Posted in Life philosophies

The kindness of strangers

If I contacted you out of the blue and asked you to help a friend of mine – pick them up from the airport, say, or let them stay at your house for a night or two – what would you do? How about if I told you that somebody I knew was going to be in your city and needed a friendly tour guide – would you volunteer? If you said yes to any of this theoretical questions, there’s a strong chance you’re from the Southern Hemisphere.

I lived in England for nearly 14 years before returning to New Zealand, and sometimes people would ask me how life in the UK was different to life back home. When trying to explain the subtle differences between the two places, one thing I often mentioned was the casual friendliness of Kiwis – the way that they would chat to you in a shop without provocation, and ask you if you needed help, if they saw you on a street corner, looking perplexed. The example I always used was the degree to which people would help out strangers. For Kiwis, somebody ceases to be a stranger as soon as you’re introduced to them – whereas you could know a British person for many years before they’d even want to invite you home for dinner. The British tend to value their privacy very highly, probably in part because they live on a fairly overcrowded island.

Last Friday Laura, our most recent au pair, left us for an eight-week trip around the South Island in a camper van. She was due to travel with two other German girls, one of which had apparently organised the camper van. However, Laura discovered – after flying to Wellington to start the trip – that this other girl was (at best) a serial fantasist: after unravelling a complex skein of half-truths, it was revealed that she no longer wanted to embark on the South Island trip, and there was no camper van booked. Shocked, and not knowing what to do, Laura caught the Inter-islander ferry to Picton as planned, but sent me a message on the way to let me know what had happened.

I didn’t really know what to do either: we don’t have any family in the South Island, and very few friends down there, and certainly none in or around Picton. Laura reassured me that she’d managed to book a bed in a hostel for that night, but didn’t have any idea of what to do next: she couldn’t afford to travel for eight weeks using buses and staying in hostels, and she couldn’t bring forward the rest of her trip because the next leg of it was a six-week visit to Australia with friends who’d be arriving from Germany, and then on to Bali as she travelled home. She still wanted to see as much of the South Island as possible, and was prepared to help people out with child care or other work in exchange for board and lodging, but she wasn’t sure where to start trying to organise that kind of trip with no notice. It was awful. When you’re a host mother of au pairs it’s a bit of a delicate balancing act between giving them the freedom and independence of adult life, and providing help and support when they need it – after all, this is somebody’s daughter, usually living away from home for the first time.

So I asked for help from a group of women I’d never met. I have the great luck to be a member of a Facebook group set up for women who are both writers and mothers. This group is the best thing on the internet, and I spend 95% of my online time there. It’s full of hugely accomplished and utterly inspirational women – ranging from occasional bloggers like me to published authors and highly credentialed professors and academics – and it’s a group that runs on compassion, understanding, and support. For those of us lucky to be members, it’s our go-to place when we need bolstering, inspirational, or practical help with our projects.

I posted about Laura’s predicament and asked if the South Island-based members could offer any suggestions. This group of brilliant and amazing women responded with offers of help: one member volunteered to pick Laura up from the hostel the following morning and have her to stay for a few days, and several others replied with their own offers to host her as she travelled around the South Island. By the end of the evening she had enough options to easily fill the next six weeks. We set up a separate group for Laura’s trip, and she’s been able to contact women directly and organise her own itinerary. She was astonished and so grateful that this group of people she’s never met – I’ve never met – would be so unquestioningly kind and helpful.

It was lovely to see the values of our group in action. Laura is such a wonderful girl, and she didn’t deserve to miss out of a great trip because of the warped behaviour of one horrible person. I was chatting to my kids earlier today and I told them that kindness is the most important thing in the world – the only thing that really matters. I really believe this. Too often people judge us based on how much money we have, or whether we fit modern standards of beauty, or even whether our personal set of skills and attributes fit what others describe as ‘intelligent’. In so many cases we’re judged based on things we can’t control, and didn’t do anything to earn. And so many people get a kick out of being thoughtlessly cruel to others – especially strangers online – presumably because they don’t feel good enough about themselves to realise that they can be important and clever without it being to somebody else’s detriment.

