How to be good?

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What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!

#In Real Life

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Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

Being Kind

Last week was not a good week. It kicked off with Sophia ill with a high temperature and a cough. The cough was worst at night, so we were getting woken up every couple of hours by  distressed little girl. Then I discovered Anna had nits (again), and so we had to add daily assaults with the nitty gritty comb into our daily routine, which was popular with everyone. The weather was cold, grey, foggy and, it turns out, poisonous. Air quality in London hit a record low, and it felt impossible to get properly warm. Then Anna fell off the climbing frame at school and hit her head, and then vomited, and then complained her vision was blurry, so we ended up at the GP and then being sent off to A&E. She only had a mild concussion, and is fine now, but it was fun at the time. Then Sophia fell downstairs, top to bottom – she was totally unharmed, but this was the morning after the night in A&E, so my nerves were pretty shattered. The week was rounded off by Sophia falling off the bouncy castle at a party on Sunday and having one of her seizures. And this is before even thinking about the terrifying and depressing political developments in America.

But yesterday, even though it was Monday, and (still) January and (still) cold things suddenly felt better. I had a text message telling me that some friends of ours had had a baby daughter at the weekend, and baby news always makes me happy. I took Anna out for a hot chocolate and some quality mother and daughter time whilst my MIL looked after Sophia, and was reminded how lucky I am to have this bright, funny, imaginative girl. I went out for dinner with my closest friend from those early, blurry, sleep-deprived first baby days and we had a proper catch-up and marvelled at the passing of time which means we are now parents to nearly-eight-year-olds. And after pre-school, Sophia asked if she could sit on my knee to have lunch instead of going in her high chair. I agreed, and she leant back into me, snuggling her head against my chest, and said contentedly “Love you” for the very first time.

Someone I know from years back posted on Facebook this morning that protests against Trump’s policies or against Brexit, are utterly pointless, and instead we should be directing our efforts to loving our friends and family, volunteering at church, supporting colleagues at work and taking the time to be nice to people who we come across in daily life. I couldn’t agree, or disagree, more.

Being kind to the people around us is what we should be doing anyway, and all the more so when there seems to be such a dearth of kindness in high places. And the only way to get though these dark political times is to take time to appreciate and value the little things – sharing a meal with someone you love, the sleepy weight of a child on your lap, a conversation with a friend. But right now I also think those of us who believe in hope not hate should try to do a little more, go a little further, and make our voices heard just as clearly as those I firmly believe are far fewer in number but shout much louder.

This morning I have followed More United‘s advice as to what we can do to fight the horrendous ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US – a ban which is going to tear families and friends apart. I donated some money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the ban. I posted a supportive message on my MP’s Facebook page, as Stella Creasy is being very vocal in encouraging the British Government to speak out, and MPs who are taking this stance need our support, just as those who are not speaking out need to know that this is something their constituents care about. And I co-signed the letter which Hope Not Hate are sending to Theresa May, asking her to unequivocally condemn Trump’s actions.

None of this took very long out of my day, and none of it stops me also continuing to try  (even though I don’t always succeed) to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, neighbour and friend. Love and hope are stronger than hatred and fear, and we can, and must, prove that.

be-kind

Ten things I love about parenting

My last post was a grumpy but fairly therapeutic rant on the things I hate about parenting. Yesterday someone posted on my author Facebook page to say that it sounded like I shouldn’t have had children. I’m sure it was a joke. I hope it was a joke. Nonetheless it got to me. Mainly because of the constant guilt which was point 10 on my most hated list. I love my children more than anything in the world, and can’t imagine life without them, however irksome the day-to-day practicalities can sometimes be. To think that I have written something which makes it seem as though I might regret having them feels like an utter betrayal. I’d planned to write this post at some point anyway, but in view of the Facebook comment I felt an urgent need to redress the balance. So here is a list, not an exhaustive one, of some of my favourite things about parenting.

1) Their faces when they’re asleep

Obviously I love their faces awake as well. But the exquisite vulnerability of a sleeping child is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

2) Holding hands

The feeling of your child slipping their little hand into yours is a perfect summary of the trust they place in you to protect them and guide them and get it right for them. Sometimes it is a responsibility which feels overwhelming, but undoubtedly the most important thing I will ever do.

3) Sharing things you loved as a child

From favourite books, to classic childhood experiences like paddling in the sea or feeding the ducks, to treats like fish finger sandwiches and fairy cakes, re-living elements of your own childhood and watching your children’s pleasure in their turn is one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting.

4) How efficient I have become

Free time might now be in short supply, but my goodness when I get it I can make the most of it. An hour’s nap time gives me the opportunity to hang out a load of washing, put another load away, clean the bathroom, hoover downstairs, wash up and prepare our evening meal. A couple of hours when my husband takes the children out on a Saturday afternoon and I can have a restorative nap, bake a cake, write a blog post and catch up on my emails. My first novel was written in a year’s worth of Thursday afternoons when my MIL took care of my eldest daughter.

