books and long-form writing. My brain pathways strengthen in areas that are irrelevant to me, and weaken in its deep-thinking capacities, severely affecting my ability to read a book from start to finish.
I turn off the news. Permanently.
I want to be free of such brain padding. Without the fascism of trivia my creativity is vibrant. Ideas pop in to my mind, uninhibited and unobstructed. There is more room for it to run and be free.
My pointy finger hovered above the arrow. Do I send it? This letter of resignation that contained only two sentences but still took me two hours to compose (the wording had to be spot on, obviously). Do I quit? Am I a quitter? Does that make me a loser?
Many of us are told, in our formative years, mainly before we realise what hypocritical mothers we have as parents, that we ‘shouldn’t give up’ when the going gets tough? That we should persevere to get to the good stuff of life that makes us want to jump out of bed in the morning and do 20 star jumps, just for the hell of it.
But how long do we endure the depths of seven hells (slight exaggeration, it was in fact a highly unsuitable job, that I took when my chosen career was proving rather challenging) before we finally surrender and realise that this situation we’re in, this job, relationship, friendship or venture is just pants?
Biographies, autobiographies and self-help books abound with tales of individuals who have persevered, who were not to been beaten down by adverse circumstances, suffering and oppression. Who yelled up to the gods, “We will not go quietly”. They didn’t quit when things got tough.
Quitting is for losers these stories tell us. It’s just a hump, a hill, to get over before we reach golden fields and paradise. This is reinforced by theories promoted in books such as The Dip.
So how do we know if it’s a ‘Dip’? What if it’s simply time to quit?
I tested the theory to ‘not quit’, I aimed to ‘persevere’ so that I could ‘get over that dip’. It didn’t go well. It made me unhappy and frankly it just felt plain wrong. I clung tenaciously to a job that was wrong for me, in the hope of an eventual prize – my dream job. It turned out that the longer I stuck at it, the more toxic the current job was for me, and the further into the distance my ultimate dream job receded.
My pointy finger engaged. I clicked ‘sent’. I did what I’d told myself I’d never do again and I quit. Yet I have no regrets. The idea of staying in that job there another year, another month, even another week was more abhorrent to me than sticking something sharp and shit-covered into my eye.
So when the darkest times come looking for us, when it’s a struggle to get out of bed – do we quit then? No, because quitting is for losers. When the people who are supposed to support and work with us to help us grow and improve, look at us like we’re hapless losers, no matter how hard we try – do we quit then? No, quitting is for losers. When the job that had once been exciting and challenging has become a grind and drains the life force out of us, do we quit then? No, quitting is for losers. This kind of thinking makes us feel more trapped than ever. Which is precisely when the desire to quit increases its hold over us.
All those biographies, autobiographies and self-help books also show us that quitting can lead us to a new place. Sometimes we have to let go, to create a space inside for new opportunities, to get rid of the deadwood. Yes, we need to persevere, but we also need the wisdom to know when enough is enough and not to blindly and tenaciously cling to something that just isn’t working. To get where we’re going, we first have to leave where we’ve been.
While every story of wanting to quit will be different, I believe that just because we stop doing something doesn’t mean we’re quitting, it simply means we are moving on, we are keeping our options open, looking to the horizon, being fluid in our motions (and a million other clichés that all mean the same thing). Sometimes this takes big balls. Letting go doesn’t mean we’re quitting. Quitting does not necessarily mean we are losers yet society admonishes quitters and celebrates those who endure the shit.
If you know you’ve done your very best to make it work but cannot see a future in it, don’t think of it as quitting, just be assured that you are moving forward in your search to find the job/relationship/friendship/venture that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and do 20 star jumps, just for the hell of it.
I’ve been out of writing action for a few months. Seven to be precise. The reason? Because I got a job, which sadly didn’t work out, but happily made me realise that I missed writing and so I’m back on it with renewed vigour. But can a writer really just take 7 months out of writing (other than the odd journal verbal dump about the frustrations of employers and work colleagues) and expect to get right (write) back into it?
