Do you practise self care regularly and what does it look like for you? How often do you take time for yourself, focusing only on you as in a single person, doing something you love and that makes you feel like you are alive? I am not asking for a friend, I am not ashamed to ask. I want to know because self care is something I am notoriously struggling with.
Looking back over my life I have always had issues with just lazing around and doing nothing. Probably instilled by my mother and my grandmother’s work ethic, doing nothing is frowned upon and relaxing only allowed after you have done something truly purposeful. Reading and having a good time before your homework is done? Forget it. Going to see friends or have them round for a play date? Not before all the school tasks have been done, and done properly and with great care. Some of this has certainly helped me to prioritise and make sure I always work hard, no matter what I do, but sitting here, on a weekend, just relaxing on the sofa, watching a film with this kids is not something I can easily do. I have to do something else at the same time (like writing or online research or shopping or reading), otherwise I will get restless.
Another thing I have a problem with is guiltlessly taking time for myself and truly enjoying it. The daily half an hour run is plagued with bad feelings of neglect for my children who are staying behind with my partner (who, by the way, does not mind me going for a run, ever). Still, I feel bad. Run as fast as I can to be back, have the quickest shower in history so I can be available to be Mama again. Mum guilt is something I believe a lot of mothers experience, and I would assume many fathers, too. Somewhere along the line someone told us that having kids is the ultimate privilege and feeling anything but grateful for every moment of our waking and (not so sound) sleeping lives. Before you start tearing into me and calling me all sorts of nasty things, bear with me: Of course I know that this is not the case and of course I know that most of us parents acknowledge the incredible ups but also the exhausting lows of modern parenting. Nevertheless, that niggling feeling that I should just shut up and be bloody happy with my lot doesn’t go away. And hence the guilt. Which naturally follows that I very rarely ever practise self care. Have a long hot bath and indulge in a book? Once a year, maybe. I tend to read far too late at night, cutting my own sleeping pattern, just so I can have a little bit of time to myself. Have a long walk all by myself, an afternoon off, an evening out, dare I say, a weekend away? Barely ever or never. Most attempts of such events are sabotaged by my guilt and lack of time I want to allocate for myself just to relax and unwind.
Before you start feeling sorry for me (or maybe you just find me and my lack of making time for myself pathetic) I do find great pleasure in writing and squeezing in snippets of losing myself in words and sentences, notes and jotting of ideas throughout each day. I often have my nose in my phone typing in the notes app or penning down my next blog on my website. My boyfriend has given up trying to have conversations with me during those moments as I just can’t listen when I write.
I am confident that one day, maybe when the kids are a bit older and more independent, I will find myself searching for that me-time, and, more importantly, granting myself that time, letting myself be, guiltlessly. For now, I am learning to live with the guilt, telling myself that self care is important and that those half hour runs in the morning are my absolute right. We can’t do it all and be it all. One thing at a time.
How’s the multi tasking going? Are you still, like me, juggling many different tasks, home schooling, working from home, side projects and keeping the house in some kind of order? Doing lots of things simultaneously is something we as parents do every day, and we do it in jobs, too, but, if like me, you have recently been feeling the strain of being everything to everyone and that you may want to ask an octopus for some of his arms, then questioning the validity of multi tasking is a reasonable thing to do.
A wise woman and friend of mine, Nicky Masson, who has set up her own coaching business to help business owners achieve better results, recently revealed in a talk of her Make It Happen Membership group that multi tasking is a myth which, despite being heavily featured as an attractive bonus on CVs, is totally unachievable and also unhelpful. I am guilty of calling myself a successful multi tasker on a CV in the past and I probably can juggle a lot of things at once. Am I going to do a good job though? No. For example, if I am cooking, looking after the kids and simultaneously writing work emails, then I will either burn dinner, one of my kids will break something or the house will descend into chaos, or I will lose focus on my work. I can do it all – badly. Or I can do one thing at a time – well. Nicky talks about setting time aside to do one task, concentrate fully on it without distractions – and do it well. Then move onto the next task. I think back to previous jobs I have done, doing dozens of things at once, never having a quiet moment, being interrupted all the time and never seeing anything quite through to the end. No wonder that little mistakes creep into the work of the best of us – I am not bragging, but I am quite efficient and can handle a lot on my plate but get frustrated when I can’t do it really well.
Hearing that multi tasking is an unachievable myth was a revelation for me, something so liberating I will forever be grateful for. I have been feeling like a failure for so long, but we were never meant to be able to do it all. Not as mothers, not as bosses, not as employees, not as human beings. The sooner we take those unrealistic expectations from us, the better.
