Daughter

Flung together into the ocean,

some found safety,

some disappeared from sight

and some stayed alongside her

as she clung, disrobed and

white-knuckled, to debris.

The future shrank to terror, of

salt-eyed thrashing through

mountainous waves and needle-sharp rain.

Darkness tore her to unearthly spheres,

ravening lions, bulls of Bashan,

starless, infinite stretching of night.

Hands beneath, above, around, she

gasped at raw morning air and

saw the faint, tangerine-tinged horizon.

The good enough parent

Perfectionism and modern day parenting

As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.

When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!

And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.

I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!

In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.

And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.

This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.

I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.

If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.

There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

Locus of Evaluation: who makes your decisions?

There is a spectrum when it comes to decision making:  at one end is using an internal locus of evaluation and at the other is using an external one.  A person lucky enough to have an internal locus of evaluation, my oldest daughter, for example, makes decisions by consulting herself.  She always has!  I joke that she raised me and not the other way around, except that it isn’t a joke.  When Abi was 6, she decided that animal consumption was immoral and cruel, and in my maternal ‘wisdom’, informed by mainstream thought about meat, protein and growing children, I persuaded and cajoled her to continue.  Sorry, Abi!  But by the time she was 9, she pointblank refused, and I realised that she really was going to exist on potatoes, pasta, vegetables, baked beans and toast unless I intervened.  So I joined her in the meatless way of life but persuaded her to continue eating fish and dairy and eggs, for protein and Omega 3.

Abi continued to consult herself on these matters, doing research and ordering informative leaflets from a range of animal welfare organisations, and made it increasingly clear that she considered fish eating also immoral and bad for the planet, as well as dairy and eggs.  She presented me with information that corroborated her internal suspicions, and she educated me about the reality of the egg industry (which involves shredding up male chicks) and the dairy industry (which involves shipping unwanted males off for veal or just shooting them in the head at birth or a few weeks old).  By the time she was 12 we were vegan.  I couldn’t unknow the facts that she had presented me, and we have been vegan ever since – her more successfully than me as I have had the occasional unvegan day. 

My point is this: up to the age of 30 something, I had believed all the nutritional advice that I’d been taught, never questioned it, did the same as everybody else and didn’t question the status quo.  Having a prophet in the family – somebody who is prepared to stand on the hill and speak truth loudly and clearly – somebody who is prepared to question the status quo and ask:  ‘Is this right?  Does this sit right with who I am on the inside?’ isn’t always convenient but I am deeply grateful for her.  She has brought me to a more ethical life and one that is better for the planet.  Without her, I would undoubtedly not have made those choices all those years ago.  She has also brought most of the family to her way of thinking and made a significant difference to our carbon footprint as a result.  All because she has an internal locus of evaluation.

I have always had a largely external locus of evaluation.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t followed the light of inner knowledge, because I have.  I managed to get a degree, train as a teacher, leave a bad relationship and become a better partner as a result of that, learn as a parent and choose a career path that suits me and my needs.  But there’s still a hell of a lot of worry about what people think of me.  I ask my husband:  ‘Do YOU think this is OK?  Was that BAD?  Should I have said that?  Do you think I upset him/her?’  I sometimes spend bloody hours after a conversation analysing what I said or didn’t say, and worry that the person will think less of me or not want to see me again, regardless of how much or how little of a role they actually play in my life.  I also spent years of life hyper focused on my appearance, which was always, always about how others perceived me because I honestly do not care how I look to myself in the mirror.  I really don’t.    I was always looking at myself through the lens of imaginary other people.

When we have this external locus of evaluation, we become performers for the benefit of others.  We have performative sex instead of loving fun together with our partners.  When we light candles so our partners won’t see the wobbly bits, who are we in this except bodies to be looked at?  A person with an internal locus of evaluation would ask:  ‘How does this feel?  What do I want to do right now in this moment?’  Not, ‘What do I look like?’