We need to teach our children about the importance of focusing on the things that really matter – the things that we each can influence: how we choose to treat other people. Kindness is the most important thing, and the way in which we treat others should be the fundamental basis upon which we are judged. Kindness attracts kindness, which is why our very kind au pair thoroughly deserves the outpouring of help she’s received.





Posted in Family life, Pop culture, Work

Seven ways to procrastinate

In this blog post I’m going to reveal a secret super power that I can no longer deny: the power to procrastinate, regardless of how fervently I attempt to focus on the task at hand. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m very good at procrastinating.

Last weekend I realised that I had two assignments due in within a week, and was struggling with one of them (which was affecting my ability to make progress on the other one). I had to take action, so I asked Tristan to change my Facebook password again. I haven’t logged on for a full week, and it’s been great. However, I didn’t factor in how determinedly I can find distractions when I really don’t feel like I’m making progress with my course work.

Here are my seven most recent procrastinations.

1. Planning my next hairstyle

My hair is very long – so long that my son diplomatically asked me if it might be time for a haircut. Upon reflection I realised he was right, so I’m having it cut tomorrow morning. This has given me a perfect opportunity to read numerous Buzzfeed articles about hair transformations. I’m think it’s going to be a ‘lob’ (a long bob, for those of you who don’t deal with abbreviations).

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2. Upping my selfie game

The Snapchat filters are an excellent procrastination tool, and if you have a willing young accomplice you can almost convince yourself that you’re not really procrastinating: you’re spending quality time with your children!

3. Checking out a style icon

While I was idling on Pinterest, continuing my hunt for my next hairstyle, I discovered Sarah Harris, the Fashion Features Editor at British Vogue. She’s in her mid-thirties, has never dyed her grey hair, wears a daily uniform of jeans or trousers, shirts or jumpers, and incredibly glamorous shoes, and is widely regarded as tremendously chic. I have become slightly obsessed with her, so I’ve whiled away many moments on her Instagram feed, waiting impatiently for her to update it with a photo of her soon-to-be born first baby.


4. Reading Reductress

How did I not know about this website until a few days ago?! It’s a subversive feminist take on the kind of fake news that The Onion has produced for years. I absolutely love it and, for the past week, when I should have been tackling readings for my essays during my bus commute, I’ve delved deep into its archives.

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5. Devising elaborate reward charts

One of our four year olds has been particularly challenging recently (and by ‘recently’ I mean ‘for the past eighteen months’). It was clear that we needed to adjust our parenting style – and when you’ve got two assignments due within a day of each other, what better use of time than reading a couple of parenting books, designing personalised reward charts on Photoshop, shopping for stickers, stick-on jewels, and wooden letters to decorate with the stick-on jewels, and explaining the whole strategy to your husband, au pair, and children?


Fortunately, the new reward charts have led to big improvements in the kids’ behaviour, which is just as well – my ‘no late night study’ strategy has fallen apart this week, and I’m not very tolerant of children’s tantrums when I’m functioning on four hours of sleep a night.

6. Borrowing library books

It’s important not to confuse this procrastination technique with actually reading books from the library. I mean, look at the stack of library books in my room at the moment:


I handed in assignments both yesterday and this afternoon, and I’ve got another one due in next Friday, and another one ten days after that. I have no time to actually read much more than a couple of pages of a novel each day – but do I let that stop me from spending time on the library app, requesting books, and then heading to my local branch on the way to the bus stop? Of course not. How would I keep my bedroom looking so cluttered if I didn’t fill it with teetering stacks of books?

7. Breaking my toes

Admittedly, this is an extreme form of procrastination. It isn’t a tactic that I’d wholeheartedly recommend, but if you want to while away a couple of hours that could be spent productively, I suggest slamming the two smallest toes on your left foot into a bed post, necessitating a trip to the weekend medical centre to see if you need a moon boot. I’m a seasoned professional when it comes to breaking toes by slamming them into things: this is the third time I’ve done it in the past couple of years. But I’ve reluctantly accepted that breaking toes really isn’t a sustainable way to avoid studying (plus: ow), so I’ve celebrated the submission of today’s assignment with a slow, limping trip to Kmart and a $9 slipper purchase. They will serve as a quasi-moon boot, hopefully protecting my toes from further assaults (and the doctor was awesome, by the way… Him: “they probably are broken, but there’s nothing we can do about it, so just try to be careful”; Me: “awesome, thanks for that, let me pay you $50 for your stellar advice”).


