I’m 39 weeks pregnant and we’re a month into living in a new house. I’m huge, exhausted, excited, distracted, anxious… so it’s fair to say my thoughts have been a bit of a jumble of late.
I turn 36 today and it was only when I acknowledged the mental chaos I’m currently experiencing that I realised what I want to say to mark yet another birthday.
And it’s this: The older I get, the better I get at figuring out WHY I feel the way I do. With each year that passes, I gain a little more self-awareness. And that’s more useful than any birthday gift you can wrap.
Becoming a mum has helped a lot. I can’t expect my daughter (or her imminent sibling) to undersand their feelings if I can’t comprehend my own.
I try hard to make time to work out what’s behind my response to situations. Am I tired? Hungry? Feeling inadequate? Intimidated? Distracted by a timetable my daughter has no idea I’m trying to keep us to? So enormously pregnant I fear my stomach may BURST any minute?
Because nobody’s response to anything is just about what’s happening in that moment. There’s always more to it. Our history, our physical and mental wellbeing, our worries, our hopes, our fears… they all play a part. It’s a wonder we get through the day we’re carrying so much invisible weight around.
When I consider where my reaction is coming from, I handle things so much better than when I don’t. And I feel happier with who I am too.
But of course I’ve only learnt this by reflecting on all the times I haven’t managed things so well. I’m a fallible human being so I’ve let my insecurities, bad habits, and misunderstandings get the better of me LOADS of times. And I’ll 100% do it again. Age can’t magically protects us from that. But the better we know ourselves, the better we get at slowing down and seeing things for what they are.
So at least I know why I feel so overwhelmed at the moment. And I try to bear that in mind when I feel like overreacting to the smallest thing. (What do you MEAN the bakery has run out of jam doughnuts?! I NEED ONE.)
I’m about to have a baby and become a mum of two. It’s no surprise that I’m feeling 400 emotions at once.
What I like about being older is my understanding that there’s no point wasting energy fighting tricky feelings. It’s better for all of us if I acknowledge and lean into what’s driving them instead.
Whether it’s the nervousness I feel about the physical turmoil involved with birth and its aftermath, or the desperation I feel to bring our baby into the world safely and do a good job for them and their sister, it’s all OK. I can’t have all these wonderfully grown up experiences without them.
The only promise I can make is that I’ll do my best and keep learning from every high and low that comes our way. I’m confident my 37th year will be filled with plenty of both…
After months fearing my creativity had gone forever, all of a sudden I found writing ideas coming back into my head. Thank goodness!
But then when I tried to get them down, I found I couldn’t until I’d first typed out what it feels like to live in the world right now. I can get conceptual and maybe even have a go at a funny or two when I’ve worked through my lockdown state of mind.
So that’s what this is. A lockdown diary entry, you could say. An acknowledgement of the vast level of emotions involved with pushing through the beginning of 2021.
I’m normally relatively balanced, but it’s tricky to remain so all the time through a global crisis.
I find I make too much of the good moments that occur – which of course they do – because joy is at a premium right now. My daughter will laugh at something in the park and I’ll say to my husband: “She’s having fun, isn’t she?! I’m so glad we came out! This will really set us up for the rest of the week, don’t you think?!”, whatever that means.
And when the lows occur – because I watch the news or run out of play ideas or I see that it’s raining AGAIN – I get lethargic, grumpy, and I can’t even be arsed to put my socks on, because what’s the point? I lose perspective and dive into my phone, where I can assure you the answer absolutely does not live.
Having so little variety in our lives is exhausting. The end isn’t quite in sight, but it is there in the distance, we know it is. That’s a huge motivator to strive on and keep the faith, but it’s also a while away. It’s perfectly normal to be struggling right now, however big or small the difficulties this pandemic brings you.
I saw a post on Twitter that said “We should assume that nobody is OK right now” which has stayed with me. I try to keep it in my head when I go for a walk or collect my daughter from nursery. Everybody is, at best, sick of this, and at worst, having a truly awful time. Whichever end of the scale you find yourself on – and I consider us to be at the very lucky end – it’s still all right to acknowledge that this is hard. Most people are going to find living through a pandemic difficult.
One of the things I’m finding hardest about lockdown is how much bigger disappointments, mishaps and imperfect interactions feel than normal, because our usual distractions aren’t there to give us perspective.
I’ve found myself becoming oddly nervous when we do leave the house to go to the park for the 4000th time. I’m scared I’ll have an interaction with a parent that will go badly and I’ll think about it day and night for the next three weeks. I get nervous when I drive in case I do something that makes another driver think I’m an idiot. I worry that I’ll make a bad call in the supermarket, get too close to another person also in pursuit of hummus, and chastise myself for days for putting my chickpea consumption before public safety. It’s a tiring time to be alive.
I think it’s the lack of connection in our lives that’s making me lose faith in my ability to interact successfully. We’ve all gone from seeing friends and family everyday/week/month, to, in most cases, not seeing them at all, and not knowing when we will again.
I didn’t realise until it stopped being an option the extent to which I used to top up on conversation, laughter, relationships. Those connections inform who we are. They fill is up. As I’ve written before, there are so many things that I like, I don’t like, I miss, and I don’t miss about the life the pandemic has forced us all to lead. I don’t want every element of our previous world back, not by a long chalk. But I do want the freedom to help create a world we all like more. I want that back right now.
It dawned on me this week that as well as feeling distant from the people and places we love, this time will have made us feel distant from ourselves too. Without structure and variety and the option to make plans, I’ve definitely felt a part of myself fade.
That’s not to say I don’t love being with my husband and daughter. They are my entire world. But not being able to experience different things either with them, by myself or with others has had an impact. We’re all a product of our environment and when that environment shrinks, we do too.
How I feel changes day to day. Sometimes I’ll get some fresh air, chat to a friend or play really mindfully with my daughter and I’ll think ‘Yes, I can do this.’ And then others I won’t have such clarity. Everybody says it, but the only answer is to take it day by day, and to be kind to yourself as you do.