There are some articles I write with ease, taking about ten minutes or less to pen down, typing faster than an experienced secretary under pressure. This is not one of them. There are a lot of things I would like to say but, quite frankly, they are not for me to say, so I am left with expressing my incredible sadness by being quiet and, at the same time, charge my willingness to stand up and change. But let me start at the beginning.
Some of you may have heard of “Weltschmerz”. Some of you haven’t. For those unfamiliar with the untranslatable (in one word) German expression coined by Jean Paul, a German writer of the late 18th and early 19th century, Weltschmerz aims to describe, according to the Internet, “a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness”. Someone feeling this can struggle with either their own inadequacy within the world or find it increasingly difficult to come to terms with the failings of the world itself, the way things are and the state of being created by humans. The Brothers Grimm additionally called it a deep sadness for the shortcomings of the world. If you are looking for an English synonym, you will find a list as long as your arm, starting at unhappiness, over to melancholy, next to depression, anxiety, indisposition and doldrums. None of these really get down to the bottom of what “Weltschmerz” really entails, because it is so much bigger than any of those words and carries so much more meaning.
Whether you have come across this unique German word or not, many of you may have experienced Weltschmerz at some point or another. I deal with it regularly, unable to close myself off from other people’s and the world’s suffering. If I somehow hadn’t learnt (probably an instinctive survival method of my already overloaded brain) to shut everything down and stop thinking, I would most likely find myself in a constant state of mourning for what we as humans do to each other and our beautiful planet.
I have probably always been able to notice other people’s sadness and taken the troubles of the world to heart, being appalled by injustice and getting myself into trouble more than once for speaking up. I have certainly never won a popularity contest by speaking my mind and the recent event of Brexit has certainly shown it, where some people told me to be quiet as this was not my country. As a child I struggled to understand poverty when all I could see was food in abundance – so why did other children go hungry? For years I gave up my Christmas holidays and walked the ice cold streets in Germany, collecting money for less fortunate children as part of the “Sternsinger” project (go and look up “star singers” at Wikipedia, it will give you a brief summary). I don’t want acknowledgement and praise. It’s what I did and I believe everyone should do during their life, to give up their time to do some good. American activist and author Alice Walker once said: ” Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” It really hit me the other day. Because, of course, she is so right. Sadly, being active and doing good did and does not cure my tendency to experience “Weltschmerz” and recent events in the world have fed it to the extent that I broke down in tears on more than one occasion the other day. I can’t fathom that there are still people in the world who seriously believe they are better than others because of their skin colour. I can’t understand that there are people who believe their lives are more precious because they have more money than others. I am upset by images showing mountains of discarded rubbish in beautiful open spaces. Instead of taking care of our already broken planet, some of us are just dumping their garbage wherever they go. In one of my other posts in the lockdown diaries I acknowledged that, as a human race, we can’t go on like this anymore. Enough is enough. Something has to change. Sadly, to me it seems like the changes happening are going in the wrong direction. Maybe it is the pessimist in me, maybe I am, as the Internet suggests, in the doldrums. But if the likes of Trump and Putin can legally be in power, phrases such as “grabbing her by the pussy” have no consequence and we still haven’t understood that the pigment of our skin does not determine how valuable we are as humans, then I feel we are way behind as a so-called superior species as human beings.
So, I believe, it’s time for me to change. My actions have to, because I have been inactive for too long. I will have to do some soul searching and learn to be brave, stick away criticism and start speaking up. I will have to keep learning, listening and realise my own mistakes and how I may have contributed to the state of the world. I know I won’t be able to do it all perfectly. But I will try. I will try hard to put my Weltschmerz to good use, take the pain and turn it into something good. It’s not about me. It’s about all of us and our planet. Don’t give me any sympathy because I feel low. It’s not important and that doesn’t help me or anyone. Start working on yourself and how you treat yourself, others and the planet. And on those matters that I don’t have the right to speak out, I will stand with you and guard you and protect you, so your voices are being heard.
This article was written for and published inEmotional Alchemy Magazine
During a recent conversation with my boyfriend discussing the lockdown and how people will cope with having to live next to one another 24/7 without a break provided by work and a buzzing social life, my wonderful other half suggested that there will probably be a baby boom starting towards the last quarter of the year. I laughed and replied, my cynical side taking over: “Yes, either that or a hell of a lot of divorces!”
My flippant comment has no intentions of wanting to predict the future, but it got me thinking about relationships and friendships during this peculiar time. Many of us are so used to living busy lives, jetting from one meeting, task, to-do list and duty to the other, that we often lose track and focus of what the other people in our lives are doing. A fleeting kiss – hours after returning home, doing chores whilst the kids are in bed, like passing ships at night, or a quick phone call with the partner who works away: many of us co-exist, muddling our way through frantic lives, barely touching ground to check how we are. All the reasons for why we first wanted to be together drowned by responsibility, accountability and due diligence that society thrusts upon us every day. The sudden change brought upon by covid-19 turns routines and formed habits upside down as we find ourselves in the company of those we wanted to be with in the first place. Some will embrace this new way of life, enjoy the togetherness and closeness, celebrate partnerships and family time, rediscovering each other and the things that brought them together initially. Others may find it trickier, yearning for the freedom, change of scenery and variety that a busy and varied lifestyle brings. With no place to hide, run to or go to, relationships will be tried and tested, pulled and stretched, some to their limits, others to new and better places.
Closeness is beautiful but it can be tough, it can test us, it can provoke and question. Enforced closeness can be even stronger than that. Maybe you will rediscover what you loved about your partner or spouse in the first place, perhaps you will find the new arrangements limiting and claustrophobic. I read about people who have to live with their ex-partners, because the corona virus did not have the courtesy to check about timings but sprung upon them during their already challenging time of a break-up. I also heard of separated couples with shared children, having to rethink their dealing with one another. Some use this pandemic to assert their power over the other, denying the ex-partner access to a child or children. Some are learning to do things a different way, re-engaging in a more pleasant way as fellow human beings, putting the mental well-being of their offspring first. My personal belief is that, no matter what the eventual consequence of this current way of life is, that you get through it with love, dignity, tolerance and understanding, remembering that you are in this together, whether you will remain that way or not. Of course, all this is easier said than done and when emotions run high, love and compassion may be the last thing on your mind. I am no relationship expert and my views are personal, but one thing that works most of the time is communication: open, honest, heartfelt talking about what goes through your mind and how you feel. None of us are mind readers and last time I checked using crystal balls was frowned upon. Talking is free and the best way to nurture tolerance, understanding and, maybe even acceptance.
Whilst some of us are being talkative and are zooming it across our family and friendship circles, others may go quieter. I recently saw a post on Twitter that exclaimed that now was the time to see which friends really cared and are there for you. I was still pondering over this when I scrolled across a reply that scolded the comment for being too self-involved and ignoring the fact that many people stop communicating when they struggle and are less likely to verbalise their anxieties, for a variety of reasons. I stopped and thought for a moment about my own friendships, near and far. Communication has stepped up with some and slowed down with others. I find that I am particularly verbal with my “mum-friends”, vocalising my ups and downs and the new chaos that is home schooling whilst also working full time. I also chat more to those who I know won’t mind a little rant and won’t judge me because I have had the worst day and am close to a major tantrum, rivalling that of my two-year-old. I know my friends, and I know to whom I can talk to when and about what. That doesn’t make those I don’t talk to for a while less important or valuable. However, I do believe that covid-19 could have the ability to shed light onto our friendships in a different way as the enforced distance bans us from being close to those who form and shape our lives outside of our homes. Being apart may also highlight that some friendships are not working for us anymore and it may show us, so I believe, who is worthy of our time and headspace. A friend of mine recently wrote an article about how she reconnected with her former best friend. They had been inseparable but fell out a couple of years ago, no longer speaking and losing touch. The virus made both re-think what mattered to them, brought back reasons of why they had loved each other in the first place and subsequently reignited their friendship.
Such outcomes from the virus are heart-warming and reaffirming, showing us what is really important. It can make us reflect on those friendships that make your heart sing and highlight those who you will want to hug first, once lockdown is over. I spoke to a colleague of mine who felt increasingly agitated that he couldn’t see any of his friends in real person anymore. “Talking on the phone or via Zoom just doesn’t do it for me. It lacks warmth.” He also told me that he jokingly suggested to his wife that they have friends over to sit 3 metres apart in their garden, sipping champagne and catching up. His wife was not impressed, reacting to his idea as if he had suggested an orgy. Whilst anecdotes like this keep me amused and uplifted, I realise there may be a very different outcome for some friendships. I believe that the lockdown may weed out those who have not fulfilled their roles as indispensable humans, who have caused us more disappointment and distress and have left us feeling empty and drained after we have been with them. Distance often makes us discover ourselves and others anew and detachments can provide clarity and the power to make necessary changes. It will show who gives you that fulfilling, warm feeling after a phone call full of natter, giggles, snippets of their thoughts, an intimate chat, a meaningful conversation, an insight into their life and soul. You may notice that drama kings and queens, game players and those who always like you to second guess everything have no place in your life. Because life is too short to be wondering if you are worthy of their friendship and time or not.
