Lost: One sense of purpose and identity

Lost identity and purpose image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know it’s hot, I know it’s nearly the end of term and I know everyone is tired and grumpy.  But underneath all that, I feel a bit lost.

When Master H started nursery last Autumn, I started writing picture book stories.  It felt purposeful, and more simply, I enjoyed the creative process and feeling I created something I was proud of and could enjoy with the kids.  I knew, however, that it probably wouldn’t be a career for me – writing is too solitary.  Starting up a business with a friend in January brought home to me how much I thrive on working with others, and how much I enjoy business stuff.  The process was a delight – often difficult but also completely energising to be purposefully engaging my brain on something outside my domestic enclave, that had potential, and with a good friend to boot.   Sadly it came to an end as my partner had to pull out in May.

But not to worry, that freed my time to focus on training for my first triathlon, which I completed on 30 June and really enjoyed.  So far, so purposeful, albeit in different directions.  But, now what?

Nothing.

Well, not quite nothing.  Organising social engagements, managing the kid’s logistics, keeping on top of the garden/house/allotment, trying to find ways to manage Master H’s belligerence and anger without running to the hills to hide and cry.  Yada, yada, yada.  Same old, same old.  Make a list, cross them off, make a new one.

It’s just not enough.  I don’t have the right balance – I am losing the joy of what I have because I don’t have an ‘other’ to help me appreciate it.

But what ‘other’ should it be?  I’m back, yet again, to the same old question of work / family balance.  With Master H starting big school next term, the challenge looms large.

I feel like I’m on the cusp of turning into someone I don’t want to be.  A kept woman – one of those Stepford wives with perfect hair, perfect home, perhaps doing good work for charities and her local community, lots of hobbies (probably tennis), always baking / making / doing with her kids, always there at school.

AARRRGGGHHHH.  I’m not even 40 for goodness sake.  I have a fantastic education.  I have a decent brain that I feel best when using.  Was it all for this?

No, it wasn’t.  But I am in need of a different perspective to help me see through the morass of options and considerations in a clear and structured way.  I need to tell myself to JFDI, whatever ‘it’ is.

I feel helpless in the face of the school year waxing and waning, the innumerous occasions to be present, the inevitability of the next break in the school term fast approaching and the competing desires to be a present mother and a fulfilled, purposeful person.

After 18 months not working I have come full circle.   I feel a reluctance to give up being the person who takes the kids to and from school, friends, activities and occasions every day and the flexibility that affords us to make the week work whichever way we want to.

So there we are.  I don’t want to give up being a full time mother, although I often think it would improve the time I spend with them and patience I have for it.  I don’t want to do a job just for the sake of it without actually enjoying what I am doing.  I don’t want to be a stereotype of a middle class stay at home mother filling her time with doing good and domestic bliss.

Clearly what I want is best said by Queen.

“I want it all, I want it all”

On the face of it setting up my own business would be the way to go.  I know from watching friends doing it that it has many challenges, and taking on a job around family life puts pressure on everything else.  But I still want to pursue it.

Sounds like I might have answered my own ad.  Except that I need a decent business proposition. I have had one, but at this point it doesn’t look viable.  I haven’t given up on it just yet, but I might have to.

Back to the drawing board.  It feels like the most used drawing board ever over the past year.  Let’s hope it has some life in it yet.

I can’t believe it’s come to negotiation with pants

spiderman pants

“I’m so disappointed in you, Littlest H. You’re not the big boy I thought you were.  Only big boys get to wear Spiderman pants, so I’m afraid they are going away until you can show me you’re a big boy who doesn’t wee in his pants because he can’t be bothered to get to the loo on time.” (Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk)

This was tactic number three million and three in managing my son’s mind-numbingly dull decision to use wee as a weapon of parental torture.  It was mildly successful – he really loves those pants – but as with all other tactics, both positive and negative, he quickly forgets and we’re back to Vanish spray and old towels as my new BFF.

