Can you help me

Is a very hard question to ask. When my baby was tiny, if family came round and offered to take the baby for a walk, or my partner said hey why don't you go to a cafe by yourself and read a book for a bit, I almost always said, no thanks, it's fine.

It wasn't fine, not at all.

I desperately wanted/needed help. The reason I said no, I think, was: 1. not wanting to inconvenience anyone else 2. deep down didn't have enough self-worth to feel I deserved it 3. worried the baby would cry and need me and end up in therapy when she was 17/also her crying would be hard for the person looking after her, see point 1.

A mixture of people-pleasing and not yet skilled at caring for myself, what's your flavour?! We all have our demons. The weird (perhaps primal? thanks again mother nature) guilt mothers carry around for working, not going to work, leaving work on time, leaving work late, going out with friends or going on a hen do once every 37 months, not doing fancy crafts with their kids, letting kids watch tele for "too long", letting kids eat "too many" biscuits, making toast for dinner again ... I wonder if this contributes to the embedded feeling in many of us that we don't deserve things.

I had to learn my way out of this, in various ways. I watched other people, including those who were good at accepting help. For example a friend of mine - if you say "what can I do?" when she's making a meal she'll give you a task (I love a task!) and she'll even say "now can you do this while I finish off something else". I copied that. 

I started to do self-nourishing things regularly (everyone will have their own, mine include restorative yoga, early nights, time on my own - not always things I feel like doing at the time even though I know they'll benefit me overall) even though I had a lot less self-love back then - it seems like if you want to get somewhere, you need to start practicing, even if you're not sure you believe that it's effective, even if you're only trying it on to see how it feels without any guarantee. Like an experimental drug that you don't yet have faith will succeed.

Have faith. In the next few months I'm doing various trainings that require me to take time off work at particularly busy times, my partner and my parents and my sister-in-law respectively are helping out with childcare. I'll be "inconveniencing" lots of people, though guess what you're allowed to take annual leave from your job and it's fine for my daughter's family to give time to be with her - they generally love it. Not as many people lose as we think they will. 

I'll barely see my daughter for some days: I'll feel guilty and I'll miss her, but this time (unlike my first yoga teacher training when she was 8 months old - agony) I know I need to do this and that everyone will be fine. I know everything I'm giving the rest of the time, a bit of taking is ok. This time, it was easier to ask everyone to step up and help me. Everyone pulling together, village style. I'm extremely grateful for their help, but I know I'd do it for them.

You do a lot for others. Now can you do it for you, too?

Everything everything

If you read these posts you'll have noticed me talking a lot about creating regular moments of rest (separate from sleep, without distraction) to recover from expending our energy in everyday life. If you do manage to do this, at least sometimes - do less, say no to things that deplete you, use your energy skillfully, unclutter your life a little - what's next?

The space that opens up can sometimes pose a question about our lives. Is it enough? Are we doing enough? Do things need to change? Is that all there is? Or even if there is no space, we can get a glimpse of other people's lives and feel envy about how perfect we (wrongly) perceive others' lives are.

I got one of these recently when I saw a young couple nervously going in the gate of a lovely big house near our flat. The couple kind of looked a bit like me and my partner five years ago, but unlike us they could afford to buy a FAT house, and maybe it was all these factors that spiked my jealousy and made me have ugly thoughts - it’s not fair, why should they get that and not me, etc.

It’s easy to do at Christmas too (ultimate consumerist moment), or in school holidays when the gossipy part of ourselves notes who goes skiing or to the Maldives and we feel slightly sorry for ourselves even though we know we are very very lucky compared to so many people. We can feel envious and insecure about a million things and it's just being human, but it grows easily if we feed it by focusing on everything we don’t have.

We create a scarcity mindset, but the good news is it's fairly easily reversed by regularly counting the things you’re grateful for. A gratitude practice might sound cheesy but it’s one of those quick things that I really think is transformative, making you more content and secure in yourself and what you have really quickly. It helps to create an abundance mindset, the sense that your life is overflowing with good things.

It’s quick to do last thing at night or when you’re walking somewhere. At first it might feel hard to get to more than around 5-10 things but sometimes it’s hard to count them all. Peeking in at your child while they’re sleeping soundly. Being in the warm while the cold wind rattles outside. A kind friend. Someone making you laugh and laugh. An old jumper you love. The same tree. Right now. The way your body has carried you thus far and kept you alive and maybe kept someone else alive too.

It doesn’t mean you won’t have disappointments, regrets, frustration or pain - you can feel them too and let them be whatever they are to you. There’s all that and it lives in you as it should, and so does the good stuff, as it should. 

Your list will be personal to you and it will shift throughout your life and you will always have it, it never has to leave you. You can hold it close to you or you can lock it away and never think of it.