I try to keep this in mind when I feel a special kind of parenting guilt that the pandemic is happening at all. A global event that is in no way my fault. I think a lot of my anxiety and emotions are wrapped up in wishing that I could give our daughter a better time. More options. Time with the people she loves. She’s absolutely fine and hugely fortunate to still be going to nursery a few days a week. It’ll just be nice when we can do more again.
My focus on her means I don’t always have time to feel my own sadness about not seeing Grandma (my mum). Or Uncle Adam (my younger brother). Or Auntie Lexa (one of my very best friends). Because when I’m done saying “Soon! We’ll see them soon, I promise!” to her, I realise that I have no chuffing idea what ‘Soon’ means, and that I hate that.
When normality – whatever that looks like – returns, I’m sure I’m going to be nervous and awkward as hell when I finally get to spend time with people beyond my household. I’m going to fret about losing the aspects of restricted living that suit me and that I’ll miss the guaranteed family time that has bonded us more than ever.
I’m also going to be ecstatic to go further than my local park. To see London again in all its glory. And to hug the people I love.
Mixed, complicated, messy feelings are all part of the deal when you’re a human being. I write this blog because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a go at expressing them all. In fact, I find it really helps. I hope you do too.
I woke up one morning and realised that my thoughts are constantly swinging between the things I like, the things I don’t like, the things I miss, and the things I don’t miss in this strange new world. So I thought I’d write them down.
I haven’t included ‘I don’t like that coronavirus exists and that people are suffering because of it’ on this list. Hopefully that’s obvious. I’ve focused instead on the more trivial, everyday highlights and low points of living through this time.
I found turning them over in my mind and noticing how closely they live alongside one another a useful, grounding process. I hope it makes for a nice read for you, too.
I wonder – what would your list include? Sending you much love and strength for the coming months. Here we go:
I like having a dishwasher.
I don’t like that emptying and refilling the bastard will probably qualify as my most consistent form of 2020 exercise.
I like going to the park.
I don’t like only going to the park.
I like looking at the plants we bought when lockdown began and knowing that, with the right levels of sunlight and hydration, we’ve all got through this together.
(I don’t like to talk about the fern accidentally scorched to death on the bathroom window sill during the heatwave. I let everybody down that day.)
I like being a mum more than ever.
I don’t like how frequently I’ve heard myself say ‘Soon!’ to my daughter when she’s asked when we can see her family and friends, despite having no idea what ‘soon’ means.
I like that, thanks to all this time at home, I’ve finally managed to put together a proper skincare routine.
I don’t like that it hasn’t taken ten years off my face yet. To whom should I address my letter of complaint?
I miss having a diary populated with things to look forward to, and the confidence that each one will happen.
I don’t miss living in such a fast-paced, demanding world that time at home as a family felt like a luxury rather than a given.
I like that there are so many ways that we can connect with people these days.
I don’t like that, at the moment, there aren’t many that don’t involve a screen.
I like working at home, not having to worry about public transport, knowing I’m going to be able to collect my daughter on time, and having ready access to all my biscuits, all day long.
I don’t like never having the option to go and do my work somewhere else, hang out with nice colleagues, read a book all the way there and back on the tube, and experience the novelty of returning home again.
I miss going out for nice cocktails in nice bars.
(I have a child, I’ve been missing that for years.)
I like that I no longer feel daunted by empty days ahead at home. We’ve found a new rhythm and learnt that just a handful of components make up a good day. If we can have some play time, fresh air, music, stories, space to ourselves, and parenting support from Hey Duggee, most of the time, that’s enough.
I don’t like to think about the impact that hours and hours listening to the Peppa Pig playlist on Spotify during lockdown will have had on my ‘Most listened to’ list for 2020.
I miss hugging my family.
I miss hugging my friends.
I don’t miss not quite knowing how to make physical contact with acquaintances, getting it wrong, and having the embarrassment wake me up every night for a week.
I really miss my nephews.
I like the excuse that cooler weather (and my now eight-month long sense of entitlement to consume ANYTHING I LIKE if it makes living through a pandemic easier) gives me to drink a hot chocolate packed with marshmallows every single day.
I imagine I’ll miss my teeth when they’re gone.
I like evenings where I leave my phone upstairs and spend a few hours pretending it doesn’t exist.
I don’t like that every time there’s a change or bad news, I descend into a scrolling frenzy, like perhaps the answer to all this is in my phone somewhere if only I could find it.
I like the incredible impact that just a few minutes with a book before I go to sleep has on my sense of calm.
I don’t like the insane effect this year has had on my dreams. Can a girl not take just a few hours off this chaos?
I like how much more time we’ve spent outdoors this year and that it’s made me stop and appreciate the incredible beauty of trees, flowers, blue skies, squirrels, autumn leaves, reflections in a river… I’d better stop before I break into song.
I don’t like having to cross an outdoor catch up with a pal out of my diary because the weather’s decided to be a TOTAL DICK and make it impossible.
I like that my husband is now here every evening to help get our toddler ready for bed and to have time with her at the end of a working day.
I don’t miss receiving a text message from him at least once a week to say he wouldn’t see her before she went to sleep.
I miss the freedom to have my mum to stay, to go to the café near me that she loves, and to see her fall asleep on the sofa with her arm around her granddaughter in front of Stick Man on the TV when we get home.
There’s nothing I don’t miss about that.
I like that we grabbed at precious opportunities to spend time with some of our favourite people whilst we could and that they felt exactly that; precious.
I don’t like worrying about whether my friendships are still going to be there when all this is over.
I miss believing that the only thing standing between me and an orderly home was more time in it.
I don’t miss being upset about having a messy house. Why not get every toy in the world out at once? We can’t pretend we don’t have plenty of time to put them all away again.
