Self-doubt – the killer of creativity and productivity

I am sitting on my bed, mentally going through the articles I have to write for a magazine. I feel an uneasy lurch in my stomach, a little twist and then that niggling voice in my head. My thoughts then drift to my dissertation, and the deadline for its completion, now less than half a year away. Both tasks seem unachievable, impossible and out of my reach.

Self-doubt has been my constant companion for as long as I remember. Whilst self-doubt is, to a certain degree, quite normal, especially when you are about to start new tasks or try out new skills, I am doubting (no pun intended here) that questioning every single thing about your life and persona is. Since I was a child I analysed friendships and relationships. “Do they like me?” “What do they think about me?” “Was this piece of work good enough?” ” What will they say if I fail?” “What will they say if I succeed?” Those questions jump up and down in my head until I feel dizzy and have spent minutes in a frenzy that twists itself in a rock hard knot. Welcome to an over-thinker’s reality.

Whilst I have those moments regularly, I also have moments of intense clarity and positivity, where I take on the world and get to work with awesome gusto. Ideas bounce in my head and manifest themselves on the page or screen, I jot down ideas and act out my creative dreams as if there is no tomorrow. I thrive, I grow, I let go and I fly. It’s the best feeling in the world.

But then those dark clouds come in, usually triggered by something I read or see online, or life gets in my head and in the way, takes time from me, I lose my mojo and train of thought, and down I fall into a dark and glum place of self-doubt, disbelief and defeat. “You’ll never amount to much.” “You’re a failure.” “Everyone around you does everything so much better.” ” You are nobody.” ” You suck.” Unkind words are not something I utter to anyone, least myself, but they find me anyway, they drill and hack a way into my skull where they wreak havoc until I can’t write, I can’t create, I can’t even find joy in dressing myself; all 3 things that usually come so naturally to me.

Self-doubt is the devil of creativity and success, so, I ask myself: Am I doomed? I am a positive person down to my core, I am a survivor and fighter. Self-doubt may come knocking at my door from time to time but I will never let it stay and reside for long. So, what can you do to pull yourself out from that dark spiral, that freaky merry-go-round, that distorted mirror that makes you look like a warped alien?

1) Acknowledge your feelings but know they are “just” that. Feelings. They are not a true reflection of your capabilities and your worthiness as a person.
2) Learn to let go of your negative feelings. They can become your truth if you let them stay around for too long. Distract yourself by doing something you enjoy. That, in turn will make you feel better and make space for your creativity.
3) Talk to someone. Whether it’s a good friend or, even better, a trained therapist, talking about your feelings will clarify them in your head and help you to shift your focus and state of mind from darkness to light.
4) Go outside. It is my advice for almost everything but that’s because it is an incredible all-rounder and cures many ailments. A change of scenery from your own four walls, fresh air and the big, open sky can remind you that the sky, indeed is your limit and, like the weather changes, good times are just round the corner.
5) Stay away from alcohol. I have never been a drinker when I felt down or in pain, but stress and anxiety often ask for something to numb the symptoms. The day after though is never thankful for that 1 or those two glasses of wine. Not drinking isn’t a miracle cure but self-doubt feasts on it, so better stay away.
6) Finally, get up from that bed or sofa and do what you usually love, even if you don’t feel like it. After a while, those natural instincts that crave joy through creating will come back and before you know it you will have danced, cooked, painted, photographed, written or played your way out of self-doubt.

There is no magical pill or potion to replace your self-doubt with self-confidence and self-belief. As with life, you can’t be happy all the time and it’s not always plain sailing. However, being gentle and kind to yourself and doing small things to divert negativity, help re-direct your brain on a road that lets you see yourself for what you truly are: A valuable human who can offer something unique to this planet.

World Book Day – How books and reading have shaped my life

It’s World Book Day today and I have sent my daughter off in a witch costume, her father plaited her hair and fastened a big bow – Room on the Broom is one of Julia Donaldson’s stories that we keep coming back to over and over again. The rhymes are glorious and catchy, the story so sweet and memorable. I feel very lucky that both my children are bookworms. My oldest, now she can read herself, grabs one book after the other and sits in a corner, reading to herself or to her little brother. He can’t read himself yet, but one of his favourite things is to get out his books from the shelf and just sit there, flicking through them, muttering to himself and then, eventually, asking me to read him a story. Reading is magical, it is wonderful and so good for our brains and, dare I say, for our souls.

My own journey of reading and discovering books is one I always remember. I could read before I went to school and, once I had discovered the school library, there was no stopping me. I borrowed as many books as I could carry home in my school bag and an additional tote. I didn’t care that my way home was an endless hill and I was sweating to get up there. Those stories, those magical, fabulous stories were absolutely worth it.