How does it change your life when you consider the good things frequently? How does it shift how the bad things feel, if at all?

Maybe you already do this - let me know how it helps you. Or perhaps you want to try, and if you do I’d love to know how you get on.

Your Precious Energy

The other day I was signing off an email and wrote xxx then changed it to xx. It may sound ridiculous but writing three kisses felt like giving away a bit too much of my precious energy, in recognition that it is a finite resource and that it's not my job to constantly dole out "niceness" to everyone.

Do you notice when and how you expend your energy? Little things like children asking you constant questions about something, or you holding space for their huge spectrum of their (very vocal and fluctuating) thoughts and emotions. The sensation that you should be doing something, whether it’s cooking a meal from scratch or taking time to make yourself “look nice”. Meetings at work where you have to listen and concentrate and speak. Every time you try and be a good partner or parent or employee - the way you don’t snap back, or think carefully about your response to something, or be strategic, or try to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. 

Your commute. Housework. You feeding the baby at night. Phoning the plumber. You deciding what to cook and then cooking it. Thinking what to buy people for Christmas then buying it. Your early mornings with a small child. You running to the train. Your patience. Your patience. 

Exhausting, isn’t it? There will always be things to do, even if we manage to reduce our expectations on ourselves or delegate or win the lottery and get staff (someone still has to tell the staff what to do). How do you recover and replenish? Can you/do you build in time, even small pockets, for that? The more time goes on the more I am convinced most of us need way more rest time (separate from sleep - comfortable stillness, without distraction) than we think. It’s a necessary way to preserve and protect ourselves from the plate-spinning of parenthood and modern life.

I read about Christine Kane's "energy leaks", which aren’t just ways you use your energy but specific unfinished tasks or projects that you've been meaning to do for ages and eat little holes in your energy reserves. Maybe you've procrastinated over something or more likely just had a million other things to do. I got rid of 2 energy leaks today - ordered a print I'd been umming and ahhing about (a browser window left open, a note to measure a space, is it the right one though? JUST BUY IT) and booked a handiman to help us to some stuff we are too inept to do. Small things that are 2 less things to think about and take up my headspace.

Project Slowdown

How are you feeling about December and Christmas itself? Excited? Overwhelmed? Dreading it? Maybe a mix of them all?

If you google women+christmas+holidays+stress+pressure there's a huge number of articles and even research on how women create the bulk of holiday magic (yep it's not elves guys). It's easy to say "just do less" or "just give less f***s!" but it's not easy to shed the weight of others' expectations and feel like we're disappointing them.

I'm going to survive this year by committing to at least one slow, simple thing amongst the busyness every day this December. Non-negotiable is a yoga nidra every day. I first did this transformative practice in my 20s but have started picking it up again recently, and my favourite right now is Adrianna Zaccardi's - she kindly said I could pass it on to you (and here's more about her and her brilliant offerings). It's an incredible restorative practice where you seem to float between rest and sleep, and if you can find 15 mins in your day to lie on the carpet or a mat under a blanket and listen to a voice guiding you back into your body, I feel almost 100% certain you'll have a really different December. 

It's a focused slowing-down practice that has a ripple-effect on the rest of your day. Although we're keen to ensure everyone around us has a great Christmas, you feeling calm, present and happy is also a really important gift for them.

I think regular self-care practices like nidra get us into that place where we can more easily let go of all the I shoulds (home make mince pies, get all the shopping done by October, arrange a Kardashian style photo shoot with the children dressed as Christmas puddings) and feel more present in many more of the moments of our lives. I've found that even in moments of pressure or high-speed - like when I have to run for my train to work aka every single working day of my life - I can often feel this slow and present quality that often emerges as joy.  

I hope this is a useful reminder - all that's in my Instagram feed are reminders to slow down and give better gifts, which is very encouraging, unlike the emails in my inbox from brands telling me that I need to buy their stuff to be happy (unsubscribe!)

Hope you can find some space, ask for help or say yes when offered it and outsource wherever possible so that silly season feels more like slow season. Let me know how you get on.

Pre-Empting The Sh*T Hitting The Fan

Are you sensible about looking after yourself in order to keep well and happy? Or do you tend to push on through until you end up over-tired or ill?

(Yes, this is a loaded question :-))

I’ve lived pretty much my whole life doing the latter, thinking it was somehow admirable to take on more and more rather than protecting the future me. I used to think I was weedy because I felt like I got ill a lot, but actually I think I just frequently overdid it.