My thoughts on relationships and friendships during quarantine have been evoked by a new normal that is confining us and makes us think differently, not only about the safety of our loved ones but also about how much we rely on human interaction, especially the kind that we have been used to all our lives. The invisible force of a virus has turned what we know upside down and revealed new challenges surrounding human closeness and intimacy.
The silver linings of lockdown and isolation may well turn out to be some reformed and reshaped relationships, rediscovered and discarded friendships and within all of it, hopefully a better and more gentle relationship with yourself which, in return is beneficial for those we hold dear and close to our hearts.
How’s your phone doing? Battery life draining faster than the water from your freshly unclogged plug hole? Deleted the screentime monitoring app? Ignoring the fact that every time your phone bleeps you grab it relieved, knowing there is a chance it is a sign of life from the world out there? From another human outside of your household? Sound familiar? Welcome to screentime and social media addiction and overload in lockdown.
A few weeks before lockdown hit, I had installed a screentime monitoring app on my phone. I wanted to see how often I really picked up my phone, how long I spent staring at my screen. Competitive as I am, I embraced the challenge to prove to myself that I could co-habit with my small device having minimal contact. I did well. Really well. Only twenty minutes on certain days was spent using my phone. I didn’t even have to charge it at night. I was doing just fine.
Fast forward a couple of month and we are in the thick of lockdown. My phone has become my constant companion, I have it with me all the time and I am terrified more than ever to lose it. Gone is the screentime monitor – I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. The first few days, adjusting to our new normal, I turned my phone off a few times or disabled the Internet. I couldn’t bear the influx of grim news on BBC and the increasing aggressiveness and gutter language on Facebook. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was an expert. And dare someone point out the logic of actually listening to experts. All hell broke loose. After a while though, as the Internet and my head calmed down, I started looking for human connection and lost any shame for drained batteries and being stuck to my phone for a large part of the day. I now speak to my friends regularly, we video call each other, I participate in groups online, watch webinars and send emails to newfound people. I broaden my circle of acquaintances past my immediate circle of friends and listen to new opinions, new ways of doing things, share stories and have small conversations that are no less meaningful that longer heart to hearts. I marvel at our uniqueness and am amazed by how similar we are in many ways. One of my favourite moments so far is, apart from getting to know some fabulous people from all over our planet, when I open up about disliking something I thought was merely one of my oddities. It rang true with so many others and created further dialogues which lit up my days, otherwise filled with selfdoubts and anxious thoughts. I let go of my mobile phone guilt and embraced social media for all its plus points. And for those odd messages that are too intruding, there is always the Block button.
I don’t know when I will go back to “normal” life and what it will look like. Of course, I am not going to forsake friendships forged face to face for an online only platform of communication. But, once again I am grateful for the positive aspects of the Internet, the elimination of time and space, which allows me to have meaningful conversations with people from all over the world. These connections are important to me; reaching out beyond my own four walls and interacting with others despite being confined to home, learning, wondering, sharing. I certainly will forever be grateful for this.
As the government is laying out plans on how to ease lockdown, I am starting to think about a day in the future when the restrictions will no longer apply to our daily life. At the moment, I personally am in no rush to see things going “back to normal” as I do not believe the UK is out of the thick of it yet. I am also, luckily, not bored, not short of jobs to do, not missing anything apart from my family and friends too much. Boredom was never something I experienced, well, maybe that one unfortunate time I had to endure a dreadful film in a cinema. But in everyday life, I can always find myself something to do and I am grateful for that. Nevertheless, I dip into imagining what I’ll do first, whom I’ll visit first, where I’ll go first when the lockdown curtain falls. I see myself cautiously venture into town, sussing out when the least amount of people will be there, so I don’t have to talk to my social anxiety all the way round that trip. I see myself walking and driving to my closest friends, hugging them so tight and squeezing them, treasuring that immense feeling of human closeness, something we need so desperately in our lives. I am making plans to take my boyfriend to that restaurant that we never got to go to last year. I am excited about those long face to face chats with my close friends, losing track of time and feeling buzzing, happy electricity from connections with others which, to this day, I still find utterly magical. I am looking forward to taking my daughter to ballet classes, writing whilst I wait, listening to the music that plays in the background. I am in excited anticipation about being allowed to travel again, seeing my family who live far away. Finally, I am curious to see who has been changed by lockdown for the better and who has not taken anything from it. My hopes for this planet are huge, but having witnessed so much contempt for lockdown rules and hostility, I am also somewhat cautious and sceptical.
So what are your plans for after lockdown? Have you made a list of things you will do as soon as lockdown is lifted? Do you think your list of priorities will change once life post Covid-19 resumes? And what are you taking away from this unique experience?
Lockdown, isolation, quarantine, call it what you want – it has had a profound impact on a lot of us. There have been ups and downs, highs and lows and we all have had our own experience of being confined to home life and not seeing much of anyone but those we share our house with. In a previous blog post I talked about the silver linings of being at home, working from home, being forced to slow down and stay in one space. I have found lots of positives and also discussed that some people (including myself) will find it difficult going back to normal life, whenever thay may be. Having time to think and being part of something so unique and partly absurd can make us reevaluate life, our jobs, our relationships, things and habits we hold dear. The environment has already shown signs of improvement and some people have said that life as we know it may never return again. My question in all this uncertainty is, whether things have changed for me, too. What have I learnt from this pandemic? Is there anything I want to change in my life? Are there things I have been unhappy with and being locked up has magnified the problem? Do I miss some things, events and people more than I expected? I am still waiting for some kind of epiphany, so I do not expect anything groundbreaking to change, but there are signs that life as I know it isn’t fulfilling me in the way I thought it did. I notice getting restless, and that may well be because I can’t go anywhere, but the restlessness can be applied to many parts of my life. Existential questions arise: What am I supposed to be doing with my life, is my job really what I am meant to be doing, who are my people and do I serve them well? Am I serving myself well? What does the universe want from me? You may wonder how one person can juggle so many questions at once around in her brain, and I can tell you, it is quite demanding. However, these questions bother me and no, I am not bordering on a midlife crisis (Christ, I am nowhere near midlife, and anyway, I am going to live forever!). What I am wondering is, am I alone in wanting to make fundamental changes to my life? Am I the only one that feels that this virus has shown me that I want something else from my life? I speak to some of my writer friends and pose them the same questions. I get mixed replies, but none of them seem to be surprised or put off by the way I am currently feeling. One of them is in a similar situation. “I really want to move. I want a place of my own, my own space”, she tells me, evoking my own memories of living with messy house mates when I first moved to England. “And I want a new job, a better job. It may sound strange, but I think I deserve better.” Of course my friend deserves better. I get that, too. I have spent a lot of my career selling myself short and not knowing my own value. I am still cross with myself and am keen to make changes in my professional life, too. Nevertheless, I am not in a position to make any rash decisions. I have two small children and am in the middle of completing a postgraduate degree. The sensible side of my persona is always holding me to account but the rebel inside me, the untamed, raw woman wants something else. So where do we go from there? What do we do with this newfound “wisdom”, intuition and urge to do something else?
I have also talked about change in one of my posts and how important it is to roll with it, embrace it and to make the best out of a new situation to avoid falling behind and keep up with personal growth and development. New opportunities only present themselves when you are not standing still, so I know that change is never a bad thing. I can’t tell you what my life will look like after lockdown. In all honesty, some changes may not come into force until a few months later. What I do believe though is that as the human race, we will have to change. The environment has already shown us that things can’t go on like they were and on some level I think that the virus was a sign of some higher entity to make us stop. STOP. So the planet can breathe. So we can breathe.
Are you changing A.C. (after covid)? Have you already put plans into place? Now is not the time to make rash decisions but now is also the time to reconsider what we could do better in our lives. Covid has held a mirror up and shown us our mortality. We are not invincible. We can be broken and we can be squashed. Our lives are short, they are precious and valuable and not to be wasted or taken for granted. So, tell me again: what will you change A.C.?
With over a month now in quarantine, our lives and minds may or may not be adjusting to this strange part of humanity’s history. People all over the world are making this snippet of their story their own, in whichever shape or form is doable. The media, be it big newspapers, news channels or social media seem to be giving us various choices on how to tackle our newfound existence:
1) The “Chill Out” Option – sit in front of your TV, put your feet up and wait for all of this to blow over.
2) The “Get up and Go” Option – learn something new, do something new, take up a new hobby, do exercise, work out every day, lose weight, tidy up, declutter the house, renovate your home, landscape the garden, read to your children, teach your children, learn from your children, cook, bake, wash, clean, iron, mend, stitch, work, Zoom, write letters, send emails, explore, dress up, yoga here, Pilates there, go, go, go!
3) The “Mental Health” Option – take it easy, don’t do anything that would compromise your well-being, gently does it, and breathe!
You’d think we’d all be clever enough to go for Option 3, calmly tuning into ourselves and listening to what we really need (no, not another glass of gin). I personally find myself under immense pressure to be a dance monkey to the tune of Option 2. I had embraced lockdown with all its strains and silver linings, and saw it as a golden opportunity to make use of time I would surely gain, idyllic lunch times with my children and long chats in the evenings with my partner. In between that, I would work, home school, study, write, cook, bake and clean the house. I would also sign up for online courses and classes, because, you know, there has never been a better time to engage with strangers and learn new skills. I’d leave the gardening to my partner because, please don’t judge me, I don’t like it. Naturally, it all went a bit pear-shaped after a couple of weeks. I don’t really have anyone but myself to blame as I am an adult and make my own choices. I didn’t even take it slowly during the Easter holidays. I went for complete and utter stimulation overload, not only planning and structuring each and every day for myself and the children, but also taking over managing my partner’s business, allocating his time, writing his to-do list and facilitating online classes. Busy is good. Busy means growth. Busy means never standing still. You already know this won’t end well. My self-inflicted activity overload didn’t introduce itself to me until yesterday, when I sat in front of my laptop, talking to my dissertation supervisor and found that I was close to bursting into tears, utterly exhausted from frantically trying to keep up with everything. My supervisor looked at me and told me to rest. Wise words, given I am 6 weeks ahead of my deadline but no one likes to break her own records more than I do. But the knowing smile of my professor, her gentle nudge and the uncomfortable question what I was so worried about did force me into a moment of just thinking and taking stock. Admitting to myself that I had to give up something in order to preserve what is left of my isolated sanity was a difficult step to take, but I evaluated what I needed least at this moment in time and let it go. Another training course I had organised for next weekend will also be cancelled. I doubt I’ll spend the time relaxing in bed with a book, but I can invest it into something that needs my immediate attention. One of the most positive outcomes I have taken from this is, that I don’t see myself as failure, just because I had to quit one thing. This learning is invaluable and certainly a first for me.
Relief is knowing you made the right decision, but it also means that, when you let go of something, you don’t necessarily admit defeat that you couldn’t stick with it. Letting go of something that does not serve you at this moment in time offers you an opportunity to refocus and take a deep breath. Ironically, I had ordered myself to sit still for 10 minutes each day last week, in a desperate attempt to do exactly that: keep motionless for 600 seconds, focusing on nothing but my heart beat and breath. Unsurprisingly, I have managed to mess up this task royally – doing “nothing” just doesn’t fit into my overkill-schedule. Having given up one of my responsibilities has given me a chance to take back some of my time which, in return, could be used to do lots of other things, like getting ahead with my research and submitting more writing to magazines. However, possibly, the universe may like to hand this time to me in form of rest and recuperation, as ordered by my supervisor. I may be a controlling and obsessive workaholic. But even I have reached a point where something’s gotta give.
Monday after the Easter holidays hit and I felt a little relief. A new school week, tasks set by teachers for my oldest in addition to the piles of worksheets and books I had collated in a panic before lockdown. I was grateful for some structure after two weeks off at home doing not much of everything, keeping everyone entertained within the limits set out by the lockdown. It got me thinking about routine and why we as humans love it so much and, even if we don’t love it, a lot of us very much need some kind of order in our lives. It means certainty, it creates knowing and understanding what happens next and there are less surprises and ambiguities. Generally, if I have my duties, such as work in place, I get more done, I am more likely to stick to a plan I made and I feel in control (an important thing for me). I love weekends and holidays, don’t get me wrong, they are the best reward for working hard, but sometimes I seem to float around on a cloud of wishy-washiness and I feel like I am doing either too many things at once or nothing properly. Lack of routine also never works for my children. Eventually, they just go a bit crazy and feral, and I struggle to identify which of them is the puppy and who are the humans. Order is good, rules are good, right? We are surrounded by them from an early life and most of our existence on earth is based upon restrictions and certain structures which has been constructed by society and history over time. Especially now, rules and regulations have never been more prevalent whilst we are all fighting the virus. And thank goodness for them.
Back to my home life, my gratitude for the new/ old routine didn’t last long though. Our new normal in the abnormal has us working alongside one another through most of the day. We start our mornings with Joe Wicks. As a child I hated physical exercise because one of my PE teachers compared me to a sack of potatoes (I wasn’t a sack of potatoes, I just took longer to get into a headstand than my best friend who did gymnastics in her free time), so it is so important to me to instil a positive attitude to exercise into my children. The mental exercise thereafter is a little more challenging, at least in the sense of co-ordinating home schooling and working from home at the same time. As a teacher, some may believe that home schooling comes natural to me, seeing it’s what I do for a living anyway. Believe you me, it is not. First of all, I teach teenagers in a speciality subject. Second, teaching your own child is generally more challenging than other peoples’ children. Expectations are higher, emotions run deeper and patience wears thin a lot quicker. Third, having other little people in the house whilst home schooling and working from home resembles a merry-go-round gone rogue. You can’t get off no matter how badly it is spinning out of control. There is screaming, there is squawking, there is yelling and crying, throwing, hitting, biting and falling off chairs, spilling drinks, crunching crisps and spitting out bits of apple. There are constant questions, incessant toilet and snack breaks, puppy-cuddle breaks, stroppy moments and major meltdowns. Take that and combine it with keeping an eye on over 100 other students remotely, whilst planning ahead, answering emails and trying to concentrate on writing two coherent sentences, and you have a cocktail of confusion, exhaustion and exasperation. Regular breaks with hot drinks, leftover Easter chocolate and homemade cakes certainly help but within those breaks the normal work of a household creeps in. Cooking, washing, cleaning, tidying, a quick phone call with a friend or a colleague bring back some sanity at times but often they remind me even more of how much is expected of us at the moment. There are lots of letters from schools and articles telling us that mental health comes first and that learning, education and work in the conservative terms are allowed to take a back seat. I am fully aware that my daughter will not be illiterate later because I didn’t teach her Set 568 of phonics or let her play with dice instead of hiding a frozen pea in jelly (where on earth am I getting jelly from in lockdown, unless I queue up for 3 hours outside a supermarket…). But the pressure is still there. It comes at me from all sides. From the constant “ping” of my emails, from the web portal where I set work for my students, from my personal email, from my social media feed on Facebook (pure evil) and forums of parents who apparently have this lockdown malarkey figured out down to a T. I know I am not alone. The other night I rang one of my friends. We don’t speak often as we both work stupid hours and are, despite challenging jobs, sensitive and overwhelmed by too many outside influences. But when we talk, it’s pure love from a connection that can’t be easily found. She told me how tough she found it to work all day whilst also keeping her two young children entertained. Her husband also works full-time from home, and neither of them get a break. “I can’t do it”, she snaps, not at me, but at life. “We play, we go outside, we learn as we go along. But I can’t sit down and teach them. Not when I am expected to be working at the same time.” Her account rings familiar and I tell her I hear her. Exhausted, tired, overwhelmed and stressed out parents everywhere: I hear you, I feel with you, I stand with you, I sit with you, metaphorically holding your hand and passing you a glass of wine. It’s an emergency. It’s a crisis. The norm doesn’t apply anymore. Normal doesn’t exist. It’s all gone a bit Pete Tong. And you know what I realise whilst writing? I am done with trying to do it all. Because I can’t. I am pretty super but superwoman, I am not, neither have I got any ambitions to be her. I am human, I am anxious and I am doing the best I can. My children are loved, are safe and will learn as and when. My students know how much I care and I am always there to listen and help them. But even with them, my main concern is their mental health and well-being, so why am I giving myself such a hard time? What is it with us trying to be everything to everyone and striving for sheer work-overload?
I am turning my emails off. I am muting Facebook. I am ignoring the unhelpful and patronising email I received earlier from someone without children, trying to tell me how to do my job. I am leaving my desk to go outside to help my boy put on his shoes and my daughter to find magic shapes and creatures in the garden. Normal doesn’t exist. Neither does perfect. Go and have a rest. Get off the merry-go-round. It’ll keep spinning without you, too.
In my last blog post I talked about life after lockdown and how I am enjoying the absence of FOMO. Feedback from loyal readers was confirming that I was not the only one feeling relief that I did not have to keep up with the Jones’s anymore or feel bouts of inadequacy because my social life sucks and I can’t be bothered to hit the nightlife because a) I am so tired ALL THE TIME and want to be in bed well before midnight; b) I can’t drink anymore since having kids, and a sniff of half a glass of wine sends me to sleep (cheap date) and c) I feel highly anxious and apprehensive in large crowds and gatherings, which is not a reason to be explored in today’s post, but nevertheless a valid reason. I am OK with being at home, obeying the rules and working hard to make the best out of this abysmal situation, some days better than others. I exercise daily, I make sure we live in the garden if it’s nice and I put so much veg in our dinners that I am sure we may be sprouting some bell peppers and broccoli out of our ears any time soon. Leaving the house may no longer be a spontaneous event, but it is a right I have not passed on once since lockdown started. I do raise an eyebrow when I see people making up their own rules as they go along, loosely interpreting social distancing with “it’s in the open air, it won’t hurt” whilst standing far too close. But I am not terrified, I am not scared, I don’t feel anxious about leaving the house. I am a teacher and before lockdown I was surrounded by hundreds of students every day – in minuscule classrooms, where even the students at one stage pointed out that the 2-metre rule was a joke when they sat no further than 15cm apart from one another (no kidding). I saw a minimum of a third of students in all my classes go off sick or self-isolate and I watched one of my colleagues frantically disinfecting our staff room after another colleague coughed when making her coffee (said colleague was ill the next day). Despite this, I came out seemingly unscathed. No symptoms, although I am fully aware that I could have been a carrier. But – the Corona Virus didn’t make me ill whilst working in a relatively risky environment although I feel a lot calmer since the school shut down. Don’t misquote or misunderstand me please: I don’t feel invincible or superhuman. I know the dangers and have made sure I did not go anywhere apart from a walk or run for the first two weeks in lockdown, making sure I wouldn’t pass on anything I had picked up at school. What I am saying is that I am not scared to leave the house. I am fine with it. And, until I spoke to two of my peers, I thought most people would be “just fine” with leaving the house, too.
As it turns out, not everyone is. FOGO, or fear of going out is real and it is all-encompassing and exhausting. One of my readers opened my eyes to something I had not experienced. She revealed that going out made her fear awkward social situations when the path wasn’t wide enough to stay the prescribed 2 metres apart or feeling that she was in someone’s way. She also noticed that, although lots of people are being friendly and greeting each other, there is a more serious side to interacting with strangers – a stare rather than a smile or a stern look whilst passing. “I guess it’s people’s fear coming out.”, she opines. I recall my own experience from a few days ago when I went shopping and some customers walked past me no further than 50cm away because they couldn’t wait a few seconds behind me. I remember briefly feeling panicked because I thought: ‘That’s breaking the rules!’ (I am German. I love rules). Then, slightly bemused yet also slightly bewildered I muttered under my breath how great it was that Covid-19 only attacks from front and back – don’t worry about breathing on me from the left or right, its inbuild virus navigation system won’t know how to attack me from the side – I considered briefly to start wearing a scarf round my face, to protect myself from such idiocy (if anything, I don’t have to witness it…). My friend, however, can’t find any bemusement in such careless behaviour. Trips to the supermarket these days are a systematic cleaning operation thereafter, with everything, from shopping bags being disinfected, to clothes washed, to her partner being ordered to shower, to any possible surface being scrubbed within an inch of its life. To many of us the virus is invisible and therefore we may even forget about it. To my friend, it is everywhere, lingering in the air she breathes, in the should-be-safe-comfort of her home, on her food, the floor in her home, on herself.
For another reader FOGO takes on a different perspective, that of coping with past traumas of infections during pregnancy and having to go through the hell of watching her newborn getting infected. I get choked up when she tells me her story and gives me an insight into what life with an all-surrounding fear of infection feels like during Covid-19. Whilst she is not always terrified of going out and sometimes wants nothing more than to leave the house, her fears are more complex than that: “The silly part is that if you ask me whether or not I’m worried that the girls will catch Corona Virus or if it’ll make them really poorly then I’d say I’m not worried really, because it isn’t tending to harm children, but it’s having the idea rammed down our throat that we constantly need to clean everything. I know that’s perfectly reasonable and for a good reason at the minute, but it’s terrifying when your mind already works that way. Plus there’s all this talk of statistics and which surfaces germs can live on and how long for etc., etc., which plays right into my anxieties.” To cope with this, my reader relies on keeping herself busy, and, BC (before Covid), was glad to go out as much as possible. Now she can’t. “In short”, she tells me, “the Corona Virus has done two things: Validated my crippling fear of germs, contamination and the need to clean everything and it also made me feel that I am very much trapped inside four walls with my own horrific thoughts. So there is [the fear of not having] the option [to go] out for any length of time to distract myself and [also] FOGO because of all the ‘what ifs’”.
Opening conversations with two fellow women has underlined what I already anticipated: Life in lockdown may, on the surface, be the same for us all. The same rules apply to all of us and none of us will be going anywhere anytime soon. However, this exceptional new way of life is also highlighting that we are all so different. This experience forms and shapes all of us individually – none of us can have the same experience. Our past is unique, our fears, or mental health all vary and so what feels good for one is the worst possibility for another. Therefore, so I believe, the most important lesson we can learn from this is to be kind to ourselves. Whichever way we get through this day by day is up to you, not prescribed by your mate who posts 500 activities on social media (that is no criticism, but comparison is also highly dangerous at this stage). Kindness and understanding of others’ fears and ways to cope is also a must. Don’t try and fix. Just listen and accept. No one is crazy. We are different. All our feelings matter. The aim is to get through this in one piece. Mentally, physically and spiritually. Whatever gets you through, whatever you have to do. Do it. And don’t forget to breathe.