Notes from lockdown: how to survive quarantine with your mental health intact.

We are in a new normal. We’re at home. All of the time. Either alone, or with all the members of our household. Both of these situations have their challenges but apparently a common symptom of being in lockdown is to have moments when you wish you were in the other camp. (Only what I’ve heard.)

We’re working from home, Zooming from home, parenting from home, homeschooling from home, eating, socialising, relaxing, all from home. All the boundaries and transitions have gone and let’s be honest, it’s weird. I was on a video conference the other day and one of the participants was late in joining. She sent a message, joking that she was sorry but the traffic was really busy on her landing. To be fair, she’s now living with not just her husband, but also her two adult children and her son’s partner. So it’s crowded.

More seriously however, it’s a challenging time for us all in lots of different ways, not least for those who have vulnerable family members or friends who have been seriously affected by the virus. But we’re all feeling the pressure in some way or another and inevitably there is now a growing discussion about our mental health. You may have seen the online video from Ryan Ramsey, who was captain of the nuclear submarine HMS Turbulent and once spent 286 days at sea with 130 people without seeing the sky. He shares his insights on dealing with isolation and it’s well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. Similarly, there are more and more articles appearing online from psychologists and other wellness professionals, trying to help guide us through these unprecedented times. Not surprisingly, in nearly all the advice being offered, there are a few consistent themes. So here you are, a few tips for staying well right now, in every sense of the word.

1. Routine, routine, routine.

I’ve not seen a single piece of advice on wellbeing during this crisis that does not refer to this. We’ve lost nearly all the external things which used to impose our routine on us, so we have to make our own. Structure your day in a way that works for you and your family and try to stick to it. Give the weekdays a stricter routine and make it looser on the weekends so it feels different. That said, don’t feel that your routines have to be the same as anyone else’s. It’s incredibly tough if you are managing jobs and childcare and I know some of you are working shifts with your other halves trying to keep both professional and family life vaguely on track. Find what seems to work best and keep at it.

2. Dress for the life you want not the life you have.

There has been so much chat about what we’re all wearing during lockdown, and some of it’s really funny. Prince William joked about remembering to put on his trousers as well as his shoes before going outside to clap the carers. Someone else talked about getting changed every night at 8pm from the “daytime pyjamas” into “night-time pyjamas.” However, according to business psychologist Charlotte Armitage, if we’re working from home for the longer term, not just for a day or two here and there, getting dressed into some designated working clothes will help you focus on your job as you normally do in the office. She says;

“When the routine of getting changed into new clothes for working from home is practiced enough, psychologically you become conditioned to associate the changing of clothes with a change of mindset, psychological pace and focus, therefore preparing you for the working day ahead.”

Same goes for showering, shaving, putting on a bit of makeup, or whatever you’d normally do.

3. Fresh air

Compared with the submariners, we are lucky that we can still go outside. Get out at some point every day. The dog owners are sorted with this, but we all need to do it. If you’re concerned about contact, go earlier in the morning, or later in the evening. If you’re high risk, or living with someone who is, walk round your garden if you have one, or at the very least, open the windows. The other day my husband asked me why I was putting plants in the garden when it had started raining. I told him I just needed to be outside and wasn’t bothered if I got wet and wrecked my hair because I wasn’t going anywhere…. Fresh air will lift your spirits.

4. Movement

You know this one, and so do I, but it can be hard to motivate yourself, especially, as can happen in our house, we leave it till work is finished and just want to numb out with Netflix, FIFA or, even worse, the news. But movement is medicine. Make yourself do it and you will feel a thousand times better. If you hadn’t heard of Joe Wicks before, you probably will have now. Online workouts are having a moment, see also Chloe Ting, and a host of other options online. Find something you enjoy, whether it’s yoga, HIIT or going for a walk. If you’re exhausted, tell yourself you’ll only do ten minutes. Once you get going, you’ll nearly always do more.

5. Eat right

Stay hydrated and eat well. Again, we all know this, but when we’re stressed it’s easy to fall into our own particular bad habits, whether it’s comfort eating, forgetting to eat, or over -relying on alcohol to unwind which then just makes us feel worse. Again, impose some structure; be stricter during the week, then treat yourself at the weekend.