I do feel a bit rusty, it has to be said. The words don’t flow as easily as they did. I have to think a little more before I start typing, and my rusty writing fingers (yes I do believe we have different mental/finger modes for different activities – so writing prose is much different to writing admin emails, for example) need a little oiling.
Why did I get a job in the first place if I write for a living. Well, because it was available, I was feeling restless and incompetent and I needed a change of scene. It was good for me. Not only to help me realise that I do actually love writing but that I hate being chained to a desk, where the boss looks at me with utter shock and disapproval if I tell her I’m late because I fancied a coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while (surely better than lying? I’ve since learned my lesson!).
I’m excited about all the opportunities open to me again now – lunch dates, leisurely coffees, popping off to the gym for an intense spin session or a relaxing yoga workout (I’ve never actually done this – but I could start!). I suppose I should probably think about getting some more work again too … at some point. There’s no hurry!
“Alone, alone, alone” says the sloth.
“That’s a lot of aloneness,” says the woolly mammoth in Ice Age.
Between a quarter and half of us are introverts. That’s almost half of everyone we know who are energised by solitary pursuits and who feel drained if exposed for too long to social environments. I am an introvert. I find it tiring to talk to people I don’t know. Sometimes I find it tiring to talk to people I do know. I will often be having a good time in the company of a few friends but all too suddenly I will feel overwhelmed and I’ll need to escape, or drink more wine to dull the sensory overload.
You’d never guess I was an introvert. I hide it well. I put on an act to make it seem as though its not a struggle to talk to people about the mundane. I want to seem as though I am friendly and amenable and approachable, because I do love talking to people and I don’t want to appear rude, yet at times I find my mind is looking for escape routes, an opportunity to be alone to tune into my inner world. My loud thoughts are struggling with my need to connect to people.
This is most obvious at the school gates, where many semi-familiar mothers mingle to talk about how tired their children are (at the end of the term) or how cold the weather is turning. Sometimes I cannot face talking at all and so I just drop off the boys and run. The problem is, if we don’t talk about the mundane then a potentially great friendship will never get off the ground so that the real conversation can start, and I have met some wonderful friends by starting a conversation about the weather.
There are some mums who will happily flit from one trivial conversation to another, moving around the playground as one would a party. Introverts don’t want to do this. We need real connection. We prefer the company of fewer closer friends with whom to have a deeper, more meaningful interaction, than many acquaintances. But it’s easy to beat ourselves up if we don’t have hundreds of best buddies, and thousands of Facebook friends. When other people’s lives seem like one long social extravaganza it can make us feel like we’re freaks. We may even suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). I do, even though I would actually prefer to pursue my own interests than spend copious hours of the week ‘catching up’ or ‘grabbing a coffee’ just for the sake of it.
I’m not saying I don’t want to talk to anyone, on the contrary, I love talking to people about subjects that are meaningful. We introverts like to get to know the person behind the conversation, rather than talk about the weather. But introverts also need plenty of time to be alone with our thoughts, because our thoughts are LOUD. We calm ourselves and gather our strength by being alone. A recent trip I took to London alone, was one of my best weekends, simply because I didn’t need to talk to anyone. My own thoughts had free reign to go wherever they chose. I came home feeling energized and happy, ready to be sociable again.
The lovely thing about being alone is that there is very little to think about other than the thoughts that already exist in my head. I hear nothing but my own breathing. Being alone is not lonely, not for me. For some who have never had the pleasure of aloneness, even introverts, it may be different. When you’re alone there is no pretension and no social etiquette to worry about, no worrying about others opinions or sensitivities, no thoughts about what I should and shouldn’t say, and no having to shoulder others’ burdens when they are too selfish to listen to mine – just simple, clean, healthy, self indulgent aloneness. It’s like a restorative process for me, like topping up an emotional credit card.
Next time you see someone alone in a coffee shop, or standing alone in the corner of the school playground, don’t assume she is lonely, know that she is possibly one of the quarter-to-half of us who is perfectly happy in her own company.