I like that one of the most unexpected discoveries of 2020 is that our daughter cannot get enough of dancing to Think About Things by Daði Freyr. No matter what else is going on, that always makes me smile.
I miss dancing at weddings.
I like going for a walk around our local area first thing in the morning and feeling 3000% better for it.
I don’t like how few opportunities we’ve had to wander around the rest of London this year (but I do know that we’ve appreciated it so much more when we have).
I like that months without childcare showed us how much our toddler likes going to nursery, how much more content she is when she has time doing her own thing, and that we don’t need to feel guilty for doing the same.
I don’t like that just as she’s starting to really enjoy playing with her friends – and I can start having slightly more substantial chats with their parents whilst she does it – playdates are off the table.
I like how much more acutely aware I feel of the amazing ways our little girl has changed during this period, because we’ve slowed down and had time to notice.
I don’t like that there have been days and moments this year that I’ve wished by, but I’m sure she’ll understand. It had nothing to do with her, 2020 has just been a bit odd.
I like every second of every day that we’re safe and well.
I don’t like it when the grind of living through this time makes me forget how grateful I am for that.
I like that there was a boiling hot day in the summer when my husband and I managed to drop our daughter off for a day of fun at nursery, drive down to a pebbly beach, swim in the sea, eat fish and chips, down an ice cream, and then drive home in time to pick her up. We’ve not had much time to ourselves this year, but when we have it’s been wonderful.
I don’t like that it sometimes crosses my mind that only seeing my face/hearing my voice/tolerating my anecdotes about the trouble I had locating the correct bin bags in the supermarket might drive him up the wall, but I really haven’t got time to worry about that on top of everything else.
I like how firmly all this time together, these highs and lows, and all these lessons we’ve learnt about what we each need to be happy, has bonded us as a family.
I don’t have a downside to share to that.
I like that despite the relentless madness and sadness of this year, there have still been so many lovely moments, and how much good it does us to stop and notice.
I don’t like to focus too much on how long it’s going to be before we can share more of them with the people we love, but instead on how good it’ll feel when we do.
If my husband is getting tired of my daily step count updates, he only has himself to blame.
I’d been having a few episodes of low mood. I just felt a bit sad, lethargic and lost. All pretty common feelings during a pandemic, I’m sure.
At first, I let it go and figured it was inevitable when you’re living through a global crisis. If this is the worst thing I experience during this time, I thought, I’ve been very lucky!
I had panic disorder a few years ago, and I think it’s made me think that I need to wait until I feel really bad before I take steps to feel better.
When anxiety ruled the roost, I’d only feel calm for a few seconds each day. I’d wake up feeling OK because I’d momentarily forgotten that my brain was on fire. But then panic would kick back in, and I’d commence my (then) routine of sweating through the day, until bedtime came around again and I could have a break.
Therapy, time, and support from good people got me through it, and I’m fine now. One is never so bold as to say they’ve beaten a mental health condition – because the bastard might hear you and return. But I will say that, for the most part, I’m in charge now, not my panic. And that’s a pretty chuffing big deal.
So, having been through all that, when I feel myself take a different type of dip – like a mood slip or another form of anxiety – I’m not always quick enough to do something about it. I’ll say to myself: But I don’t feel like my head is about to explode! I can hang out with friends without wanting to sprint out of the room at the earliest opportunity! Everything is OK!
But just because the disorder’s in check, it doesn’t mean other things can’t affect what’s going on in my head. And that there aren’t things I can and should do to boost my wellbeing.
During my most recent bout of lowness, my husband said “Why don’t you try getting up earlier?”
Now, in the interests of honesty, I should admit that my first response was fury. Was he saying I’m lazy? That I don’t pull my weight? Or did he hope that if I spent less time in bed I’d have fewer dreams to bore him with?
But of course he didn’t mean any of that, and he had a point.
Our little girl is almost three and, all being well, she’s usually up for 12 hours of the day and asleep the other 12. So when Leon and I are done eating, tidying, failing to choose something to watch on TV, and sleeping ourselves, there’s a little time left to do whatever we want with (as long as one of us is in the house, of course).
I find parenting so tiring – and lockdown/pandemic era so endless – that my strategy had been to sleep for as long as possible. Because who wants to make these days longer?!
But it’s hard to go straight from bed to full throttle mum-mode. One minute I’m asleep, dreaming I’m already up and powering through my to-do list, and the next it’s MUMMY! CAN I HAVE SOME MILK AND A BISTIC (biscuit)? MUMMY COME IN MY BEDOOOM! It can be quite an intense way to start the day.
So I’ve started going for a walk. Just for half an hour or so, ideally first thing, when it’s still quiet and a bit chilly.
I’ve devised a special route just for this. I walk up the road we aspire to live on one day, around the park filled with pretty flowers and the world’s busiest squirrels, onto the high street for a reminder that buses still go and shops still open, into a café if I feel like treating myself to a hot chocolate or a pastry or both, and then home after doing a loop around the other park that’s nearer home.
I walked around this park when I was heavily pregnant with our daughter, blissfully unaware of what was to come. Then I’d go home and watch The Office U.S bloopers on YouTube all afternoon whilst I still could. Later, we took her there for her first trip out as a newborn in the sling. I must have checked her 50 times to make sure she was OK.
And now she’s almost three and obsessed with the swings, and we’re there all the time so she can play.
Being in that park on my own is a treat because it’s brief. And, because it’s such a significant place, going there for a walk and a think – and a sit down if I can get away with it – helps me get back in touch with myself and how I feel, and it helps.
When my HOW DARE YOU response to my husband’s suggestion that I start setting an alarm passed, I realised he was onto something. I looked back on the days leading up to my mood drop and saw that I’d hardly walked at all. Sure, I’d done playground trips and nursery pick-ups, and I’d gone to and from the kitchen 900 times. But I hadn’t walked for the sake of it. I hadn’t had time outside on my own.