5. Minimise conflict

Oh yes! Are you surprised that conflict management gets talked about a lot when people are living in close quarters? To quote the submarine captain;

“you will start to find things about your family members really really annoying….. and partners….. its going to happen”

Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth when necessary. The head of pastoral care at my son’s school said to his students, “you don’t have to turn up to every argument you’re invited to.” This is wise counsel, and applies to work colleagues as well as spouses and kids. Everyone will have moments when they’re not at their best and we’re all trying to get through this the best we can.

6. Connection

Find a way of connecting with your family and friends. This is especially important if you’re living alone, and if you’re with family, you’ll need a break from them and some contact with other friends. There are loads of apps for this like FaceTime, Zoom or Houseparty, but if you’ve been on video calls a lot for work, a phone call with your feet up may be more relaxing. Video calls drain our energy in ways that in-person meetings do not. There’s a great article online which explains this and I recommend reading it; (“The reason Zoom calls drain your energy” by Manyu Jiang)
We’ve found the Thursday Clap for Carers a good opportunity to have a (socially distanced) chat with neighbours but find what works for you.

7. Children

To everyone having struggles with their kids right now, the psychologists say that we should EXPECT behavioural issues in children and adolescents in this strange season and that we should try and respond with patience….. Children are even more highly reliant on routines to make them feel safe and will be struggling with the disruption. Expect anxiety, regression, sleep issues, limit testing and meltdowns. Be cautious about implementing any big new behaviour strategies during this time, and focus on your relationship with them.

8. Media

Be intentional about your consumption of news and COVID-19 information, which changes moment to moment and is often sensationalised. Stick to a few news sources that you trust and limit it to a few times a day. Regarding social media; if you care at all about your mental health, treat it like a controlled substance. It can be fun and a great way to connect and have a laugh, but if you’re not careful, you’ll waste hours and feel terrible.

9. Lightness and fun

Try and find some humour in each day. There is plenty to be worried about, and with good reason, so try and balance it with something light-hearted, a funny film, a daft TikTok video your kids have made or even a bit of stand-up comedy on the telly. We all need some light relief.

10. Notice the good in the world.

There is a famous quote from Fred Rogers which often circulates during crises;

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
As well as all the negative, scary information, there are all the stories of people sacrificing, donating and supporting each other in ways big and small. Step forward Captain Tom and our key workers not to mention the multitude of invisible acts of kindness that we won’t even hear about.

11. And finally………. Expectations

You may need to lower them slightly. Many of us are trying to do too much at the moment. Each morning, make a “must happen today” list for work and one for home and prioritise what really matters. Those of you familiar with Mazlow’s hierarchy will know that our need to eat, earn a living and keep ourselves and our families safe is the baseline. Self actualisation is at the very top. I spoke to a friend recently who’s juggling her job with homeschooling her two young children while her husband works 10 hour shifts in a hospital and arrives home late with his pile of work clothes that have to be washed separately from everything else. If this reminds you of your life right now, avoid the comparison trap with others whose situation is different and who have the time and space to landscape their garden or bake sourdough bread. This is closely related to point 8 about being mindful of our consumption of media.
Finally, and most importantly, if you are having difficulty coping, reach out for help. If it’s work related, communicate with your manager. There is support available to you, even at a distance. If it’s home related, your children’s teachers and related service providers will do all they can to help. Our usual support networks have gone, so get any other help that is available. Although we are physically distant, we can always connect virtually. Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It’s a season of life which will pass. We will return to feeling free and safe in the days ahead.

5 things I have loved in 2019″‘

So it’s the 31st December. If you were born in Scotland – Hogmanay. New Years Eve to the rest of you. I’ve just made a brief visit to the country of my birth but am now on a very quiet train back to Manchester. I do sort of feel like I’m going in the wrong direction. After a run of being on very overcrowded trains this one is half empty. No normal person LEAVES Edinburgh on Hogmanay…

But anyway. I’ve had a bit of spare time to fill on the journey and it’s that time of year when the papers and social media are doing all the looking back. Reviews of the year, reviews of the decade, the bests of, the favourite books, the stand out films, the flops, the triumphs, the disappointments, the iconic events, the honours ( and leaked addresses) the scandals, the sporting victories, and on it goes.


I’ve just read Barack Obama’s lists on Twitter. He has a tradition of sharing all the music, books and films he has loved over the past year. Oh heavens, Barack you are prolific. I’m not sure how you manage to get anything else done. The 44th president of the USA reads a staggering number of books on all manner of topics, as well as consuming a stack of films and music. In her best selling memoir “Becoming”, his wife Michelle told the story of how he woke her up in the middle of the night once because he was pondering how to solve income inequality. He clearly has a razor sharp mind and a huge capacity to analyse and digest a lot of content.

Well, I’m not in Barack’s league. His lists are a great read in themselves, and would keep me busy for decades. And we don’t particularly share a taste in music. However, just for the fun of it, here’s a much smaller list of stuff I’ve enjoyed this year.

1) PODCAST

Feel Better Live More by Dr Rangan Chatterjee

It’s hard to overstate how much I love this podcast. I have long admired Dr C and his holistic approach to health. He is whip smart and on the ball with his research, yet down to earth and not at all Lpreachy, and he has interviewed some great people this year. His episode on sleep with Professor Matthew Walker was a game changer for me, and he had a really fascinating chat about the role of alcohol in our culture with Andy Ramage, the founder of One Year No Beer.
Another important influencer for me on health and wellbeing is Suzy Glaskie, a local business owner who gave up her corporate career in PR to become a health coach. She’s inspiring but not patronising and is on Instagram – @peppermintwellness.


2) RADIO

Desert Island Discs on Radio 4

Oh yes! I know it’s been around forever but it’s a newish discovery for me and now I literally have years of archives to dip into whenever I have a mundane job to do. It ticks my boxes because I’m curious about people and like being introduced to new and old music. I was disappointed to read a snobby article in the Sunday Times Magazine slating Lauren Laverne for her style of interviewing – implying she wasn’t heavyweight enough for the job and was too understated. Sorry, but isn’t that the point? Letting the guest be the focus? You’ll never please everyone Lauren but I think you’re wonderful on this show. Standout episodes – Emily Eavis, the daughter of the founders of Glastonbury, James Rebanks, the sheep farmer/Oxford graduate, and the Liverpool actor Stephen Graham who was phenomenal in the last series of In the Line of Duty.


3) TV

The Crown on Netflix.


Need I say more? I actually love the Queen. Long may she reign. All bets are off for the monarchy once she has gone. I’m not a massive watcher of TV these days and this is the only programme that I will consistently sit down and watch by myself. My only reservation is that it’s based on real events which are creatively portrayed in a way which may or may not be accurate and possibly not welcomed by the the real people involved. Not sure what Her Majesty would make of it. But still wonderful. Claire Foy and Matt Smith were superb in series 1 and 2. It took me a few episodes to warm to Olivia Colman in series 3 but the episode which covered the Aberfan disaster of 1962 was the most moving piece of telly I watched last year.


4) NON FICTION


Joint favourites: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion by Jonathan Haidt.


I’m aware of the irony of recommending the former while typing on my computer but honestly, I nearly threw my phone in the Manchester Canal after reading this book. I may write a separate blog on the topic of how our digital lives are impacting our actual lives in ways we have not intentionally chosen and I plan to do a bit more digital detoxing this year.
The Righteous Mind was released in 2013 but could not be more relevant in the era of Brexit, Trump and General Elections. Jonathan Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and his main area of study is the psychology of morality. If you are even slightly interested in current affairs and why humans behave the way they do, read this book. ( especially the chapter called Elephants Rule).


5) FICTION


As my teenagers would say, I’m “not gonna lie.” Fiction is a challenge for me. I aspire to be that person who reads lots of great literature. The reality? I get bored. I skip chapters and give up too easily. I read at night when I’m too tired. I fall asleep, the book thuds on the floor, and then the next night I have no clue what I read the night before. Years ago my husband read The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. He loved it and passed it on to me. A few weeks later, he asked me about it. Of course I tried to pretend I’d read it all when I actually hadn’t. Never do this! At least not with my husband because you’ll be rumbled in 30 seconds… However I am proud that I am now half way through Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro which I think I will actually finish. It’s gentle, beautiful and slow, in a really good way.


I’ve run out of time for a FILM. Nothing stood out for me this year but a couple of months ago I finally got round to watching an oldie – The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, the story of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America, featuring a piece of music that I have loved for years; Gabriel’s Oboe by Ennio Morricone. I cried my eyes out at the end of this movie. Its available online.
So there’s my list. What would be on yours? What films and telly have I missed this year? Bookworms, what works of fiction would you challenge me to tackle?! I really really appreciate recommendations so let me have them.
And Happy New Decade to you and yours!
K xxx




On letting our kids grow up, and why influence beats control every time.

This weekend my teenage daughter is departing on a school trip to the USA.

Oh I know.  Don’t get me started.  Its a far cry from my schooldays too.  I went on a school trip to Aviemore and thought I was lucky.  (I WAS lucky.)

My lovely daughter has been anticipating, and diligently saving for this trip for over two years.  Heavens. We have ALL been anticipating this school trip for two years.  The other four of us feel like surely we must be going too.  They are due to fly off this Sunday.  Easter Sunday.  April 1st.  Honestly, for all our sakes, this school trip better not turn out to be some kind of April Fools Day totally not funny joke……..

This event, though hugely exciting, especially for my girl, has, perhaps not surprisingly, brought up all sorts of emotions in me. Mixed emotions. Emotions that I was not quite ready for to be honest.  I’ve been feeling all the feelings this week as I have been doing my bit to help her shop, pack and prepare for takeoff.  Feelings about time passing, about wanting to slow time down, about learning to let go a little, and of course, about trust.

It requires trust to let your child cross an ocean without you.

It requires trust to hand her over for ten days to the care of teachers, who are, though clearly responsible, and most definitely police checked, largely unknown to me.

I have been feeling a tiny fraction of the feelings that many parents (often mothers, though certainly not exclusively so) describe when their children are getting ready to leave home.

OK.  Im being a bit dramatic.  I know this.  The empty nest is a long way off.  My “nest” is nowhere near empty,  a fact clearly evidenced by the detritus of family life permanently dumped in our hallway.  Shoes. Bags. So many bags. More shoes. Musical instruments of all sizes. (Whoever told us the saxophone was a great idea is in TROUBLE.  There’s nowhere to put that thing and nobody can carry it for longer than three seconds. Nobody.)

But anyway.  All these feelings.  I couldn’t shake them this week.  And then I “just happened” to have some music on one day while I was working at home.  It was an album by the hugely talented singer and songwriter Nichole Nordeman. I had listened to Nichole’s music before but had forgotten that she had written a song called “Slow Down” about all this. In the week when I am preparing to let my daughter go on a plane without me, I heard these lines;

I pointed to the sky. And now, you want to fly.”

Oh my.  The power of music to reach right into your heart and soul when you’re least expecting it. That’s a whole other blog post.

My daughter will turn 15 later this year, and her siblings are not too far behind her. The “teenage years” which everyone talks about have actually arrived, and I can barely keep up. Phones. Apps. Options. Revision timetables. A bathroom which, on entering, is either, a) a bomb site or b) a lavender and bergamot scented sauna. (Mum and Dad. I know. I was worse than all of them and I deserve everything that’s coming my way😂) And the hormones. SO many hormones and not just theirs. But here’s what Im learning;

Children don’t just “suddenly” become adults on the day of their 18th birthday.  Well ok,  technically they do.  Legally they do. But not in actual real life.  It’s a long, slow process, wonderful and painful, both. Of course it is.  It has to be.  It can’t happen any other way.

I’m not a great one for parenting books these days. But I did attend a seminar some years ago led by Mark and Lindsay Melluish.  Honestly, I can’t remember the majority of what they said, but I remember that they talked about control and influence, and the difference between them as it relates to child rearing, but actually you could apply it to many areas of life. This was kind of how they explained it;

When our children are very young, we have lots of control. Parents of toddlers out there; you have so much control right now. More than you think.  I know you don’t feel in control when they are having a full blown tantrum in Tescos  (just ignore other people’s stares) or biting the most delicate looking child in playgroup  (this too shall pass) but, trust me, you are still, largely, in control.  For example, before they go to school, you pretty much get to control what they eat.  Yes, fussy eaters, I know that one too. But you at least  get to decide what they won’t be eating very often.  You get to control the media they consume, their comings and goings and the company they keep. If they want a playdate with a a friend, you have to arrange it.

But, as our kids grow older, our control very gradually lessens.  It has to. There’s no way round it. This is hard for some of us to accept. But accept it we must. It’s unavoidable. It’s part of the process. It is, dare I say it, appropriate and necessary.  Our children are not, in fact, extensions of us. They are separate human beings. Of course this is obvious but we so often seem to ignore or forget the fact. That’s why so many of us tend to over identify with our children, with their successes and achievements, and, perhaps more painfully, their vulnerabilities and inevitable failures.

But here’s the thing. As our old friend Control drifts further away, another friend, Influence steps forward. Influence has been there in the background all along, quietly doing her work while Control was running the show. But now it is time for her to take the driving seat.

When our children reach adolescence, total control is not possible. Nor is it desirable. But Influence is powerful beyond measure.

Ask anyone who has managed more than a handful of people in a work or any other setting. Control is impossible. Influence is powerful.

Ask a successful sports coach. Control is impossible, but Influence is powerful. (I’ve heard a rumour that even Pep Guardiola lets his players choose their own music. But this could be wrong so don’t quote me!!!)

But there’s a small problem with Influence. It demands something of us. Control may well be impossible but in many ways it’s simple. You decide on a bunch of rules and regulations and spend your life enforcing them. Exhausting, certainly, but straightforward nonetheless. Influence is much more demanding. It goes to the heart of who we are as parents and leaders. It requires us to “walk the talk”. Now, there’s a challenge.

This is a light hearted example but recently, I banned the use of electronic devices at our breakfast table. Breakfast in our family is rarely a meal that we take all together. The kids go to different schools, are on slightly different schedules, and a habit had developed of them drifting in to get their cereal or whatever, and then watching something on a phone or tablet. I got heartily sick of this for various reasons and put a stop to it. I told them that, despite breakfast being a relaxed affair, this was still a breach of our “no screens at the meal table” rule.

This went down really well with my family. You would not believe how well it went down.

Bu then, several mornings later, the house was, finally, quiet. I had a full day of jobs ahead of me, but I quickly grabbed a cup of coffee, a bowl of porridge and sat down at our kitchen table. And then reached for…………..yes, you’ve got it in one, the tablet.

Straight away, a voice popped into my head. It was the voice of any one of my adorable children.

“Oh MUM! ……………… iPad at the table!!!!!

“So it’s one rule for us and another for you then?”

“Seriously?” I argued back in this imaginary conversation, occurring only in my head. “Do you have any concept of how hard your Dad and I work to keep this home and family functioning while you lot waltz from one activity and fun experience to the next, and you are beating up on me for wanting to zone out on Facebook for ten measly minutes? Give me a break.”

But the problem is, they are spot on aren’t they? Our young people are not daft. They see when our words don’t match our actions and they are right to call us out on it.

Reader, I closed the iPad. Oh yes I did. No, I can’t believe it either. I consider it a small breakthrough. A baby step.

I closed the iPad and I soaked up the silence. It felt strange to be honest, but in a good way, as if it may have been what my soul really needed.

Influence, you are a tough boss.

As our little people grow up and step out to take their place in this beautiful and broken world, we can only hope that Influence will hover near them. That the values we have tried to instil in them over a long period of time will still be in there somewhere. That they will know deep down, not only how completely and unconditionally loved they are, but also what is right and true and good.

My darling girl, have a wonderful school trip. I know you will remember this adventure forever. Be safe and have fun.

Oh, and when you and your lovely best friend are in Bath&Body Works for like, three hours……………!!!!!!!! remember your old Mum. Xxxx

Happy Easter everyone.

K

http://youtu.be/clcNB_EUao8

On Mothering Sunday- in sunshine and in shadow.

It’s that time of the year again. The week when, if you need to buy a card for a new baby or a retirement or any occasion other than Mother’s Day, forget it. It’s like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack because all the card racks are full to bursting with pastel flower embossed tributes to the Mums. And then there are the usual shameless supermarket promotions trying to convince us that what “the Mums” really need and want this Sunday is an entire box of the strawberry creme version of those Lindt Lindor chocolates. I mean, what’s all that about? Re-marketing unsold Valentines Day stock, that’s what it’s about. Because everybody knows that strawberry cremes are the worst chocolates in the box. They are the geek chocolates in the Christmas box of Roses that nobody wants to be friends with. Kids you have been warned.

Of course, all the mums are delighted with whatever their offspring offer with love. (Or at least, they’ll pretend to be delighted.) My children are now sadly almost past the stage of the sticky glittered homemade cards. Almost. But not quite. My youngest came off the school bus the other day and when I asked him how his day had been; instead of the usual “Ok” or “boring”, to my surprise I got, “Actually we made Mother’s Day cards today Mum!” Then he winked and added; “But no spoilers!” My heart melted.

However, my Mother’s Day this year has already taken on some elements of comedic farce before the day has even arrived. I will be spending Sunday morning serving hot breakfast butties to my husband and a bunch of his work colleagues and their families who are doing a 10k run in Tatton Park at 9am. No I’m not joking. In his (husband’s) defence, we planned this ages ago when Mother’s Day was on nobody’s radar. And, of course, it will be a laugh and I’m (genuinely) delighted to do it.

At least I was. Until first thing this morning when I descended to the kitchen in my morning brain fog to hear these words from my teenage daughter, “Mum, I’m pretty sure the fridge freezer is bust.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

What do you do when you you have a broken fridge, a breakfast to host, and an online shop due to land any minute? I’ll tell you what you do. You speed dial your friend Lorna who has a basement containing a fridge freezer which is bigger than most garden sheds. Later, the hero Lorna arrived to find me knee deep in the assorted contents of my fridge and my freezer scattered over my kitchen floor with the freshly delivered Sainsburys bags on top, containing, of course, enough bacon, sausages, milk and o.j to satisfy twenty five people who have just run 10k.

“Im supposed to be writing a blog post about Mother’s Day Lorna.”

She took one look at me in the heaving mass of groceries in various states of defrost, raised her Scottish eyebrows and said, “Aye, this is a blog post all right!”

All joking aside though, and without taking the shopping theme too far, the whole Mothers Day thing can be a bit of a mixed bag can’t it? Like many other special days on the calendar, some more commercialised than others, it can come with a bit of a pressure. And for many people, it is, frankly, a difficult day for for lots of reasons. The pain of bereavement, loss, dementia or infertility can make “Mothering Sunday” a day to be endured rather than enjoyed.

This week, BBC Radio 5Live attempted to reflect this in some measure when they covered the stories of a number of people who were now well into adulthood, but who had lost their mothers in childhood or adolescence. They included the experiences of the journalists Tony Livesey and Martin Lewis. It was utterly heart wrenching to listen to Martin, the normally upbeat money saving expert who is usually jumping up and down like a puppy getting all excited about car insurance and credit card deals. He shared openly about losing his mother in a car accident three days before his twelfth birthday. Losing a parent in childhood is something that has affected members of both my and my husband’s extended families and it touched a nerve.

I thought Radio 5 handled the whole topic really sensitively and I hope it may have helped a few people who are struggling this weekend and need to hear these words. You are not alone. You are not invisible. You are seen. You are honoured.

I can’t end without paying tribute to my own Mum. Here is a very grainy photo of us which was taken in June 2000 in the City Chambers in Glasgow when Mum had been voted Scots Woman of the Year for her work as a nurse with breast cancer patients. A night we will never forget! That evening, the then editor of the Glasgow Evening Times quietly told me about the many letters he had received about my mum from patients, former patients and relatives. I was floored by this because, although I was aware of Mum’s work and was proud of her, to me, she had always been, and always will be “Mum”, the woman who has nurtured and loved me unconditionally for my entire life, and continues to do so, not just when we are together, but now over the phone and text from 200 miles away. Happy Mother’s Day Mum!!!

And to everyone else, have a good day on Sunday or ignore all the fuss if that’s what works for you this year. Or every year. When I get the smell of bacon out of my hair, I’m going out for dinner with my family.

K x

On work, modern motherhood and asking the right question.

A few weeks ago I read a blog post called “Just Don’t Think About It” by Katharine Welby Roberts. Katharine is a talented writer and speaker and also mum to a gorgeous wee boy called Elijah. She has been very open about her struggles with her mental health, in particular with depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. She also happens to be the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Because of my own experiences of depression and anxiety, I have read fairly widely on these topics. Much of that reading has been informative, academic even, but it is always the personal accounts of other people’s suffering which impacts me the most. I read Katherine’s article and was very moved, not just by the content of what she wrote, but, more particularly, because I felt I could have written it myself five to ten years ago.

Katharine explains how, despite having a strong interest in returning to work after having her son, her limited energy levels associated with her fragile health means that this is probably unlikely, at least in the near future. She then goes on to discuss how this realisation is affecting her psychologically. Perhaps the saddest sentence in the blog post is; “I feel that I am failing at being a modern woman.” Those words hurtled me back ten years to when my children were about 4, 3 and 1, and I was experiencing those very same emotions. I was struggling with my health, I had no extended family living within 200 miles and my husband’s job took him all over the country, and sometimes further afield. I was very thankful that I was not under financial pressure to return to work because I was frankly permanently exhausted, but still felt a pressure to do more. To BE more. To be juggling. To have a career. To be taking work phone calls and drafting contracts while I was changing nappies. You see, that’s what a truly enlightened woman does. As modern women we are thoroughly drilled in this stuff from an early age. Not directly of course. Nobody sits us down and gives us a lecture with bullet points on the requirements of being a successful woman in the modern age. No, it’s far more subtle than that. But still, the cultural messages ring out loud and clear like never ending sirens. Get a good education and a fulfilling career. Fall in love and get married. Next, have a batch of cute, clever and well behaved kids. Then successfully blend all ingredients together forever. The End. Honestly, what utter crap.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this narrative is the readiness with which so many of us buy into it. We rarely question it. If we find ourselves unable or unwilling to pull off all these modern aspirations simultaneously and seamlessly, we think it’s our fault. That we are sadly lacking. I know I did. Instead of daring to ask if the cultural messages might possibly be flawed, I thought it was me who was broken. It took me a long time to wake up to the fact that I had been sold a dangerous lie by the culture. No matter that Katharine and I share a faith tradition which teaches that we are worthy of love and belonging just by being precious human beings and not because of anything we have achieved, I was into middle age before I dared to start living as if this might actually be true.

When I look back on all the agonising I did about work, motherhood and identity, so much of it was unnecessary. Not all of it, to be sure. When I made the decision to leave my corporate job, that was a significant change of direction for me, and, of course, I needed time to process it. I was leaving a position which I had worked hard to achieve, which gave me a good income and provided structure and purpose in my life. Those are not small things and I had to adjust to the change. I needed time to accept that with every choice we make, there are other choices which cannot then be made; other paths that won’t be taken. That is reality.

But I do regret so much of the agonising and here’s why. I realise now that I spent years asking myself the wrong question. I allowed the culture to tell me what question to ask instead of having the courage to frame my own. The question I asked myself back then, over and over, was this: “Who am I if I’m not working?” (Of course, that question is factually wrong for a more basic reason; anyone who has cared for three children under the age of four knows that it takes the concept of work to an insanely hard core level. But I digress.) The question I wish I had asked was; “I know who I am. How do I continue to be me, in this season of my life?” You see, here’s the thing. Despite what the culture was screaming at me, I was the same woman, with the same gifts, abilities and interests, when I was a young mum at home, as I had been when I was working in the legal profession. I just had to figure out how to carry on using those gifts and pursuing those interests in that phase of my life. Lots of women do this by going straight back to their careers. Many of them are my close friends and I cheer them on. For some of them, this is an economic necessity and I acknowledge my privilege in not being in that category. But what I would say to my younger mum self is this. “You are in an exhausting stage of life right now. But you are still you. Keep going. Keep looking for ways to be yourself and to use the talents that God gave you.” The irony was that I was already doing that. I just didn’t sufficiently value what I was doing and the contributions I was making. I have done so many different things in the years that I have been raising my children. I’ve written stuff, I’ve volunteered for stuff, I’ve educated myself on a lot of topics, I’ve been involved in music in various ways and much else besides. None of these endeavours have been paid, but they have all been meaningful. Sometimes the hours that I could give to them were few, because of the demands of my family and the limitations of my health. But that was ok. I was still being me, in whatever way I could.