5) The sense of perspective

I might have lost my sense of perspective in once sense. A missed nap can sometimes seem like a catastrophe and adverts on the Tube can leave me in floods of tears. In other ways, though, I have gained one. Things which would once have really upset me – my jeans being too tight, a nasty book review, a snide comment – can now generally be put out of my mind just by looking at my children and reflecting that while I have them and they are ok, nothing else can really be that bad.

6) The cut-the-crap world insights

My seven year old is getting better and better at these. My longwinded explanation of something I consider to be a complex adult issue she will summarise in one pithy sentence. This has the effect of making me wonder exactly why we complicate our lives so unnecessarily.

7) Nurturing

I might moan about the relentlessness of it, but I also love the feeling of nurturing my children. Whether it is watching my youngest sleepily suckling as I give her her bedtime feed, or seeing two empty plates and happy faces after they’ve enjoyed the meal I made, or bestowing the  consolatory kisses and cuddles after a bumped knee, baking cakes for a weekend (or weekday) treat, or even folding and putting away a pile of freshly washed brightly coloured little clothes all ready to be worn again, I find the physical act of caring for my children deeply satisfying. I was browsing Mumsnet this week, and came across this lovely quote on a thread:

I think we should coddle them all while we can, life is short and I want mine to think of home as a place of unconditional love, safety, chats and belly laughs, dry towels and a full fridge

This is my new motto, because it is exactly how I want my girls to think of their home as they grow up.

8) The parenting community

I have made some fantastic friends since, and because of, becoming a mum. Whether it’s my NCT buddies who helped me adjust to the brave new world of motherhood and were always happy to conduct an in-depth analysis of sleep cycles, feeding patterns or nappy contents whilst eating a lot of cake, or the school-gate friends who’ve been there as our children have started to find their independence, allowing us to rediscover ours a little bit too, to the nameless mum in the park who lets me use her suncream when I’ve forgotten ours, or the one on the train who smiles sympathetically rather than sighing huffily when my baby kicks off on the train. I have also discovered new levels in friendships I had BC (Before Children) as we exchange panicked texts about the symptoms of croup or dehydration, or Facebook messages throughout a sleepless night.

9) Enhanced relationships

I love seeing my husband as a father, and my parents as grandparents, and my brother and sister-in-law as uncle and auntie and it makes me love and appreciate them in whole new ways.

10) Watching them learn

I find it inspiring how both my children are on a constant quest to learn, and as soon as they have mastered one skill there is no resting on their laurels, it is straight on to another. At eighteen months, my youngest is working on walking up and downstairs unaided, jumping with both feet off the ground, and her first words. The seven year old is concentrating on her three times table, handwriting and spelling that other people can actually read and an in-depth understanding of the issues underpinning the EU referendum debate. Watching them is a reminder that learning and self-development shouldn’t be a chore but a way of life. It’s a huge privilege to be able to help teach them at the moment, but also to learn from their determination, optimism and courage.

A & S Merton

 

Seventeenth Day of Advent: Friends

I did say at the beginning of this series of posts that they wouldn’t be in order of priority, and the proof is that it’s taken me seventeen days to get to friends when, after family, they are by far what make me happiest. In some ways, in terms of pure, simple happiness friends might even have the edge at times.helen and jen Families can be that bit more complex; you have guilt, worry and responsibilities which sometimes go hand in hand with the deep love you feel for your spouse, children, parents. Whereas friends are where you go to kick back, relax and have a laugh.

I have friends from school I only see infrequently because we no longer live in the same city, but when I do, I feel like I am fifteen again. I have other friends who I see pretty much every day on the school run, and having a quick gossip with them at 3.10pm can transform my mood after a day spent solely with an adorable but largely non-verbal little person.

There are the local friends who I have relied on heavily over the past couple of years when I seem to have spent far too much time going to hospital for tests, treatment or investigations connected with miscarriages or pregnancy, who have picked Anna up from school at short notice or had her for the day when I was unexpectedly kept in hospital, or turned up with home-cooked food, chocolate, sympathy and hugs when I was recovering. I am so grateful.

More recently one of my local friends had a hysterical phone call from me when Sophia fell and banged her head. She turned up 3 minutes later with her own little girl, calmed me down, phoned me a taxi to go to the hospital and took Anna home with her until husband was able to get home and collect her. I don’t want bad things to happen to my friends, obviously, but I hope that I am able to return all the favours by helping them out when they need it.

I have friends from different life stages – school, university, workplaces, NCT, baby classes, school gates. Many of them I don’t see as often as I would like – life, work, geography, children all get in the way at times – but a quick text exchange or Facebook message can brighten my day, and I know that when I do get to spend some proper time with them the pleasure of catching up properly will be enormous.

Like everyone, from time to time I get low or angry or anxious or hormonal. I have a few go-to solutions which generally make me feel better, many of which I have discussed in this blog series. Baking a cake, a long, hot bath (glass of wine optional but preferable), curling up on the sofa for a cuddle and chat with my husband, a comfort read, a brisk walk. One which I tend to neglect because it’s harder to put into operation than the others is going out for a drink with a friend. I can live without fancy bars or cocktails (although happy to discuss), but a couple of my girlfriends, a pub and a bottle or two of Chenin Blanc are pretty much guaranteed to make a new woman out of me.