Tag Archives: Relationships

Ask for what you need; stand up for what you think

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‘Use your words.

I can’t understand whining.

Tell me what you need. Use your words.’

If I had a shiny pound for every time I’ve said this in the last few years, I’d be running off to purchase the entire stock of Waterstones and a personal Elton John concert. I am not a mind-reader. When the boys need me to put right an injustice or provide something they desperately want, I need words.

It’s just struck me lately that, funnily enough, if I have learned anything from seven-plus years of marriage (apart from to defend your share of pizza with your elbows and all the ferocity you possess) it’s this same thing. Ask for what you need. Stand up for what you think. He is not a mind-reader. It’s been one of the most defining shifts of my twenties and it’s become one of the most important things I want to encourage in my children. Knowing yourself well enough to work out what you think and what you need – and then doing someone the courtesy of explaining it so they can be part of your solution – seems to be a recipe for good emotional literacy, self-respect and self-care.

Maybe it takes a while to know yourself well enough and be brave enough to express needs. Maybe you feel timid about taking up emotional space in your relationship, because you feel like you don’t really deserve it. Or you expect someone to automatically intuit what you need without having to ask. I think all of those things were true of me (still are, some days).

We were in our early twenties when we got married. I had graduated university and was a year or so into work; Tim had returned from two years pounding streets in South Africa and was well stuck in to his degree. We were settled and extremely happy. I remember those early years as being all world-building and discovery. It was lovely.

But no matter how well you know someone, once you live together you’re literally warts-and-all. There’s lots to get used to. I had a pathological inability to close a cupboard I’d just opened, and he moonwalked his socks off his feet every night and left them there on the floor by the bed. And there was so much I didn’t understand about myself or about him. The way men and women interact in general and the way we interacted in particular, fresh from and marked by our own families and experiences.

Half our arguments in those early days could’ve been avoided if we’d just asked for what we needed. But maybe it’s the sort of thing you need to learn together, over time.

One of my dear friends says this, and she’s right: relationships are a miracle. That you found someone who makes your soul sing, that’s a miracle. Out of all the people in the world! Of all the choices you could have made, and missed each other! You didn’t. You found each other. You are the answer to someone’s deep and searching questions, and simultaneously, they are yours. What on earth were the chances of that?

I would add this, now: the other miracle is that you get to grow together. You learn things from each other and in the process you learn about yourself, and then you try to change. I mean, I still leave cupboard doors open. WHY CAN’T I SEE THAT THEY ARE OPEN WHEN IT WAS ME WHO OPENED THEM. But over time, and sometimes painfully, I am learning to ask for what I need.

I had a bit of a rough summer, actually. Lots of rain, lots of solo parenting, not very many changes of scene. The boys and I got sick of each other, and the twelve hours a day I spend with them started to feel more like a ball-and-chain than a delight. By the time we got to late August I was exhausted by resentment and CBeebies. Then one evening I had a light bulb moment: I do not have to be miserable. Life with small children does not have to be miserable. It’s just that there are things my soul needs that I am not getting.

I worked out what they were and then discussed them with Tim the next day. Time by myself. Time with just him. Time pursuing my own career goals, however meagre they might be at the moment. He’s a man: he enjoys working out the logistics of a solution. We decided on some different things we could do with our calendar, and I felt like things would get better.

They have. So I feel like this will be my endless refrain to my children, when they start looking for relationships, and to myself in the mirror, and to you, lovely reader, if you want it and it feels right.

You are worth the effort it takes to be happy, and you can take responsibility for working out your own needs. Work it out. Then use your words, and let someone else in.

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Flying the flag for date night

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Real spouse talk: we find date nights hard these days.

Didn’t everyone say we would, and didn’t we think, all naively, that we’d find a way to work around it? I am in awe of couples who manage to get out once a week or even once a month. Whether you pay someone to come round (sometimes more expensive than we can afford, and difficult to do on weeknights) or just ask a friend (do they have kids already? What might the boys do to their house?), it’s bristling with awkwardness.

More real spouse talk: our relationship deteriorates, in measurable and significant ways, when we don’t have time alone.

And we do not want a relationship of pleasantries and routine. No, we signed up for hand-holding and intimate conversations and intimate everything else. I am here to make a stand and say that friendship, even best-friendship, is not good enough. Even with small children. Even with work and tiredness. I am here for heart-hurting love, and not a single thing less will do.

So it’s a good job, all things considered, that Timothy is the type to book tickets to BBC recordings on a whim, and take us off to London for the evening. All of us, because my brother- and sister-in-law were lovely enough to entertain the boys for the evening while we skipped off into the capital. They live just south of the river Thames, work in animation and theatrical makeup, and are the coolest and nicest people I know.

We were late, of course, so the first half of the date was characterised by sprinting: to the Tube station, onto the Tube, through a sandwich (awkward Tube eating is awkward), and then onto the theatre, where the lady told us they were already full. Great. So we took a long walk down through Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, and got a frozen custard from Shake Shack. Mine came with toffee sauce, chocolate pieces and a kind of malt powder that was like crushed Malteasers plus Horlicks plus crack. I ate it with blueberry lemonade at my elbow, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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Then – oh, my heart – we hired Boris bikes, and freewheeled over the river, Big Ben and the London Eye gleaming on the water, back to pick up the boys. I haven’t been on a bike since university, and went the whole way chanting ‘we’re not going to die we’re not going to die’. Three miles on a bike through London, while the sun sets? My date-o-meter just spontaneously combusted. We came back to chocolate fondue and some Peppa Pig talk, and it was all so perfect it hurt.

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On my flag of personal absolutes is painted ‘DATE NIGHT’. I believe in date night, however we wrangle it. If it’s on a Boris bike, so much the better.