Friends respond to my moaning by commiserating about his ‘accidents’.  I utterly refuse to accept there’s anything accidental about it whatsoever.  When I see his wee-signals, I often try to sunnily or breezily or cunningly bring his attention to the imminent loo visit, but however I do it, even ignoringly, he resolutely sets his mouth and refuses to go until he is so desperate he, of course, doesn’t make it.  He absolutely knows what he’s doing.  Even more irritatingly he immediately comes out with a plaintive “I’m really sorry, Mummy. I promise I won’t do it again,” repeated ad infinitum and utterly meaningless.  Oh, and then we have the battle of actually bothering to pull up pants and trousers shortly followed by the Great Hand-Washing War, both of which are often preceeded or followed by a game of Who Controls Who: “I’ll do it if you come to the stairs, Mummy; please hold my hand up the stairs, Mummy; no, Mummy, stand right there, no there.”

Honestly.  Does it really have to be this hard?  I’m so totally over his trouser drawer always being empty, the constant washing and the house and washing basket giving off Eau de Wee.

Have I vented enough?  I’m not sure.  I definitely could go on a lot, lot longer.  The worst of it is he’s not out of nappies at night yet.  He’s never been that good at sleeping through and I couldn’t bear facing up to the additional sleep-deprivation and life-shortening washing cycles of duvets, sheets, PJs and even closer companionship with Vanish, until I had to.  Which I reckon is when he’s four.  Which unfortunately looms large and close as it happens – for some reason I feel like it’s something I need to sort before he starts school (in September).  Not sure why, but that appears to be one of my personal ‘things’.  We will see.  At least spring and summer will ease the washing burden and allow Eau de Wee to waft outside more than it is circulated by central heating or results in us freezing to death.

With a six year old and three year old, I’ve tried a good number of negotiating strategies over the years, over a great many different things.  Some work, some don’t.  Some start out negative before I force myself to turn it round to a positive incentive.  Some don’t quite make it to the positive and a few even manage to start in a way I’d feel smug about when reading a parenting manual.

So far in the Battle of the Wee, we’ve used stickers, Thomas the Tank Engine books, cubes in the jar, masses of praise, putting a nappy on him with a heavy douse of parental disappointment about being a baby, ignoring it completely, leaving him in wet things, giving up and hoping the teachers sort it at nursery, and of course shouting at him in frustration. We may have tried others but it’s been so long I can’t remember.  Oh, and in case you’re wondering we have given each one a number of tries to get a tick in the ‘consistent parenting is key’ box.

I’m hoping there’s mileage in the pants angle though.  A great mate (and mother of three boys so when she advises I always listen with interest to such wise experience) suggested explaining the Spiderman pants (once returned) will be whipped off and away if they get wet.  Good idea.  And my own next step is to encourage him with the enticement of a new pair of Spiderman pants if he makes it through a whole weekend with no accidents.  I bought a pack of three so who knows how long they will last. Months I should think.

God knows what I’ll do if Spiderman goes out of favour.

PS

To my lovely followers, you may have noticed a lengthy absence of Mrs H blogs.  I’m finally back on the horse with this one, albeit a tad rusty, thanks to a nudge by a couple of people.  It’s good to be back doing something with the many observations and frustrations of parenting and stay-at-homing and everything-else-ing.  And as always to learn from and be inspired by comments and thoughts in response.  Roll on a blog-tastic 2013.

Bad habits die hard

In July, I posted about doing my first triathlon next year, and since then I’ve been learning to swim front crawl.  Boy is it slow going.  But today I had a second swimming lesson, with a new teacher.  It was great, but it seems I have already picked up quite a few bad habits – legs, arms, breathing. Trying to correct them was hard.  And that was only the start of the journey.

Four recollections floated into my brain while ruminating on my lesson.

The first one was: Yesterday was our school parents evening (aka afternoon – in no-one’s book but a teacher’s is 3-6pm evening). I noticed the new Early Years curriculum for 0-5 year olds included being aware of and able to articulate one’s own strengths, and recognising those of others.  How much have I talked to 3.5 year old Littlest H about his strengths?