And when it comes to food and eating, this has to be the biggest personal one for me.  If we’re counting calories, following a plan, using a food log, tracking fat, macros or carbs, doing the 5/2, intermittent fasting or any other form of rule based eating, what has happened to our inner knowledge?  Our awareness of who we even are?  We were born with an instinct to eat until we were satisfied and then stop and rest and then eat again until satisfied.  As children, we chose an apple sometimes and a piece of cake at other times.  I used to give my kids a plate that they called a picnic, with bits of sandwich, cubes of cheese, little chocolate buttons, a few crisps, some raisins, some slices of apple and a few iced gems.  Sometimes they didn’t even touch the chocolate buttons!  They were using their internal locuses of evaluation – before being whipped into obedience by external expectations about their bodies, their choices and their autonomy.

Our gendered behaviours and expectations are also external.  I didn’t care about being slim, toned and sexy when I was charging around the park like a feral chimpanzee aged 10.  I was fit, strong, happy and full of energy, free of all that expectation.  That all came later and I forgot my identity in a confusing whirlwind of trying to be whatever a girl was supposed to be back in the 80s.  I recall that having a ‘good body’ was a part of that but heaven forbid actually enjoying said body because we weren’t supposed to be a ‘slag’ and I don’t think much of that has changed, sadly, for our teenage girls today.

I just want to be free of all of it now.  I want to be able to look inside and ask myself: ‘What do I want to eat?  How much of it do I want?’  I want to go out without any makeup and not give a crap what anyone else thinks of my face.  It’s a 51 year old face: sometimes its tired and sometimes its pale, and nobody suggests that my husband hide his eye bags or spend time making himself more agreeable for others to look at and I’m damned if I’m going to suggest that to myself.  I have no issue with people wearing makeup, high heels, glamorous styles, nail varnish and fake eyelashes.  I have no issue with people having botox, face lifts, breast implants, tummy tucks or acrylic nails.  Your body, your choice.  Do it if it makes you happy and makes you feel good.  Do it for yourself.  Do it because it makes your heart smile.  Don’t do it for anybody else or for some societal expectations about how a person ‘should look’.

So, where is your locus of evaluation?  Most people are going to consult others and care somewhat about their opinions.  None of us live in a vacuum.  We do need to consider our loved ones and perhaps our colleagues.  Using deodorant and refraining from unlawful behaviour are pretty useful external expectations that help us all.  But for most of us there is a vast amount of material going on in our minds that we really could shed.  In the words of Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls:  ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses’. 

Billy

An unapologetically soppy poem by me as a young mum. I am still crazy about this boy and he is still a cuddly one, but he’s now known as Will, mostly keeps his clothes on and is slightly less obsessed with his Gameboy.

Bare feet thudding across landing, slow scuffle-drag of wooden door on carpet;

he glides spectrally towards me, perfectly, unabashedly bare,

and confidently scrabbles into the darkness,

where he snuggles dazedly into sleep-laden arms until

the alarm shatters the body-warm bed nest, and my finger tips

tickle his sturdy, satin back while he squirms and chortles,

then turns around and unfailingly takes my breath away with

a long-lashed milk chocolate gaze.

We walk into the freshly-laundered morning;

his wind-chilled hand homes into mine until an aeroplane,

a cloud, a cat or a lorry demand his body’s focus;

words and images squeezing and

bubbling from an internal picture-store through

an unsatisfactory vocabulary and sometimes a

stutter and another squeeze of the hand as he

galumphs in rhythm with the need to tell.

After school he has a happy sticker, he did not

roar at story-time or dive joyously into mud.

He stands proud, stomach protruding and

knock-knees unashamedly together, splayed feet;

the innocence of bodily ignorance.

He earned his game boy and he sits,

milk-moustached, after his bath,

pink tongue lolling and a slight

frown as he tackles real monsters;

with spring-loaded tension

he directs frantically jabbing fingers.

Night time, and he is a graceless rag-doll,

a discarded duvet twisted lumpishly

in one corner of its football-themed cover.

His bluey-white skin wears

a slight flush and the musk-mint breath

is almost imperceptible; parted lips

display outgrown crazy-paving

teeth and his sun-bleached cow’s lick

invites my palm.

Older and newer: embracing the grey

When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection. So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.