One of my favourite authors as a child was Enid Blyton. Her stories of the Famous Five kept me hooked and occupied for hours after I had finished my homework. I remember sitting at my desk in my room, a small packet of raspberry sherbet to keep me company as I escaped into the adventures that always included Timothy the dog and lots of fabulous picnics. I loved Georgina, who wanted to be called George and dressed like a boy. I am not sure whether I loved her so much because I myself was usually dressed in jeans and jumpers and had very short hair, or whether I really admired her fiery character and stubbornness. Losing myself in that world, and in the worlds of many other books was a sanctuary that kept me safe and sane and certainly helped me through some very difficult times as a child.

As a teenager I discovered the Harry Potter books and, always a fan of magic and the mystical, I felt as if they had been written for me. I spent hours after bedtime sitting on the floor, pressed against the radiator of my room so I could keep warm, and drink in every single word of those glorious stories. What joy, what utter bliss to be part of this world where so many things were possible but to realise that even magic didn’t make your life easier. I never forget pre-ordering the fifth book in my twenties and again, sitting in bed until the early hours of the morning, because I could not stop reading. I recently bought some illustrated copies of the Harry Potter series, because I want to introduce my children to them. I hope they will, just like me, adore the narrative and recognise themselves in some of the protagonists.

As an adult, reading has become somewhat of a luxury, with lots of commitments, work, study, social life and now also a family of my own. Whilst, for many years, the reading of academic books became my daily reading habit, it also sadly introduced speed reading to me – frantically scanning page after page, taking in as much information as possible in the shortest space of time, noting it down and then moving on to the next book. It messed with my ability to read for joy, to just lose myself in a book and only resurface for some food or to sleep. Luckily, after a few years of devoting my life to academia, I decided I never wanted to live without the lust for reading again, and so I made books and reading a constant companion in my life once more.

I still don’t read half as much as I would love to and I still buy too many books when I have too many I haven’t read yet, but I am able to totally immerse myself in reading once more, the way I used to as a child. So much so, that, whilst recently reading American Dirt, I had sleepless nights and carried the burden of the story with me for days, unable to put the book down and using every spare minute I had to turn page after page – feeling incredible sadness once the story concluded.

World Book Day is a wonderful occasion to celebrate a medium of communication and storytelling that has existed for so many years and also to reflect on our own reading practices and habits. As a new author, I am obviously keen to make sure that my stories get out there, too, and this year’s World Book Day has felt really special. I hope I never have a break from reading for joy again and I hope that I will publish my first whole book soon. World Book Day has certainly given me the drive and inspiration to carry on.

The most wonderful time of the year

With just over two weeks to go, Christmas is fast approaching, sending us all in a spin of preparations, frenzied ordering of gifts online and hectic trips to supermarkets and shops. As every year, my plans to start getting organized are thwarted by reality and I have to deal with the eternal disappointment of my family that I still haven’t baked any of the traditional German biscuits I make every year. Christmas 2020 is being hailed as a special one, in more ways than one. Whilst restrictions here in the UK still remind us that Covid-19 has no intention of leaving the party early, many have also decided to “go all out” this year, spoiling loved ones with presents, treating themselves to extravagant things and making the best out of a situation none of us could have dreamt of 12 months ago. So how has Corona changed my Christmas? Am I feeling that excited tingle of the Christmas spirit yet? And what am I missing most this festive season?

My Christmas has always been a close family affair. I adore spending the festive days with people I trust, people I feel utterly comfortable with and those that make me feel loved and at home. Since having children, Christmas is all about them, to make their memories special and to have some cosy and relaxed days where, for once, I am not fretting about whether I need to follow a schedule for work, for my business or the kids’ schools. Christmas once lost its magic, in my late teens when I was in a quite dark place and couldn’t cope with any of the enforced happy family affair. Luckily, my brief stint as the Grinch didn’t leave a lasting mark on me and Christmas has since been a focal point of the year for me.
Corona changed a lot of things this year and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about a lot of things. My overactive mind had all sorts of scenarios worked out before the first month of isolation was over, but my panic subsided when I realised that, realistically, we didn’t miss out on much at Easter. We had chocolate, we had booze, we had cake and presents. We didn’t go without, bar those Easter egg hunts and social interactions we love so much. I would also be telling a fib if I said I thought we would still be in this muddle by Christmas. I had no idea and am slightly overwhelmed by the fact that, in just over 3 months it will be a whole year that I have not hugged my closest friends, their children or had people over spontaneously. I don’t even want to think about how long it has been since I have seen my family abroad – it breaks my heart. But, regarding Christmas, things are just like they have always been: A relaxed morning with the kids, opening stockings and the first few presents. Lazy breakfast and the first sip of bubbles, going for a Christmas Day walk and then cooking that fabulous dinner I fantasize about months before. A cosy afternoon with a family film and some games, stories and play time. And once the kids are in bed, we have a cheese platter with port. Bliss. Not even Covid can take that away from me, and isn’t that something to be eternally grateful for?

