I was standing in the garden hanging washing on the line when I heard the sound of a fork being stirred around a glass in the kitchen. And I realised that I knew without looking exactly was happening in that room.
I knew that Leon had cracked two eggs into a glass to make an omelette. I knew which pan was on the hob, and that there was a tortilla wrap warming in the microwave. And I knew that in a few minutes there would be grated cheese absolutely chuffing everywhere.
After almost 17 years together, there’s not much that surprises us about each other. Some might say that’s a bad thing, but I don’t think it is. I take great comfort in the predictable. It’s taken us years to build a life we can depend on, and that helps us handle whatever surprises life throws our way.
It occurred to me how many unknowns we’ve had to face in order to end up here. How many risks we had to take. All the times we had to be brave. How much of life starts with walking into a room, telling a bunch of strangers your name, and seeing what happens.
I found myself thinking about all this because our daughter starts school this week. A whole new chapter of unknowns is about to begin. I’m excited for her and I believe she will flourish. But I’m also nervous as there’s so much I don’t know. Who she’ll be friends with, what she’ll like, what will make her feel happy, sad, and every emotion in between.
So big and yet so small
One of the things I’ve found hardest since having our daughter is how little I can control. Like any mum, I want an easy, happy life for my children without even a moment of turmoil. But of course I can’t promise that. We created life, and life is unpredictable.
But what I can do is let her know what she can depend on. That we believe in her. How loved she is. That she can talk to us about anything. And that if she asks if she can watch an episode of Hey Duggee I’m pretty much always going to say yes because I LOVE Duggee.
I’ve been quite enjoying going through the multitude of administrative motions that come with preparing your child for school. Buying the uniform. Participating in class WhatsApp groups. Having her feet measured. Printing name labels. I like getting organised, and I also like distracting myself from my emotions with tasks. Don’t we all?
But then I found myself putting a little name sticker inside her school shoes and suddenly felt the need to cry.
Our little girl is simultaneously so big and so small. Big enough to wear a pinafore and carry a book bag and head off for a busy day in Reception. Small enough that I’m worried she won’t know which shoe to put on which foot after P.E when I’m not there to show her.
A new pattern awaits
I don’t doubt that she is ready for a new environment, to learn, and to form new friendships. I’m just not sure that I’m ready to accept the pace at which children grow up.
After she was born, I took a year’s maternity leave and I’ve had every Monday and Tuesday free since to spend with her. They’ve been quite the rollercoaster as we’ve moved from the baby years into toddler town, from lockdown chaos into life with her baby brother in tow. I thought that time would last forever, but here we are. Now it’s her brother’s turn to join me for playgroups and park trips while she ventures out into the world.
I am aware that she’s not moving out, and that we’ll be together a lot of the time still. I’m just a bit stunned that the pre-school period of her life is over already. What they say is true – the days are long but the years are short.
I’m looking forward to what a new routine will bring. To school drop offs and pick ups. To wandering back down the hill at the end of the day, holding her little hand and asking what she learnt. And to bringing her back to our house that contains everything she knows – home comforts, people who love her, and a kitchen that’s somehow always coated in grated cheese.
Is it normal to kiss your maternity bras goodbye? Because I did.
I’m no longer wearing maternity clothes, I haven’t for months. But I kept them in the drawer anyway. Because if I let them go, I’d be making a statement I wasn’t ready to make. That the pregnancy/tiny baby phase of my life is over.
But I put them in a bag this week to take to the charity shop. It hurt but it was time to say goodbye and move to the next chapter.
And that chapter sees our son turning one, and then starting nursery three days a week so that I can go back to work. And in a matter of weeks, our daughter will be starting school too. No wonder I’m a bit emotional at the moment.
When I started maternity leave a year ago, it felt like I had infinite time ahead. But it’s slipped through my fingers, just like it always does. We only brought that little baby home from the hospital a few days ago, I’m sure of it. And yet somehow he’s about to have a birthday.
So much about the past 12 months has been different from my first maternity leave. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been easier. I’ve felt more able to enjoy the smallness and cuteness of him, rather than worrying that I’m doing everything wrong. I realise now that I wasn’t bad at it the first time, just inexperienced. It’s been nice to rewrite that story in my head.
Just as my first maternity leave revolved around our daughter, my second one has mainly revolved around her too. Nobody really warns you about that.
Sure, you have to feed the new baby multiple times, change them and keep them safe and happy. But in many ways that feels like a side hustle. Managing the contentment, snack consumption and social life of our four year old has still dominated most of my time and brain space. First children are clever like that.
I’ve definitely felt much more at peace with myself this maternity leave than I did the first time. I haven’t felt desperate for company and activities like I did before. I don’t feel phased by a quiet day at home. I’m so busy that I really don’t need much more in my life. It’s definitely overwhelming, but I like it too.
A woman walked past us in the park the other day and said “You don’t realise it at the time, but days taking children to the park are some of the best of your life.”
I keep thinking about that. I can see myself looking back on this period of our lives and wanting to do it all again. Yes, I am tired all the time, but the second the chaos stops, I’ll miss it.
That sense of nostalgia kicked in almost immediately after our son was born. Knowing how insanely quickly the time passes made me determined to savour his early stages. They don’t stay little for long.
And now after so much precious time together, this next chapter will see us all spending a bit more time apart. It will take a while to adjust to I’m sure. There are things I’m looking forward to, and things I’m worried about.
I’ve learnt that it is entirely normal to think and feel a multitude of things at once when you’re a parent. For example:
I can want to go back to work, and also feel sick about being away from our son.
I can foresee the benefits of time to myself, and feel guilty about having it.
I can imagine our son enjoying time with other children and teachers. I can also find it unbearable to imagine him wanting me when I’m not there.
I can believe our daughter will enjoy primary school. I can also feel panicked at the prospect of her having anything other than a good time.
My son isn’t the only one celebrating a birthday this week, I am too. I’m turning 37, which my daughter assures me is “really old”.
The older you get, the less anyone – including you – really cares that it’s your birthday. And now that I have a son with a birthday so close to mine, this time will be all about him, and that’s fine with me. He’s the best present I’ve ever had anyway.
This has been the most hectic year of my life. We moved to a different part of London. We took on a house requiring way more work than either of us realised when we looked around it for 10 minutes during the thick of the pandemic. We moved our brilliant, brave daughter to a new nursery. Oh and we had a baby five weeks after we moved in.
It has been exhausting, overwhelming, and a constant rollercoaster. It’s also been one of the best years of my life.
So what I want to take with me into my 38th year is a reminder to keep appreciating when I feel lucky. To acknowledge happiness when it’s happening. Because time is going to absolutely fly by anyway. And hard things will happen. So when it’s good, I want to stop and notice.
I guess that’s why I felt the need to give my maternity bras a little kiss on their way to the charity shop. It’s been quite the year and I’m grateful to everything and everyone that’s been a part of it.
So now, onto the next one. And I can’t deny that it’s rather nice to have underwire back in my life to help me through it. With this much going on, I’m going to need all the support I can get.
I am woken up every morning by our son chatting through the baby monitor. I don’t always love the hour but I do love the sound.
I am willing to hold my hand out to catch anything that needs to come out of any part of a child of mine. I guess that’s love.
I am amazed by how much laundry two small people can create. My first maternity leave was all about joining baby groups. This time I’ve mainly just tried to stay on top of the washing.
I am completely and totally in love with them both and even more so with how they are together.
I am desperate at times for my lap to be clear but then lost when I’ve nobody to hold.
I am pleased and relieved that our baby has started sleeping through the night. I wonder if my bladder will ever let me do the same.
I am almost always either feeding a child, preparing food for a child, or thinking about what I’m going to feed a child.
I am not sure anything gives me a greater sense of achievement than managing to make them both laugh at once.
I am now aware that if I’d known when we had our daughter in 2017 what I know now, I’d have been so much kinder to myself.
I am amused to find that looking after two children tricks you into thinking that all the years you had with just one child were easy.
I am always in the midst of fighting a losing battle with an orange stain. Carpet cleaner wouldn’t make a very exciting gift for a new parent, but believe me they’d get through it.
I am letting myself enjoy watching rubbish telly with our baby on the sofa when we get the chance. He won’t always want to sit with me, so I’m making the most of it while I can.
I am the mother of a girl who was predominantly formula-fed, and a boy who was largely breast-fed. Here’s what I’ve learnt: both methods are difficult in their own way, and absolutely nobody else’s business.