Of course, what I should be doing is re-embracing the principles of mindfulness that I learned earlier in the year, avoiding the procrasti-researching I’m inclined to do when I don’t know what to write, and leaving my laptop on campus so I can get a decent night’s sleep…

Posted in Life philosophies

What is wrong with people?

Earlier this week a woman I know online posted on Countdown’s Facebook page to ask why the supermarket continued to use the terms ‘girl sprinkles’ and ‘boy sprinkles’ to advertise certain brand of cake decorations, even though the manufacturer of the sprinkles had long ago stopped marketing its products in such an antiquated way.


This woman’s post was perfectly polite and civilised – so gentle that you’d barely even describe it as a complaint:

“Hi Countdown. I was intrigued to see boy and girl sprinkles in your Hobsonville store the other day. How do these work? I sprinkle the ‘boy’ in the air and a boy appears? Or a girl, if I sprinkle the suitably pink version? Or do I sprinkle the ‘girl’ ones onto my boy to turn him into a girl and vice versa? Could you explain? I’m curious about the relationship between sprinkles and gender. Maybe, just maybe, it’s old fashioned everyday sexism. Perhaps you could revise your labels.”

Nearly four thousand people decided to respond to a complete stranger’s post with howls of derision, calling into question the woman’s intelligence, life skills, and general attitude. Many people claimed that she was complaining about a ‘first world problem’, and plenty of them also remarked that they’d love to have as much time as she had, to be able to use it by complaining about things that they didn’t like. Yes: with no obvious sense of irony, people took the time to complain about somebody else having sufficient time to complain. And several people also chose to further vent their spleen by sending the woman insulting and abusive private messages, just in case the deluge of abuse on her original post hadn’t sufficiently made clear their displeasure that she dared to ask a question of COUNTDOWN. Not Countdown, for God’s sake! How can anybody ask a question of a supermarket?! It really is shocking, isn’t it?

I just can’t understand what is wrong with people. What would possess you to read a stranger’s comment on a supermarket’s Facebook page, and hurl abuse at them? And actually, what would possess you to casually read a supermarket’s Facebook page in the first place? If we’re talking about people with too much time of their hands, how about those who spend Monday night browsing Countdown’s Facebook page for things of which they disapprove?

In case it needs to be said (and apparently it does): there is no limit to the number of things that a person can care about. We can care about issues like the unnecessary gendering of cake sprinkles, and also about other issues. I care about cake sprinkles, AND about the awful phenomenon of people abusing total strangers online! Truly, I’m amazing.

It’s fine if you don’t care about how supermarket sprinkles are labelled. There are thousands of things that I don’t care about, but here’s what I don’t do: I don’t abuse total strangers if they have different cares to mine. I just get on with my day, not caring. More people should try it. And to be crystal clear: I couldn’t care less whether anybody reading this post has strong feelings about the fact that this woman chose to communicate her concerns to Countdown, or what she said, or how she said it, or whether you think her concerns are valid. I’m concerned about the feral response she received from the general public.

It should also be noted that anything – ANYTHING – that involves people challenging gender norms, however gently, attracts a vast amount of shit from the general public. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it. After all, 99% of the world around us remains resolutely gendernormative, particularly with regard to raising children. Finding a ‘girl’ top that isn’t pink or purple remains a cause for celebration for those amongst us who actually like the idea of our kids having a choice about what they wear. And it’s nearly impossible to find any underpants for boys that don’t feature bloody dinosaurs. In other words, there is no imminent danger of society failing to separate boys and girls for arbitrary reasons. In light of that, is it really so confronting if an occasional parent speaks up and asks that we don’t keep needlessly gendering things?

The trigger-happy response of weirdos on Facebook to anything gender-related also attracts the attention of the wider press, which is unfortunate. Stuff chose to cover the story of a woman making a gentle enquiry about sprinkles and the subsequent torrent of abuse she received. This keeps alive the story of that woman’s online abuse, and because Stuff shares their story links on Facebook and doesn’t moderate the resulting comments, they’ve ensured that a whole new group of halfwits who missed out last night can now join in and add their abuse. Heaven forbid there should be a single halfwit in New Zealand who doesn’t get to tell this woman how foolish she is, for caring about something that matters to her! And yay for the responsible journalism of Stuff that has enabled it.