I have started this blog to document some of my thoughts and experiences relating to perimenopause, which is, for me, more than a bunch of hormones conspiring to age me beyond all recognition and turn me grey.  Far more than that.  And a million times better, too.  I feel as though I’ve been gearing up for this for years, starting at the age of 33 when I developed feelings for a man other than my husband.  That was the beginning of a process of reassessing my life, and it started with an infatuation.  I thought it was love, but it was really a glimpse into a multi-faceted world of opportunities: different people, places, conversations and friendships.  It turned out to be nothing; we were both married and he wanted an affair, nothing more.  I stopped seeing him and spent months agonising over what had become of my marriage.  When I told my husband that I thought it was over, we decided to go to counselling (Relate) and managed to negotiate some changes that suited us both and gave it another go for ten years.  But the unrest of that fling stayed with me.  It was the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning.  And that’s what I think this midlife business is all about.  Whether we stay in a relationship for life or not, our relationships do change.  We change.  I started to want more for myself.

I was brought up brethren.  Plymouth brethren.  Strict parents, nothing worldly, long hair, a head covering in meetings and a skirt and never trousers.  No discos, no version of the Bible other than the good old King James with its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘sayeths’.  The meeting was a solemn affair and women were under what was termed ‘the headship of men’.   I married under that and we didn’t really stray far from the tree until I went to university to study English Literature at the age of 32.  Suddenly I had options.  I was getting good grades and realised I had a brain and over the next years I graduated, took my PGCE and became a teacher.  I left the brethren, got fit, ran two marathons, raised my three kids, kept an eye on my ageing parents and got grey hair.  I coloured it religiously, obsessively, red, purple, blondey, streaked, dark, covering the roots increasingly often, sometimes every three weeks.  I couldn’t afford hairdressing fees and did it myself using L’Oreal products and then, scared of carcinogenic chemicals, Holland and Barrett brands.  The greys grew in abundance.

My marriage ended, finally, in a fizzled out mess of empty abandonment.  He moved to London with his job and I got to spend all week raising my two youngest whilst holding down a job and dealing with the middle daughter’s bulimia.  They were the most heartrending two years of my life and certainly the most difficult and painful of hers.  Whilst he was away pursuing his dream job, I wrote letters, chased the NHS, called my MP, shouted a lot about the CAMHS waiting list and funding problem and finally she got treatment.  During her time waiting for treatment, she went from mild anorexia to full blown bulimia, characterised not only by binge-purging but also regular panic attacks, self harm and, on one occasion, after a relationship breakup, an impulsive suicide attempt.  He told me I was exaggerating her illness and he continued to return home later and later on Friday nights, we returned to Relate, nothing changed and I ended it.

For the next year, I battled depression and anxiety, took a course of antidepressants, learned to look after myself, started dating again, had loads of fun, and developed more grey hairs.  When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection.  So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.  His response, ‘Is that it?’ surprised me.  I still hung on to this idea that men do not fancy grey haired women.

Now, I’m a feminist.  Honestly.  A strong-minded, educated, mid-40s woman who believes in absolute equality, despises shallow frivolity and obsessions about perfection and considers our brains to be our biggest asset.  But I still want to be considered sexy and that, although I hate to admit it, equates with youthful.  I think we all do.  Men, too.  But lots of women I know struggle with the whole grey hair thing.  Although, I was talking about this with a colleague the other day and he said he reckons loads of men dye their hair secretly.  Loads.  Anyway, I toyed the the idea of going grey for some months and finally went to the hairdresser, asked them to chop out as much colour as they could, take it as short as they could without shaving my head, and went natural in one fell swoop  I bought a L’Oreal purple shampoo, which tones the remainder of the previous brassy overtones, and now I have silver streaks that are all mine.  People think it looks lovely.  I’ve had so many compliments.  My fiance loves it.  My kids think it’s cool.  My students have commented positively.  And I feel like my hair now matches the rest of me.  Older and newer.

My youngest is about to go to university, my house is on the market, I’m saying goodbye to the first half of my life: the day to day life of a working mother and the packets of hair dye.  I’m about to move away, buy a place with my fiance and say hello to the second half which is still brand new, with doors to be opened and memories to be made.

%d bloggers like this: