Learning from the past

Learning from the past

The night I met Mark

I have been asked in the past (often by people who thought they were being kind by showing interest) whether, if I knew that Mark was going to die, I would still have married him. On the surface it sounds like a ridiculous question – purely academic anyway, and far too close to just torturing yourself. But it is interesting to contemplate. And, although in our situation it was unforeseeable, sometimes people enter into relationships knowing that the person they are joining has a severely limited time on this planet. In every interview I have read about this sort of situation the individual left behind is unequivocal in their answer – they would fall in love all over again given the chance. They often mention things they would do differently – plan better for the end, fit in more adventures, have children earlier, not have children, care less about careers….. But they would choose that person over again if they could.

I would do the same. If someone had walked up to me at that house party and said “You see that man over there that you’re thinking about talking to? Well, you’re going to get married, have a baby, and 9 and a half years from now he’s going to die.” I would still walk over and introduce myself. I would still spend 6 hours laughing with him in our tiny student kitchen. I would still walk around Rome with him, taking in the epic history. I would still say yes when he asked me to marry him on the beach in Devon. I would still stand up in front of our friends and family and take our vows. I would still have his baby, even if I knew that he wouldn’t be around to see him grow up. I would do all those things; because the joy that he brought to my life was worth all of the pain and trauma that came afterwards. And, most importantly of all, Ethan is worth all of it and more. I would do it all again.

There are things that I would do differently. Things that I would encourage him to do differently. Some of them I have tried to weave into my life post-Mark – lessons learnt from mistakes made. I would have been more realistic about his chances of survival once he was diagnosed. We didn’t talk about him dying, because to mention it felt like we were giving up. But what that actually meant was we never said goodbye; and we didn’t plan for how he would say goodbye to Ethan, or what he would leave him. We didn’t talk about how much we would miss each other. The narrative of being in a battle against cancer often leads people to think stoicism is more important than being emotionally present. There were days when I spent too much time focusing solely on the practical task in front of me and not how devastated the whole situation made me feel. I didn’t want to be the weak link in the chain, or the reason Mark gave up hope. So much energy was wasted on powering through and being positive, and not enough spent on being honest with each other.

So there we are.  On my darkest days, especially since I got pregnant, my mind wanders to what would happen if Nick died. Part of my brain almost assumes that this will happen as this is all my experience. I imagine being left with a 10 year old and a 2 year old, having to go through the whole process again. I almost can’t comprehend a man sticking around for the entire thing. Near the beginning of our relationship this coloured the language I used and the emotions I let myself feel. I couldn’t say that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him as I honestly believed that he would die way before me. That is a messed up thing to write down, but that’s where my head was (and sometimes still is).

But even if the worst were to happen once more, I would do it all over again. I would take the first – terrifying – step sat on Susan’s sofa, hitting the upload button on my Match.com profile. I would wait in the freezing cold outside the Town Hall to meet the stranger I’d only texted. I would open up my home, my life, my tiny family to this quiet, adventure-grabbing man. I would lay bare the effects that trauma has had on my psyche, and I would struggle to create an atmosphere where there was room for both men, past and present. I would say yes to the magical proposal at the end of a 20km uphill bike ride next to a lighthouse. I would promise to build a life with him in front of all our friends and family at our very own festival, with children running around sticky with ice lollies and apple juice. I would have his baby, and watch him grow even more as a father than he had already. I would do all these things again – even if the worst happened – because life is short.

Life is short, and you never know how long you will have it for. So I will grasp every opportunity for love, joy and connection. I want to experience life and adventures. I want to enjoy my weekends instead of worrying about mortgages and pension plans and “working hard now so we can enjoy it later”. Mark’s entire psyche was overwhelmed by the need to be prepared for the future – to be responsible adults who overpaid into our pensions and scrimped and saved to get a good mortgage rate, and worked very long hours so that he would get promoted and retire early to spend time with his family. But he put in all the hard work and never got to enjoy the reward. I’m not saying his life was miserable drudgery, but his focus was the future, at the expense of the present. Near the end he said that, if he’d known what was going to happen, he would have worried less about his pension and more about the experiences he was having. He would have bought a little sports car, come home earlier and given Ethan tea, had more lie-ins. And eaten more cheeseburgers.

So my head is a messed up place, with regrets and weird connections and assumptions that probably bear no relation to what is actually likely to happen. But that is why I  use the best china, wear my dry clean only clothes, drink the good wine, go to the concerts and the festivals, go to friends’ houses for lunch and end up staying until the following evening, regardless of how much washing needs doing, have pyjama days with Ethan – and now Erica – snuggled on the sofa, make life NOW worth living, and worth remembering – however long we get to be here.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day

Today is a weird day…let me count the reasons…

My Dad died in 2014, rather suddenly of a heart attack.

We had a complicated relationship in our 31 years together. He was charismatic, often larger than life, full of stories and hugs; political debates and brand new music to share. He taught me that you should treat everyone equally because everyone has something to teach you. He championed LGBTQ+ rights and anti-racism to me alongside a (possibly unhealthy) hatred of Margaret Thatcher. He taught me to use a band saw, change a spark plug, and carve on a lathe. He encouraged my music – and was so proud of me at every concert, exam and performance. He showed me the different plants and flowers and insects on forest walks, and had such high hopes for my future career paths. I always knew that he loved me unconditionally.

But he was also an alcoholic, and an expert emotional manipulator. As a child he would wake me up at 3 in the morning to watch old films, so that he had someone to keep him company and regale with old military stories. He was embarrassing when drunk, and volatile when hungover. Even now I freeze at raised voices and conflict in any space. I often find myself telling Ethan off for shouting and then realising that he wasn’t really, I am just super-sensitive. His habit meant my childhood was financially insecure and led to a tense and distant relationship with much of his wider family – something which saddens me as the new generation grows.