It always takes a while to get into that Christmas Spirit, even though I have started to decorate the house earlier this year than ever before. Work usually goes crazy around this time of the year and now I own my own little business, too, demands are ramping up. The kids need 120,000 things for school by the next day and reminders about this or that keep popping up on my phone. The stress of getting everything for the big day nags away in my head and I wonder why I never seem to be able to get everything sorted early enough, as I rewrite my 10th list for Christmas. Listening to Christmas music and watching some old classic films definitely does the trick, as does the odd glass of mulled wine or a warming hot chocolate after a walk in the cold. The kids are hyped through all the decorations, the extra activities at school and love their advent calendars. This year we also have an elf, which, admittedly, I first of all dreaded, but now actually really love. Having to help him to get up to no good requires extra planning, yes, but it’s also great fun and keeps those creative juices flowing. In just over a week I will break up from work and it’s my birthday soon, too. The anticipation of the big day creeping closer keeps me going and lets me feel excited when I stop for a moment and think. My anxious and overworked brain definitely needs a lot of TLC in order to catch up with that festive spirit, but once I am allowed to switch off from everyday duties, I tend to find that inner peace that Christmas promises and I so rarely experience.

Of course, like with many things this year, I am also missing a few things this Christmas. I don’t live close enough to a Christmas market and, having grown up with them, they do play a huge part in making me feel festive and Christmassy. I will never forget those days and evenings spent in Germany, roaming the most amazing, picturesque and quaint Christmas markets, the air filled with sweet and indulgent smells of roasted almonds, grilled sausages, Lebkuchen, eggnog and mulled wine. Pushing through the crowds with a smile on my face, stopping to drink a warming punch that spreads all the way to those frozen fingertips – there’s nothing quite like the atmosphere of a Christmas fair. Where I live in the UK, the small town has a late night shopping event which is the closest to a festive event I can get, but it’s lovely and colourful and bright and a wonderful time to meet other families, friends and to support some local shops and food stalls. Sadly, this had been cancelled, the Christmas lights had been turned on without the annual ceremony and, whilst the shop windows are beautifully decorated, lingering in a boutique over a festive drink and mince pie isn’t possible this year. During this time I also love to take my little clan out for some festive drinks and nibbles, but it’s also not really possible – Tier 3 and all its restrictions cancelled those little rituals, too. Having Santa’s sleigh come past the house and visiting Santa’s Grotto are all highlights during the Advent season that the kids love and having them as little milestones to get excitement before Christmas is something I will definitely also miss, alongside with those wonderful festive squeezes and hugs from friends and those friendly, extra warm smiles from strangers in shops, on streets or in parks. Most of them are now hidden behind masks or hurry by quickly, with their heads down.

Saying all that, in the grand scheme of things, having things cancelled or re-arranged at Christmas may not be the worst thing in the world and may actually help us to slow down and re-evaluate what this season is really about. Maybe, with all those rules and regulations in place, our own rule can be to take it easy, relax, put our feet up and treat ourselves and those we love to the indulgence of doing nothing, to laze about and talk to each other, make plans and dream of what is to come. What truly matters is our health and well-being. And if we have that and some love, it’s a pretty perfect Christmas already.

Mrs Brightside – the dangers of toxic positivity

Lately I have been reading a lot of stuff online and on social media which, I am sure, with best intentions, tells people to just lighten up and to get over themselves. There is advice of “making the best out of every situation”, “seizing every new day as a new opportunity” and “looking for the positives” because every situation will have a dust of gold for us, as long as we look hard enough for it. People tell others to stop complaining, to stop whining, to stop dreading certain days and situations. Because, you know, nothing is that bad. Clean up your act, woman up, grow a pair, think positive, change your mindset! It’s so fucking simple! What the fuck is wrong with you?!?