So to any young (or not so young) new mums out there, wrestling with this stuff, I have four pieces of unsolicited advice for you:

1) Get a copy of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown, and read the chapter on Meaningful Work. (A wee shout out to my dear friend Lindsay, for reminding me to do just that every time I have a wobble with this stuff.)

2) Ask yourself what you really enjoy doing. And start doing it. Today. Even if you only manage 5 minutes. Repeat tomorrow.

3) Ask yourself what you are really quite good at. (This may be the same as your answer to number 2 but not necessarily.) No false modesty. We all have at least one talent in life. Newsflash; your talent is not for you! It is to be shared. Find a way of offering it to the world. Start small if you have to.

4) And finally, and most importantly, stop berating yourself about the decisions you’ve made about work and child rearing. Just STOP. Enjoy your life, however it looks right now. It will all be ok. I promise.

Love K

On January, and a little less consuming and a little more creating.

I’ll be honest. I quite like January. Not for the short days and grim weather obviously. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent my whole life in the North of the UK; I will never get used to those early mornings when I have to drop my child at the school bus stop IN THE DARK for heaven’s sake. That’s insane and always will be. I will never love the gloomy afternoons where the day is basically over by 3pm.

No, my fondness for January is all about the optimism. There’s a feeling of newness in the atmosphere, of possibilities, fresh starts and crisp new diaries. In January, we somehow have that little bit more belief that things can change. That we can change! Even if we have spent all of December, or, let’s be honest, the whole of October, November and December getting fatter, poorer, and generally slacker at everything, January gives us hope!

I usually make at least a dozen New Year’s resolutions. I make them willy nilly. (I break them willy nilly too but that’s another story) And this year of course I found myself doing it all over again. You know the deal. I’ll eat only whole foods. I’ll squat every day. I’ll read the classics instead of scrolling Instagram. I’ll play Monopoly with my children after they’ve finished their homework and the PlayStation will be for School Holidays Only. And on it went…

Until I stopped myself. Of course, deep down I know how unrealistic, and, frankly, ridiculous it is to believe that anyone could make all these changes overnight. The mundane truth is that for most of us, change happens slowly. And it never happens in a straight line. It’s like learning to ski or to dance the quickstep. It’s bumpy. Its messy. It’s two steps forwards and then five back again. But the mundane truth is not what sells diet plans or glossy magazines….

So for this year, I’ve decided to make peace with messy and mundane. To make friends with bumpy and realistic. I’m trading in my twenty odd idealistic resolutions for just one….. intention. When I actually stopped to think about all the different ways in which I wished my behaviour was different, one common theme emerged. There was one thread running through my clutch of daft resolutions and I decided to pay attention to it. Lurking within all my pipe dreams of eating less, reading more, being better at recycling and playing more piano was a real and genuine longing to do a little less CONSUMING in my life and just a little more CREATING.

So much of our Western culture sets us up for a consumptive lifestyle. We are bombarded with messages from advertisers who tell us they understand how busy and stressed we are, so we “deserve” that new dress, or a meal out at that new restaurant. The winter weather doesn’t help. When we’ve worked hard all day it’s so much easier to watch Netflix than it is to suggest a game of cards with the kids or to do a bit of baking, or photography or whatever our creative thing would be. (Mine is certainly not photography.) But I do have a beautiful piano and I far too often tell myself that “I’ll do some practise tomorrow.” And there have been more occasions than I would care to admit when I have given in to the pull of the M&S chill cabinet when, for just a little extra effort, I could have cooked up some leftovers, not just saving a tenner, but also putting just a tiny bit less stress on the planet.

So there you have it. I’ve taken a risk and written it in black and white. A little less consumption and a little more creation. Or should that be creativity? I don’t think it matters. You know what I mean. And you can keep me accountable….Eek!

So what about you? I’d love to know your intention for 2018? Maybe it’s a hope or a dream, or maybe it’s just one word which you hope will be your companion and inspire you in small way in the coming year. Let me know in the comments!

Here’s to making messy and bumpy progress in 2018 and having some fun along the way….

Happy New Year!