Tag Archives: Happiness

What it’s like

Maybe there’s something about having a houseful of people in their twenties, long before they start thinking about kids, that makes you concentrate on all the things you can’t do now you have children.

(Like staying in bed beyond 7am. Like popping out to the cinema spontaneously. Like, I don’t know, eating a meal and only having to think about your own table manners.)

Anyway, I can’t help doing that occasionally. But I find it useful to remind myself what motherhood is, as well as what it’s not.

For me, this month, it’s

having your two-year-old burst into a room full of people and search every face, anxiety all over him, until he finds yours, and his whole self relaxes.

sitting outside their room reading while they watch a Thomas film, and having them come out to check on you, one and then the other, every thirty seconds.

listening to your four-year-old read a book, his stubby forefinger pointing to the words as he makes the sounds, and feeling like a proper adult parent, doing this Real Parenty Thing, and also that you might die with pride and also that it’s almost time for Enid Blyton, surely.

carrying your too-heavy toddler through the crowds at Buckingham Palace, explaining when he asks that yes, the Queen is probably inside, and she’s probably eating some toast. He looks pleased with this answer. He tells his auntie. Suddenly he gasps, pats both hands solicitously on your cheeks and says ‘Mummy! You’re so cold! Where’s your coat?’

holding your four-year-old’s hand during a long muddy walk, and talking about dinosaurs. He tells you the difference between two dinosaurs you’ve never heard of (one has four claws, the other has two). You have no idea how he knows this. You envision a future, oh, very soon now, where his entire interior life will be joys, interests and complexities that have very little to do with you. The thought makes you feel excited, and a little bereft. Which makes you feel like an idiot but, after all (you reason), becoming less important to someone is hard to do, no matter who it is.

walking to school, one of them in the pushchair, the other scooting next to you, and a grey squirrel runs up the nearest telegraph pole in a flash of fur. For once you all see it, and all at the same time. You watch it up the pole, along the cable. It makes a leap sideways, three feet to the nearby tree. Tiny feet splayed against grey sky. All three of you – two-year-old, four-year-old, thirty-year-old mother – let out a delighted ‘oh!’ as it jumps.

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How not to be a big fat parenting loser

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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.

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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. 

Old friends. Bookends.

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We spent our Saturday at the gorgeous wedding of my gorgeous friend. She is an old friend in the sense that we’ve known each other for over a decade, though also in the sense that one of us, at least, is much wrinklier than when we met.

(It’s me.)

It was the most beautiful wedding. The service was conducted by a sassy female minister in an old village church, bell peals showering over us as we arrived. Thankfully one of our group had remembered tissues, because we made it through our readings and then bawled. After the ceremony and some confetti, we moved to a reception at a nearby farm barn. We had the happiest afternoon I can remember in a while, eating canapés, taking photos, sitting down at an exquisitely laid table for an amazing dinner, sniffling through speeches, applying celebratory temporary tattoos, hogging the vintage photobooth, roasting fist-sized marshmallows over fire pits, dancing shoeless next to a smoke machine, and eventually turning down the pizza and cheese that kept appearing at our shoulders, because I’d eaten so much my sternum was bruised. And if you didn’t know it was possible to do this, you clearly haven’t been trying hard enough.

Everything was beautiful, thoughtful, understated. Em is that sort. She’s one of the kindest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She’s a good egg.

Spending time with old friends always gets me thinking about old friends. It is such a sweeping relief, spending time with people you’ve known for ages. There’s no need to have awkward first-time conversations about the fact that you don’t drink, or that you think nightclubs are a bit of a gross unnecessary faff, as it happens, because you got all that out of the way years ago. You don’t need to try to be cool, or worry that you’re not. You can talk about Elizabeth Barrett Browning; you can tell them how work is actually going (even if the answer is Not That Great). You can tell ancient jokes that are still funny. You can say things you didn’t quite mean and not worry about them thinking the worse of you. You hand over insecure confidences at odd moments without worrying they’ll be mishandled. You have twelve years’ worth of leeway to give them, and yourself, whenever it’s needed.