Well, bugger me, dear social media warrior turned expert of all walks of life! I had no idea it was that easy! I just have to think differently! That’s where I have been going wrong all my life. Damn it! Why didn’t I think of that before? Change your thought process. Rewire that brain! Simples! I wish I had had that valuable brain wave when, aged 8, my sister was ripped from me, just a year after my cousin died of suicide. So easy. Should have looked on the bright side. Somewhere, there was clearly something positive hidden. I obviously didn’t look hard enough. And my cousin, well, he clearly had no clue either. Silly boy. Lighten up young man!

I am sure all those people with anxiety and mental health issues couldn’t wait for some bright spark to tell them this easy trick. “Change your mindset, dumbass!” That easy! Fabulous! We are all cured!
The thing is, such comments, also coined “toxic positivity”, as thoughtless and therefore meaningless they really are, can actually do a lot of damage. They devalue people’s experiences and feelings. Sure, some people do love a bit of drama and tend to fear the worst, but who are we to judge that their feelings don’t mean anything? Believe you me, when I was in a job where I got bullied and was exhausted and couldn’t see the wood for the trees, I tried harder than ever before to stay focused, positive and to learn as much as I could from that situation. I was still fucking miserable though and hated every morning when I drove to work, and cried most evenings on the way home. My mind was always hopeful. But it was also bloody miserable. And no, I couldn’t just hand in my notice and walk. I had and still have responsibilities, two young kids (back then a 6 month old baby and a 3 year old) and their dad who all depended on me financially. I lose my job, or I walk and I can’t keep a roof over our head. But yeah, lighten up woman, don’t make such a fuss. 

A few weeks ago a young kid told me, sobbing their heart out, that they missed their grandparent so much. They’d  lost them to cancer. On top of that, they felt unloved, unwanted and totally out of place. Do you think I told the kid to “seek the positives” and “change their mindset”? Of course I didn’t! I was honest with them. I told them that we can do hard things (thanks Glennon Doyle) and that things would, one day, get easier. They asked me if I could promise that. I denied. No, I couldn’t promise that. Most likely, they would always miss their grandparent and I also had no recipe for a tough time at school. But I told the kid I was here for them. They weren’t alone. 

Compassion and empathy are, so it seems at times, rarities in our society that hides behind a screen and a keyboard. We mustn’t forget that everyone is fighting a battle, everyone is carrying some baggage. For some of us, most days are fine. For others, most days are a total struggle. For example, I admit that most days are really tough for me. The demands from my kids, from life, from my jobs, my self employment, the demands of myself and my vision of what I should do next all lie heavily on my shoulders. I have so many responsibilities, it sometimes takes my breath away. So no, life is not a walk in the park where I jump out of bed every morning and go skipping around, actively looking for the positives. Most days I don’t have time to think. I just do and jump from one thing to the next, because that is reality as a parent, a woman working two jobs, a mature student, a partner, an adult with lots of financial obligations. 

So next time you feel judgemental, think again. Next time you want to tell someone to “always look on the bright side of life”, have some consideration. If your life is like that, how amazing! I am really, genuinely happy for you. But it’s not reality for many people. So don’t sit on your high horse and tell us how to snap out of it. There is always much more to it. 

Lockdown afterlife – how is it for you?

Summer seems to be on its way out, the nights are creeping in a little earlier and the other morning, when I ran with my dog, the air was chilly and bit my legs, turning them red. Although I love summer, its warmth, the long evenings and the air of holiday and adventure, freedom and fun in the air, I adore autumn in the same way, embracing the colours of the leaves, the cooler breeze, the grey skies and the first frost at dawn. It seemed that, when lockdown began, as did summer, as the sun graced us with her presence day after day. Then the summer holidays prolonged our time far from a routine, making it the longest period in history spent at home with our kids.

Now, as the rest of the country returns back to school, the weather has turned, too, welcoming autumn and the countdown to festivities which really aren’t so far away anymore. As much as I loved the time with my children, I am now glad for some routine, some purpose, some regimented duties day in and out. The cooler weather seems to be waking us up, pinching us, pushing us to rise from our slog and telling us to get on with it. And with that, I am up and running. Juggling, as before, grasping at new opportunities and realising that all those things I thought impossible are actually totally doable.

Lockdown was great to rethink some of our ways and create some new rules and boundaries. It helped some of us to take stock and weed out the old and start afresh. We evaluated and did some soul searching. Now, so it feels for me, all that thinking and searching has to be put into practice. Despite all this newfound enthusiasm for a new start, I am well aware that this crisis in not over yet, as the new restrictions remind us of. Many of us are still scared, frightened and worried. I have those moments, too, but I won’t allow myself to dwell because I have a job where I have no choice but to turn up. Therefore, for what this strange time has taught me is to roll with it. To do what I can do and to stop fighting what I can’t change. New things spring in front of us, even if everything has been quiet for a while, and we can emerge from this stronger, wiser and more resilient.

So how is this afterlife shaping up for you? Is it taking you a while to get back into normality, whatever that looks like? Have there been monumental changes? Are you excited for some new opportunities? Are you struggling and feel you need help? This was all very different for all of us and whatever you need and have to do to get out of this to be you, to feel ok and to gain strength again, do it. There is no shame, no embarrassment, no need to hide. AC – after Covid is a personal journey, as personal as everyone’s experience during quarantine. You do what you have to do. Try and make the best of it.

Holiday therapy

How a break from the same four walls has revived my heart, brain and soul

Lockdown has been tough, hasn’t it? First, we weren’t really allowed to leave the house unless it was for our daily exercise. And even when the restrictions lifted slowly and we could venture out further, it still didn’t quite feel like it did before: fearless, uninhibited, carefree, and, for some of us: safe. Going on holiday is something that a lot of us have decided against, especially going away abroad. Some people see it as their right to travel further afield, others decide it’s not for them at the moment. We fall into the latter category, and have cancelled our trip abroad now twice, well, we have postponed it. It was sad, but it would not have felt right for us.

After a few weeks of summer holidays and trying to make the best out of being in the same place for most of the time, as well as getting slightly fed up with day trips, we decided we needed to get out. Not just for our sake, but also for the kids’ sanity. My oldest had been up in arms when she realised she wasn’t going to see her beloved German Oma this summer, so the least we could do was to offer a little adventure outside our own four walls – and get her excited about it.
After a few days of scanning Air B’n’B we finally settled for York, the beautiful historic city up North, where neither of us had ever been before.

Similarly to my cleaning operation before our night away from the kids, my rituals before holidays are quite similar, albeit a little less frantic. I start packing days before and write lists that I can tick off or, even better, put things on the list I have already done and then immediately cross them through. There is nothing more exhilarating that satisfies my geeky, controlling and slightly obsessive little heart than planning and prepping and being organised. The house has to be spotless by the time we leave, as well as completely tidy. My boyfriend once joked whether I was tidying up for the burglars (God forbid, I don’t need any other compulsive and crazy thoughts in my head!). To be honest, he has since come round to the idea of returning to a clean and spotless house, rather than a place that looks like it has been ransacked by us before we left.

When we finally left it took me a good two hours of driving (so, most of the way), to chill out and put every anxious thought in my brain somewhere far away. Letting go and being truly in the moment is something I have never really been able to do, so going away isn’t completely relaxing for me from start to finish. However, once we arrived in our little holiday home and had put some food in the fridge and the oven, and I had a glass of wine in hand, holiday life seemed to look up. Exploring an incredible place like York will always sort out my crazy though processes and when we were meandering through the quaint little streets past the timber-framed houses and the never ending City Wall, having a picnic at the steps of the York Minster, I was already head over heels in love with the place and my time away from home. Spots of rain and whiny children couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was on vacation, and I was free from rules, norms and the daily grind.
For me, the beauty of spending time somewhere else is exploring and seeing things and places I have never been to before. Whilst this may seem logical at first, think of all the times you have opted to go back to the same restaurant, the same park, the same tourist attraction or even the same place on holiday, just because you liked it and wanted to go back to it. I have been like this for many years, settling for the known, for the comfort of the predicable. No more. Lockdown has evoked feelings of adventure and seeing as many new places and things as possible. And so we explored. We dug deep into history, we went on nature walks and felt like we were in a different world. We listened to the crackling of a hot wheat field, ate wild blackberries and held stripy caterpillars. We fought our way through stinging nettles and brambles, stumbled over tree roots and splashed in ice cold rivers. We had ice cream and quick oven dinners, went for evening strolls and stayed up far too late. My personal highlight was, apart from the extraordinary nature of Yorkshire, the glorious morning run across York’s historic stone wall. I could have stayed up there forever, soaking in the early morning sunlight and taking in the rugged charm of this astounding city.
Whilst I wasn’t too sad packing back up and leaving our miniscule abode, leaving the North made me grateful that I was able to experience such beauty with my family and even had moments of being close to feeling at ease and being carefree.
Whilst my phone and social media in the form of Instagram didn’t have much of a break, I didn’t do any writing or work and my laptop remained firmly shut. Life had to wait for a while whilst I took a breather. I read and finished a book, I made some notes in my journal and I did a lot of thinking and talking, but that was it.

When it was finally time to go back, even an hour long standstill on the motorway couldn’t dampen my spirits. We had cake from a detour to Bakewell and plenty of water, so the summer sun and a good sense of humour as well as gratitude for good health and no accidents were our companions whilst we waited for the motorway to open back up.
Now, back home and with a new week ahead of me, I can feel those anxious thoughts and nervous motions creep back in, but the memories of our short break as well as flicking through countless photos keep the magic of having a break alive a little longer. Whatever you decide, wherever you go, know that getting away for a bit does you the world of good. It certainly shook my world up for a bit, and all for the better.

Mama needs a break

On a recent walk with one of my friends, also a mum, who co-parents with her ex-partner, we had a heart to heart about parenting and the ups and downs of being a mother in this modern day and age. We are both immigrants in this country and don’t have family around. Our experiences are quite similar but also very different, but the thing that unites us it that we are generally just utterly exhausted and worn out from being Mama, working full time and managing everything else in our and our children’s lives. I confided in my friend, that, whilst my children are the most precious and wanted things in my life, they also cause me huge bouts of guilt about all sorts of stuff: that I am not being a good enough mother, that I am often working more than I see them, that I am totally behind with any jobs in and on the house and that I have an ever simmering feeling of missing my own life which is racing by with lots of fabulous opportunities, most of which I can’t tend to because I am a mother. This cocktail of guilt and frustration isn’t a good mix, let me tell you. Whilst a lot of people don’t understand my complaints and even some other mothers, whom I have shared this with, reacted surprised, my friend totally got me. “Of course! You do need some time to yourself. It’s important that you do. You need to look after your own needs. If you are happy, your kids are happy.”

As so often in life, coincidence or maybe even some higher entity, decided that I had been complaining enough and that help was on the way. A friend of mine (let’s face it, she’s more like family) text me out of her own accord and offered to look after the kids whilst the boyfriend and I stay at her place over night. I had to read the message twice and rewrite the reply three times, from asking “Are you sure?”, over to tentatively toying with the idea, to happily accepting and starting to plan what to do with hours without the little people. My friend popped over for dinner and we chatted about her stay at ours, and by that time the kids were already so excited, they were ready to move us out and her in there and then. My friend has numerous nieces and nephews and knows a thing or two about parenting and staying with kids, and recounted an episode from her sister who told her that parents often shy away from having a night away because of all the prep work that goes into it. I nodded and mentally added cleaning and tidying to my to-do-list which was getting longer by the minute. By the evening before our night off, I was cleaning, scrubbing, washing and dusting in places that hadn’t seen a cloth or duster for months, and by the morning of THE day, I was so frazzled with all the last minute jobs to do, the things to pack and the notes to write, that I burst into tears on more than one occasion. Granted, it didn’t help that my youngest spat smoothie all over the freshly mopped floor, the dog dug up half the garden and trotted back into the house covered in gunk and grass, and my oldest decided to put on a fashion show and pull out each and every single one of her dresses.
Sadly, when you are on a schedule, being upset isn’t incredibly helpful, and so, as I sat, for the second time that day, on my bedroom floor in floods of tears, all I could think of was that I didn’t really have time to cry, as the dog needed walking and the holdall was still waiting to be packed.

By the time my friend arrived, I was neither packed and ready nor in the right frame of mind to go, but as always, throwing in the towel isn’t an option. Also, my kids would have never forgiven me, had I deprived them of some quality time with such an important person in their lives. After my friend nearly chucked us out the house, I felt so tired I could have gone to sleep there and then. Luckily, a delicious take-away and the thoughtful prep of my friend at her house provided a much-needed pick-me-up and, after a sip of Champagne and another cry, confessing to my boyfriend how tough I found it all, the evening started looking up. We ate our food hot and without having to take someone for a poo. We talked without interruptions and finished a conversation without wiping up a spillage, having to feed one to the kids or remind them that shoving pasta up your or anyone else’s nose is not acceptable table etiquette. We drank (maybe a little too much) bubbles knowing that no one would wake us up either during the night or at half 5 in the morning. We went for a walk at night because, well, we could. And the next morning we stayed in bed until 10am, no schedule, no duties or little people in sight, only hot cups of tea and some toast, a mooch around the house and a chuckle about my friend’s message, telling me that our son had done the most colossal poo for her.

Now what’s the moral of the story, you ask me? Well, even though the run up to our first night together as a couple away from the kids in over three years was rather quite stressful and chaotic (through no fault other than my own), the actual time was absolutely brilliant. We didn’t do anything ground breaking and were home by lunch time the next day but we felt refreshed and calmer than in a long time. I realised that I really missed my kids (and the dog) but also just quite how much of my life they take over. I observed that I could still let go, have fun and be just me, despite being responsible for two small humans along the way. Most of all, I confirmed to myself that I would never stop working hard for my own dreams and ambitions, and that being a mother doesn’t cancel that one out. However, and it is a big HOWEVER: having time for yourself is not easy as a parent, yet it is so very important and precious, and if you don’t have that regularly, things can get tough and you’ll end up, like me, crying on the bedroom floor. So, if you have family around you who can help out – grab that help with both hands so you can get a breather. And if you don’t, like me, then never ever say no when one of your trusted friends offers to lend you a hand. I used to struggle accepting help and I am still quite proud and too scared to reach out. But our short break from everyday life showed me that I am, indeed, worthy of such time and don’t love my kids any less. I don’t ditch them off every weekend or any opportunity I get. And generally, wherever I go, they go. But Mama needed a break, and Mama got one. It was great. Mama feels better now. Mama will have another break, hopefully one day soon. Because, you know, I am bloody worth it (and all the Papas, too, may I add!).

In someone else’s shoes – the art of empathy and acknowledging different ways of life

The other day a friend of mine and I exchanged a conversation around books and what we read. They introduced me to a fabulous sounding read which I swiftly added to my Amazon basket and then jokingly mentioned to said friend that my to-be-read pile was growing higher and bigger by the day. What a shame I didn’t have more time to read. The friend’s response was blunt: Why do you not have time to read?

My initial reaction was to confront them, socially distant-slap them with all the books on my to-be-read pile and then rub their face into the other piles in my life: piles of ironing, piles of unwashed clothes, piles of washing up, piles of toys, piles of jobs upon jobs in the house that need doing but haven’t been done because, you know, life and kids … .

Then I remembered a moment around 6 years ago, when I was still childless and a little less bogged down with lots of responsibilities and duties. I messaged my really good friend, asking if she could sew a new pillow case for me as one of mine had ripped. She is fabulous with all sorts of crafty stuff and a whizz with things like that. She also had given birth to a little baby 5 months prior and seemed quite frazzled lately. Her message was apologetic but clear: “I would love to but I can’t. I honestly don’t have time to even brush my teeth, let alone my hair. I just can’t do it.” I was taken aback and a little disappointed but I accepted it and asked if I could help her. No, it was ok, but she just couldn’t do anything apart from concentrate on her baby. I remember it well. The rejection and the disappointment. What was the matter with her? Why was she being so dramatic? It was only a baby!

Fast forward one year and I was holding a screaming baby in my arms. No, not my friend’s, it was my own. Contrary to all my previous thoughts and fears, I was able to give birth to a little girl within a matter of a few hours. Of course, that was where the simple life ended. My baby screamed and cried, she never slept anywhere apart from in someone’s arms and, if you are, like me, living in a country far away from your family, you and the baby are just that: alone. No one to help, no one to have the little mite for a couple of hours to give you a break, no one to take her for a walk in the pram whilst you have a shower in peace or clean the house which resembles a jumble sale scene invaded by a pack of locusts. I thought of my friend and knew: She was on to something. And I felt deeply ashamed for grumbling about her gently telling me that she was unable to sew a fucking pillow case for me! I had known nothing. I had been ignorant and totally oblivious because I had no scooby doo of how difficult it was to have a little human being around you all the time. No, really, ALL THE TIME!

Skip ahead a few more years and I have not one, but two of those little things we call the future of our species. Heaven knows what possessed me but here we are. They are the best thing I ever created, they are my life and I would die for them in an instant but bloody hell they are hard work! Throw in isolation, working from home and home schooling, plus a post grad degree (again, self-imposed, I get it!) and you have a cocktail for disaster, something that is a debacle waiting to happen. When I say my kids are my life, then I don’t just mean they are my No.1 priority and will always, ALWAYS come first, yes, even before me. I also infer that they take over my life. Sorry kids, but you do. From the moment I wake up, to the point in time when I tuck them into bed and sing them a German lullaby, they are a hurricane twirling through a rollercoaster ride. I can’t do anything, and I mean this, I can’t do ANYTHING without being interrupted. Brushing my teeth and having a wee: “Maaaaaaaaaammaaaaaa! Can you read a story?!” Making breakfast and talking to the dog: “Mama, he’s done a poo, and can you please get my dressing up box down for me?” Sitting down to check my emails at 8.30am in the morning: “Mama, I want some chocolate. Mama, I want to go out. Mama, I want to read a book. Mama, I need a wee. Mama, Casper just bit me. Mama, I love you. Mama, I need a drink. Mama, where is Papa? I WANT PAPA! Mama, what are you doing? Mama, there is a spider. Mama, kill the spider. Mama, I need some loo roll. Mama, I want to go on the computer to do some Mandarin. Mama, she hit me. Mama, he hit me. Mama, I want to watch a film. Mama, I want to play play d’oh. Mama, I need a poo. …” I assume (oh no, you should never assume…) you get the gist? This is my day. Constant questions, demands, requests. If I fall onto the sofa at 8pm and still have it in me to talk to my partner then that is a miracle, but most of the time I work or send emails or write or catch up on correspondence.