In lockdown, we got good at helping each other take our daily exercise, as we needed it to survive. And just because we’ve got more freedom now, it doesn’t mean we should stop making the effort to move for the benefit of our wellbeing. We still need fresh air, space and to keep moving to help us stay well.
So I bought a Fitbit, which tracks the number of steps you take each day, your heart rate, your sleep, and other useful health-related info. I wanted something to hold me to account and make me walk – even when I think I don’t want to – and to give me proof that I’m trying.
Leon tolerates my delighted cries of “Ooh it just buzzed! I’ve done my 10,000 steps!” because he knows it’s for the greater good. It was all his idea after all, and I’m grateful for that.
When I’ve finished my morning walk, I head back up our road, open the front door, and am greeted with a ‘Mummy’s back!’ which I love.
I make breakfast, I give out snacks, we play, we go out, we eat food, we come home, I put on films, I clean up, we read books, I find lost toys, I hold my little girl when her emotions take hold, or she’s had a bump, or she’s frightened of a monster I can’t see, or she just wants a cuddle with her mum, and I sit with her in her bedroom at night, and I tell her that I love her and that we’ll have more fun tomorrow, until she drifts off to sleep once again.
And I’m better at it all, and I feel so much happier, because I went out for that walk.
I’m old enough to know that most people don’t give a damn that it’s your birthday. But, seeing as you’re here, I’ll tell you that I just turned 35. *releases single party popper into the ether*
This is the first time in a while that my age has felt significant. I see it written next to other people’s names and think ‘Woah, they must be a REAL grown up.’ And then I see it next to mine – a woman who still can’t let her feet out from under the duvet at night in case a scarecrow bites them – and I realise that’s not necessarily the case.
But that’s fine, I like getting older and being reminded that the idea we’ll have it all sorted out by a particular age is a joke. One thing that is guaranteed though is that the more years you live, you more you learn.
And that’s why for the last six years, the birthday gift I’ve given myself is time to type out the lessons I want to note at this particular point in time. It’s great to have it to look back on. (This was last year’s series of hot takes).
So here’s this year’s big five.
1. Accept your decisions – good and bad – because without them you wouldn’t be where you are
By 35 you’ll have racked up a good few decisions that you look back on and think “What on earth was going through my head when I did that?“ I’ve certainly got a strong number, and while it’s super fun to wake in the night and dwell on my own idiocy, I’ve come to realise that they all form a crucial part of our stories.
If I hadn’t taken that terrible job, or experienced that heartbreak, or had that regrettable hair cut for so many years, life wouldn’t look the way it does now. And I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experience I need to keep making better choices.
I think the same rules that apply to your CV apply to life in general – if you can explain what everything you’ve done has taught you, it doesn’t matter if you made a few ill-advised moves along the way.
2. Those moments when you feel like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing often mark the start of something exciting
Just when we thought we knew what we were doing as parents of a toddler, we decided to start potty training.
We kicked off and within minutes I went straight back to feeling like I did when I first became a mum – totally unprepared, out of my depth, and terrified things would never get easier.
But of course they have. I realised as the week went on that I wasn’t just afraid of the messy reality of teaching a little one how to go to the loo, but also of what teaching her this meant. Independence. The more she learns, the less she’ll need me, and that’s a scary prospect for a parent to face. But it’s also essential and, when I remove my hormones from the situation, incredibly exciting.
All of the best decisions I’ve made in my life – going to university, making new friends, starting a relationship with my husband, having our daughter, pursuing the career I want – frightened the life out of me.
But it’s often that fear that proves this is something you really want to do. Because if it was out of the question, you wouldn’t entertain it. But if you’ve gone so far as to let yourself imagine the possibilities, it might just mean you should go for it.
When we go on holiday (remember holidays?) my husband and I have a rule that if we’re umming and ahing about whether to go on a day trip/do an activity, we always do it, because then we can’t regret not trying. And applying that to daily life has helped me a lot. I don’t want to regret not doing things, however scary they may seem.
The ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ feeling doesn’t become any less daunting just because you’re a grown up. But you do at least have enough experience to know that you’ll figure it out before long.
3. The pursuit of perfection will destroy you, so let it go
I want my daughter to grow up knowing that everybody makes mistakes. What matters is that we pick ourselves up, understand what went wrong and what we learnt, move on and do better next time.
It’s a perfectly simple concept for even a two year old to understand, and yet, at 35, I still struggle to remember it.
I’ve been particularly hard on myself recently when I’ve made a mistake or a bad decision. Whether it’s something I’ve done whilst driving, something I’ve said, or a parenting choice that’s backfired, I’ve been giving myself a really hard time about it.
I wonder if the current environment has something to do with it. Life feels more fragile, precious and scary than ever right now, so any false move feels significant while our stress levels are heightened.
I’ve always struggled to forgive myself when my interactions with people haven’t gone exactly as I’d like. Despite numerous attempts to stop caring what other people think, the truth is that the older I get, the more I care. I get so few chances (particularly at the moment) to see or speak to the people I love, it feels like it really matters that it goes perfectly when I do.
But of course we can’t control how things go. The only things we can control – in any situation – are our words and our actions. And there’s a world of other factors that also play a part, so we can only ever do our best.
When it comes to parenting, trying to do a perfect job will not only destroy you, it’ll destroy you before 7.30am. There’s no way anybody doing such an emotional, unpredictable, and exhausting job could get every single element right all the time.
Despite my best efforts I make wrong calls numerous times a day. I also make the right call a fair amount too, but if you think they’re the moments my brain likes to put into a montage to show me when I’m lying awake at 3am then you’ve very much misunderstood the tone of this blog.
But the longer I’m a mum the clearer it becomes that perfection isn’t the goal here. Happiness, safety and good health is. There’s nothing like living through a global pandemic to make you realise that’s more than enough to ask for.
4. Whether you like a feeling or not, at least accept that you’re feeling it
Allow me to share my incredible time saving method.