The one good thing that came from their coverage was Countdown’s acknowledgement that the woman’s query was totally valid, and the situation she described will be remedied. Countdown’s spokesperson said:

“We absolutely agree that these shouldn’t be gendered. We are in the process of changing the ticketing as quickly as we can.”

This calm and reasonable response runs slightly against the views of Dr Bodo Lang, ‘University of Auckland marketing expert’, who thinks shoppers are too quick to complain on social media. I’m not a ‘marketing expert’, but I’m fairly sure companies have Facebook pages precisely so customers can interact with them, just like this mother did.

And I know that most of these people will justify their bullying awfulness by claming that this woman ‘brought it on herself’ by saying something. Apparently, if you choose to speak up about anything these days, it’s open season. This is what’s known as victim-blaming. Are we OK with that, as a society?


Posted in Family life

The only way is through

Recently I wrote about how it’s fine to find life hard when life is hard. I also wrote about how we’re all entitled to find our own lives difficult. Today I want to build on that by saying this: that the only way to deal with tough times is to keep going. Yes, this is a post about my own drama.

I’m finding life a bit of a struggle at the moment. One of my two gorgeous children is being extremely challenging, and has been that way for well over a year. It’s nothing major – just normal preschool boundary-testing stuff, but it seems to happen every single day, and I’m worn out with it. I’m finding it harder and harder to stay calm in the face of belligerent four-year-old provocation. On Saturday, when his behaviour forced me to follow through on a consequence that resulted in cancelling a planned outing with him and his sister, I really did get upset and fed up – but it’s actually quite unusual for me to lose the plot: instead, I feel like I’m just resigned to his behaviour (on Saturday it was because he decided that he would not brush his teeth – every day it’s like he chooses one stupid thing to argue about, and then will not budge, even in the face of treats being cancelled and favourite belongings being confiscated). And it’s just so frustrating that this lovely kid, who is so happy, cheerful, and fun to be around 95% of the time, keeps choosing to derail family life in this manner.

I’m planning to embark on a wholesale review of every parenting book I own, and several library books, to see if we’re missing any obvious strategies for dealing with tantrums and unreasonableness, but I’m not feeling very optimistic that I’m going to uncover anything revelatory. I wish I knew that we were terrible at following through on consequences, for example, so we could change our behaviour, but we do remain boringly consistent in our approach, and so I don’t know what to tweak in how we’re handling things. I know that he’s doing his ‘job’ as a little kid, and that our job is to reinforce the boundaries and ride this stage out, but it’s exhausting. It’s also starting to really upset his twin sister, who is mostly conciliatory in the face of his high-jinks (lots of “he’s just tired” comments when she sees that his behaviour is starting to wind us up), but who is clearly getting sick of the drama as well. It seems like, every night, my husband and I put the kids to bed and collapse. Here’s a recent photo of our family pedicure session, just to remind myself that we do have fun occasionally, and that life isn’t really the flurry of time-outs and tantrums that I sometimes fear it might be:

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Parenting challenges aside, I’m feeling very uninspired by my degree right now. I’m in the second semester of my third year, so only have one year to go afterwards, but I can’t wait to be finished. Although the four papers I’m studying this semester are interesting, I just can’t be bothered. There’s so much to read, and so many assignments to write, and my brain is tired (probably as a result of all that battling with the afore-mentioned four year old).

And I’m sick of living on one income, which is by no means a small amount, but which does not stretch very far at all after we’ve paid the mortgage and our au pair (without whom I couldn’t study). Before we had kids, and before we moved back to New Zealand, we had two good incomes – it was glorious. We’re amazingly lucky to have been able to last for so long on only one income (thanks largely to our habit of saving a lot of one of those good incomes, when we were both working), but the savings well has run dry, our childcare costs will increase next year, and it makes me tired thinking about how I’m going to have to balance our family budget. I can’t wait to be earning again, but to do that I have to finish my degree.