I am not so good at new friends – I am taking deep breaths and fixing on smiles twice a day in the school playground, and it makes me come out in cold sweats. But old friends, yes. Any day of the week. As long as we’re not in a nightclub. As long as we’re eating beef and cheese.

September 151

PS, I read this poem during the service. I practised it twelve hundred times in the weeks leading up to it (‘I HATE THIS POEM’, Henry exploded, towards the end), and managed to stay dry-eyed less than twice.

PPS, I missed out the stanza about thighs. I dunno, I might be a bit stodgy, but I don’t think thighs have a solid place in church.

Vow

Say yes.
That word on your lips
is a kiss;
is a promise already made.
We made it.

Love did not turn from hurt
or hard work.
When lights failed, it did not switch off.
When love had no road,
we willingly built it.

We shouldered its stones
and its dirt. So thank god
there are days like this when it’s easy.
When we open our mouths
and the words flood in.

Put the word of your hand
in mine.
We have learnt to hold to each other
when nothing was given by right;
how love will insist
with its ache; with its first painful
tug on the guts;

its snake in the nest of the ribs;
the bomb in the chest;
in the Y of the thighs; the red, red
red sun of it, rising.
How love must, at all costs,

be answered. We have answered
and so have a million before us
and each of their names is a vow.
So now I can tell you, quite simply
you are the house I will live in:

there is no good reason
to move. Good earth,
you are home, stone, sun,
all my countries. Vital to me
as the light. You are it

and I am asking.
Say yes.

Love opens a door
then slams it. It does.
It loses its touch and its looks.
But love needs its fury.
We have fought

and when times make it necessary,
we will again. When night draws in,
we won’t forget
how once the streets ran wet with light
and love. Like blood. They will again.

But for now,
we make our promises gently.
This extraordinary day we have made.
Listen –
the birds in their ordinary heaven.

Tonight the sky will blaze
with stars. Today, my love,
rooms bloom with flowers.
Say yes.
The sky is ours.

Clare Shaw

Outnumbered

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We were driving out to the woods on Saturday evening, and Tim switched on the radio. Cyndi Lauper came on, because this is Heart Radio, and they like their Saturday nights to start with a cheese board.

Tim whipped up the volume, and I yelled out of the window, picturing myself in sleeves as big as my head.

Whoooa GIRLS just wanna have fu-un

Whoooa GIRLS just wanna haaaaave fuuuuun!

Then I yelled, equally loudly, ‘I AM NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO DANCE TO THIS IN OUR HOUSE’.

Because, of course, I have boys.

Sometimes I think the girl-ache will eat me alive. Genetically speaking, we’re likely to have boys until we decide to stop having anyone. I have lingered in frilly-dress aisles and directed mournful glances at baby headbands and flowered vests. My well-thumbed, twenty-year-old copies of The Little White Horse and A Little Princess sit hopefully on my shelf, but are likely to be ignored in favour of Artemis Fowl and Lemony Snicket (just to be clear, I know boys can love A Little Princess too, and I think Lemony Snicket is a wordy genius. But, you know, statistics). And there are things that a mother can only have with a daughter. The vulnerability and prickly magnificence of being a woman is something that is precious to me. I would like to share it with someone who has my heart.

We arrived at the woods and wandered in. The sun was going down, with the kind of light that clarifies. Henry was poking in a muddy puddle with a stick, flat cap pulled down low over his eyes. He passed me another stick without looking at me. ‘This one yours, Mummy’, he said.

I settled down to poking. It’s underrated, I think.

As the sun set, I took over Teddy’s back carrier so Henry could sit on Tim’s shoulders. The darkness came in behind and around us while Henry listened for owls, and I listened to Teds sigh and coo behind my head. He is so beautiful, this one, that some days all I can do is squeeze him.