I look in the hall mirror. The person staring out at me is not the person I feel inside. Mirror-me is haggard, pallid and my eyes seem to be disappearing into my head. My hair, although not yet showing signs of grey (thank you genes!), is lank and weak. It takes more effort these days to look and feel like myself, and even then when I catch glimpses in a window or mirror I am shocked by my accumulating decay.
At the tender age of 18, I thought my 30-year-old uncle was ancient. To my mind he was a proper grown up, reaching towards the end of his life – proper old. Like disasters and death, aging was something that happened to other people. I never thought for a moment that I would reach this age within the blink of an eye. Now I’m in my 40s, I know that teenagers consider me an ‘oldie’.
So, why is that so bad, to be considered old? Well we tend to think of aging as a negative thing. When we age we not only lose our youth but also our lustrous hair, our perfect skin, our energy, our eyesight and our muscle tone. Maybe this is a bit of a stereotype, along with the idea that we also lose our wits, and are a burden to the young. But the truth is that older people are no longer young and dewy and as such are increasingly insignificant to younger people. And its something many feel they should be hiding with creams and loose clothing, creative use of make-up and cosmetic surgery. The media don’t help when they splatter images of young fresh-faced beauties all over the mags, where celebrities are praised if they still look 18 when they’re 38, and are ridiculed if they look anywhere near their actual age. So pervasive is the fear of aging that even women in their 20s are worrying about aging. Ironic, considering we’re living longer than ever before. Of course, the producers of anti-aging products who cash in on our ageist fears welcome this.
Ironically my emotional maturity has led me to realise that trying to reject my age and hold on to my youth is futile. I know this, yet the occasional and increasingly rare time someone tells me I don’t look my age, I still puff out my chest in pride.
But what would happen if I decided to embrace the process of growing older? What if I didn’t try to fight it but instead looked forward to a life that becomes more enriched as I age.
I want to forget about my physical decline, to see it as unimportant. Instead, I want to concentrate on the mental and emotional improvements. Since entering my fourth decade I’ve noticed that my mind focuses more on positives than negatives, I take worries less seriously and I have more confidence in asking for what I want, or complaining about what I don’t want. I care less for what people think and more about pleasing myself. I am more accepting of friend’s flaws, less accepting of their bad behaviour. I am in the prime of my life, according to some – I’m not yet old, but mature enough to know my own mind, so why aren’t I celebrating this instead of interrogating the mirror and pulling back my sagging cheeks to see what different a bit of cosmetic hocus would make, were I that way inclined.
I want to look forward to a fulfilled and productive second half of life where I focus on the good things in life; friendships, family, reading, good food, not scrutinising my thighs, underarms and neck for signs that my body has sagged a little further. Yes, I am stretching toward my middle age but there is no reversing this. I cannot control it because the more I try to do that, the more disappointed I become. I want to see the sagging as inevitable and embrace it as part of life, as something I cannot change, so therefore requires no further thought on my part.
I may mourn my youthful body, but by doing so I am giving myself the room to grow in other ways, to have new experiences and to live life more fully.
It doesn’t mean that I can no longer have fun; it just means that my idea of fun has changed.
I may be increasingly invisible to the younger generation, but in a positive light I no longer feel scrutinised. I can relax and wear what I like rather than what fashion dictates, which is not to say I will wear saggy, baggy clothes that do nothing for my figure, but that I will wear what I feel good in, (mainly jeans and t shirt).
With age comes knowledge, about my place in the world and about me. This brings confidence in knowing that whatever age I am, I still matter.
From the moment my first son was born I’ve questioned my effectiveness as a mother. In the early years I was confounded by decisions I had to make – How much do I let him cry before I pick him up? Do I feed him every four hours or when he’s hungry? Six years later and the decisions don’t get any easier, the context simply changes; should I send him to more extra-curricular classes? Do I limit his screen time?
In an effort to feel that I had one iota of control I would be regimented in certain aspects of my day. The boys’ lunch would be ready by noon latest, snack at two thirty and dinner would be on the table at five o’clock, on the dot. They would be in the bath by 6.15, and both in bed by seven sharp. I will admit that as a result of this strict schedule they do now eat and sleep well, but I’d be stressed to the bone by the time they were in bed, due to sticking so rigidly to those strict scheduling ‘rules’, endorsed by certain baby experts, who in my naivety I looked upon as ‘all knowing’.
I came across the work of Winnicott, a pediatrician who in 1953 developed the ‘good enough’ parenting concept. With this concept he was recognising the unrealistic demands for perfection that parents placed upon themselves, which undermines their efforts in meeting the needs of their children. He stated that, “Her [the mother’s] failure to adapt to every need of the child help them [the child] adapt to external realities.”
‘Failure’ refers to the fact that mum is not always able to make things better, and in discovering this simple concept I felt as though the dark cloud had been lifted. Those words ‘good enough’ stayed with me and consciously I began to apply them to my own parenting whenever the feelings of inadequacy threatened to engulf me. It freed me from the expectation on myself to be a perfect parent, which came from thinking I could control everything that happens to my children. In my mind, Winnicott was saying that whatever I do, as long as I do my best, I will be a ‘good enough’ mother, even if I make the wrong decision sometimes. There’s no point or purpose in busting a gut to be a perfect mother. In doing so I am making it tougher on myself than it need be.
This constant bombardment of guilt and anxiety about what I should or shouldn’t be doing with my children wears me down. And, as if this weren’t enough there is a strong element of competitiveness in parenting. If we’re not trying to live up to the impossible standard of some celebrity or childrearing guru then we are competing with our friends. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a sense of smugness if I’m virtuously helping my boys create landscapes out of old egg boxes or making home made soups and casseroles. Then there are times when I’m cringing with inadequacy whenever my son mentions his friend’s busy after-school schedule of Cricket, Gymnastics and creative writing.
I have come to realise that by trying to be a perfect mother I was trying to guarantee a perfect outcome, when in fact, if I take things easy, make more effort to relax and not worry if one whole day passes without reading a book to the boys, or doing a craft with them, then it’s not such a big deal.
It is important that we keep in mind something that Winnicott goes on to say, that attending too much to our child’s needs is a sure way to mess them up. Striving for perfection in raising our children will also mess us up as we turn into competitive, nervous wrecks. If we try too hard to make everything right for our children, we will fail, it is impossible not to, simply because as they grow and separate from us we will not be able to control everything that happens to them. As Winnicott says, a parent’s failure to satisfy a child’s every whim helps the child adapt to the reality and later, the demands of the social world, which they will soon be entering, alone.
Parenting comes with its own unique brand of inadequacy, something I’m now very well acquainted with. I’m still not sure if I’ve made the best decisions but I think I did my best with the knowledge I had available to me, and my boys have not turned out too badly so far.
We parents are driven by our need to satisfy every desire in our children, conscious or otherwise, and outside pressure or ‘advice’ does little but confuse and frustrate us. We need to trust that we are doing the best for our children and despite our best efforts we will fail at some point, some of us more dramatically than others, in different ways and at different times. None of us can get it right all the time, so we should stop trying so hard and stop beating ourselves up about it. Just as we expect our children to make mistakes and learn from it, so must we. Our children do not need perfect parents, but they do need sane parents
I knew memories of my childhood were elusive, like little wisps of air that hover just beyond my reach but I thought that if I actually took the time to think about it, events from my past would start to reveal themselves, but no, I can honestly say that I have little recollection of my own childhood, which is a little disconcerting to say the least.
I remember a time before we co-habited that I would almost burst with excitement to tell my then boyfriend about every detail of my day. We’d chat about everything from what we had for breakfast that morning, to the state of the education system, and then we’d make plans for our future together.
These days the boyfriend-who-is-now-husband finishes work and our eldest son, who insists on our full attention so that he can tell us in frustrating detail what’s been happening at school, interrupts every attempt we make to talk to each other. By the time we’ve made dinner, tucked youngest in bed and fought the eldest into his own bed, we’re both totally exhausted and we collapse in a heap on the sofa, and escape into a screen somewhere.
When we do have the energy, any attempts to talk about our respective days invariably turns into a discussion about the boys. Usually parenting tactics, or how to get broccoli into them without noticing. Husband will, on occasion, begin to talk about his work and I’ll gloss over, my mind on the school uniform that needs washing or the recent meeting of the local parents group.
As a stay-at-home mum there is little that is new and exciting for me to talk about, so I don’t usually bother. It’s not that I don’t care but unfortunately a deep and meaningful conversation with my husband about the state of the economy, unless it has something to do with Family Tax credits, comes somewhere near the bottom of my to-do list. The only time I have the mental capacity to talk to him I’m usually up to my ears in Shreddies and Marmite and before I know it he’s heading out the door to work.
I know we’re not the only ones; plenty of couples suffer from this lull in genuine communication because after so many years together there is little mystery left in the relationship. We know each other too well and there’s not much we haven’t said to each other. Sometimes I even find myself wanting to finish his sentences for him but even that takes too much effort.
This is not an unusual situation. Talk to anyone with kids and they’ll tell you a similar story. “All we ever discuss is dinner options, who is taking the eldest to rugby this weekend, and what’s on the TV,” says a friend of mine, “Conversation falls into a big black hole in our house.”
Sometimes when we’re stuck in a rut it can feel as though a relationship is ill-fated but, as the relationship experts will tell us, we have to recognise that there is contentment in being comfortable and predictable.
So what is the problem with focussing all our discussions on the kids? They are important in our lives and, over and above everything else, they are the glue of most relationships. Talking about them, even if it is mundane and day-to-day, like the progress with potty training or how much TV is permissible for a five-year-old, can help us to remember why we are together in the first place.
It’s also important we accept that relationships change over time; it’s not ever going to be the same as in the beginning when everything was fresh and new and we were just getting to know each other. It takes more effort to stay focused on one another when the monotony of family life settles in. There’s no harm in us each doing our own thing as long as long as we reconnect every now and then, so that when we are faced with an empty nest we don’t look at each other and think, ‘who the hell are you?’
I sit down, cup of tea and laptop in front of me, and I start tapping away. Usually I’ll begin with the novel I’ve been writing for about five years, thrashing out a scene between two central characters, which, invariably, I will later remove from the manuscript. So far, so good.
It seems only yesterday I was in my 30s, pre-Vertbaudet, pre-pampers and blissfully unaware of those little pump syringes that suck the mucus out of babies’ congested noses. Before I know it I’m hurtling towards my 40th so rapidly that I barely notice the two kids popping out or the ring being put upon my finger. I realise it is thirty years since I bopped around the living room to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ – Thirty Whole Years!
I put the key in the lock of the front door, having dropped off my two boys at preschool. The house is deadly quiet but for the gentle hush of traffic out yonder. It always seems odd somehow without the boys. I make a pot of tea and take a moment, starring at nothing. I am returning to me – not mummy, not wife, not cleaner or cook, just me.
One couldn’t say that my dress sense is inspiring. I am not a dedicated follower of fashion in any sense of the word. The closest I get to fashion is running my tongue along the window of New Look.
After much discussion with my husband about New Year resolutions, here is my list of promises for the coming year.
I promise to never again give husband hassle about stuff he has or hasn’t done like the man jobs around the house, which I have neither the strength nor the inclination for, but still expect him to do after a long week of working his butt off to provide for the family.
Last night I sat in front of the TV and wept inconsolably at the movie I was watching. I had my chair casually turned away from my husband lest he think me a cry baby.
When the tears threatened to bubble over into downright hysteria I ran from the room on the pretext of needing a wee.
Someone asked me the other day for the names of my children. Embarrassingly, for a moment I couldn’t answer her because i’d actually forgotten what they were. It took me a few moments before my brain switched into gear and I blurted out their names, hoping the person that had asked hadn’t realized the delay. This utter failure in motherhood was just the most recent in a long line of memory loss episodes, that turn up every now and again just to remind me of the sacrifice I made in having children.