And here’s the thing: I know that dropping out of uni, sending my kids to live with their grandparents, and taking my husband away to backpack around Europe for a year isn’t really an option. The only way is through. We just have to keep dealing with these everyday parenting, university, work, and financial challenges. I know that everything will improve in time, but sometimes being a grownup really does suck.

Posted in Bullet journal

Bullet Journal 2.0

Today I thought I should revisit the topic of bullet journals, as I haven’t shared any images of mine since 2016. I continue to use a bullet journal nearly every day, and it’s invaluable as a tool to keep my life organised, but how I use it has been fine-tuned over time.

My theme

Given that my artistic skills are minimal at best, I decided not to waste my energy trying to make my bullet journal look beautiful: to me, words are more important than images. Instead of rich illustrations, I chose to adorn my bullet journal with appropriate page headings lifted from Hamilton, which has been my obsession for the past year or so. It is the most quotable musical you could ever hope to find, and I had fun choosing lines and pairing them up with suitable pages. I still love all of my headings – they make me smile every time I open my journal.

And if you don’t know what Hamilton is (musical, all about one of America’s founding fathers), I’m jealous of you, as you can now discover it in all its wonderfulness.

The journal

In my original bullet journal post I wrote about how I intended to start using an A5 Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, with dotted pages. Here’s my current journal, which has lasted me all of 2017 so far:

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Although I have a Future Log (annual or six-monthly plan), I haven’t bothered photographing it, since I barely use it. We have a wall calendar in our kitchen that holds all of our long-term plans – holidays booked, etc – so I tend not to replicate them in my journal. However, I do have a list of annual goals:

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Let’s not talk about how limited my progress as been towards most of those goals…

I continue to maintain a Monthly Log:

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And it hasn’t really changed much so far this year:

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However, I have changed my Daily Logs (which I’ve always drawn up on a weekly basis – one day per page is total overkill as far as I’m concerned, and having a Weekly Log and a Daily Log seems like a real waste of time). Earlier in the year I maintained daily lists of tasks:

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But I realised that this approach doesn’t work for me: I have a lot of things that need to be done during the course of a week, but not on a particular day. Here’s my more recent version of a Daily Log:

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This gives me sufficient space to: list appointments; keep track of jobs; note any habits I’m trying to record; and note down any miscellaneous thoughts. And speaking of tracking habits, I did start the year with a dedicated page:

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Flipping back to another page each day to keep track of stuff is a hassle, as far as I’m concerned. Now – as per the Daily Log example above – I track things on my weekly page. I’ve fine-tuned the layout of my habit records:

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You can see what that ‘Forest’ thing is all about in this blog post.

And more recently still, I haven’t bothered tracking habits at all – I just can’t be bothered:

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I mean, seriously: look at the ridiculously long task list for this past week! Who has time to count glasses of water?!

(And as an aside, is it just me, or do you notice that those beautifully illustrated bullet journals on Instagram are often a little light on content? I’ve lost count of how many perfect-looking task lists I’ve seen, with no task more pressing than ‘fold the laundry’, or ‘defrost shrimp’. If the biggest thing I had to do each day was to defrost some seafood, I imagine I’d have more time to decorate my bullet journal as well. Instead, as these photos show, I’m heavily dependent on washi tape and stickers to make things slightly colourful, and I use my Crayola colouring pens when I have time. Having said that, I do – very occasionally – draw a little picture:

Two other daily habits that, regrettably, I haven’t been able to maintain (although I liked doing them), were a one-sentence journal:

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And a gratitude journal:

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But (as of two days ago) I have started a new five-year journal, and I am determined to stick to it!

Additional pages

I still find my bullet journal is a great place to keep track of random projects, university work, and other plans. I also found that there were so many great Hamilton-related quotes that I could use as headings, so I went a bit mad at the start and set up several pages to track various financial elements of my life:

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There are also a few pages that have been set up in my bullet journal, but not yet utilised. Here’s a prime example…

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Unfortunately the chances of me achieving that ‘Run a 10k’ goal on my 2017 list are looking slimmer by the day.