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’, I said to Henry. ‘What’s the next line?’ He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

Oh yes, that was it. I raised my voice and my arms, because in the dark, with your wordy boy who understands you completely, and your tiny boy who adores you too much to care, you can do that sort of thing.

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep –

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep’.

I looked over and he’d raised his skinny arms too. Teddy huffed again behind my head. I felt like I was made for this.

‘I heard an owl’, Henry said.

‘Me too’, I said.

We went home.

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Five ways to tell you’re in baby burnout…and what to do about it

Sometimes Fridays are the best times to hold up your hands and say ‘dear readers, I confess: I have been an idiot’. We have just come back from a break in Stratford-Upon-Avon – two lovely days of back-to-back theatre and eating that I will be blogging about tomorrow – and now I can say for certain: I was deep in baby burnout, and should have done something about it sooner. 

Paging all parents of small children: life is not supposed to be, does not have to be, sheer self-sacrificing nuttiness. It’s not supposed to be grim or miserable, and you’re not supposed to lose all sense of yourself. If that’s true for you – as it has been, lately, for me – then the pressure of looking after small people is beginning to get to you. And that’s alright, because you’re not superhuman, and your resources are finite. Watch yourself for the signs of baby burnout and you can make a diagnosis quicker than Web MD, prescribe yourself something appropriate, and get back to enjoying your children.

(PS, this also applies, of course, to burnout in general. There are more things than eight-month-olds that wear a body out…though not many that produce as much projectile vomit.)

Here, then, are the top five signs of baby burnout I keep a weather eye on:

‘I can’t move. No, honestly’

Tiredness is par for the course with littles. Exhaustion, too, some days. But in the past month I’ve felt something different: being thoroughly and physically drained of energy much of the time. It didn’t matter how many lie-ins Tim arranged for me to have. Mid-morning I would get shaky and weak, as though I hadn’t had a large breakfast, and then mid-afternoon it would come back. My consumption of sugary and fatty food has sky-rocketed as a result, which has reinforced the feeling of grossness, and on and on we went into a place of sadness and doughnuts. Blah. You too, perhaps? Onto the next thing, then.

‘he’s doing it because he hates me’

I’ve become aware, lately, of this irrational conviction that anything annoying Henry does is done deliberately because he knows I don’t like it. ‘WHY is he being pointlessly destructive when he knows it gets me cross?’ I would rage to myself. ‘He’s not getting dressed on purpose. He means something by it’. Um, no, crazy lady, he doesn’t. Or rather, the only thing he means by it is HELLO MOTHER, I’M TWO AND I HAVE NO SOCIAL CUES. If you’re assigning Richard III motives to your toddler’s random mess, then tick this box and move on to the next point.

‘I can’t be me right now’

I always know I need to make a change when I can’t read. An inability to pursue your normal hobbies or interests, in however limited a fashion, is a big burnout sign. For weeks I’ve started and restarted the same books and got no further than the second page. Even when the boys were quiet, or asleep. Even when they were out. And I struggled to get through a film, or to read the news, and the outings I’ve planned – usually the highlight of our days – have been distinctly lacking in inspiration. I will say to myself what I’ve always said on this blog: you use all of yourself to mother with, including your own passions and enthusiasms. If you can no longer find them, tick this box and carry on.

‘ouch’

This is a slightly weird one, but I’ve found it’s true for me: I become clumsy when I’ve used up all my resources. My spatial awareness fizzles to nothing. So I bang myself more on furniture, end up with bruises on my arms and legs and little cuts on my hands from cooking. If you’re wearing more than one plaster at the moment (I’m wearing two, both patterned with monkeys because I could only find Henry’s box), then maybe this applies to you too.

And finally –

‘will you get out of my emotional space, please’

Oh, the thing about small children – lovely and awful in equal measure – is that they’re never out of your head. From the minute they’re awake, you revolve over them constantly.