Share with me your collected wisdom, o internet browsers: how do you make date night work? 

To my sons: if I catch you treating a girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps

My friend Megan Conley was in a library the other week, and overheard a horrific conversation between a couple on a first date. Well. We’ve all had our share of cringe-worthy first dates, of course (unless you’re me, in which case you’ve had your share of no dates at all). But this one, oh, this one got under my skin.

Meg wrote a beautiful response for the girl she wanted to take aside, which I hope you’ll read. But I am raising boys. With Meg’s kind permission, I’ve written this for them. 

My dear, lovely boys,

I don’t know when you’ll be reading this. Perhaps you already keep to your room most of the time and roll your eyes when you talk to me, because I’m the most uncool person you know. (Just as an aside, right now you think I’m the best thing since chips and ketchup, so there. (Extra aside: am I better at being an adult, now? I hope so.))

I’m willing to bet, though, that you’re already interested in girls. And that’s good. Because girls are what I want to talk to you about. You hear a lot about dating at the moment, I’m sure. A lot of it is good, sound advice. We’ll have talked about all this already, in person, so I don’t need to say anything here.

Here’s what I do want to say: if I catch you treating that girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps.

I am so tired of all this girl-as-a-princess talk. Do you know what princesses do, in stories? They are kidnapped. They sit in towers guarded by fire-breathing dragons. They are the prizes in competitions of strength and manliness. They are the victims of spell-casters twirling their moustaches, and lie in enchanted sleep or as sad little swans on the river until they are rescued. And rescued they have to be, almost always, by the handsome prince on his white horse.

Oh, that prince. He is dashing. He is determined. He chops down the forest of thorns and defeats the evil witch even when all hope is lost. He works out the problem to be solved and doesn’t stop searching and trying and thinking until the princess has been found and there’s a happily ever after. I know it’s not always this way; I know there are princesses who think for themselves. There are exceptions to every rule. But for every Mulan there is an Aurora, and for every Belle with her library book there’s a Cinderella waiting for the ball, in fact twelve Cinderellas, a hundred Cinderellas: a princess at the top of every tower you can think of, and all of them waiting for you.

My dear boys, this is utter, utter pigswill. The girls you meet are not sitting in suspended animation, waiting for your manly shoulder to cry on, your voice to explain everything and make it alright. The girl you fall in love with has opinions, loves, passions, tragedies, strengths and weaknesses all of her own. She was born an endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creature, and has spent her life thus far remembering and discovering who she is. She has spent her life in a world where too many stories told her that she had to stay put and look pretty, that all her value lay in what a man thought of her, wanted from her, was willing to do for her. I hope she is fighting against it. I hope she has come out spitting.

It’s not much fun for you either, this handsome prince lark. Of course it’s nice to be needed, but the pressure to always be the strong one, always chopping down that damned forest to get to her, can be suffocating. At best, you feel an added pressure to always be in control of yourself, to never show weakness or emotion, and to carry the weight of you both even when you’re sinking. At worst, you begin to assume that only you know the answers to the questions that bother you both. You make the decisions, you tell her what to think, you explain things, endlessly. It’s disrespectful to both of you, that sort of thing. It leads nowhere good.

This is what I want you to say, when you find a girl that makes you feel like the best version of yourself: to hell with the stories. Do you hear me? To hell with them. Neither of you have to be anything you’re not. Both of you are endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creatures, and you’ll spend a lifetime learning each others’ strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll be on the horse, and sometimes you’ll be in the tower. Sometimes you’ll be back-to-back, chopping down the thorns with a sword in each hand.

Let her be, in all her wonderful imperfection. Let yourself be, too. It’s alright. Together you’ll leap every obstacle and storm every castle and make something so fine we’ll hardly be able to look at it straight.

Oh, I love you to your bones, my darling boys. So will she. Be worthy of it. Or I really will break your kneecaps.

Your mother.

 

I want to be a single-tasker

This story starts in McDonald’s.

(You guys, nearly all my stories start in McDonald’s these days. McDonald’s is where Life Happens, and don’t you forget it.)

Henry sat swinging his legs in the high chair next to me. He requested the kite song to supplement his fish fingers. Who can argue with that partnership? I turned away from my conversation to look at him, and bellowed ‘Let’s GO FLY A KITE! Up TO THE HIGHEST HEIGHT!’ There was vibrato and everything. I like to do that song justice, because Dick van Dyke deserves it. Henry’s eyes widened, his mouth opened, and he looked at me like he’d never seen anything so brilliantly wonderful.

Of all the things about motherhood I adore, that look is in the top five. I get it when I turn away from what I’m doing, look him square in the face and hand over all my attention for a moment.

I don’t think I get it enough. Attention is a hard thing to give, all at once.

I am busy, of course, and about to get busier. I’ve always got a list of seven or eight things on the go, and mentally reorder and reprioritise as I do them. Multitasking is more comfortable for me than single-tasking. I can’t wash up without listening to the radio, I never read without stopping to flick through my phone, and talking to Henry is something I do while doing other things: the laundry, a batch of editing, driving the car, washing my hair in the bath.

Which makes me think there must be power in doing just one thing at once. Not all the time, and not for everything. But for people, yes. They want you to turn towards them, look them square in the face and give over all your attention for a moment. I suppose the fact that giving over attention is so very difficult makes it the best kind of gift to receive.

So I want to practice one-personing this week. Just for a few minutes a day – a phoneless moment on the sofa with Tim, a quarter of an hour eating ice lollies on the windowsill with Henry, a few minutes’ writing in the quiet with me.  Where I put everything else away and hand over all of me, all at once. Want to do it too? I think it’ll be something to see.

(Not you, though, washing-up. Not you.)

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