The second was a conversation with my daughter at bedtime yesterday, the eve of her 6th birthday.  I told her how much I loved her and what a good and lovely person she is.  She paused and said “Not always, Mummy.”  I wasn’t sure if she meant I don’t always love her or she’s not always good, and as we cuddled and I said I always love her, she clarified “Yes Mummy, but I’m not always good.” (No-one is, I replied)

The third was a recent occasion when I heard her refer to herself as being useless at something she was trying to do.  And the final one was another conversation we had yesterday when I asked her if her friends had noticed her ‘I’m 6’ badge at school.  She said “Yes, even XXX in Apple class. You know, Mummy, XXX isn’t very nice to me.  At lunchtime she is rude to me and laughs when I hold my knife and fork a different way round to everyone else.”

What do these have to do with either bad habits dying hard, or my swimming lesson, you may ask.  Well, as I went to bed last night, I found myself wondering if I spend enough time telling my children what amazing people they are – their characters, not just their achievements.  Do I do enough to build their self-esteem and self-worth, and to help them be strong enough to feel that being different is okay?

And following from that, am I in the habit of giving my children the best of myself, or do they more often get what’s left of myself?  Do I treat them with respect and kindness as the default, do I use language that builds their self-worth, even when managing their behaviour, and do I role-model the way to treat other people, including those you love?  I wonder.  Sometimes I feel the worst of myself comes out with those with whom I am closest.

I recently posted about ambition vs happiness, saying that striving to be a good parent is a given once you are one, not an ambition.  Yet, with an ambition I have set for myself like learning to swim front crawl, I prioritise practising, I pay for an expert to watch me and offer me ways to improve, I am patient with myself as I know it will take time and effort and I won’t be great to start with and maybe not at all.  When I have a bad session, I try not to give up, I shake myself off and say, well Annabel, you still went and you’ll just have to try again next time.

Oh to apply that process to parenting.  There is no teacher or learning environment, only real life doing, supplemented by watching others and occasional reading of parenting books, usually when things have gone seriously awry.   Parenting can’t be separated from rest of life and put in a box to pull out and ‘practise’ at certain times.  And yet, as a person who has always responded best to learning in learning environments, that is what I could do with.  Constantly evaluating and thinking about how I am parenting when I am in the thick of it is tough.  And yet responses to situations quickly become habit.   Often in fact, a bad habit that I know will die hard.  To kill it off properly will take the same, or more, mental and physical effort as I’m applying to learning to swim.

So how can I work harder at parenting and while I’m doing it, arm our kids with a thick enough hide and strong sense of self-worth so they can handle being picked on?

As with so much in life, to some extent they just have to experience it and grow in their confidence to take teasing or jibes in their stride.  But I also think as a parent I can help.  Having an open ear to hear when they are telling me something where I can help reinforce a strong sense of self. Asking questions about how they think they handle situations and helping them develop different strategies.  Gently teasing them to build their resilience. Telling them not just how much we love them, but why we do – what about them and their characters.  Not using damaging language in anger, frustration or impatience that make a specific instance of behaviour sound like a damning character flaw – “You’re so clumsy”, “You never think” “Why are you always so impatient”.  Ensuring I’m careful with how I talk about myself – not saying I’m useless at things in a typically self-deprecating English middle class way.

The past couple of days have not just included parents evening and a swimming lesson, but also a first physio session for a hip injury and a specialist dentist appointment about my gums (nothing like getting old, is there).  All have resulted in exercises that require me to learn new habits and break old ones.  Perhaps while I’m at it I should throw in a few parenting / personal bad habits, just to get my brain fully engaged.  You never know, some of it might just stick.

A Thursday Rant: Kids birthday parties

Before children, I thought the wedding industry was the most commercialised con industry preying on emotion-ridden occasions, but now I know different. That honour goes to kids parties.  How did we get here, when kids (parents) feel the need to invite 20-30 friends to a hall for a (probably) cheesy entertainer to charge 200 quid or more for an hour, followed by mountains of E number food (the healthy stuff is always left behind, however high we parents pile it on their plates), a much-anticipated cake and expectant faces waiting for a party bag filled with plastic tat and more sugar?

Okay, so I may be being a tad harsh.  There are variations: less cost = more E numbers, a dose of playground politics or more stress to organise yourself; more cost = healthier, more interesting food, stunning cake creations and different, or mildly less cheesy entertainment in a slightly less well-used venue…*sigh*

The guilt-trip parent trap is just like the wedding couple trap – if I don’t do it, will my child  feel hard done by, if we don’t do all the typical things will the kids/parents think we are cheapskates; if I don’t invite so-and-so, will the parent get the hump, let alone the child; if I buy a cake instead of make it… and so on.

Even more discombobulating (my word of the week, isn’t it fabulous?) was last year, Little H’s 5th birthday.  I decided to see how much it would cost to do a DIY version. So I chose three crafty activities, bought all the bits and hosted it myself, with craft, then food, then party games. What I failed to register was that 5 years old, the first year of school here in the UK, is when parents assume parties are drop and run.  So there I was, faced with managing mask, jewellery and paper chain making with 20 four to six year old boys and girls.  Thank bloomin’ god for my husband, mum and the smattering of my friends who stuck around.  One friend commented it was lovely to go to a traditional party for once.  It was great, but it was such hard work for me, especially while working, and when I totted up the cost it was nearly the same as an all-in venue / entertainment / food option would have been (although we did end up with a lot of crafty bits left at home, to be fair).

And it’s now that time of year again.  I started the venue call around with a heavy heart, feeling both resentful of the industry of the thing and totally conflicted by the fact that I knew Little H would love a party.  And, if I’m honest, a lot of my rant is about me, not Little H.  She would be happy at home, but I can’t bear the idea of loads of hyper kids (and mess) rampaging through our house on a winter’s day.  She would be happy with the same venues/entertainers as her friends, I like variety and the idea of something different.

But I’m very glad to report we’ve found an excellent solution.  Little H is happy, I’m happy, Mr H is happy (Littlest H just wants to know he’s coming too).  We’re doing a cinema and lunch outing. Five friends who we chose carefully together to be people she actually likes and plays with.

Very little politics to manage, only five invitations to make (aren’t they cute?!), only two calls to organise cinema and lunch, no need for a huge cake, and party bags replaced by cinema/restaurant entertainment goody bags.  I am totally in love with the small event version of children’s birthday celebrations.  I don’t even care if they eat oysters and champagne for lunch or their body weight in over-priced cinema pick’n’mix, the lack of hassle and stress is fabulous.

I’m already watching the seven year olds’ party options with interest – roll on the small home-based or outing-based options with a few good mates.  When it gets to her wedding, Little H is going to go absolutely bonkers…

Rant over 🙂

Ambition: does being a parent help or hinder?

If ambition is striving to better one’s situation (or self), and happiness is satisfaction with where your life is now, where does parenting sit on the spectrum?  A blog post about the trade-off between ambition and happiness got me thinking about this question.

Quite frankly, parenting often feels like it ticks neither box – as a friend put it, it’s more a case of survival.  And never more than after a full-on week of half-term, even if the kids were mostly lovely.  But if I had to choose, I’d say it makes me happy more than it fulfils my ambition.

For me, ambition has always been about whether I am reaching my full potential (a bit of a stretch goal, let’s be honest).  Being a ‘good’ parent, although incredibly important to me, doesn’t feel like it sits in the same box.  I think that’s because striving for good parenting is a given, not a choice – the choice was made when we leapt into parenthood in the first place.

More often being a parent has felt like a brake on ambition.  I know few mothers who haven’t had to readjust their ambitions as they realise parenting is too important to squeeze too hard, and squeezing everything else can be almost as tough. I’m sure many fathers feel the same way, but, for whatever reasons, it seems more often the women who choose to / have to take the career hit.  I certainly felt that way before I stepped off the hamster wheel to find a better way.

And that goal, to find a better way, is where ambition and parenting get interesting.  The handcuff of something you simply cannot ‘not do’ forces an increasing number of women to get creative, look at different avenues, really think about what they could and want to do.  It becomes a driver of ambition, not a brake – almost liberating if it wasn’t so bloomin’ stressful.

