A friend of mine invited me to do a podcast on motherhood for her friend / client Lisa York. I agreed! You can find it (and also a brief summary of it) here (warning: loads a little slowly), on Lisa York’s SuperMum website.
Yes…. SuperMum. I have to admit that my friend asked me to do a podcast and I was all “yeah! yeah, sure!” and never really asked what it would be about (I know.. I know). Then ON THE DAY of the podcast I listened to some of the archived podcasts (which I loved!), and dug around in the site and found out that it was all about tips for motherhood. Interestingly, not parenting per se, but motherhood – how to keep sane, or keep happy, or just keep going while “mum-ing”. For example, there were tips on how a quick morning meditation can help your day, and how to have a quick “mummy reboot” or how to “Find Your Lost Identity”. So, my immediate reaction was to look at my unwashed hair and creased clothes, and the general disarray of my life, and think “Cripes, I have got literally nothing to offer here”. It is not unusual for me to wear the same clothes three days in a row because I didn’t have time to wash / choose / think about anything else. There. I admitted it. Be grateful I use Febreeze y’all.Plus, I was worried Lisa would also want parenting tips, and I don’t give parenting a lot of thought. I’m not saying I am a brilliant parent-er, but through a combination of over confidence and and inertia (I like to think inertia sounds better than laziness) I I just mostly do what feels right at the time, somewhat in consultation with the other ‘alf, and rarely actually take stock of what I am doing. I mean, I am prone to suddenly going “ermagahd we all need watch less TV” or “waaaaah, the minions are not being adequately controlled by their masters and anarchy is on the horizon in this household” but at these points I can’t think of a time where I have investigated HOW to watch less TV, or HOW to control the parasites. I just sort of try to do it for a little while, and when a new panic comes [“We all need to take Probiotics everyday or we’ll be 20-stone and ridden with ebola!”] I forget about the old one, and who knows if I actually effected any behavioral change.
I am totally on board that I could do things better, and that my kids could be better in some areas, but I am just not motivated enough to like, read a book about it, or an article. Or, let’s face it, even a listicle (unless it has super amazing gifs, including one of Ryan Reynolds (Greatest Dad Ever TM) in his underwear). I do love that plenty of my friends read this stuff, because then when I am whining that my kids can’t do a basic human act like sit at the dinner table, I can absorb their collective wisdom (nicely digested, synthesized and often tested) as I sob into my Malbec.So, I totally freaked out, but Lisa (who runs the website and its podcasts) was ah-maz-ing and told me just to be myself and then gave me a write-up that made me even want to listen to myself (to be clear: I have not! Ha! I am way too awkward and worried that I’ll sound like a fool or spend all the time fretting about my answers to do that). But, I am glad I did it. As we talked about things like differences between the US and the UK, and the fact that I don’t read parenting books, I am super worried that I will offend someone – but still, I am glad I did it. And I definitely enjoyed it. And Lisa seemed to think that the message of “Oh, I’m just winging it because I guess deep down I don’t think what we do makes an enormous difference anyway…” was an OK message to put out there. Or maybe even a reassuring one. So, if you needed to here it – there we go.
I’m winging it and you can too 🙂
But also, it was good that one of Lisa’s goals with SuperMum is just to tell mum’s stories… and I really enjoyed listening to those – kind of like an audio blog if you will. I’ve subscribed on itunes and I am trying to listen to new podcasts on the way to work, so maybe some tips will seep in after all…
Oh, and at the end of the podcast every person is asked to give their definition of a SuperMum. Apparently the most common definitions involve happiness and health. I won’t tell you what my definition of a SuperMum is (go listen to the podcast!) but can I just make a plea that we stop tying success to happiness and health? Both of those are gifts that are only somewhat within our control. It’s easy to agree that someone who has cancer / has children with cancer (i.e. the health part is tough) is no less a SuperMum than someone without. So, can we generalize and say that someone who is depressed / has children with depression – or is even just struggling to be happy and content right now – is also no less a SuperMum. And this obviously goes beyond parenting: your success, and your worth and your value does not have to tied up to your health and happiness. It’s up to you to decide what it is tied to…
I make no secret of the fact that I hate Houston. But last Saturday there was a detente in our relationship as Autumn hit. The cooler, dry air may be playing havoc with Sam’s eczema but teamed with Houston’s bright blue skies it’s glorious for being out in. An ideal afternoon is now spent playing with the children in front of the house, biking and walking to the park, Ellie around our feet. It’s almost idyllic and helps me wrap up in my family and shut out the ugliness of the world.
It’s the best bits of England made better – hardly any rain and it’s not cold but fresh. The dark nights roll in and it’s still nice to have a drink on the porch (or in the garage if, like us, you don’t have a porch.
So why does it make me so homesick? It makes me crave those parts of England I thought I would be glad to leave behind: walking with the damp permeating your clothes, dying for that cup of tea and Tunnocks tea cake, hiding under blankets inside… I miss the too cold, the too wet, the too dark. Even in its perfection, Houston is not my home.
I have never been a dog person. To be honest, my feelings towards dogs have always been between indifference and active dislike. Don’t get me wrong, I would be nice to dogs I met if I had to, but my feelings on dogs? Meh.
And then Walter came into my life unexpectedly and beautifully. I was suffering from horrible depression as the side effect of a drug, and when I found Walter in an Alabama trailer park, I knew he was my solution. This post is not about Walt but trust me: he was a special dog. An old soul in a young body. A characterful snuggle bug. My running partner and my nighttime companion. My Halloween dinosaur.
Two years after Walt found his forever home with us, he died very suddenly . I was upstairs sleeping in after several night feeds, and Wes screamed for me. To this day, we don’t know what happened, although since CPR was not able to inflate his chest we suspect he swallowed something. All I do know is that after a very difficult 2 years, life was finally starting to look good for me, and Walt left. He stayed with me when I needed him and when his work was done and I was good, he was gone.
I then did the silliest thing possible; in a haze of grief I ran to the pound and rescued the first dog I liked (and there were plenty that I didn’t…)… And into our lives came Ellie. Ellie was different. She was bright and energetic and not brilliantly house broken… But her cardinal sin was that she wasn’t Walter. And so things started to slide.
Ellie’s life descent is tied up in so many issues. There is the issue that I felt that as a SAHD Wes’ job was to walk the dogs and he didn’t walk either – not even his own. I was resentful. Tjhere was the issue that I felt I couldn’t take Ellie out without taking Wes’ dog out (he would howl as Wes didn’t walk him) and I didn’t want to take him out. Because I didn’t want to do “Wes’ job” (aside: this is a terrible model of marriage. I’ve moved on from this somewhat). The issue that when Wes’ dog died he felt Ellie was going to stop him getting the dog he wanted… And that he never wanted Ellie anyway. There was the issue that Ellie has a slight incontinence problem so couldn’t come to bed with me and I resented her for that fact that neither she nor Wes came to bed with me and I was lonely. And the issue that she wasn’t Walter and Walter had left.
So we entered this terrible spiral where I neglected Ellie (emotionally – she was fed and watered), so she became more demanding and more naughty (pottying in the house etc) which irritated me, and made Wes really mad, and so I neglected her more… So she behaved worse, so I neglected her more and so on until I came home one day and Wes said “she has to go”.
And I was mad! Mad that he never got rid of his neglected dog (Earnest had health problems which Wes wouldn’t sort), mad that he wasn’t helping, mad at myself and suddenly aware of how much I like Ellie’s sweet nature, her unconditional love, her ability to forgive in an instant… All this. That she was loving and curious, and playful and a people pleaser. That her energy was enviable and inspiring. But it was too late.
In the midst of several marital rows, I told this story to a friend who owns three dogs. Her response was to tell me that she wasn’t a dog person either but as soon as she got her first puppy, the second she saw him, she knew no one was ever ever coming between her and that dog. That was it. She would kill for him. And I decided: OK! I love my dog! No one is coming between us! Screw you husband!
So I stepped up the plate. I bought Ellie some decent food and some treats and some toys and a comfy crate for my car. I started walking her twice a day, except for Thursdays which are my crazy early and late days when she goes to doggie day care. I was strict about crating her when I wasn’t around (so no poop in the house) but being with her when I was… She curls up on a bed by my desk, she curls up on my lap, she comes for car rides and she comes to bed occasionally with a doggie diaper on (not even kidding here folks).
And she behaves well. She walks ‘loose leash’ beautifully now, she obeys (unless she really doesn’t want to go outside to potty when she does go to her crate), she rarely jumps up. And I fell (back) in love with my companion and things are working out.