Instead of beating ourselves up for feeling nervous ahead of a social event, stressed out by a heavy workload, or still scared of the dark at the age of 35, how about we just… accept it’s how we feel. All of a sudden our problems are cut in half as we no longer have self loathing to deal with too. We can focus instead on exploring why we feel this way, and what could help us feel better.
I spend so much time trying to mentally push away feelings that I don’t think I should have. I lose hours feeling ashamed of my fear, frustration, or upset and guess what? It just makes matters worse.
We can’t help the way we feel. The way we respond to each situation is entirely personal. So our time is better spent listening to what that feeling’s trying to tell us, rather than hoping that if we berate it enough for existing it’ll just disappear.
5. I do my best work as a human being when I slow down and think about what I’m doing (don’t we all?)
It’s when I trick myself into believing that everything has to be done in a rush that I make decisions I’ll later regret.
And it’s when I react NOW rather than waiting a few seconds to think, empathise, breathe and then speak that I’ll end up saying something I’ll wish I hadn’t.
Since the world plunged into lockdown, there have been few reasons to rush at all. And though I wish I’d learnt it in different circumstances, the lessons this has taught me about the importance of slowing down are invaluable.
I’m a better mum when I take a moment to consider the world from my daughter’s point of view before responding to her 55th request for a snack before 10am. And I’m a better wife when I stop and think about whether I’m really angry because my husband has forgotten to change a toilet roll, or because I’m tired from living through a global crisis and need to go to bed.
We’re all better people when we try and see the world from other people’s perspectives and consider how our actions could affect others. Right now we’re being shown in the bleakest way possible just how crucial it is that we do.
As I head into my 36th year, I want to keep all of this in mind. To be more empathetic. To make good, thoughtful decisions. And to be kind to myself when I inevitably slip up and learn more lessons along the way.
I’ll look forward to telling you all about them when my birthday comes around again next year. Thanks for reading.
We spend a lot of our adult lives learning how to tell people that we want things to change.
We go on training at work about how to give feedback. We listen to radio phone-ins about how to ask fellow commuters to be more considerate. We read agony aunt column after agony aunt column about how to get our spouse to PLEASE JUST CHANGE THE TOILET ROLL FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE FOR THE LOVE OF ANDREX.
And whilst there is of course value in finding ways to make the imperfect better, my plan for 2020 is to spend more time pointing out the things that make me happy just as they are.
A couple of years ago I started keeping a gratitude list. Every week I make a note of the things – big and small – that have happened that I want to remember and that prove that life is great. I’d seen somebody on Twitter recommend it, so I thought I’d give it a go, and it’s done me the world of good – not just because it’s healthy to be grateful for what you have, but because it’s made me realise what really matters to me.
I kept a list every week in my 2019 diary, and though the exact words differ from week to week, the same themes come up time and time again. Cuddles with my daughter. Seeing her laugh. Time chatting to my husband. Moments to myself to read or watch TV. A catch up with friends. A really excellent cake. A visit from my mum. Managing to stay awake throughout an entire film (this happened approximately twice in 12 months). Proof that I’m keeping my mental health in check. Space to do the work I want to do. Our home.
There are weeks when I’ve noted down special events – new exciting projects, birthdays, trips away – but most of the time, each item on the list is a reminder that it’s the simple things I’m most grateful for. It’s a written collection of all the day to day bits and pieces that could easily go unnoticed, but that are actually my favourite parts of all.
The importance of acknowledging the good became even more apparent to me last year when our daughter got a nasty eye infection. All of a sudden we were in paediatric A&E being told we’d be there overnight so that she could have antibiotics pumped into her little veins through an IV. We caught the infection straightaway and the necessary steps were taken, so all was largely fine, but it was also a bit scary. And it involved spending time in hospital, which is always difficult, particularly when children are involved.
All I wanted the entire time we were there was to go home and back to normal. It made me realise how much I loved our life and that all I need to be happy is to be free to live it, together.
And though that thought process wasn’t new, I wondered if I’d ever actually mentioned how much I liked things, just as they were. I KNEW I’d mentioned how much better life would be if only the bins were emptied more regularly and if we changed a lightbulb more than once every DECADE, but had I said: “Actually, everything we have is everything I want. Nothing else matters”? I’m not sure. So I started.
I’ve tried to take the time to stop and acknowledge when we’re having a nice time, and to tell my husband and my daughter how much I enjoy our time together. I’m an organised person, so I spend most of my time living in the future, planning for the next meal I need to cook, groceries I need to buy, or stain I need to try and fail to remove. And though the world must keep turning, I don’t want to forget to engage with what’s happening now. I don’t want happiness to be something I only recognise retrospectively – I want to notice it in the moment. The future will be here soon enough.
We’ve tried to make it the norm as a couple for us to tell each other when we’re struggling. We let each other know how we’re feeling, we talk about why that might be and what (if anything) can be done, and then we try to move on. It’s not about brushing tough stuff away, quite the opposite. Discussing hard times is as normal as chatting about what’s on TV, so the hurdle isn’t finding the courage to bring it up, but figuring out how we can tackle it together.
And I want it to be just as normal to chat about what’s great. It’s not about living some smug, insufferable life where we pat ourselves on the back all day long, it’s just about making sure we don’t forget that we’re lucky to have each other and that we’ve not forgotten the time when all we wanted was everything that we’ve got now.
My husband reminds me regularly of this Kurt Vonnegut quote, which I love: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
So that’s what I’m trying to do, this year and beyond. Notice. Life can be incredibly difficult. Surprising in glorious ways, and shocking in others. So the least we can do is acknowledge when it’s good, and let the people around us know how happy they make us.
And I’ll be keeping up with my gratitude list too. Stopping to note down the funny, touching, meaningful joys I’ve taken from each day is the cheapest form of therapy I’ve ever known, and I strongly recommend it. And it’s a lovely thing to look back on at the end of the year, too.
