I think about this all the time.
Usually after 7pm.
While standing in a kitchen that looks like King Henry VIII has been on a carbs rampage.
Has today been a success? How do I know when I’ve done alright? Do I get a gold star today, or what?
If you replace ‘gold star’ with ‘piece of cake’ then you’ll understand my anxiety on this score.
Seriously, though. One of the things I mourn the most, in my chaotic child-filled life, is the lack of regular performance reviews. I just want someone to sit me down once a month and tell me where I’m succeeding and where I can improve. I want my tiny children to act as no tiny children do, and say ‘we have a lovely life, mother mine, and what I most appreciate about you is this’. I am an editor to my bones, and I just want someone to put a giant tick next to my name in red pen.
When I was pregnant with T, I spent a horrible, wintery first trimester being a bit of a mess. H was barely eighteen months. It was dark, and it rained a lot, and we spent a lot of time indoors. And I was so sick. So miserably unable to do any of the things that are the fist-bumps-to-self of life, the things that usually communicate to myself that I’m doing a good job. It was a real black hole.
It was an effort to get out of bed, to hold a conversation, to go through the motions of a normal day. It hurt the muscles of my face to smile. I’d never experienced anything like it before, and it was terrifying.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this, really, except that I remembered then, more than ever before, that having children often takes away parts of you that you think are essential – it’s usually the flashy, superficial, performance-related parts of you – and you have to learn to feel right and good and whole without them. One of the things I did, once I realised that this wasn’t just rain and sickness but something more insidious, was to write a list of positive things about myself (Tim had to help) and stick them on my mirror. They had nothing to do with goals, achievements or status, just things that could be true whatever I was doing. I read them out like a robot every morning. Gradually, eventually, by tiny degrees, they started to feel true again.
(I am not saying that lists on your mirror are a cure for depression. They are not, and I was lucky: mine was temporary, tied up with first trimester sickness, and some part of me sensed it. I just dug in and hung on till it lifted, and having positive thoughts around was like a catechism I could repeat till it got better. Lots of people suffer more permanently and completely, and if that’s you: please take and do whatever you need to feel better. You deserve good things, and good care.)
Anyway. I’ve never been anywhere close to that since then, thankfully, but the same question bothers me on a smaller scale. Was today alright? How do I know when I’m succeeding?
Here’s a list of things that make me feel like we’ve had a gold star day:
- when I’ve been sufficiently busy
- when I’ve made dinner from scratch
- when I’ve vacuumed before Tim gets home
- when we’ve been outside, particularly if the boys have walked a decent distance (what does that even mean?)
- when I’ve answered my backed-up emails
- when the TV has been on for less than two hours
- when I walked or cycled to school instead of getting in the car
- when I’ve talked about something on social media that is NOT about children
- when the boys are wearing attractive outfits
- when my hair doesn’t look like a fuzzball wig
- when I’ve written something I’m proud of
- when T has eaten some lunch, particularly if it’s outside the holy trinity of strawberry yoghurt, grapes and raisins
- when a photo has got twenty likes on Instagram
- when H shows signs of wanting to read or build things without my input
- when I’ve had a conversation with another adult person in the playground that did not make me want to curl up and die with embarrassment
- when H says something hilariously precocious, particularly if it’s about Harry Potter (like that has anything to do with me?!).
They’re like little hurdles I set myself, little imaginary tick boxes for the universe. Bit ludicrous, aren’t they? But I don’t think they’re wrong, necessarily. Or, um, not all of them. A large part of my job is caring for children, after all, and when they are engaged in a variety of activities and eating things containing vitamins, well, that’s very good indeed. And if dressing carefully and putting makeup on makes me feel more together, more competent, then I am all for that too.
But I don’t think the reverse of any of these makes the day a failure. I will say that again so I believe it more: I don’t think the reverse of any of these makes the day a failure. That’s what I sometimes have trouble getting my head around.
Yesterday was the last day of H’s half-term holiday – which I have loved, because we’ve been busy (tick) and it’s been cold enough to wear coordinating jumpers (tick). We waited a few hours for the fog to lift, and it didn’t, so we went out into the woods anyway. I didn’t bring a pushchair so we’d go at their pace, rather than mine, which meant I spent quite a bit of it cajoling them out of streams and back to the car park. We got a bit muddy and made up some rude pirate names and stopped halfway for leftover Halloween sweets and I told them scary witch stories that had terrible flat endings (I tend to run out of ideas as we go along). Then we came home, they ate supernoodles and nothing else (!), T had a nap and H watched two Toy Story films back-to-back.
It was a mixed day. It was a great day. We all found things in it that made us happy. And I think that’s it, that’s where the gold star lives after all: perhaps that’s the only category we really need.
What are your (silly or serious) categories for having a successful day? You know you can let go of all of them as long as you’re all still alive, right? Yeah, let’s repeat that together and maybe it’ll sink in.