He was the best and worst of fathers. And Father’s Day when he was alive was conflicting enough. Now that he is no longer with us it is even more so. There is so much he has missed – he would have delighted in Ethan, with his enquiring mind and blossoming musical talent. They would have had long talks about engineering and politics. And a granddaughter would have brought an extra twinkle into his eye, he loved little children so much. He has also missed much of me, and although he wouldn’t have been particularly impressed with my stilted career path when I always promised to be Prime Minister, he would have been proud of my writing and the lives I shaped with my youth work.

Ethan’s first day!

7 months after my Dad, Mark died. 2014 was a shitty year.

 It has sometimes, in my adult life, been difficult to know what it is that a “normal” father is meant to do. I tend toward self-sufficiency, and away from asking for help. Mark was a wonderful father. His joy in Ethan was evident from the moment we found out I was pregnant. His entry into actual fatherhood was raw and terrifying, beginning with him sitting in a room holding a baby, contemplating the possibility that he would have to raise it alone. But after that tumultuous 72 hours, he came into his own – relaxing into a role that he had been looking forward to for so long. He was hands-on (if a little nervous) and spent as much time as physically possible with his beautiful son – watching first food and first steps and first rugby ball throws.

He showed me a wonderful example of a steady, loving, consistent father, and I am so happy that Ethan had him as an influence in his life for even that short time. As we continue to tell Ethan stories of his Dad, favourite songs, quirks and habits, this influence will continue. Mark continues to be celebrated on days like today, with a card delivered up to the cemetery and some time spent watching old videos. This part of the day is particularly difficult for me – the tightening of my chest and holding back of tears – too many emotions all rushing together. For the first few years there was also the policing of over-enthusiastic nursery and school teachers excited for an easy craft activity. The furtive word at drop-off explaining that this is our circumstance, and that there will probably be tears and/or matter of fact “my dad is dead” explanations during the class discussion. These were almost always met with well-meaning apologies and a heavy dose of pity – neither of which I’m that comfortable with. There was the Daddy’s Day at playgroup that meant well (getting fathers more involved in their children’s education is a wonderful cause) but that resulted in a tearful phone-call to my 21 year old brother asking if he’d step in for the morning.

Its possible that it would be easier to forget about these little rituals, but good dad’s should be celebrated, even when they are no longer with us.

Mark’s Dad, David, with Ethan

Mark’s father took me under his wing after Mark died. He phoned to check up on me regularly, he fixed patio lights and wardrobes, he (and Wendy) fed me red wine and let me sit while they had water fights with Ethan. He solved problems in the no-nonsense, ex-policeman way that only he can. He deserves to be celebrated on a day like today; he raised 3 lovely boys and is a constant caring and secure figure in all our lives…

But each day like this reminds him that he is missing a son, that his family unit is no longer complete, and that under celebration there is often sadness. I know that Ethan brings him much joy, and I try to use this day to let him know how valued a father-in-law he is.

Nick’s Dad, Roland.

Then came Nick. Nick’s dad died a few weeks after we starting dating, the night before our planned, child free weekend away in Edinburgh. I’m so happy that I got to meet him once before he passed away, at a birthday meal in a cute little pub in Wanborough. I met his sister, brother-in-law and Uncle all at the same time, thrown in at the deep-end! He was quiet, and I could see behind the ravages of Parkinson’s disease the strong and humorous man that he used to be. I know that Nick saw his death almost as a kindness, with all that long-term illness had done to his body. But, however kind, losing a father is losing a father.

It is Nick’s first Father’s Day with Erica. But I feel weird about calling it his first Father’s Day, as he has been the most incredible father to Ethan for 4 years. Coming into our unique situation was daunting, I’d imagine. It was tricky for both of us to work out how much of the parenting role it was right for him to take on at different times. He was a natural with Ethan, and their bond has always been so special, even now we’ve hit grumpy 8-year-old hormone territory. We all felt our way, and often let Ethan lead. Nick’s graciousness allows space for Mark and himself as father figures in Ethan’s life. And, honestly, it’s as if being a father was what he was always meant to do. He is firm but fair, always ready to be ridiculous, has never balked at the 2am wake-ups and interruptions, builds dens, and has the most accomplished range of accents for story time – his cockney fish is a firm favourite! Without replacing Ethan’s daddy, he has been everything Ethan has needed these last 4 years.
 

Having jumped in to parenting starting at  4, I know that Nick was nervous about never having done the baby thing. He needn’t have worried. Apart from being unable to close doors quietly while she’s napping (cue mummy-rage), he’s been just as good at the nappies, trapped wind, late nights and teething as he was at learning all the names of the Disney Cars characters, listening to solar system facts on repeat and battling with hair washing. He’s got this down. Erica and Ethan are both incredibly lucky to have him.

Ethan and some of his Uncles

Male role models in my life have sometimes been hard to come by; we are something of a matriarchy, and I have had to collect them for myself. So there are many others to be celebrated on a day like today:

My Grandad – who was always the best clothes shopping companion in the January sales (Dewhurst men have an uncanny ability at picking outfits for the women in their lives!), and took 2 weeks one Easter to teach me the whole GCSE Physics syllabus so I didn’t fail my exams.

Uncle Martin, who taught me the joy of disobedience and blaming other people for farts at the table, who shows me that you don’t need to be loud to have a presence in people’s lives. And who gives the best hugs.

Pete Wilderspin, who, without being in any way related to me, will forever be remembered as opening his home in a quiet, generous way to a bunch of teenagers who monopolised his living room and ate copious fried egg and bacon sandwiches; and who taught me how to cook English Breakfasts “Caff-style”.

Then the Uncles. Daniel, Bryan, Chris and Taddy; in all their longbow practising/Dr Suess reading/rugby playing/science conversation having glory. All of whom show me every day how much they love their nephew, and are the best examples to him of how to be a man, in all it’s varieties.

And so many of my wonderful friends who have shown me what being a father means – the kindness and capability of men and the beauty of watching them love their children to distraction.

So today is not as simple as sending cards and saying thankyou to one or two people. It isn’t completely joyous or completely sad. It is a messy, complicated and unexpected reflection of my own situation. And it gives me one of those teary smiles. Which is fine by me.

Learning to invoice

Comparison is the thief of joy….and sympathy

Comparison is the thief of joy….and sympathy

I debated for quite a long time about posting this now. Reading it back I realised that it could (if you tried really hard) be taken as some sort of obscure comment on Black Lives Matter and the horrendous #alllivesmatter which belittles the legitimate trauma and oppression of people of colour and disregards white privilege.  It is NOT that. In my last post (also on myfeelfit.uk) I was very clear on the need to listen to black voices and work to change the injustices ingrained in our society.

But the way I’ve approached this blog is to try and write about what is going on in my life and head at this very moment. And this is it.  I’m firmly sat with my widow/parent/youth work/psychology hat (massive hat, obvs!) on today.

Ok, disclaimer over..

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we always play down our own struggles and trauma by reasoning that someone else, somewhere else, has it worse. So we think that we shouldn’t complain, or we have our pain belittled by others, just because greater pain can always be found elsewhere.

I have 2 problems with this mindset:

  1. As far as I am concerned, there is no objective hierarchy or scale of struggle, trauma or pain. I’m happy to be corrected if anyone has found it, but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been developed. Just because one individual breaks their leg and their arm, it doesn’t stop the person in the hospital bed next them who has broken “just” their arm feel their own pain. The pain doesn’t stop just because it isn’t the worst in the room. There isn’t some kind of “pain pie” and the more we take the less there is for anyone else.
  2. This approach stops people talking about their own struggles. The pain is still being felt, but the support which could be available isn’t tapped into , because the mum who has spent the last 8 weeks surviving on little sleep, no time to herself, pulled between and baby in a sleep regression and a child homeschooling who still needs emotional and practical support, compares her situation to someone without a garden, without income and with poor physical health and judges that she is just complaining about nothing and should get on with it…..

It’s possible I’m talking about myself…. Who’d have guessed….

But it is something that I find myself doing all the time. Belittling my pain and comparing it with that of others as if that is a thing. I assume that highlighting my struggles means that I am negating the struggles of others, but that isn’t true. There is enough room in the world for everyone’s experiences, there is enough compassion for my friend to care about me when I tell her that I’ve felt torn between my two children all day and slept about 3 hours in total, and for her to care about another friend who may be going through a miscarriage, or about the homeless man on her high street. And at the same time, acknowledging my own pain and the affect it has on me and those around me doesn’t mean that I don’t have compassion for other around me in different or worse situations. I can care about others whilst caring about myself.

I find it very difficult to be vulnerable. I’ll chat about anything that has happened to me – my life is up for grabs, but in real life conversations I tend to shy away from when I’ve felt sad or unable to cope. I have always been the fixer in my family and my group of friends. I have always seen my role as the person people come to with their problems, to give advice or perspective, or a shoulder to cry on. And my, ultimately twisted, logic, is that showing vulnerability in this role will lead to it being taken away. Why would people want to come to me for advice if I can’t even handle my own problems? This has led to a real issue with reaching out, admitting a struggle and asking for help. When this was compounded by the stoic coping widow image that I pulled around me it became more difficult for me to appear to not have it all together. It was also very easy for me to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad – I still had a house and a supportive family around me.

In the last year I have tried my very best to be more honest about times when I am drowning. On many occasions I have been pleasantly surprised by how it’s been received – who would have thought that my friends actually wanted to support me too?! (Yes, I know I’m a numpty…) But I’ve also had conversations where I’ve attempted to share a particularly difficult day or situation and been shot down because “That’s what you signed up for” or “That’s being a mum” or “But at least you have a secure home”. And in my journeys through Instagram there are often posts talking about shitty days people have had prefaced with “I know that I am very lucky and obviously I love my children, and lots of other people have it worse….”

It’s sort of like when someone posts online supporting a particular charity and they’re told off for not mentioning all the other charities in the world. “How dare you highlight the plight of endangered tortoises! Don’t you know that Red Pandas are endangered too?!”

I don’t know why we feel we have to do this. I don’t know when it became compulsory to preface every call for help or sympathy with please-don’t-think-I’m-ungrateful-or-that-I-hate-my-children.

I think perhaps it’s because we don’t know what to say as a society when people are vulnerable and struggling. There are two responses: “How can I fix this” and “Let’s make the problem smaller by giving examples of how it could be worse/how lucky you are”

Neither of those are helpful in the face of pain, suffering, or a struggling mum who loves her children but is in a particularly difficult phase of parenting. Sometimes we want our friends to help us fix our problems. But more often we just want someone to sit down with us (even virtually) and say “Yes. It is shit. You are doing the best you can. And you are allowed to feel defeated/sad/exhausted/insert appropriate emotion here. Here is some wine (or a funny internet meme) to momentarily cheer you up.”

You know, unless any of you actually have any ideas I haven’t tried yet…because I am actually quite tired…..

The cuteness helps…

Being an Ally – Black Lives Matter

Being an Ally – Black Lives Matter

This post was originally written for Feel Fit (a sustainable fitness company built by my friend, Ellie Crawley) I write for the blog on her page, about fitness, being a mum, sustainability and inclusivity. Head here for more stuff from me and them.

News of the Black Lives Matter movement has been sitting in the back of my mind for a long time now – since about 2013 when it was set up by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi after neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing the teenager Trayvon Martin.

But the thing is, having it sitting in the back of my mind is a privilege in itself. That I am able to check in and out, educating myself is a privilege. It is not my lived experience. I do not have to deal with the reality of racism every single day of my life, as people of colour do. A lot of us are checking in at the moment – horrified at the killing of George Floyd, as we were at Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many more – and that is good – we should care about those around us being persecuted. But our black friends have been dealing with this forever. They don’t have the option of checking out, finding a different news story to interest them – this is their reality.

It is times like these are a reminder that those of us with a platform – a voice, who are not people of colour, should be using that platform to educate ourselves and to support black voices, black movements, black causes, rather than witter on about how guilty we feel for unintentionally perpetuating racism. Feel Fit believes that every colour, size, shape, and age matters, and we want to use our platform to help. So, here are some better ways to be an ally:

(A small disclaimer: I write this as a white person, attempting to encourage other white people to address this issue.)

Educate yourself:

In this country you can go from age 5-18 without being taught anything about the UK history of racism. We learn about the US, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King. We might have read To Kill a Mockingbird in English. We may have heard a little about how the white politician, William Wilberforce abolished slavery in the UK. But our understanding of how the country we live in pillaged foreign lands, and exploited entire peoples is limited. This colours how we see the problem. Racism is a problem in the UK as well as in the US. It is ingrained into our systems and our society. The fact that we are unaware of this, as white people, is a privilege. But we can educate ourselves. There is so much material out there explaining the history and implications of racism in this country; all out there for you to read. We need to do the work. Here are some books to start (and a lot of them are on audiobook too!)

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch

Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

When we Ruled the World: The Ancient and Medieval History of Black Civilisations

When they Call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors

And your Children:

Those of us who have their own children, or who have contact with children, have a responsibility to model inclusivity, diversity and equality – to show them how important it is and what benefit it brings to us all. Our children watch us all the time, and they are little sponges. They will listen to our words, but they will put more stock in our actions and the way we treat those around us.

But we also need to try, in our homes, to undo the institutional racism that runs through our whole society. Look through your children’s story books. Do they contain characters of different genders, colours, races, faiths and sexualities? Look through the information books on your shelves. Are your children learning about global stories as well as European fairytales? Do they have the opportunity to see black people as heroes, successes, role models? If not, here are some suggestions:

Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs

A Kids Book About Racism by Jelani Memory

This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell

This Evening Standard article lists 30 fabulous children’s books which celebrate diversity: https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/books/best-childrens-books-diversity-a3974701.html

And your social circle:

Facebook and Twitter algorithms have us all in our little echo chambers – we only see the people and pages who agree with us. These sites literally tell us what we want to hear. This means that we tend to assume that all those around us think the same way as us. But this is not the case. All you have to do is look under the comments of news articles from LBC or The Guardian, for example, to find many many people who do not view racism as a problem, who are not welcoming of people of colour or people with different faiths, or from other countries. I’m willing to bet that we have all had that awkward moment during a family dinner or a social event where the person we think is generally reasonable has suddenly said something very un-inclusive and surprising. And this happens online too.

The automatic response is usually to pull away from the subject, laugh off the comment and talk about how work is going, or what the weather has been like.

But this is ducking our responsibility too – if we believe in inclusivity, diversity and equality are key to a good society, then we need to address these attitudes wherever we find them. We always have a responsibility to speak up and challenge racism. You can disagree with someone and still love them. I would highly recommend James O’Brien’s book “How to be Right” for ways of doing this. (And his LBC radio show for many examples).

Diversify your feed:

We all live our lives on social media, especially now we are physically isolated a lot of the time. If you are serious about inclusivity, if the voices of people of colour really are just as valid to you as those of white people, then your instagram, twitter and facebook feeds should reflect this. What we see on a daily basis is what we regard as normal – it’s why so many of us have called for more diverse body images in the media, and it stands here too. In a recent instagram post, we shared some accounts to follow and learn from. Here are some more:

@emmadabiri (she has recently posted a really interesting list on how white people were invented)

@jameelajamil

@wokekindergarten

@stephanieyeboah

@officialmillenialblack

@bodyposipanda

@laylafsaad

@sophiewilliamsofficial

@stylemesunday

@niathelight

@jadelaurice

@munroebergdorf

@remi.sade

@thevitamindproject

@portiaprince

@heysareta

@theconsciouskid

@elizabethdialto

And use your profile to boost the voices of black people – the artists, the educators, the authors, the musicians – share and share again.

Campaign for change:

It’s not enough to read the news and bemoan how awful these tragedies are. We should also be prepared to take action. Now, this will look different for different people. Not all of us are in a position to go on marches, but that is only one option. You can also consider donating to charities (see below), signing petitions (such as those asking for statues of racist historical figures to be taken down all over the country), or writing to your MP.

And don’t think that the only issue at stake is racism in the police. There are many other areas of society where being a person of colour can endanger your health, education and happiness. Take an interest in these too.

Here are 10 anti-racist UK charities you can donate to:

Show Racism the Red Card

Runnymede

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

Stand Against Racism and Inequality (SARI)

Kick It Out

Stop Hate UK

Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER)

Discrimination Law Association (DLA)

Race Equality First

Black Lives Matter UK (UKBLM)

If we want a world where every single individual is valued, loved and cared for no matter the colour of their skin, their faith, their sexuality, the size, age or gender, then we have to do the work. We can’t change the world without changing ourselves.

To sleep…perchance to dream

To sleep…perchance to dream

Butter wouldn’t melt…

It is 8.47am. Someone on our street is hitting something very hard with something very heavy. Erica is asleep, on my lap, downstairs. I would close the windows but its about 50million degrees and I don’t want to compound the headache I already have from last night’s shenanigans (not the good kind). She was up at 11, at 3 and then at 5 until about half an hour ago. She will wake up soon, before she’s slept for long enough, and I will be stuck entertaining a very grumpy baby when we’ve run out of coffee beans.

Every parent of a small (and smallish) child knows the dread and despair and impotent rage of people in your neighbourhood making noise when you’ve just got the small person to sleep. The bin men, the cheery whistling postie, the Amazon delivery guy who thinks you might be deaf, and in the back garden, and listening to thrash metal so might miss a normal volume knock, the exuberant DIYers, the house party next door, the beeping reversing lorries. In our case, when Ethan was small, the fish and chip van that arrived in our cul de sac around 7.30pm playing La Cucuracha and made mild-mannered Mark want to slash tires.

I have been wary of talking about sleep. Mainly because we have been incredibly lucky in comparison to others I know. I have friends who’s babies are up every hour to feed through the night, friends who’s darling little ones give them no respite and seem to have taken lessons from some sort of maternity ward-based black-ops group. Erica gave us a tough run-in…would only sleep on me or on the sofa…would scream unless Nick bounced up and down on the yoga ball (holding her, obviously, not just with her watching for entertainment value!)…would not even consider the crib as a sensible place to sleep. But when we decided to swaddle her as a last resort (Ethan had hated it) we turned a corner and she slept through regularly from around 11pm to 6 or 7am. I couldn’t believe my luck, but kept reminding myself that it was probably just a phase.

And now we have hit the 4 month sleep regression and I don’t like being proved right as much as I usually do! The lovely 2-3 hour morning nap has disappeared, replaced with 40 minute cat naps through the day; and there has been a return of the 2 hours plus of screaming before she will go to sleep at night. Weirdly, given my usual amnesia, I remember this stage with Ethan. I remember feeling deaf for about 3 months and identifying with the pacing polar bear at Bristol Zoo, as I wore a path in the bedroom carpet with that weird bouncy parent walk that we do. But, to an extent, it didn’t matter if there was screaming, we could focus all our attention on dealing with it and him. Now, there is the small matter of a tired 8 year old in the next room who isn’t settled by his sister wailing, or by the white noise we’re trying. And who has the worst timing in the world – always choosing to burst into the bedroom with a duvet problem when she is just closing her eyes….

They love each other really!

Two children…terrible idea….

It is Half Term this week, so we don’t have the conflict of our usual scheduled online lessons to worry about when I’m upstairs trying to get Erica to nap. But I do often feel like a terrible parent when I’m up in the darkened bedroom for what feels like hours and Ethan is having to occupy himself and get his own snacks like some kind of latchkey kid (Obviously I exaggerate…like I said…we’ve run out of coffee beans – everything is very melodramatic this morning).

Sleep is such a stress point for parents. We all think that our child should be sleeping better or longer or in a different place than they are. We assume everyone else is doing so much better than us. And (for me at least) it feels like a personal failure when you can’t get your child to sleep or settle them when they’re upset.

When I met Nick and he joined our little family I was very aware that he was coming into a tricky situation. Aside from the whole widow thing (as if that wasn’t enough), he was learning this parenting thing on the job . Now, I know I don’t have all the answers – far from it – but I did have a few parenting rules that I shared with him near the beginning. And, bearing in mind all I’ve written above, it may be time to remind myself of the first one:

  1. Never take anything personally (In this case the baby is not crying/looking sad/being sick because she hates you)

In case you’re interested, the other two are:

  1. Never threaten anything that you’re not willing to follow through on (if you tell them that they must behave or you’ll have to leave the party, you better be prepared to leave the party! Even if you’re actually having a good time and don’t want to head home. In these kind of situations it is always more sensible to choose different consequences…This is obviously less of an issue with Erica currently!)
  2. Everything is a phase (each stage of childhood has it’s own challenges, and when you get to the next one, you’ll probably miss the one’s before!)

So, this too will pass, Erica doesn’t hate me, Ethan will survive having to reach for his own crisps, and Nick will come home later with coffee beans… Maybe I should cross-stitch that on a pillow somewhere…

It’s not you, it’s me…

It’s not you, it’s me…

I’m finding it hard to be inspired to write anything at the moment. I’m very tired and much of what I have to do is monotonous. But ideas do pop in – like yesterday when I was working out and listening to an online talk with Dr Shefali Tsabary, an American clinical psychologist. She was talking about projection as a parent. I realised that most of the things I get cross with Ethan about, or I worry about for him are not about him at all. They are me projecting my lack or my fear onto him. I worry about him not making friends and being isolated because I struggled socially at school. And when I stop and think and look and listen, I realise that he has so many friends that sometimes he finds it stressful when they fight over who gets to play with him!

Gratuitous baby shot of Ethan!

I am constantly concerned that we are not pushing him enough academically  because I would have loved the opportunities and support of a private school context, but he is not me, and I know that we don’t want him pushed, we don’t want him stressed, that we have decided that the most important thing for us is that he is confident, happy and curious. The niggle in the back of my mind that if we don’t push then he won’t reach his potential is me bemoaning what I feel is my own unreached potential. My issues are not his issues, and if I am to connect to him as his own person, to really notice his soul, then I need to check myself each time I am about to snap, each time a particular behaviour annoys me, each time I compare him to other children. I need to work out whether this is something that needs to be addressed with him, or whether it is me who needs the work.

Dr Shefali, in her book The Conscious Parent says that the first task of any parent is to parent themselves, not their child. Our task is to raise ourselves to be as present and aware as possible.  Everything we do as parents comes from an effort to either recreate our upbringing, or do the complete opposite. This essentially means that we end up not actually parenting our own child, but who we think they should be.

“Our children come to us so that we may recognise our psychic wounds and call up the courage to transcend the limitations these wounds place on us. As we uncover the way in which our past drives us, we gradually become capable of parenting consciously”

 ~ Dr Shefali    

Ethan’s instincts are not my instincts, his experiences are not my experiences. His personality is not my personality.

I am aware that he has anxieties. He is not a carefree little boy – it would be remarkable if he was after everything that he has had to deal with in his life already. For example, he doesn’t like to go upstairs by himself. For a while it frustrated me that he was being so ridiculous. And then it suddenly hit me that there is an actual reason, but it is completely unconscious. During a formative time in his life, a figure who was meant to be stable and secure, suddenly disappeared and he didn’t really comprehend why. So this now sits at the back of his brain, niggling away, and giving him the fear that if he is away from any of the other stable people in his life, there is a chance that they will also disappear. He wouldn’t be able to articulate this, it is not part of a line of conscious decision-making, but it is something that Nick and I need to take into consideration every time we are confronted with his nervousness and anxiousness. His childhood was framed around an instability, no matter how much I desperately focused on combatting it (often to the detriment of aspects of my life and other peoples). And much around him makes him feel uncertain, even if he does not know why. There is no point in berating him, in trying to encourage it out of him. We must be present in his struggle, and acknowledge his uncertainty, whilst being a stable base for him to slowly venture out when he is ready.

The OG O’Brien-Day’s

The book is well worth a read, by the way. Or a listen on Audible while you clean the house/do the ironing/run off your stress on your daily exercise!

Sunday Morning Thoughts

Sunday Morning Thoughts

I am sitting on the chaise that we bought for £50 from Facebook Marketplace for our wedding and loved too much to get rid of. We’ve had to move it from it’s usual position to accommodate the desk and chair that Ethan needs for his home-school lessons. The room feels a lot more crowded than it did a few months ago. There is a stack of Lego trays on the floor under the TV, so that I don’t have to try and carry them downstairs whilst holding a baby. Nick has inexplicably perched the printer on top of the 10 green balloons Ethan asked me to blow up yesterday so we could play balloon tennis. Under the piano stool I can see the trug of cloth nappies, extra clothes and the boxes of wipes, living there because the nursery isn’t ready yet. I have to step over 2 different playmats to get from one end of the kitchen to the other; placed there to ensure that Erica has somewhere safe to hang out while I make the 52nd Ethan snack of the day. The landing currently holds 3 piles of clean washing that need putting away and 2 boxes of clothes that are already too small for Erica and can’t go on Facebook because of #socialdistancing.  My bathroom is probably a health hazard…Ethan is yet to learn to aim consistently and cleaning the toilet whilst baby-wearing feels fairly precarious.

My house is chaotic right now.

I do not deal well with chaos.

My childhood was quite chaotic, our two bedroom council house too small for 3 adults and 2, then 3 children. We were busting out at the seams, with books and clothes and toys and washing and hormones everywhere. I hate chaos, its really triggering for me. I have moved myself such a distance away from Social Security payments and milk tokens and food parcels from kind churches and too small uniform and embarrassing packed lunches filled with fluorescent reduced labels. And part of that has been creating calm and clean and a slightly minimalist space – turning my home in to somewhere I can breathe – not in a cold clinical way, I love hosting friends and family, with people turning up in the morning and still chilling out in the kitchen with some wine at 10pm – but clutter is not something I am comfortable with.

But you grow to fit the space you have, and we have a LOT of stuff now…which was fine: we have loft space and a playroom and a garden shed. But with this new tiny human we needed to rearrange, and to get some of the stuff out of its hiding place to be wriggled on and in. Lockdown and homeschooling and, to some extent, Erica’s slightly early arrival, have meant things are not yet in their place, we have not yet settled into how our house will look for the near future, and it has left me feeling as unsettled as my spare room. This is compounded by being stuck inside for all but 1 hour of the day with a hormonal 8 year old and an uncommunicative milk monster.

The piles of washing and messy bathroom frankly make me feel as if I am slipping back into the poverty of my past. As if I am only one cluttered landing away from free school meals and Tesco white bread sandwiches.  I tell myself that this is silly, and illogical, that we are in the middle of a global crisis, and a significant change in our household, and so un-ironed t-shirts are not the end of the world. But my brain is wired oddly…and I find the fear hard to shake.

So today we will be sorting things, clearing spaces and working out how to make our immediate surroundings fit our new circumstances…it will be fuelled by coffee, Judge Jules’ Carfest set and, later, probably wine. I won’t quite be turning into Marie Kondo, but I’m going to give it a damn good try.

Exercise in the time of Covid

Exercise in the time of Covid

attempting to multi-task

This morning I set up the living room to do my workout. Erica was sleeping in our bedroom; Ethan was in his bedroom playing Minecraft on his Nintendo Switch. I did the 15 minutes of Cardio that I’ve started to add on in the last two weeks perfectly happy. Then, as I got ready to do the mat/Pilates part I heard that niggling voice in my head:

“He’s been staring at the screen for an hour…you really should do something active with him…”

“You did a workout yesterday, and the day before, can you really justify another hour when he has to occupy himself?”

“Why should you have time to yourself when there’s washing to put on/out/in, the dishwasher to empty, hoovering to do? You’re so selfish!”

Life is busy right now (it has always been busy to be honest, who am I kidding, but it seems particularly pressured at the moment).

A new born has brought more washing than I remember, not helped by the choice we have made to do cloth nappies and wipes again. Ethan seems incapable of wearing anything more than once so his washing basket is always full. I’m getting through more clothes than usual (baby sick, baby dribble, baby everything, the food I’m dropping while I try to eat while she’s feeding (no-one’s going to notice the sriracha stain on her onesie, right?!)).

Keeping Ethan in snacks could almost be a fulltime job…shop bought stuff runs out quickly and is more processed than I’d like so I’ve been baking cookies and flapjacks and banana bread to fill him (and Nick, to be honest!) up. But that takes time, and the first time I tried to bake with Erica in the sling I remembered that opening the oven door is not a good idea with a baby in front of you and so had to re-think.

Then there is the time spent playing with Ethan, which I don’t do anywhere near as often as I should. As an only child for ages he misses playing with his friends, and he’s rubbish at occupying himself alone with anything other than the Switch, inane individuals on YouTube, or comics. I can only really go and kick a football or play swingball with him whilst Erica is asleep, and the one time we attempted Lego with her awake I feared the tiny yellow people wouldn’t recover from the digested milk that ended up all over them!

So, there are many, many things I should be doing whilst Erica is sleeping. And at the moment, the only guaranteed longer than an hour stretch we get is first thing in the morning, after she’s been up an hour. It feels like I have to try and fit everything I need to do in that space, just in case she’ll only sleep on me for the rest of the day. That little niggling voice in my head tells me that exercise shouldn’t be a priority.

And maybe you agree with it. Which is perfectly fine. Not everyone “gets” exercise. Not everyone has the luxury of even thinking about fitting it into their day. And I’ve not always been an endorphin chaser. After revelling in my place on the netball team at primary school (GA thank you very much *takes a bow*!), the social complexities of secondary school team picking combined with being tall and ungainly (and the whole nobody understood the need for sports bras to be part of the uniform thing) sport was not something I enjoyed. Getting sweaty and then putting your uniform back on for the rest of the day was just asking for red-faced related bullying, and people generally wanted to pass to their friends, no matter how good at shooting you actually were. I didn’t enjoy moving my adolescent body, mainly because it seemed unreliable and alien. When I got to Uni there were far too many other fun things to do, and it wasn’t until my best friend and I decided to join a gym together in the 4th year that I got back into the whole “getting fit” thing. We’d stay up late out or in with friends and far too much wine, get up for the 6am spin circuits class (trying not to be sick) and then come home, eat porridge and watch Friends re-runs… With the odd lecture thrown in, obviously. In the holidays back at home I’d run with friends, or by myself, and I started being proud of what my body could achieve, rather than cross that it didn’t seem to compare with media images. When Mark and I married we’d run to the gym together, work out and then run home – me much slower than he would have liked and feeling like I was holding him back. I was always trying to catch up, with him running 10ks most weekends and half marathons when he had the time to train. Running seemed like the most sensible way to keep moving, but although I loved the feeling of being able to run as fast as I could, that was never for long, and I never seemed to improve.

At some point in 2010, I’m not sure how, I came across some workout DVDs by Tracy Anderson, a ridiculously tiny, perky, blonde American trainer completely opposite to anyone I would have normally trusted with my wellbeing. Her moves were like Pilates on crack, mixed with dance cardio routines that I was hopeless at learning, looked like an uncoordinated elephant doing, but completely loved! The whole thing just fit, with none of the repeated stress on my joints that running gave me and a constantly changing routine that meant my (possibly ADHD) brain never got bored. And I’ve been a devotee ever since. Not (pretty obviously) because she’s made my body the perfect specimen I used to yearn after, but because the daily practise of focusing on what my body can do better than it did yesterday has improved my relationship with it more than I can say. I have still had days when I look in the mirror and dislike what I see, but I am kinder to myself than I used to be. When I dance around like a lunatic for 30 minutes I don’t have to think about anything other than trying not to fall over or making sure I don’t kick Ethan in the face, and that has been better for my mental health than anything else I have ever tried. I can work out stresses, lift myself out of despair, and feel as if I have accomplished something when everything else about my day has been shit.  When I was pregnant with Ethan it kept me healthy and flexible. The consultant we saw after the debacle of Ethan’s birth was pretty sure it was the reason I recovered so quickly. When Mark was sick I would come home and workout in the kitchen, and then collapse, dead tired, into much needed sleep which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. After Mark died it was my “me time” once Ethan was in bed, and when the day had been filled with “When is Daddy coming back?” questions I could lay it all on the mat and leave it there to start afresh a new day. Even now I don’t feel like myself if I leave 2 days between a workout, and right now it is helping me rebuild my strength after giving birth. It is also, now that we’re in lockdown, the only 45 minutes to an hour that I get for myself during the day. And, no matter how loud the voice in my head gets, it will take a lot for me to give it up. And, I do feel a bit smug that now everyone is catching onto this “working out from home” malarky!

Ethan says it looks really funny when I do it, he likes being able to join in with me sometimes, and he doesn’t really mind being occasionally kicked in the head! I like to think that I’m setting him a good example, that movement can be a healthy part of your life even if you’re not a naturally sporty person, and that there are loads of different ways of managing difficult emotions. 

I think a lot of my family and friends don’t understand why I workout so much, and think that I’m a bit nerdy about it all. I remember once my gran was staying with us and after 30 minutes she said “Are you not done yet?! That much exercise can’t be healthy!” But my life so far has been fairly stressful…and this keeps me sane…well this and red wine, anyway… #balance

Babies in Lockdown

Babies in Lockdown

I was chatting (online, obvs) with my friends from pregnancy yoga today (we have named ourselves the Yogabies and we don’t care how lame you think it is!). We are a mix of first time mums, mums with newborns and toddlers, and mums with newborns and children old enough to need homeschooling. And we are all frazzled. We all have different challenges during this drama that is unfolding. Some of us are getting used to partners working from home (and being around all the time). Some of us were just getting used to this whole maternity leave thing, trying to find routine, and now all the baby groups we were using as support have closed and we are alone, with just Whatsapp for company. Some of us have partners who need to work during the crisis and so have extra responsibilities on top of what we were expecting. Some of us are endeavouring to be teachers as well as dealing with newborns who have no routines and can’t understand why you need to finish the times table questions before you pick them up from the changing mat.

Nothing is as it should have been (a sentiment I am most familiar with).

To be honest, I do feel slightly cheated out of my maternity leave. These first few months were meant to be spent bonding with Erica, wandering around town with her in the buggy or sling, popping into coffee shops to feed her when she’s inconsolable, ranting with fellow mums about why she won’t sleep, or how everything has changed since the last time I had a baby, letting her fall asleep on me in the afternoon and smelling the top of her head. I had found it difficult enough to organise a baby around school runs and sports matches and homework and teatime even before we all went into a 3 week lockdown and I had to teach an 8 year old all about magnets. (N.B. I know nothing about magnets. When I was getting ready for my GCSE’s I had to go and stay with my Grandad for 2 weeks so he could cram enough Physics into me to help me pass the exam! Why could Ethan not be studying Shakespeare, or The Great Gatsby, or even Socialism?!)

The last week I have felt constantly torn between my two children, as well as the work that needs to be done to keep the house running. And by that I don’t even mean cleaning, just ensuring we have clothes to wear and food to eat! I spend the day feeling like I am not doing enough of anything, for anyone. And I am getting increasingly annoyed at the social media content which encourages people to look on the bright side of the lockdown by giving them ideas of things they can do with all their spare time….. Oh, to have spare time! The pile of books I was hoping to at least make a small dent in is gathering dust. This is the first time I have written anything longer than a Facebook status in about 2 weeks, and Ethan has been surviving almost completely on sausage rolls and cherry tomatoes.

I know that it’s normal to feel like you are failing as a parent (especially as a mother). I know that many people are finding this situation harder than I am, for various reasons. I know that I am very lucky that my family and I are well, and that Nick can keep working under the circumstances (oh the joys of running your own business). I’m quite pleased that we decided to use reusable nappies and wipes as they’re almost impossible to get hold of at the moment. But I am a bit sad, if I’m honest, that real life has crashed the newborn stage.

Erica is getting very good at watching me do things (like cook dinner, load the dishwasher, teach fractions, put out the washing). I am getting better at scheduling a school plan for the day and then completely rearranging it around her naps and mood. Ethan is getting better at adjusting his routine, something which he has always found very difficult. He likes the structure of school (although he will tell you the only things he likes about school are ICT, PE, lunch and break!), and he loves his friends. We are using the House Party app quite a lot so he can talk to them, and the teachers have been wonderful in sending us work home and keeping us all connected. But such a big change in routine means heightened anxiety and emotions, and so we have seen more tears than usual. My patience levels (never fabulous, to be honest) are at a very low ebb.

I miss my friends, and I don’t even have time to chat to them properly using all the fabulous technology that makes this global predicament bearable. I am very cross that the spa days and brewery visits we had planned are on hold…especially as I am currently running out of wine! And the self-indulgent tone of this blog post is also annoying me….

 All in all, I am unimpressed with Covid-19, and would very much lie to fast forward to September… If that’s alright with everyone else!

International Woman’s Day

International Woman’s Day

So, slightly earlier than planned…Erica Christine Day barrelled into our lives on the 26th January. The last 6 weeks have been intense, and I’ve not made it to the blog. I have lots of events and thoughts to update you on, but before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming (of me being far too introspective and wondering how I ever raised an 8 year old!) Here are some thoughts about this important day…

My little feminist 😍

So its International Woman’s Day.

And I had a girl….

I have always been terrified of having a daughter. I’m not a traditionally “girly girl”. I don’t understand how to do my own make up or hairstyles, let alone how to teach someone else about them. I can’t do french plaits. As someone who spent school on the end of some pretty horrendous female behaviour I was wary of re-entering the world of bitchiness, peer pressure and tearful friendship breakdowns.
I’d only ever changed boys’ nappies. And I can only stand pink in very VERY small doses.
Oh, and not to mention that the responsibility of raising a girl to be a strong, confident woman feels massive; full of trip hazards, confusion and balancing protection against independence.

Today’s global society has no easy answers. There is no black or white, just endless shades of grey for us to grapple with. People we admire and love can be on different sides of nuanced arguments and we have yet to work out how disagree kindly. Learning how to be a woman in all this is even more confusing than it was when I was growing up… it’s not even learning how to be a woman any more; it’s learning how to be you whilst navigating what society tells you a woman should be (which changes depending on which Twitter thread you’re reading).

I am sat on my sofa with my tiny daughter asleep (sporadically) on my lap. She is currently wearing a pink babygrow with cats all over it – mainly because that is what was on top of the pile at 3am when she needed changing.
More pink has entered my house these last 6 weeks than ever before, from such lovely, generous people. Thankfully it has also been mixed with greens and yellows and blues (and cardigans with dinosaurs on!) . I am grateful that she will benefit from the campaigns of the last decade to “let toys be toys” and to encourage young women that “this girl can”, and of course those further back that allow us to vote, work, own property, and contribute to society alongside our fellow man.

International Woman’s Day is extra poignant to me this year. The responsibility is a physical, night waking, nappy filling, smiling presence.
I have no idea what type of person she will grow up to be. But I hope that, alongside her brother, we will have taught her to value each person equally, to be kind, and that her worth is not dependent on society’s view of her appearance, but is inherent.

And hey: there are YouTube videos on how to do French plaits, right?!

At least she doesn’t have much hair yet!