I suppose in our 30s and 40s the work hard, play hard mentality that lots of us cultivate in our 20s becomes unsustainable. Now I try to be much more of a grandma in order to be kind to myself (early nights, gentle exercise if I’m knackered, eating healthier, saying no to things that aren’t the best option for me) and to do it unapologetically. So much of the time we don’t want to let others down or don’t want to ask for help, but what if we radically changed this? What if we put ourselves first a bit more and asked for or accepted help as much as possible when we needed it, or even before we get to the point of desperately needing it? What if we understood that sometimes having low energy can last days or weeks and that we don’t always spring back, but instead were patient with ourselves and saw our lives in terms of a long game - cycles of quiet recuperating or laying low before a more energetic expanding?

It struck me recently how crazy it is to assume that our physical and mental health are givens, that we can toy with them and push them to their limits and expect them to stay totally intact after years of neglect. Or that we wait until there’s a problem to change how we do things.

More and more, especially with mental health, I hear of people I know (even those who had previously not seemed to experience any blips in mood or anxiety levels) suffering with something that seemed to come “out of the blue”. But did it really? Or is there something lying below the surface that we push away, or are not taught to explore or even recognise?

It is ultimately sensible to get your ducks in a row before things go wrong, to aim to be mentally and physically healthy in order to future-proof your life. It requires us to listen to ourselves and develop a healthy self-awareness about when and how to intervene in our own lives. To realise when we need to stop and rest, when we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones a little or a lot, when we need to say yes and when we need to say a firm but kind no.

Like a phoenix

Motherhood is strange because it can put us under the biggest duress of our lives then create a stronger, greater version of ourselves: happier, braver, glad in a way that we went through the hard parts and the exhaustion and the impossibly long days. But for this better version of ourselves to emerge, there has to be the opportunity to heal and grow - certain experiences and the right support to allow us to come back brighter.

In order to come to terms with difficult experiences we need to revisit them in various ways in order to process and recover from them. Like a broken record, I’ve written and talked about birth and motherhood in excess to come to terms with the challenges and changes to my physical and mental health it entailed. It’s my head dealing with it.

And then my body has had to process it too, in ways that don’t allow my head in – otherwise it would start comparing or rationalising or remembering. I know that mindful, physical movement has frequently allowed something to shift in my body memory, or my mind memory, or maybe both. There is a huge amount for us to still understand about the mind/body connection, and I hope I’m alive to understand the mechanisms of exactly why we sometimes get those revelatory or cathartic moments in yoga or dance or on a run or during a swim. How a certain type of physicality can release the stress and tension we’ve been holding onto.

I got one of these moment recently at the end of a yoga workshop for mothers. I was standing near the window and the afternoon sun made a shadow fall across my body, and I had a very vivid flashback to pushing my baby around the rec ground near where I live in November, in the dark, an hour or two before my partner got home from work. At the time I was exhausted and slightly stunned by the shift in my life from lie-ins and reading novels and working in a jolly office to pushing a baby round and round a square of 1930s semis on a stormy winter’s evening.

Fast forward three years and I felt a wave of compassion, love and empathy for that exhausted ghost pushing the buggy around a dark block. I felt sad for her in a way that I hadn’t previously been able to. I had completely forgotten the memory and had no idea that it was bothering me on some level, but what I felt in that moment was finally permission to have found early motherhood so hard. I had always felt I should be coping better, that so many people were worse off. But suddenly something moved and a voice was telling the old me that it was so, so okay to find it that difficult.

Another very clear image came to me of how the pre-baby version of me kind of went up in smoke. Perhaps it has to. It’s a metamorphosis, isn’t it? (Perhaps the biggest disserve we do for pregnant women is not adequately preparing them for the seriousness, the magnitude of this transition.) But this loss of one version is necessary to allow something else to rise up out of the ashes of what was before.

I think it would have helped me to think that all the hard hours and days were part of the process of the old thing dying off to make way for the new. That in the end you have to rise. That even if you still feel shaky and wobbly one day, a shift of a great degree has occurred, that there is a whole new strength you’ll draw on forever. Maybe this process is happening all the time in small ways. Old things disappearing. New ones taking their place. Shifting and growing and changing.

A few weeks later my friend invited me to a show called “I’m a phoenix, bitch”by the performance artist Bryony Kimmings about postnatal and relationship breakdown. As expected it was a completely brutal, completely brilliant piece of artabout the importance of processing suffering in order not to let it bed down for the duration of your life in your mind and body. Every night Bryony Kimmings gets on stage and relives her trauma: it’s almost unbearable at times and I don’t know how she does it, but I think I sort of know why.

In our culture we have to make our own rites of passage. Heal ourselves or help each other heal. Sometimes we think we’re ok because pushing things to the back of our minds works for a while. But life is better on the other side – the side where you’ve let go of old pain or learned something about it. You walk about with a whole new freedom and understanding about you and the space you fill on earth.