Is it breakfast time? Is he ok in the bath? Will he get his clothes on today? Oh dear, must be time for his nap. Has he eaten enough today? What needs to happen to get both of them into the car? How much can I carry down the stairs at once? Should I have spent more time reading to him? What’s he crying for now? Can I fix it? 

When they’re asleep, I’m trying to cram in as much as possible and listening, listening for the first wake-up cry. When they’re awake, even if they’re not sat on me physically, they’re sat in my emotional space. This is normal, but over the past month, it started to feel like I was being slowly suffocated.

***

I had all of these boxes ticked with angry red marker. And if that’s the case, well, I need to get on and do something about it. I am the captain of my soul, etc. Here are a few things that help me get back on an even keel. Perhaps they might work for you too:

one, take a mini-break from your little loves. I know this can be difficult – if you have babies breastfeeding on demand, for example – but if at all possible, this is the best remedy. A full day is good, overnight is better. A couple of days is better still. You make enough space in your head to miss and appreciate them, and reset your perspective for when they come back.

two, get a babysitter and take a book or magazine to a coffee shop for an hour. It takes you right out of your own head, plus you get to eat a muffin without having it slobbered on first. Or go to the cinema (if you need to, you can choose a shorter film so you can get back to feed). Getting engrossed in someone else’s story means you can happily return to your own once it’s done.

three, if you really can’t leave them at all, wait till their naptime, go to another room, put music on as loud as you can get away with, and lie down on the floor with your eyes closed. Try to think about nothing but the music and your own breathing. Which leads me on to –

four, before they wake up or during naptime, try some meditation. You might feel stupid if it’s your first time, but it helps. I rather liked this little primer cartoon for beginners.

five, this one’s difficult, but it’s one of the best quick fixes I’ve found: find a patch of sun, and sit in it with your eyes closed. Warmth and light do miraculous things to your mind and body. Try and sit in it when no one is going to sit on you.

Here is a Fridayish thought for your Friday – you will be a better parent, a better person, when you are in proper balance yourself. And you can be. But here’s the thing, this piece of grace I try to bear in mind on my worst days: your babies aren’t wondering when you’ll get your act together. All they see is you, bracketing their days with love, putting order into their universe. In their eyes, you could boost them up to the stars if you wanted.

In a way, of course, you will.

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You guys! MAD Blog Award nominations close today at midnight! If you like what I do here, I’d be ever so grateful if you’d nominate us by clicking below. Perhaps Best Writer or Best Baby Blog? Thank you!

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Scatterings of Contentment

More and more I conclude that happiness is a decision rather than a circumstance. I’ve noticed that when I come home from work and answer the ‘how was your day’ question, I could either add up the little things and say it was awful, or add up some of the other little things and say it was brilliant. It depends on what I choose. Happiness is not a gooey, marshmallow-like cloud that descends upon you when all of your problems have receded to make room for it. It’s in a million tiny details. You have to gather them into one place to appreciate their impact. It’s like the hundreds-and-thousands you get on top of a Fab ice lolly – scattered separately you wouldn’t notice them much, but all crammed together they make a crunchy delicious multicoloured topping for people of all ages to enjoy. I may need to work on this analogy a little.

Included in my hundreds-and-thousands of happiness today were: pink silicone muffin cases I bought from the pound shop; a stupid joke Timothy made as he walked out of the door to his meeting; the scarf I wore to work; finding out by myself how to format something unusual in Excel; the orange leaves swirling round the car in the country lanes on the way home. Now I’m barricaded in our bedroom, the lamp on, the clothes put away, dipping into a stack of poetry books and being floored by Seamus Heaney. He is astonishing. Astonishing. Why have I never noticed before?

St Francis and the Birds

When Francis preached love to the birds
They listened, fluttered, throttled up
Into the blue like a flock of words

Released for fun from his holy lips.
Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,
Pirouetted on brothers’ capes.

Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played
And sang, like images took flight.
Which was the best poem Francis made,

His argument true, his tone light.

Seamus Heaney

How was my day? Just wonderful.

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