So that’s my intentions for 2020 officially documented, and I’d love to know what yours are, too. Happy New Year.
Every year to mark my birthday, I write a list of lessons I’ve learnt or things I want to say at this point in time. It’s a therapeutic ritual and I recommend it.
So here are 34 things I know about myself and the world now I’m 34 – yet another age that doesn’t feel anywhere near as old as I thought it would…
1. I know that when I sit on the sofa with a drink at my feet and think “I’ll definitely remember that’s there, there’s no way I’ll spill it,” what I’m really saying is: “I look forward to kicking that all over everything in a few minutes.”
2. I know that cheesecake is the world’s most overrated food and I do not apologise for this opinion.
3. I know that there is one person in every group of friends who is in charge of organising get-togethers and who LOVES to complain about how nobody else ever does it and then FREAKS OUT if anybody else ever tries. And hello, yes, that’s me.
4. I know that a solo trip to the cinema is one of the greatest gifts a person can give themselves and I’m just sorry I didn’t realise it sooner.
5. I know that the more energy I put into trying to make somebody like me, the less I will end up liking myself.
6. I know that periods can be a painful, inconvenient nightmare, but there is something undeniably joyful about selecting your biggest, most comfortable knickers to get you through those first, bloated hours.
7. I know that one of the things I find scariest about being a parent is the amount for which your children will forgive you.
8. I know that there’s a huge difference between someone who wants you, and someone who wants you to want them, and that unfortunately it’s not always until you’ve experienced the former that you can recognise the latter.
9. I know that splitting the backside of my favourite pair of jeans open taught me this about clothing: Just because you can do something up, it doesn’t mean it fits.
10. I know that realising I’d done the above just seconds before I left the house to go to brunch taught me you should ALWAYS CHECK YOUR REAR VIEW BEFORE STEPPING OUTSIDE.
11. I know that I sometimes absentmindedly rest my hand on my stomach, trying to protect a baby who now lives out in the world.
12. I know that there will come a point when I have to stop calling my daughter a ‘baby’ and I will get there in my own time. Do not rush me.
13. I know that the way you feel when you see your partner unexpectedly tells you everything you need to know about whether you’re spending your life with the right person.
14. I know that each of us has to take responsibility for our relationship with the internet and to choose to live a life where we feel in control of it, and not the other way around.
15. I know that it’s hypocritical of me to talk to my daughter about the importance of sharing when I find it so very difficult to share her.
16. I know that carrying a yogurt in your handbag is the riskiest game a human being can play.
17. I know that just because you’ve walked into a room and feel like you’re wearing the wrong thing, it doesn’t mean that you are. It’s always OK to dress like you.
18. I know that of all my life goals ‘That I will one day get on top of the washing’ is by far the most ambitious.
19. I know that the more evenly spread the balance of power is between two people, the better their friendship will be.
20. I know that every friend you make isn’t necessarily meant to be in your life forever. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t still worth knowing each other.
21. I know that if you value your time and your energy you shouldn’t even think about chopping a butternut squash. Just roast the bastard for an hour and a half and then do what you need to do with it. Save your blood, sweat and tears for a more worthwhile activity.
22. I know that just because somebody’s on their own it doesn’t mean they’re lonely, and that just because somebody’s in company, it doesn’t mean they’re not.
23. I know that if you want to make a dream a reality, you have to start being able to talk about it whilst looking people in the eye.
24. I know that though migraines are the bane of my life, they have taught me a lot about how much activity, stress, and socialising I can handle. Your body knows what you can take, so listen to it.
25. I know that I’ve never been to an actual swamp, but I have been in the bathroom after my husband has been in the shower, so I’m pretty confident I know what one looks like.
26. I know that it’s always a good time to remind the person you’re spending your life with that you love them just as they are, mess or no mess.
27. I know that you have two choices: spend your time doubting whether there’s space for you and your creative work, or spend your time creating that space by doing it.
28. I know that the gap between what you imagine putting your child to bed will look like (reading them a bedtime story, rocking them to sleep, singing them lullabies) and what it actually looks like (being repeatedly kicked in the face/poked in the eye whilst you lie down with them to help them ‘settle’, saying ‘Yes, that’s a lovely tongue’ when they choose this moment to show you their entire mouth, getting so good at pretending to be asleep yourself that sometimes you do drift off) is VAST.
29. I know that there will come a time when I don’t sit with my daughter in my lap every night, reading her the exact same books before she goes to bed, and I miss it already.
30. I know that we trick ourselves into thinking that we’re working towards an end point in our lives where our achievements will be added up and evaluated. And I know that the older you get and the more milestones you tick off, the more apparent it becomes that that end point doesn’t exist.
31. I know that one of the greatest gifts my daughter has given me is total abandonment of my sense of self-consciousness. I will sing in the street, I will moo, baa and neigh on the train, and I will dance like she’s the only person watching. In so many ways, she has set me free.
32. I know that the moment things go wrong, you realise just how happy your life made you as it was, but that we don’t have to wait till then to notice.
33. I know that at 34 there’s still so much that I want to do, but that for the life we’ve built so far I am grateful.
34. I know that it never ceases to amaze me since we started our family how quickly our time together passes by. And that all I really want for my birthday this year is more, so much more of it.
They’re not so much resolutions, you see, as choices I want to make about how I live my life and how I think, this year. I figure that if I focus on these, the life goals that I have – the writing work I want to do, the creative projects I want to develop, the marvellously calm and fulfilling home and family life I want to create – will all feel more achievable.
I want to be clear at this point that I’m writing this today as somebody who is struggling with all of this. This isn’t a list written by somebody who’s got it all worked out and who’s advising you on how to be better. This is about writing down what I know I need to do and remember, so that I have it to refer to. And it’s here, too, for anybody else who finds it difficult to keep their habits and mind in check, should they need a little reminder.
This is my plan for 2019:
1. Be a better planet inhabitant
I’ve been trying, like so many of us, to recycle more and to minimise my impact on the planet. I’ve found it really useful to hear from others about action they’re taking, so here are a few things I’m doing on this front:
a) Using washable sanitary products. There was a piece on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour during 2018 about the level of plastic in sanitary products, and I felt ashamed that I’d simply never considered it. So, I’ve purchased reusable ones as a simple way to reduce the amount of plastic I use and chuck away. I went for these, and there are plenty of others available too.
b) ALWAYS carrying a shopping bag with me. I have become that woman who stands behind her husband in a queue in a supermarket shouting DON’T LET THEM GIVE YOU A PLASTIC BAG, I’VE COME PREPARED! My in-laws bought us a SakItToMe bag for Christmas (they roll up really small and are super easy to carry around) and I’m going to make sure I have it with me at all times.
d) Always taking water out with me. I know it’s an obvious one, but having a baby is such thirsty work that it’s forced me to realise how easy it is to always have a water bottle with me, rather than buying a drink whilst I’m out. I want to try and spot other ways I can cut down what I put in the bin by thinking ahead.
As I said, these are just a few steps I’m taking, and I’d love more ideas. What are you doing to live a greener life?
2. Focus on what I can control: My words, my actions
I’ve mentioned this on here so many times, but whilst it’s a simple concept, it’s very easy to forget.
There are two things in this world that you can control – what you say and what you do. That’s it. When I feel myself getting into a worry spiral (this happens to me regularly), it tends to be because I’ve started tricking myself into thinking that I can or should be able to control other things. But no matter what the situation is, or who it involves, these remain the only two things within our power.
This year I want to be quicker to acknowledge this, as it always makes me feel calmer and lets me put my brain space to better use. Perhaps if somebody could text it to me everyday? I think that would help.
3. Worry less about what people think
I’m never surer that a person cares what people think than when they tell me that they don’t care what people think. OF COURSE YOU CARE, YOU’RE NOT A PSYCHOPATH.
But what matters is that you don’t let it get in the way. That you don’t spend more time thinking about what people think than doing what makes you happy.
I worry every time I write a blog post that somebody somewhere will see it as further evidence that I’m a moron, but do I let that stop me hitting publish? No, I don’t. I just do it and hope that if they think it, they’ll resist the temptation to email me to let me know.
I doubt very much that my worrying about what people think has ever had any bearing on what they’ve thought of me anyway, so it’s really not a good use of anybody’s time.
4. Stay focused on what I’m doing
Is a New Year’s resolutions list even complete without a mention of a more mindful use of social media? I don’t think so.
I have a terrible habit of looking at other people’s life updates and seeing them as evidence of the ways in which I’m failing. I’m most affected by anything to do with people’s careers, particularly when people share publications they’re writing for or books they’ve published (Why don’t I write for them? Why hasn’t the book I haven’t even written been listed as a bestselller?). Since I had a baby, I’ve also started partaking in what I like to call ‘Parenting Inadequacy’, which I highly recommend. All you have to do is forget absolutely every single thing you’ve ever done for your child, look at one photo of a stranger with their offspring in a museum/garden centre/puddle and let yourself feel like the world’s worst mother. It’s fun AND worthwhile!
This is all a total waste of time, leads to nothing good, and is entirely self-inflicted, so enough already. Be inspired by other people, sure, admire their photography if you like, but spend all your time comparing and all you’ll gain is a headache. I’m not a failure for not being somebody else. Being just the one person at a time is NORMAL.
5. Remember that my achievements incorporate everything I’m doing
It’s easy to slip into thinking that you’re not doing enough. Be it for your child or towards your career or whatever. But everybody only has so much time, and life is just a constant game of prioritising. Some days I just have to be a parent and a tired human and my other ambitions have to take a back seat. And then other days I’m full of energy and writing ideas and I manage to get lots done.
I’m prone to focusing far more on what I’m not doing than what I am. And I also let myself forget how much work goes into the various aspects of my life. Being all the different types of people that we are to this world – a mum, a wife, a writer, a The Marvelous Mrs Maisel enthusiast – takes a huge amount of time and energy, and our sense of achievement should come from it all.
6. Be a better friend to myself
You know what I’m good at? Listening to a friend or a stranger about how they think they’re failing at life and then telling them all the reasons why they’re not. You know what I’m bad at? Doing the same for myself.
I met a mum outside my daughter’s nursery this week and told her she was absolutely doing the right thing by having a day where her child was being looked after by somebody else so that she could go and get some jobs done. I then told her how terrible I was for doing the exact same thing.
This year I want to try and step in on my own thought process and be the stranger who would definitely tell me that I’m not such a failure after all.
7. Value my time
I don’t get a lot, mate, what with the baby and the washing and Coronation Street on five times a week. So I want to be more mindful about how I use it. Be present when I’m with my daughter – play with her, look at her, take her in, and try not to be doing 300 other things at the same time. Check my phone when I have something to check rather than just scrolling for no reason at all. Read a book in the evening, rather than channel hopping until I fall asleep. Use my daughter’s nap times to write and pitch and connect with the creative side of my brain.
I guess what I’m saying is that I want to be kinder to myself, and to the planet this year. How about you?
Thanks so much to everyone for reading what I had to say in 2018, and I look forward to chatting to you more in 2019. Happy New Year, friends.
‘Should’ can be an unhelpful word, particularly when we use it as a weapon with which to beat ourselves.
Life is fast and competitive and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our awareness of what other people are doing. I enjoy feeling connected to people I know and people I don’t via social media, and getting little insights into lives that are different from mine. But I can also feel myself drawing unhelpful comparisons. Noticing things that other people do that I don’t, and interpreting them as evidence of my failings.
But just because something exists as a possibility, it doesn’t mean that you should do it. It’s just one of the options. Do it or don’t, no-one cares.
My problem is that I hear ‘should’ when it’s not even being said. I confuse hearing somebody say “I am doing XYZ” with “You should be doing XYZ.” I see people talking about how they’re raising their children or building their careers or decorating their homes, and forget that what they’re saying has no relation to me.
I’ve always struggled with the fear that I’m not doing the right thing. I don’t mean morally or legally – fear is such a dominant emotion for me that I’m always pretty confident I’m on the right side of the law. No, I’m worried about doing The Optimum Thing.
If we’re on holiday and looking for a restaurant, I’ll worry about choosing the ‘right’ one. What if we’d have had a better time elsewhere? What if that table by the window would have enhanced our experience? What if sitting this near the loos ruins the ambience? What if it’s actually this thought process that’ll ruin our night?
And now that I’m a parent, I – like every single mother on earth, probably – worry that I’m not doing everything I ‘should’ do for my daughter. Should we be at a class? Should we be socialising? Should we be playing educational games indoors? Should I be doing more to make the most of her – whatever that means? As if just loving and caring for her with everything I’ve got isn’t enough.
Parenting is relentless decision making. And what’s harder than being the person who has to make them all, is the realisation that nobody’s going to come along and let you know if you’re doing it right. You just have to trust yourself in the moment.
When our daughter was very small, I used to imagine there would be a time in years to come when she’d say to me: “Mum, you know that day when I was so upset in January 2018? It’s because I wanted you to heat my milk up/put me to bed/ turn off that unbearable episode of Gossip Girl.” But as the sleep deprivation started to wear off, I realised: That’s not going to happen.
You’ll never know if you did the right thing, because the right thing doesn’t really exist. There’s no list, charting all the options in order of preference, nor is there a jury waiting to judge you on your choices. We have to be our own adjudicators.
It’s true for all areas of our lives. There’s no adjudicator who’s going to come and tell you which career path you ‘should’ have taken, which date you ‘should’ have gone on, or which Netflix series you ‘should’ have chosen to best entertain your baby. We did what we did based on the information we had at the time – there’s no other way to do it.
Since becoming a mother I’ve learnt that, to be happy, I have to accept my choices as I make them, one by one. Decisions require my attention quickly; I don’t always see them coming. I can’t always nail it, and, if I’m not careful, I’ll spiral into a long and pointless thought process about what I ‘should’ have done instead.
But now I’ve realised how unhelpful that is, and how many moments with my baby I’ll miss if I spend all my time analysing what I’ve done in the past.
Instead it’s better to focus on making decisions that suit us both today. My daughter is the most important person in the world to me, and I’m that to her, too. So when I’m deciding how we spend our time, it’s OK that I do so with what I need in mind as well – my energy levels, my mental health – because if I’m well, so is she. As I’ve written before, the inherent guilt of parenting makes it hard to prioritise yourself, but with nine months of experience under my belt, I can tell you: you must.
So I want to park the ‘should’ and have a little more faith. In myself as a parent and as a fallible human being, and in the need for there to be healthy differences between how we all lead our lives.
Because time will pass, no matter how we spend it. And to hand more of our precious hours over to regret, rather than to joy, and to self-criticism rather than kindness, feels like the kind of waste we should all do our best to avoid.
Somebody put this on Twitter recently and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Because, now you come to mention it, yes I do remember, but I hardly ever take the time to acknowledge it. And isn’t that a shame.
Human beings are wired to be accidentally ungrateful. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we’re wired to be ambitious. Always striving for the next thing rather than basking in the glory of having achieved our goals. But why don’t we realise that we can do both?
There was a time when all I wanted was to see Leon everyday. We lived in different cities for a couple of years whilst he studied and I worked. I thought that if we could just live together and we could hang out every night, I’d be the happiest girl alive.
And now? Well, now I do get to see him everyday. And, yes I am incredibly happy. But I’d be even happier if I could see him everyday AND he could remember to take the rubbish out on bin day. Or if I could see him everyday AND he could pop his boxer shorts into the laundry basket instead of next to the laundry basket. THEN I would be the picture of contentment, I promise. As if any of that bullshit even matters.
We do it with our careers too. Not long ago, all I wanted was to write in my own time and be paid for it. I could only imagine what it would do for my confidence and sense of self-worth, if only I could make it happen.
And now it does happen. Not all the time, obviously, because that’s not how the freelance roller coaster works. But it does occur a fair amount. I even have the guts to ask for appropriate fees now, too – something else I fantasised about – because with every commission I know more about what I’m doing.
And I’m really happy about it, but I also spend a lot of the time that I could dedicate to being pleased to worrying. About messing up a job, or not finding the next one, or how I’ll manage to fit it all in. Your mind sees the opportunity to step back and feel content and fills the time with concern instead, the silly sausage.
There have been so many things I’ve begged the universe to make happen. For people to travel home in one piece, for babies to come into the world safely, for celebrations to go off without being spoilt by the memory of me tumbling into them down a flight of stairs or vomiting all over myself. And for the most part, the universe has delivered, which is damn nice of it – but I’m not sure I’ve really given it the credit it’s due.
One of my biggest fears about having a baby (and I have a lot should you wish to hear them) is that I’ll blink and miss it. That I’ll be so focused on surviving that I won’t stop to look at this little person we’ve made and to feel grateful. That I’ll get the balance wrong and dedicate too much time to the wrong things and regret it forever.
These worries themselves are a perfect example of a terrible use of time, even though I know it’s all part of the parenting deal. Because I wanted this, so I need to make time to remember how lucky we are that it’s coming about.
Twitter can be a barren wasteland of despair sometimes (and particularly during 2017, it seems) but sometimes it brings you a point of view that changes the way you think, and for that reason I’ll never leave.
This simple question has stuck with me and I’m determined to keep it in mind. Because I’m the first to wallow when things don’t pan out as I’d hoped – and I never question whether that’s a good use of time. So it’s OK to take a moment to notice when the precise outcome you wanted has come about too.
It’s not gloating, it’s gratitude, and there’s plenty of space for more of that in the world.