But other pages are proving to be far more useful. This one has enabled me to make sure I keep up with thank you cards that need to be sent:

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This page was great when I was planning the kids’ fourth birthday party:

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This page has enabled me to plan (to some extent) the playground project I’ve set up:

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And this page keeps track of the blog posts I’ve published for all three of my sites (and all of the blog posts I’m still intending to write, when time allows):

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Here’s my second semester plan of assignment due dates, in case I’m feeling too happy and light-hearted and want to bring my mood down a bit:

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And here’s my weekly schedule, so I know where the kids, my au pair, and I will be on any given day:

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When it comes to tracking pointless stuff for fun, I love my bullet journal. My favourite thing to track – the only thing I really do track – is my reading. Here’s my library list:

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Here’s the list of books I have and need to read (I have a bit of a charity shop book-buying addiction, which is probably a topic for another blog post:

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The lines are coloured as the books are read, and they, and the completed library books, are drawn into my virtual book shelves:

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And that’s my favourite page of this year’s bullet journal.


Posted in Life philosophies

We all have drama

Today’s blog post serves as a bit of sequel to the post I published yesterday. I’d talked about allowing ourselves to acknowledge that feeling unhappy is usually a rational response to unhappy circumstances, and not a state that we should suppress.nIn addition to realising that it’s largely futile to feel bad about feeling bad, I’ve learned during the past ten years that it can sometimes feel like other people’s trouble can make it difficult to talk about our own difficulties.

For example, how can I complain about the behaviour of my neurotypical preschool-aged twins, when many parents cope with far greater challenges because their children may be on the autism spectrum? What right do I have to find it hard to juggle university and motherhood, when I’m doing it with the full support of a loving spouse, an au pair, and a wide network of amazing friends and family members? Other mothers have tackled tertiary education as sole parents, with very little help and support. And let’s be even more macro about it: do any of us, living in peaceful, stable, developed-world countries, have any right to complain about anything, given how awful life is for so many people in the world? The hackneyed phrase ‘first world problems’ is universally employed to dismiss the rights of most of us with electricity and internet access to complain about anything.

I’ve concluded that we all have the right to find our own lives difficult. Although it is always very important to maintain perspective – and being cognizant of the challenges that other people face helps us to do that, I think – we also shouldn’t discount our own problems, just because other people might have bigger problems. After all, if my life is utter mayhem, and yours is merely very busy, does knowing that my days are busier do anything to make your daily experience less busy? Of course not. The two things are entirely unrelated. We can both find our lives busy: we’re not competing in a Busy-ness Olympics, with only one medal available to the busiest person. I’ve had many, many friends who have told me that they’re finding life hard, but who have then hastily continued to say that, of course, it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing. But again, it’s all perspective. I can’t hack life as a stay-at-home mother. The challenges of that life are different to mine, but they’re not less than mine. I may have to stay up very late to write essays or complete assignments, but I also get to leave my house every day and have conversations with adults, and focus on things that don’t involve Paw Patrol or sandwich fillings.

We should grant ourselves the right to acknowledge our own dramas. Failing to do so can make people really unhappy. I know this first-hand: when my babies were tiny I felt terrible that I found new motherhood so grim, given that I’d spent four years trying to conceive. I had also been in a Facebook group of women who were all struggling to conceive, and in many cases had dealt with numerous heartbreaking miscarriages and failed IVF attempts. I am not typically inclined towards guilt, but I did feel really bad about not enjoying every moment of being a mother, because I knew exactly how lucky I was to be a mother at all. Misguided people who responded to my cries for help by telling me that I should enjoy the baby stage probably had no idea how awful it was to hear that, when I was already feeling dreadful about not revelling in the experience.

This stage passed when I realised that life with baby twins was really hard, and that recognising this didn’t mean that I wasn’t also aware of being lucky to have children. Both things were true. And I could find my life hard while still feeling empathy towards those who hadn’t yet started their families. I can even find life with children difficult, while remembering that some people have lost their children – a tragedy I can scarcely even contemplate. I am certain that experience would finish me, and I marvel every day at the grace and resilience of the parents I know whose children are no longer with them. Here’s the thing: my life could be immeasurably worse, but that recognition tends to happen in retrospect, after the tantrum has passed. It’s bloody difficult to call to mind that perspective when your four year old is shrieking at you and you’re snapping and shouting back, and they’re crying, and you’re feeling like the world’s worst parent.

We all have drama. We are all allowed to have drama. Yes, we should be mindful of the struggles of others, and do what we can to help those who have greater problems than ours (whether that involves cooking something delicious for a stressed friend, or setting up a regular donation to a refugee charity, or whatever else we can do to help people on both a micro- and macro-scale). Yes, we should never stop counting our blessings, when the daily storms of our own lives abate a bit and we have capacity to take stock. But we should not dismiss our own problems, simply because others have it even worse. We should reserve a tiny bit of the compassion we extend to others, and grant it to ourselves.



Posted in Life philosophies

It’s OK to feel bad

Today’s blog post talks about one of my personal life philosophies: that it’s OK to struggle when times are tough. Rather than giving ourselves permission to acknowledge that our feelings might be a completely rational response to a difficult situation, too often we seem to compound their struggles by feeling bad about feeling bad.

A few years ago I was struggling to deal with some potentially life-changing news affecting somebody very dear to me (and, by association, me). I spent months trying to come to terms with the situation before accepting that I was feeling worse and worse, and needed help. Fortunately for me, help was available via my employee health coverage, so I arranged for a short course of sessions with a local counsellor.

At my first appointment I poured my heart out, telling the counsellor what was going on and how I was feeling about it. And rather than trying to reassure me that everything would be OK (which was what most well-intentioned friends and family members did), he simply agreed that it was an awful situation. And then he told me that I should be feeling scared, stressed, unsettled, and overwhelmed, because I was dealing with a scary, stressful, overwhelming, unsettling problem. In other words: it was totally normal to find this particular moment in my life difficult. This was such a straightforward message, and I’m sure some people might not have found it comforting to hear expressed so bluntly, but it was the perfect feedback for me. It gave me permission to stop adding ‘guilt at finding life such a struggle’ to the emotional burden I was carrying around. I can’t pretend that I felt better overnight, but getting this explicit permission to accept and acknowledge the reality of my situation certainly helped me to move on. I still had hard days, but they were never quite as hard after that.

I had a reminder of this life philosophy when my twins were newborns. Life with two babies was astonishingly hard, particularly during the ‘witching hour’ that, in our house, lasted from 5pm until 10pm virtually every night of the twins’ first twelve weeks. At our standard six-week paediatrician’s appointment I tearfully explained hat one of the babies had to have colic or reflux and probably needed medication, because the behaviour we were dealing with was so awful and unsettled. The paediatrician, a big bearded South African chap, very kindly explained to me that what I was describing was completely normal: this was just what newborns are like. His advice? Give up. Stop trying to keep to a routine – instead, make dinner, put the babies in a wrap to have a protracted evening snooze, eat, watch TV, and leave the whole bedtime attempt until later in the evening, when they might be ready.

I’d started life as a twin mother feeling that I might be able to handle it, largely because everybody reassured me that following a routine was key to success. I loved routines in my professional life, so I was sure I could transfer that approach to parenthood. The shock of discovering that babies aren’t robots and can’t just be programmed according to what you’ve read in a parenting manual was a terrible shock to my system, and the stress of trying to keep to a routine hugely contributed to my struggles. Being given permission – by a medical professional – to do less was a revelation. Again, it didn’t result in a miraculous change in my circumstances, but it did help me to find some equilibrium (and ensured that we actually ate dinner occasionally).

As I’ve mentioned before, I sought help earlier this year to deal better with the challenges of juggling university and family life. In that case, I was able to devise strategies that could actually improve my situation (which isn’t always the case with other problems, including the ones I’ve already described), but the benefit of the help was not just the proactive nature of the discussions: it was also the recognition that my situation was hard.

Sometimes, life is tough. Our babies won’t sleep. Our children are challenging. Our jobs or university lives run us ragged. We grapple with health problems, either affecting ourselves or those close to us. We have awful flatmates. We have relationship dramas. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst thing we can do is to fight against the perfectly understandable feelings that occur as a reaction to tough times. When you’re having a hard time the last thing you should be doing in putting on a brave face, or privately beating yourself up for struggling. Be kind to yourself. Do what makes you happy. Talk to a professional, if that’s what works for you (it definitely works for me). Vent to friends and family members, and assure them that they don’t need to solve your problems – they just need to listen. Remember that it’s OK – it’s normal – to find life difficult, so just go with it. This too will pass.