You see, parents don’t have a lot of time for themselves, unless they have or hire help. No one expects any sympathy or pity from anyone, because most of us made the choice to have kids on purpose. However, it is not ok to assume that we are just being awkward and lazy and disorganized and have no timing at all. We have a ridiculous amount on our plate and any gasps of outrageousness are highly unhelpful. The reasons I can’t read 15 books in a week is because I am organising and sorting the lives of 2 additional people to me. I am not jealous or resentful or wish my single and free days back, because no one forced me to become a mother. But the same as I completely sympathise that you don’t want to hear about me moaning about yet another sleepless night and total wipe-out because of the craziness of parenthood, as well as high-fiving you because it doesn’t take you 3 hours and 5 different bags to leave the house, I also would like a teeny tiny bit of thought from you, to recognise that things are, at the moment, a tad different for me. And I say that with more love and compassion than you could imagine. We’re all different, as are our lives. This is mine, and you don’t have to “get it”. But a little bit of empathy and understanding goes a long way.

Reflections on life in lockdown

As the city of Leicester goes into lockdown again, here is an article I wrote for a magazine, which should serve as a reminder that we’re not out of it yet and that we could all be back in lockdown if we don’t take good care.

As the UK is emerging from what feels for many the longest lockdown in history (and none of us have really experienced anything like it before), a lot of us are keen to get back to the old normal and forget about what had become the “new normal”.  Some of us may feel less excited about the prospect of having to get out of our bubble and resume our daily tasks, commute to work and go back to an office.  Others still carry fears from an invisible force that threatened not only the lives of many loved ones who are vulnerable or elderly but also jeopardised jobs, livelihoods and future plans made. Many expressed that isolation had evoked heightened feelings of anxiety and anxiousness in them, staring into a dark hole of mortality, uncertainty, feeling lonely and cut off from close friends and family, social lives in tatters, yearning for human closeness, hugs and intimacy.  Cancelled weddings, parties, festivals, proms, holidays – most of us can tell a story of what we had to postpone or give up during these strange times.  

Looking back, the time in lockdown was, certainly for me, a roller coaster of feelings, or, what others often referred to as a “corona coaster”.  Part of me embraced imposed quarantine and its restrictions on movement, spending more time at home with my children instead of rushing out the house and leaving them behind.  Family time certainly has been the biggest upside of lockdown with joint meals, picnics, lazy mornings and sunny hours in the garden. I will cherish those days forever, alongside long and meaningful conversations over the phone, long emails, Zoom calls with family and friends and even the odd letter and card sent, going back to communicating in depth, showing appreciation and love and acknowledging that we as humans are deeply sociable and need connection with one another as much as food, water and, it seems, toilet paper.  

However, there were also moments when I struggled – a lot – but was reassured by conversations with friends that I was certainly not the only one feeling like this.  Being at home a lot is lovely for a homebody like me but the added pressures of working remotely whilst home-schooling, keeping the kids sane and stopping the house from looking like it has been burgled have taken their toll at times, combined with the fact that no one could just quickly pop out or have some me-time.  I also failed to find the extra time many people were talking about, searching desperately and in vain for a moment to myself, for time to read a book or to do some renovation on the house. It was as impossible as locating some flour and eggs in shops.  

All joking aside – I know I was lucky and privileged to have experienced lockdown in an environment that was safe, we were healthy, fed and watered, and were never alone or lonely.  Not once did we have to go without luxuries – we even had an Easter Egg hunt and a big cake for my daughter’s birthday.  My appreciation for life as we know it has never been greater, but it has also turned into a wish for change.  Covid-19 should have been a wakeup call for all of us, making us realise how fragile life can be, that we are not invincible and neither is the planet we live on.  I have hopes for a fresh start, not just in terms of emerging full of drive and energy to commence normality as it was BC (before covid).  Life AC (after covid) could be an opportunity to change for the better – our lives, our relationships, our planet. What are you going to do?

Self care in the age of having and doing it all

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.