But something else magical happened. I began to feel better about myself… Finding time to walk a dog twice a day with a full taken job, a breastfed 7 month old and a toddler is in a city where my commute is an hour each way is no mean feat. But I did it. I made sure it happened. I weathered 90 degree heat and thunderstorms. I let go of having to leave the house at a set time, or go to bed at a set time (sadly, I have also currently let go of washing my hair more than weekly. OMG I can’t believe I admitted that) and relaxed and felt good that I could I achieve this.
Even better, because Sam always wanted to come on the walk, and Caroline had to, I began to have 40 minutes a day with my kiddos! We ran, we played hide and seek, we went down slides and on swings and shared the task of holding El. And we loved it! If I offer Sam to drive to the park he says that no, he would rather walk. The nagging guilt that my kids are not outside enough is gone. The nagging guilt that I ignore them a bit is diminished (not gone, because let’s face it, I still use my iPhone at the park…). Ellie has made me feel better about myself and my family, brought me love and a little daily joy.
I see Ellie now as she is. Sweet, and forgiving. Fun. I love her energy. I wish I had her capacity for loyalty and unconditional love. Her patience. Her companionship warms me.
I used to think that Walter came into my life when I needed him and left when I didn’t, but Ellie just happened. Now I know that she was there when I needed her, patiently waiting to heal parts of my life. She is just as much my guardian angel as Walter.
Ellie, I am so sorry. But this is your story.
2 1/2 years in, and I am definitely still adjusting to motherhood. 3 years in, and I am still adjusting to Houston. I have written before that I was unhappy for much of 2014, and 2015 was looking to possibly shape up in a similar way (albeit a little better). And honestly, partially because I don’t really recognize myself as unhappy (maybe a bit ‘flat’ or a bit ‘whiney’) until I get it right. Until I realize that I have made myself happy. That happened this weekend.
Saturday morning I took Sam to a kids’ swimming pool (Noah’s Ark) and we just had a blast. It was lovely to focus totally on him, and to be a big kid myself – yes, I climbed through all the water tunnels (so elegantly with my whopping bump), went down all the kiddos’ slides and picked Sam up and threw him in the water fountain (much to his delight). It was delightful, silly, exhausting fun.
Cue a stupidly large Mickey D’s, and then an unplanned nap on the sofa. Although I was woken by Sam waking from his nap (after only 2 hours! 3 hours at the pool is supposed to buy me more than 2 hours!) he then played happily for several hours while I made a new card for my Etsy shop (<— still a work in progress) and updated my Stampin’ Up! blog. Pizza dinner, easy night down for the dwarf and then movie night with the Husband – we watched St. Vincent which was pretty good.
Today I played hard with the kiddo in the morning and then went and helped a friend set up her Stampin’ Up! website. She fed me lunch and I got a delicious frozen StarBucks on the way home. Sam woke the second I got home (again, after only 1.5 hours! What is up with this kiddo?) so we tidied the house together and then hit the garden.
One of the best things Wes & I did was fence off a small area of our garden for Sam. We put in his sandbox, my hammock, and small IKEA table and chairs, a bench, a slide and a paddling pool. If Sam and I go out there I can get snatches of anywhere between 15 and 90 minutes to myself blogging, surfing the internet or reading. And when he does want to play, it’s easy for me to engage in water fights and sandcastles and chalk pictures on the wall. We usually have a blast and today was no exception.
We finished up with snuggles in the hammock – occasionally Sam will take his sippy cup and drink it like he would drink from a bottle as an infant, seeking out things to play with with his hands, his eyes going heavy and going into the ultimate snuggle mode – it’s BLISS.
Now the little one is in bed, I am finishing my blog post while eating delicious pecan toffee, and somewhere in there I even managed a face and a hair masque.
So – why was this such a blissful weekend? What made it feel perfect? It wasn’t tantrum free (you try telling a hungry 2-year old that is 1.5 hours past his nap time that he has to leave the swimming pool of awesomeness). I bought a new nail polish and don’t like it (damn you Essie). I didn’t get time to blow dry my hair and it looks a mess. I did, however, have time to really play with and engage with Sam – both at home and out and about. There was time for my hobbies, and some friend time. But what is most surprising, is that there was no work. Not a single email, nor a review. I didn’t open anything I am working on to poke at it, and yes, I let a few overdue things just sit in my inbox (I am certainly not luxuriating for time at work right now).