I am occasionally out without my children and can generally be found smiling at other people’s children because I miss mine.
I am getting through more cheese strings than I should probably admit.
I am prone to spending too much time on my phone. It tends to be a sign that I’m feeling overwhelmed. A 24/7 job will do that to you.
I am a gardener now. I took it on as a maternity leave project. I’m planting stuff, watering it, and hoping for the best. It’s a bit like parenting really, but with less of the backchat.
I am anxious at times and trying not to let it rub off on them. But I’m also trying to show them that every feeling is OK.
I am walking as much as possible because it helps.
I am conscious that just because our 10 month old baby is now the littlest member of our family, it doesn’t mean our four year old isn’t still small too.
I am up for sitting on the floor to play, as long as I have a back support. Otherwise there’s a chance I might never get up again.
I am in my late thirties, yes. What gave me away?
I am unable to remember the last time I added a contact to my phone without including whose mum they are after their name.
I am extremely reliant on TV to entertain my children. I am not sure how anybody does this without it.
I am never ready for the Baby Race episode of Bluey. It gets me every single time.
I am sure our son will settle into nursery before too long when he starts there this summer. But I’m still sad at the thought of being away from him. Our year together has slipped through my fingers.
I am going to be the mum of a school-going child in September. I’m excited for her and sure she’s ready for change, but I also don’t know where those precious years went.
I am forever in demand and I do complain about it sometimes, but the truth is that I love that they need me.
I am grateful for all the moments that remind us what we have. Like when our babies are splashing about in the bath and laughing their little heads off. Yes we are tired, but it’s worth it.
We bought a house in June. It’s great to be here, there’s just lots to do to bring it up to date.
Ever since we arrived we’ve been having rooms decorated and bathrooms renovated. And I noticed early on that when a project has such an endless to-do list, it’s tempting to let your own impatience prevent you from feeling happy with progress.
I had to stop myself thinking ‘If only we could get the bedrooms painted, then I’ll be happy’ and then as soon as that was done ‘Ok, now we need the downstairs loo done, then I can be content’.
If I sign up to that way of thinking, I’ll deny myself happiness… forever? Houses are never really finished, are they.
No, I cannot wait to get the eighties kitchen out and modern fittings in. And yes, toilets made this century will enhance our lives. But I’m not going to hate my house until it’s all done. I refuse to lose sight of how much I love how far we’ve come.
To keep celebrating the little things
For the first six months of 2021, I wrote a list everyday in my diary called ‘Today’s good things’. (We then moved house and had a baby. I’ve hardly had time to go to the toilet since then let alone write anything down).
I’d pick out a handful of reasons to be grateful for the day we’d just had. I did it to boost my morale during lockdown, and to remind me that even when life feels tough, there’s always good stuff going on too.
I felt quite emotional reading it back. I’d noted down so many little things that meant that, despite the context, we were lucky and happy. Fresh air featured a lot, as did cuddles with our daughter. On one day I ended with ‘Just how much we love her’. Aside from mentions of life changing stuff like house move progress and baby scans and kicks, most things were small, everyday moments I wanted to cling to.
It helped at the time and it’s a lovely thing to look back on. So I’m going to do it again for 2022. Our son is already growing up too quickly so I want to write down all the ways he brings me joy. As long as he lets me sleep I’m sure I’ll have the energy to pick up a pen again.
To speak to myself more kindly
Anxiety and I will live alongside one another forever I’m sure. But when my inner dialogue and I work as a team, that’s when I get to win.
I haven’t done so well on that front lately. I found a note I wrote whilst trying to work through a worry which said “Anxiety makes you feel small and insignificant but also massive and in the way”. And that’s the problem. It skews your view of yourself and the world to such an extent that it makes it difficult to have the rational, helpful thoughts that would make it go away.
So I want to keep working on that inner voice.
My excellent friend Alexa Radcliffe-Hart wrote this great blog about selecting a word to guide you through the year. I think I’m going with ‘Deserving’ for mine. Of space, kindness, rest, choice. It’s what I want my children to believe about themselves, so I need to model it myself.
To be truly present when I can, and kinder to myself when I can’t
The combination of being a worrier, planner, and a parent means I find it hard to live in the moment. But I’m definitely happier when I do, so I’m trying to make it more of a habit.
I’m learning to spot opportunities to let go and just play with my daughter or walk at her pace or cuddle the baby. We don’t always have to be moving towards the next thing.
…but we do sometimes. So when I have to keep half my head in the future, planning for the next snack/meal/nap/absurdly large load of washing, I need to forgive myself for it. I’m doing my best.
To read more
This will be my goal forever. I think I read about seven or eight of my books in 2021 (plus 4000 children’s books). It’s not a contest, just something I enjoy so I intend to do more of it. Even just a page a day is worth having.
To keep writing what I feel like writing
If it brings value to you (and it doesn’t hurt anybody) there is value in whatever you feel like producing. That’s what I tell myself every time I sit down to write.
I get so much from writing – whether it’s in a notebook to clear my mind, or published here. So I’m going to keep doing it when I can.
It occurred to me at the end of the year that this blog started as a simple creative outlet, then it became a series of what are essentially love letters. To my husband, my friends, my family, myself, and, more recently, to my children.
I look forward to writing many more.
I hope you will do more of what you love in 2022. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.
That I haven’t written anything about the fact that I’m expecting another baby says a lot about what it’s like to expect a second baby.
I’m 29 weeks pregnant and, inevitably, pretty shattered. Looking after a three year old, working, navigating a pandemic, and growing a small person is pretty knackering. We did this on purpose – this is not a complaint – but it is a statement of fact. I’m tired.
But it’s more than that. The real reason I haven’t written about this is because I’ve been distracted by overwhelming feelings of treachery. We’ve created somebody else? To love just as much as our daughter? How could we do that to her?!
All being well, our newest addition will come into our lives in July. We’re all incredibly excited about it. Our daughter changes her mind everyday about whether she’s having a brother or a sister, and speaks so sweetly about how she’s going to help us with him/her. (She also, so far, hasn’t shown any interest in how the baby got into my body beyond wanting me to confirm that I didn’t eat it, and long may that continue.)
We have great chats about how life will be and what an important role she has to play. I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from her.
I didn’t feel treacherous straight away. We decided to try for another baby for all the reasons you’d expect. We want another child in our family. We’d like our daughter to have a sibling. And I want to hold and smell and dress and stare at a newborn we’ve created again. I found out I was pregnant in November and was so pleased.
And that’s never changed. But as it all became more real, scans happened and my body started to change, other feelings kicked in. I’d stand in my daughter’s bedroom after she’d gone to bed and think ‘How will she ever forgive me? She is the centre of our universe and now someone else will be too. Is she going to put up with that?!’
However, as you may have noticed, we’re not the first people in the world to have another child. Second, third, fourth and more children have been appearing on this planet for a long time. I’m a second child myself and my mum assures me she felt exactly the same when she was expecting me. My older brother seems to have forgiven me for existing, so it all worked out fine in the end!
I think this all happened because I was scared my capacity for love wouldn’t stretch far enough.
It’s a good thing I was already lying down when our daughter was born because her arrival absolutely floored me. The love was instant, beautiful and terrifying, and it’s remained that way ever since. When you’ve already reached such a peak, how can there be room for more?
But of course there just is. I’ve been connected to the baby in my womb since October, and I love them very much. I’m readying myself for an avalanche of emotion when they arrive, knowing full well that you can’t really prepare for such a thing.
I cannot imagine how I’ll handle having two pieces of my heart existing in the world. I’m scared that being a mum of two means nobody will get the attention they deserve, that I’ll always be letting one of them down… and a whole other list of things that keep me awake at night.
But then something happened that made me feel a bit better. I was sitting on the floor playing with our daughter and the baby kicked. Normally it’s just a nice feeling that I find reassuring, but this time it felt different. I was suddenly simultaneously aware of both my children existing together for the first time and it made sense. It’s going to sound bizarre, but I felt space grow in my heart for him or her, right there alongside my daughter. I have room for both. I will love them both, with everything I’ve got.
It turns out that love is like Cadbury products for me – my capacity is endless.
People have asked me how this pregnancy compares with my first. And the answer is: it feels exactly the same and completely different all at once.
Just like last time, I’m large, tired and permanently hungry. I might as well live on the toilet I have to go so frequently. And once again, we have no idea what’s going to come our way during the next 10 weeks and beyond.
But then it’s also totally different. I’m utterly distracted by our daughter. I’m pregnant in a world which is unrecognisable from that of 2017 when she came along. Many people in my life haven’t seen me for a second of this pregnancy, and won’t until our baby’s here. In many ways I’m more rested than I was last time, as I don’t commute or socialise as much. But I’m also pushing myself more at 29 weeks than I ever would have before. I want to get outside with my daughter and have some FUN before I disappear into my own personal lockdown.
Just like no two children are the same, nor are their arrivals into our lives. I can’t give our baby the same experience as our daughter because they’re not being born into the same world. They will join an established family of three. They will only ever know a post-pandemic UK. And they won’t just have toys and clothes waiting for them when they get here, but a beautiful big sister too.
I am in no doubt whatsoever that we’re in for a right time of it. We’ll be exhausted, pulled in every direction at once, and we’ll feel inadequate a lot of the time. But after almost three and half years as parents, we’re pretty used to that.
What I do know is that I will love them and that we will do our best, for both our children. And that as long as we’re doing that, we won’t be letting anybody down at all.
I had an idea last week to write a list of things I wanted to keep in mind while we all stay at home to help reduce the spread of Coronavirus. I’m so glad I waited until we’d actually experienced a full five days at home trying to live and work and look after our toddler before I wrote it. Optimism is essential right now but so is a strong dose of reality, which I think we all got this week.
This is not an attempt at advice. There is no pandemic experience on my CV. This is just a list of stuff I want to keep in mind to help maintain my perspective (and sanity) in the weeks and months to come.
It’s also an excuse to communicate with the outside world. Hello out there, I do hope you’re OK and staying safe. If nothing else, this should at least help you pass a few minutes.
1.You don’t suddenly have to become a different kind of parent
When this all kicked off, the internet became flooded with tips for things to do at home with children, which is great.
But as always, if we’re not careful, we can suffer from the flipside of social media: comparison syndrome. As I’ve discussed before, since becoming a mum I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time feeling inadequate because I don’t have the exact same skills and ideas as every other mother on the planet.
But I want to remember that I don’t suddenly have to become a nursery nurse, children’s entertainer and Blue Peter presenter all rolled into one just because we’re suddenly spending so much time at home. Yes I will try some new things and find nice ways to entertain our daughter. And we’re adapting our routine to make the best of the current constraints. But that will do. Normal life was working well for us, so the closer I can keep our days to feeling like they usually do, the calmer we’ll all feel.
2.Television is not the enemy
People talk so much about children and TV so I won’t harp on – all I want to say is this: my toddler, just like me and her dad, needs to wind down sometimes. She gets tired, she needs a bit of space, and she likes to catch up with the characters she loves. So at certain times of the day, we let her watch some telly.
This period we’re facing is bizarre, unsettling and weirdly knackering, so I’m sure she will end up watching a bit more than usual, should it make sense for us and her in the moment. An excess is bad for everyone, but the odd dose of comfort won’t do anybody any harm.
3.What I wear has a huge impact on how I feel
I gave birth to our daughter in November 2017 and we were then indoors most of the time for months. That period taught me (along with a million other things) how strong an impact my appearance has on my mental wellbeing. To feel like the day is worth doing, I need to look in the mirror and see somebody who would be happy to open the door to a human being who doesn’t love them unconditionally.
I don’t mean I need to put on a chuffing dress and heels to feel like a person, I just need actual clothes. My pyjamas are the best things in the world at bedtime, but if I’m still wearing them too late in the morning, and I’m not doing so because I’m resting, I start to feel sad. So getting up and dressed like I’ve got somewhere to go is a must for me.
4.We won’t all feel the same way at the same time
At separate points this week, all three of us had a moment when our current living situation proved too much. Leon got stressed out. I had to leave the room as the mess, noise and unwillingness by some residents to just EAT THEIR DINNER was doing my nut. And then – because why should she be left out – our toddler declared, if only through her body language and disproportionate irritation with her snack bowl, that she too was finding this situation to be bullsh*t.
It sounds ridiculous, but I hadn’t realised that we wouldn’t all necessarily be in the same place emotionally at the same time, and that that would be a challenge to manage in itself. Sometimes our daughter just needs us to hold her. Sometimes Leon needs to go out for a run by himself. And sometimes I need to eat an entire easter egg in front of The Mindy Project undisturbed. If we can all just do our best to give each other what we need during this time, it’ll make getting through it easier.
5.Any amount of time outdoors is worth having
We can’t go far and we can’t go within two metres of other people, but we can still go outside. Even just ten minutes outdoors can make all the difference. It’s easy to feel like it’s not worth the effort, that if you’re not going out somewhere proper then you might as well not go out at all, but even just a small dose of fresh air can make everything look brighter.
We’ve started going for a run about in our local park in the morning to let off steam and it’s become the highlight of our day. I hope that when this is all over we carry on treasuring every opportunity we have to play together outdoors.
6.Gratitude does everybody good
It’s good for people to know we’re grateful for the difference they make to us, and it lifts our spirits too to step back and acknowledge the things we appreciate. I said at the start of the year how grounding and therapeutic I find jotting down a list of things I’m grateful for each week, however small. I definitely want to keep doing this, to help me spot all the lovely moments that are punctuating our days as a family during this peculiar time, whether it’s fresh air, good health, cuddles with my daughter, or every bite of Cadbury’s chocolate I can get my hands on.
7.Make time to read
Reading makes me feel calmer than pretty much anything else. Because this crisis is so distracting, I’ve found that I’ve defaulted to sitting and scrolling through my phone rather than thinking about what would be a more relaxing use of time. The more lost or unfulfilled I feel, the more I find myself on my phone but it usually just makes me feel worse. So I want to actively decide to use the rare chunks of time I have to myself to read a book instead.
I always feel a lot more fulfilled when I’ve found time to make something. Whether I’ve tried a new recipe, drawn a picture with my daughter or written a blog, I feel better for it. I’m not overwhelmed with free time – that concept flew out the window the second I became a mum – so I want to make the most of any opportunities I have to be even slightly creative. For example, baking a batch of rice crispy cakes could class as a form of artistic expression, couldn’t it…?
9.I will never regret having extra time with my family
Extra time together in all its forms, however tricky to navigate it may be, is a gift. I’ve another blog brewing about how much I already know I’m going to miss our daughter being two years old, so I want to remember that this is actually all bonus time with her. And though I wish it was in different circumstances, having her dad around so much more than usual is great.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re a week in, I’m shattered and would not say no to a bit of space if it was available to me. But there are numerous lovely moments to be found amongst the chaos, and we’re lucky to have them.
10.Make the time to communicate
Just because Leon is working here, it doesn’t mean I’ll know how his day went unless I ask. Sure, I’ll know that our daughter decided to join him for a conference call and serenade his colleagues with a rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep, but there might be other stuff he needs to unload. We still need to talk to each other.
Our daughter remains a two-year-old and, as such, not the best at articulating how she feels. Although this situation is exasperating at times, I need to make sure I stop and explain to her what’s going on, and help her tell me what’s up too. This will never stop being true, our current situation has just highlighted how quickly things will crumble if I don’t.
And regular check-ins with other friends and family are important as well. Finding the energy to get back on your laptop after a day’s work for a video call is a bit tough. But it’s worth it to share laughs and updates with people I don’t get to see everyday. A pandemic is a crazy and scary thing to live through. I want to remember how important it is to stay in touch and help each other through it.
11.If we look back on this time and our biggest complaint is that we felt bored and cooped up, we will be the lucky ones
There are thousands of people who are putting themselves at risk everyday by carrying on doing their jobs. And there are plenty of others for whom this crisis is much scarier than it is for people like me.
Having to stay home, work without childcare and cope with how strange and apocalyptic life feels right now is hard, and I’m all in favour of allowing ourselves to acknowledge every feeling we experience.
I also know that it will help me to keep going when this period feels endless if I remember that these are all entirely bearable hardships, and that if we all just keep doing as we’re told, we’ll help bring this crisis to an end.
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.
Our daughter was born and all of a sudden all those moments of time to myself that I’d never realised were such a big part of my day evaporated. Goodbye solitude, I’ve got company.
You don’t appreciate how many parts of your life constitute alone time until they reduce down to seconds grabbed between feeds, cuddles, and attempts to persuade your child not to dive head first off the sofa.
I look back on all those times I went to the toilet without somebody there to squish my tummy. On all those showers I had where I didn’t feel the need to poke my head out of the cubicle every 30 seconds to shout “ARE YOU OK?” to the little person in the cot in the next room. On all those train journeys I spent reading a book rather than supplying snacks to the small dictator in the pram, perched on the edge of my seat, waiting to see which of the items I’ve selected will be deemed acceptable today. (Fruit, mummy? Really? Try again.) Did I appreciate all that freedom? Of course I didn’t.
Nobody appreciates time until something changes your relationship with it, and becoming a parent definitely does that.
But while I find the lack of freedom hard, having such limited windows to myself has forced me to make the most of the time I do have more than I ever did before.
I’ve learnt to snatch moments to myself, however brief. Ten minutes with Friends on in the background while Leon gives our toddler a bath and I cook dinner. Forty minutes on my laptop on a Sunday morning before everybody else wakes up. Thirty minutes slumped on the sofa on a Friday evening in the gap between my return from work and Leon’s arrival with our daughter after nursery. I don’t mind admitting that I LEG IT home for that sit down. You’ve got to get your rest any way you can in this game.
When time feels so precious, you don’t let yourself waste it. I now know just how much it’s possible to get done in half an hour. Want the house tidied, a tray of brownies baked, and a week’s worth of washing put away? Get a parent whose toddler is taking a nap on the case – and they’ll still have time to negotiate you a new mortgage deal, too. I’ve been amazed and delighted by how the limits on my time have helped me focus my mind and get sh*t done, because I simply don’t have time to fanny about.
I’ve also changed how I think about how I use my days off work. I used to think annual leave had to be used for a holiday or a trip away, or at least for a fancy meal out. And of course it’s great to keep some for those treats, but now I also keep a handful to do the things I can’t do the rest of the time. To sit in a café and write a blog. To go to the cinema by myself. To listen to a podcast with swearing in it without worrying that I’m going to damage the next generation.
I adore my girl and value our time together more than anything else in the world. Being her mum is also the hardest work I’ve ever done, so I do my best to take moments to myself where I can, so I can give her all I’ve got when we’re together.
Because we’re together a lot – most of the time in fact – which is exactly how I want it to be. Nonetheless, one of the other things I’ve found most surprising about life as a parent is how lonely it can feel, despite the fact that you’re in company almost constantly.
It’s the weight of the responsibility, I think. On the logistical front, it’s being the one in charge of deciding everything that we’ll do, when we’ll do it, and what we’ll need to have with us so that we survive the day/avoid significant social embarrassment.
And on the emotional side, the desperation that (when it’s just the two of us) only I feel to get things right for her can feel a bit isolating, too. All I want is to make her happy and to create days that make her feel loved, inspired, amused, interested, and, let’s not forget, sufficiently pooped so that she’ll sleep well, for all our sakes. It’s a lot to be responsible for getting out of a day, and when things don’t go to plan – which is all the time, by the way – it can get you down.
I am of course not on my own. My husband is just as much a parent as I am. But for two days of the week, he’s at work and I’m at home looking after our daughter. And on the days when I do go to work, I do the majority of the childcare around it, because he works longer hours than I do. As a result (and because we live in the society that we do), it’s me who takes responsibility for most of the bits and pieces that keep us going day to day. The meals we eat, the endless supply of milk our daughter requires, the admin that gets our bills paid and keeps the roof firmly over our heads, and so many more things that find their way on and off the ever-growing list that lives inside my brain.
I am incredibly happy and grateful for our life and feel appreciated for my efforts, I just sometimes feel a bit alone in my role, too. I expect we both do.
But as our daughter it getting older (all of a sudden she’ll turn two next month) and she’s getting better and better at communicating, she’s taking an increasingly active role in our time together, and it’s making me feel so much more… accompanied in everything that we do.
She can now express opinions (which, of course, can be inconvenient/tricky to manage, but let’s focus on the positives for now, shall we?), so she can tell me what she thinks of the ideas I have for us. The other day I told her we were going to the farm and she said “Yay! Yarm!” and it made the whole trip that bit more joyous because we were in on the decision to go together.
For a while, parenting feels like something you do ‘to’ your child, rather than with them, because you just have to make decisions on your own. It can be a lonely job, being in charge all the time, so it’s nice to start getting some feedback. It’s most definitely not always positive, but when it’s good, it makes the meltdowns worth facing. And every meltdown teaches me more about how to empathise and communicate with a child who still has so little control over her world.
When you’re expecting a baby, you understand that you’ll probably feel pain during the birth, tiredness after sleepless nights, and a relentless need to go for a wee every 20 minutes for the rest of your life, but you don’t think about what responsibility for your child will feel like in practice. I didn’t realise how much effort I’d have to put into feeling content as an individual (as well as a mum), but I’m glad I have as it’s made all the difference.
Though a lack of time to myself can be trying, knowing that I’m making every moment I do get count helps me feel like I’ve had a break, even if it’s a short one. And when the pangs of mum-life loneliness kick in, I’m lifted by how much more confident I now feel to make decisions for us, to try new things, and to talk about what a roller coaster motherhood can be.
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.
That when job applications ask if you speak any other languages, you should be able to get credit for speaking ‘Conversational toddler’.
That preparing a toddler for nursery, transporting them there, dropping them off and then negotiating the buggy shed requires so much energy and generates such volumes of sweat that it should be recognised as an Olympic sport.
That toddlers make you so attuned to risk that even when there are no children around and you see a small object you still feel the need to warn everybody in the vicinity NOT TO PUT IT IN THEIR MOUTH.
That trying to get a toddler to wear a sunhat may be the hardest work you’ll ever do.
That the volume of books you read to toddlers about farms and zoos highlight the gaps in your education when it comes to animal noises. If there’s a Facebook group dedicated to achieving consensus about the sound we should all make to represent a giraffe, I’d like to join it.
That toddlers throw so much food on the floor and you have so little time to yourself that before long you start hoovering up every damp, chewed up morsel and calling it dinner.
That there is no ‘correct’ way to help a toddler eat, sleep, or do anything really, because they’re human beings, not robots. You just have to find a way that works them and for you and resist the temptation to compare it with anyone else’s.
That the confidence and sense of entitlement with which a toddler will steal food off your plate/out of your hand/straight from your mouth is nothing short of inspiring.
That toddlers teach you more about who you really are than any personality test ever could. Mine sighs like me, dances like me, and becomes impossible to communicate with when she’s overtired, just like me.
That toddler demands are generally pretty reasonable. The trouble is that, because they can’t really communicate yet, the process of getting you to understand those demands can feel somewhat unreasonable. I find it helps to remember that it’s the situation that’s difficult, not the person.
That a toddler’s absolute faith in you to be there to save them should they fall off the sofa, misjudge their ability to balance on the bed, or regret climbing into a cupboard is both touching and terrifying in equal measure.
That toddlers make simple things suddenly seem magical. There’s a metal elephant in our garden, left by the previous owner. I’ve always thought it was fine but my daughter thinks it’s AMAZING, so now I do too. A toddler’s ability to get excited about small things is contagious and good for the soul.
That toddlers are little people learning to make decisions. And when that decision is to give you a cuddle, it feels like the best present you’ve ever received.
…But when it’s to empty the entire contents of your purse across a restaurant floor, it feels like maybe letting them look through your handbag was a mistake.
That toddlers are here to teach you that the answer to the question “But how much mess can one small person really make in this house with a yogurt anyway?” is: So much that you’ll wonder if it would be easier to just move out and start again than to even attempt to try and clear up.
That toddler-care involves a lot of jobs: feeding, dressing, changing, washing, translating, lifting, feeding some more. And it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks and lose sight of the little person you’re doing them for, particularly when you’re tired. I’m trying my best not to.
That being the parent of a toddler is the reason I’m now incapable of walking passed a dog without saying “Doggy!” Or that’s what I tell people anyway.
That when it comes to books, toddlers have two settings: 1. I will allow you to read one sentence from this book, close it so quickly that you get a paper cut and then select another; and 2. This is my favourite book in the world, please read it again and again and again until one of us passes out. (It’ll be you).
That there is no need to have a toddler and a gym membership. All you need to do is tell your child that you’re going to put suntan lotion on them and by the time you’ve chased them down and applied it, you’ll have done all your exercise for the year.
That toddlers have the warmest, softest little hands, and that walking about with my daughter’s in mine is my favourite thing to do.
That, if you let yourself, you could spend every second you’re responsible for a toddler feeling scared, worried, exhausted and confused.
But that it’s better for everyone if you focus instead on how joyful, love-filled, and fun this job can be, and just keep on doing your best.