How many women do you know who have agonised over how they can continue their career after kids, only to explore completely different and ultimately fulfilling directions to find that elusive fit of fulfilling work and family life?  I know quite a few.  And I find their journeys really uplifting.

Yes, nearly all of those I know have been through a tough transition period, many returning to their pre-children career through one or two kids, others SAHM, but all ultimately coming up with an idea they believe in. They cope with the huge stress and knocks that come with taking a risk and trying something new.  But their successes give me hope.

When I read that blog post, I felt a penny dropped.  All my life I’ve been trying to balance striving to reach my potential and satisfaction with the here and now.  I don’t have the answer, but I know I have it in me to do something different.   Parenting was a brake, but now it is a driver of my ambition – to find a fulfilling job that fits as well as possible with family and (the biggest challenge) pays what we need it to pay.

I am inspired by the amazing women I am watching take risks and push themselves to do brilliant things.  My fave five are linked below.  Help me and my other readers feel inspired: tell me, who are your fave five?

Botox Babes – would you go plastic?

I had dinner the other night with three feisty, successful, attractive women in their early forties.   Think Surrey Sex in the City.  Two of them (let’s say Samantha and Miranda) were discussing which fillers they will have as they get nearer 50 – both laughingly certain they will fill in the lines demarcating their cheeks from nose/mouth area and probably some kind of double chin eliminator too (assuming they get one). (Picture courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Not if, not why, just what and when.

Really?  Two of the most intelligent, attractive, independent, articulate and confident women I know and respect want to have cosmetic work done?  For themselves too, I might add, not for a man.  And there was I with a (relatively uninformed) world view that women who indulged in it were bonkers publicity-junkies, women with very low self-esteem, and those in the public eye unable to resist our society’s gender and ageing stereotypes. Oh, and the women who have it for very understandable reasons, where medical issues or accidents mean it can genuinely change their lives through their own and other’s perceptions of them.

I was shocked, naively, perhaps. These women’s, this type of woman’s, choice left me wondering whether I’ve come to a considered enough opinion.

Why does cosmetic surgery feel an order of magnitude different to wearing make-up, dying grey hair or using skin pigmentation-reduction face creams?  Particularly now we have short-term, less invasive treatments like Botox – the so-called ‘lunchtime’ treatments.  Yet it still feels like a big line to cross.

Analysing my feelings, I struggle to justify why it seems so different to these accepted age-defying measures that virtually every woman engages in, in some way, as they get older.  It is more expensive, yes.  It is going under the skin, so feels a more serious decision, yes.  Infection or other problems might be more likely, yes.  But is it any more vain or less acceptable?

Personally, I do believe it is still less socially acceptable, a bit of a taboo.

Although cosmetic surgery is often in the media, I think it is mostly as an object of ridicule, or indulging our fascination with celebrity appearance.

That is counterbalanced somewhat by ageism debate and commentary such as that about the pressures on female TV presenters to look younger than their male counterparts (see here, here or here), or indeed this article about increasing numbers of professional men getting Botox to get ahead.

Whatever the media profile, ageing is a difficult concept to embrace given it is a constant reminder of the diminishing time to do the things with your life your youthful self so animatedly set out to do.  And our society’s obsession with youth makes us feel further and further from that ideal once grey hair and wrinkles force themselves on us.

I do also wonder what message cosmetic treatment sends to our children.  A woman’s body is not ok unless it looks youthful.  Feeling under-confident? Not getting ahead in the workplace? Get a shot of Botox and all will be better. 

If an idea or image is presented often enough, in enough guises, it starts to feel like a truth, an accepted belief or norm.  I think that’s a bit scary for my daughter’s generation.  Or indeed, my son’s.

One of the commenters on my last post said if you teach your kids discernment they can work it out themselves”.  I think that applies here, too.  All we can do as parents is help our children build a strong base of belief in themselves and who they are, and teach them to think for themselves.  Even with my kids so young, they often ask questions for which the honest answers are uncomfortable – “Mummy, why do you wear make-up?”  for example.  I can choose whether I answer or not, or how truthfully, but, as is the case so often, children hold the mirror up to our / our world’s uncomfortable truths in all their glory.

I can’t think of an answer I would be happy with myself giving to my daughter if I had cosmetic work done. Either I’m too vain or too weak to resist societal norms of appearance.  But, to be honest, the same could be said for most of the appearance-changing things I do to myself.  So I’m not judging my friends for their choice – who’s to say I won’t feel the same way as my own lines deepen – I’ve certainly found greying hair enough of a trauma, and there’s nothing like an absolute statement of principle to make you look silly a few years later.

It’s more that I’m interested to understand whether there is a growing cohort of intelligent, thinking, confident women in their prime thinking like this.

What’s your view?

PS As a slightly silly footnote, while discovering that breast augmentation is the top British plastic surgery procedure, I also discovered that one of the industry bodies is called baaps.  He he he.

Re-finding the mojo magic

It’s a funny thing, mojo.  I think having kids mutates it.  The moments that fill my ‘I love my life’ mojo cup have changed.  Or so I thought.  But this week I’ve asked myself, have they really, or is that the illusion I hold onto to love my life rather than wish it were different?

Take my new sparkly shoes.  Aren’t they GORGEOUS?

And check out the lovely posh make up in front, all new and full of the promise of nights out, especially when coupled with sparkly feet.

Add a hairdresser trip to sort out my wild-lion-on-a-bad-day look…

…And a soupcon of London cool (‘scuse the sex shop photo, but it’s actually the front of La Bodega Negra, an uber-cool Mexican taqueria in the heart of Soho, inside below, complete with gimp suit behind the restaurant reception desk!)

And voila, my twenties mojo resurfaces.  You know, that mojo that lives in the city, knows where the cool hangouts are, stays out late drinking fabulous cocktails (bugger the hangover) and having conversations not about kids or domestic life or hardworking husbands or schools or the mother’s juggling act, and then goes dancing.  Mojo that ends with pictures like this:

 We used to have loads of these – us on a night out, looking a bit rosy in the cheek.  But, as we realised when asked by the fabulously fun women we were out with, the last time we went out properly like this together was at least seven years ago.  That’s a loooooonnnnng time.  Plenty of nights out separately, but together and in the big smoke – that’s a whole different babysitter ballgame.

And do you know what, it felt brilliant.  My sister-in-law asked me if the evening made me feel old.  Quite the opposite – it made me feel young – young, alive and happy.  I wasn’t a mother, I was me.  The me that loves letting my hair down and going a bit mad, especially with Mr H. Not the comfortably middle class domestic me who stays local, has an allotment, mostly socialises with gorgeous but pretty similar / similar lifestage people, and chooses the cultural or physical options like opera or ballet or hiking or biking for any time Mr H and I get together sans enfants.  Now, I’m all excited about using up some grandparent looking-after-the-kids points to go up to London and go out clubbing and stay with our new friends without rushing back for sitters or horribly early bouncing children.

Funnily enough though, re-finding that mojo hasn’t diminished the joy of its family and domestic life mutations.  Nor has it made me resent where my life is now. I love my life – I have a gorgeous husband, two beautiful children (even if they do wind me up immensely too often to think about), a nice enough house in a good town, a load of amazing friends and right now, some pretty exciting personal projects on the go, whether finding my voice through writing, learning to swim freestyle for my first triathlon or exploring a potential business opportunity with a dear friend.  Do I wish I were a young Londoner myself again?  Not really.  Way more angst, sore heads and shopping than I can be bothered with, let alone haemorrhaging money every weekend (ahem, let’s just ignore the haemorrhaging children represent…).

But last weekend did teach me something.  It taught me it’s important to indulge the old mojo every so often, even more so to do it with Mr H, and, when possible, up in the thick of life, in the big smoke.  Not to play it too safe, not to always take the more sensible options.  Not to forget we’re still young, the big 4-0 on the horizon or not.  There’s life in the old girl yet…