It’s odd. It’s uncomfortable if I think about it, and yet it seems like the most natural thing in the world. I realize that even 2.5 years in, I am definitely struggling to adapt to (working) motherhood. When I became a mum, I tried to carry on just like before – keeping work the same and fitting the kiddo in around that. When I couldn’t fit everything in, I dropped the ‘me’ things – make-up, skin care, crafting, blogging. I squeezed Sam in when I could (after a whopping great 3 weeks of maternity leave), and I did whatever it took to keep work going.
It’s not working for me anymore (sorry for the pun). Academia is hard – the way funding is (pretty nonexistent) it seems like a lot of input for not a lot of payback. At the end of the road, when I have focussed so much mental energy on work, and I have nothing to show for it it is hard to look at my beautiful son and think “I am glad I put you second” and “I’m glad I don’t know you as well as I could” and “Sure, I read you stories, and tuck you in, and I’m the one you run to when hurt – but I don’t mind having missed out on those little interactions that are your whole world right now”. It’s hard to look in the mirror at an uncared for reflection and say “I am glad I look a mess”. It’s hard to look around the house and say “I don’t mind that this doesn’t reflect my personality”.
I don’t have the answer. Academia seems to get harder and harder, and survival seems to depend on more and more publications and collaborations and grant submissions. And truly, I love what I do! When I can focus on my real work (not work I have foolishly agreed to do for others, so I am working on reducing that), I truly am fascinated by behavioral genetic questions and I love answering them and writing on them. But kiddos don’t wait, and papers don’t hold me at night. It feels like the wonder in Science is getting less and less, while the wonder in my son grows daily.
Yet, I still hugely look up to so many great Scientists. I cannot let the dream of being like them go. It’s clear that I need to reduce work. I also need to streamline what I do (focussing on behavior almost exclusively) and be much more efficient when I am working (less Facebook, more papers…). Yet, I am scared I cannot be successful like that. It’s hard to let go of the 24/7 work mindset. But I am also scared that I won’t be be successful continuing like I am, and I will have sacrificed everything anyway and be left with nothing. Perhaps these are the ramblings of the third trimester, but I am scared of not having more papers than most people at my stage, of not having more grant submissions, of not having funding. I am terrified of saying no. Yet, I feel I have to take the plunge. I need to turn work off sometimes, and reprioritize when I am at work. I’ve never been like this! I have always been able to do anything and take on any task. I could work my way out of mediocrity. Perhaps this was the fearless I needed to be when I wrote back in January 2014. Anyway, I have to give it go. I have to make some changes.
I have no idea if anyone else struggles like this – I see so many people having careers and personal lives seamlessly, but I am happy to go out on a limb for a minute and say: I am struggling. I am not getting it right. I am changing. I don’t recognize myself and I am worried that the ‘old me’ would have negatively judged the ‘new me’ (what a bloody awful confession).
I am optimistic, I am scared, I am excited, I am terrified. I have no idea how this will play out.
Looking back, I think that 2014 was one of my toughest years yet. Simply because I was very unhappy for much of it. Which it feels churlish to say, since I landed an awesome job and watched my beautiful infant grow into a loving, happy, toddler from within a my large detached house and throughout all this neither I nor my family suffered from any major illnesses (somewhat of a first…). Clearly my blessings were manifold. Which goes to show you that happiness really cannot be bought, and is more complex to achieve than we think.
I hate being unhappy because I hate the person it makes me. I become negative and distant and difficult to be around. I complain. A lot. I am mean about the people I love to the people who love them. I consume the conversation around me with minor worries that can’t be solved. It’s boring. I am not there for my friends when they need me, because I am so consumed with my own problems. I lash out inappropriately and insensitively. I drain those around me.
So, when I got to thinking about 2015 and New Years Resolutions, all I could think was ‘I just want to be happy’. But where to start? Then I read this post by Caitlin at Healthy Tipping Point in which she lists the ‘Things [she] did to make [her] life better in 2014′. And that seemed like a great place to start – if I can list the things that made me happy in 2014, I can strive to do more of them in 2014. So here we go:
Things I did that Made Me Happy In 2014:
1. Got Early NIghts
For some reason I had it in my head that I couldn’t go to bed before 10.30, and generally I would kill time until about 11 pm. Then on Christmas Eve, Wes and I watched Downton Abbey and it finished at 9.30. We couldn’t think of anything else to watch and so Wes said “Shall we just go to bed?”.
“No!” I exclaimed in horror, although I did admit that I was tired, and I proceeded to fail to think of a single thing I did want to do. So grudgingly I went up to bed, and lay down. Within minutes I was asleep, and got possibly the best nights’ sleep I have had in ages. Even better, instead of being roused from the depths of a dreamless sleep by the raw of an angry dwarf, I woke slowly and peacefully and gazed at the window quietly until I came to. When the dwarf did yell, I felt more than happy to go and grab him.
I have had 9.30 bedtimes twice since. It has been glorious. I may have discovered it late in the year, but so far just going to bed super early has been one of the things that has made me feel the best.
2. Cleaned up my Facebook feed
I am a feminist (so are you too, probably, you just might not know it), and I am politically liberal, and these stances mean a lot to me. I want to fight for gender equality and gender acceptance and women’s rights and universal healthcare. But Facebook is probably not the place for me to do that (too much). While those issues are very dear to my heart and I have no intention on being silent about them, getting into Facebook scraps and reading what the latest idiot teabagger was doing actually brought me a lot of stress. Much as I enjoyed Slate and some other online magazines, NOT reading about why I should be angry made me… well… a lot less angry.
I also ‘unfollowed’ some friends who frequently speak about being anti marriage-equality, or write things I feel are racist, the vocal anti-vaxxers, and some “friends” whose news feed I was checking only to have mean thoughts about them (come on, I was not the only one who did this, right?). I still follow people who challenge my views, but not those who anger them.
3. Sorted out my skin care
Ahh…. I discovered Kiehls. This is the first brand to moisturize my very dry skin, without making it dull or breakout, and the first brand to make a noticeable difference to my wrinkles. It’s an indulgence, but it is not crazy expensive.
4. Drank more water
I was plagued with headaches and migraines for months, and in the middle of a bunch of investigations, 2 doctors said to me “You might have diabetes insipidus – you should see an endocrinologist”. Diabetes Insipidus (DI) is basically a condition were you pee too much / don’t absorb enough water and when I looked up DI treatment for milk cases it was basically ‘drink a lot of water’. So… I have started doing that. Like 120 fl oz / day on top of my daily decaf coffees and other fluids. Boom – headaches gone and for the first time in my life EVER I have nice nails (oh wait, second time, the first time was pregnancy). Gone are the dry, brittle, flaky things I had and in their places are quite reasonable talons!
Water it is…
5. Ate Salads
I always feel good after eating a salad. I never wish I had chosen something else. Enough said.
6. Played hooky
Just occasionally 🙂
I hate to admit it, but I never regret getting down and really cleaning out a section of the house, and I ALWAYS feel great afterwards. I just have to bite the bullet and do it. I must be getting old….
8. Spent time intentionally
This was one of the things that made me most happy, but one of the hardest to do. When I had free time, it would often be in snatches and I found it hard to sit down and focus in on anything, so I spent a lot of time just reading Facebook and surfing the internet. That definitely did not make me happy. At all. But every time I sat down and did a project, no matter how big or small, I felt so much better after.
I was so delighted when I did a ‘craft swap’ with my friend Mandy at the end of the year – I was challenged to make a batch of Christmas cards for her, and so I was ‘forced’ to sit and create. Often sitting down was the hardest part, but once I started the time flew and I felt great afterwards (somewhat like going to the gym… but that is another story).
9. Spent time with my boy
It sounds obvious, right? You have a kid, you want to spend time with him. However, funnily enough, people often suggest the opposite. But when I was unhappy, or tired, or stressed, people usually said “Take some time for yourself! Get a manicure! Go shopping! Get your hair done!”. I can see that for many that is great advice, but for me: Sam is my happiness. Sam is my fun, he is my comfort, he is my worry and my bliss and wild side and my rest. I am never as happy as when he and I have done an activity together that we have both engaged in – I love to read books with him, bake with him, romp in the park with him.
This. This is what makes me happy.
I hope that being conscious of these things will being them more fully into my life. I am aware of all the friends who have stuck by me when I have done almost nothing but moan this year – I am truly blessed to know you and you will always have my heartfelt gratitude.
Here is to changing in 2015 and being ‘me’ again.
I am having a glass of wine and making Christmas cards.
Sam is doing puzzles on his iPad at my feet.
Wes is saving us all from the alien invasion.
There is something very beautiful, very serene, about each of us doing the thing that we love, as the dark chilly evening rolls in, blissfully in the same space.
A sort of being together in the being apart.
Love moments like this.