Sitting with Sadness

Mortality is something I struggle with. A lot. And when people close to me get ill I feel a rising sense of panic borne out of a combination of helplessness, fear of death, and perhaps also (selfishly) fear of abandonment. I lost my grandparents at a relatively young age, which may go some way towards explaining why I feel the way I do. Indeed, if we look into our past most of us will see something that helps to make sense of our emotions in the here and now. What I’m trying to work on is accepting the emotions that certain situations can elicit, allowing myself to sit with them, experience them and let them wash over me instead of fighting them off. The worst thing we can do when we experience negative emotions is try not to feel them. Every emotion has value and is trying to teach us something. So if today, like me, you are feeling weighed down by sadness, try sitting with it for a while, accepting it for what it is, letting it into your heart and mind. Then, take a deep breath, let it out, and continue with your day.

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Speaking Shame

Today I am feeling discombobulated and out of sorts. Tiredness is making it hard to process my emotions, but I am trying to allow myself to feel them instead of burying them; to appreciate that, in this moment, this is how I’m feeling, and whilst it may not be that pleasant to feel this way, it’s okay, and it will pass. I have learned through my studies that acknowledgement without judgement and self-compassion are essential when dealing with negative emotions, so as well as doing my best to practice those I’m trying to rebalance my mind and body with gentle exercise classes like Pilates and Body Balance (particularly the latter with its mix of Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga).

As part of my Master’s research I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly by shame researcher Brené Brown, in which the author stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to become resilient to shame. In the spirit of this teaching, the following is a snapshot of the things currently swirling around in my brain:

  • I’m worried about the world my son is going to grow up in.
  • I’m worried I’m not doing enough to make it better for him.
  • I’m worried I’m not a good enough mother, that I’m too selfish to ‘do motherhood’ properly.
  • I’m worried about having another child, and whether I would cope.
  • I’m worried about having another miscarriage, or not being able to have another child at all.
  • I’m worried that sometimes I’m not a sensitive enough wife.
  • I’m worried about my ability and motivation to succeed in my chosen field.
  • I’m worried that this venture will fail like others before it, and that I will let this failure eat away at me until there is nothing left.
  • I’m worried about money.
  • I’m worried about (everyone’s) health.
  • I’m worried about death.
  • I’m worried that even when my life is damn near perfect (which it is) I still manage to find things to be worried about.

Many of the things in this list elicit feelings of shame, but as Brown herself says, speaking shame is the first step in defeating it. When we keep these kinds of emotions secret, they send us into a negative spiral, preventing us from connecting and empathising with those around us. They gain power over us, making our focus turn inwards and closing us off from the world. But when we shine a light on those emotions, admit to having them, share them with others, we realise that we aren’t alone in having them, and their power dissipates into the ether.

After writing my list I already feel lighter. What’s on yours?

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Once More Into the Light

Last weekend the baby got ill again. It’s happening so often these days it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet somehow it always does. This time, through careful following of the NHS wheeze plan we were discharged from hospital with a few weeks ago, we at least managed to avoid another middle of the night A&E dash. But whilst we didn’t go to hospital, two nights of sleeping in the baby’s room, feverishly listening to his breathing for signs of worsening wheeze and administering inhalers every four hours does take it out of you. As does having a soon-to-be-toddler who, despite being under the weather, still manages to push all of your buttons simultaneously several times a day (I realise now why babies are made cute. It’s hard to stay cross with the face of an angel, but by God behind those angelic features a devil sometimes lurks).

On Tuesday night I had a pretty impressive meltdown, the culmination of the mental storm that had been brewing for days. It’s hard to explain the maelstrom of emotions that happen in these dark spells. There is exhaustion. There is anxiety. There is worry. There is resentment (against my husband/people without children/the world). There is embarrassment. Shame. And there is guilt. A tidal wave of guilt, so oppressive it literally feels like I am drowning. Which as I type this sounds dramatic, but at the time it feels dramatic. The thoughts that go through an exhausted mother’s head are not pretty; in fact sometimes they are downright scary. In the more lucid moments you are able to grasp the olive branch of reason and talk yourself down from the edge. But other times you shock yourself with the levels of vitriol you are able to muster towards people you deem more carefree than yourself.

As I type this I am constantly resisting the urge to hit delete. Because it’s not socially acceptable for a mother to feel this way. Or at least to publicly admit it. I know full well how fortunate I am to have a baby. I know it’s all a phase. I know this too shall pass. But the fact of the matter is this: Parenthood is like being on a giant hamster wheel; you don’t realise before you step on it that once you’ve started running you’ll be running for the rest of your life (or at least the next eighteen years). And no matter how well prepared you think you are, that comes as an almighty shock. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt I’ve been mis-sold this parenting gig. That I just can’t do it. I’ve doubted myself and my abilities to the core. I’ve felt selfish, ungrateful and downright miserable. And you know what? I won’t pretend I haven’t felt those things, or that I don’t sometimes slip back into the quagmire of despair. I won’t sugar coat this pill of parenting, just like I wouldn’t sugar coat the pill of miscarriage. These issues are real. Maternal mental health is something that should be talked about, openly, by men as well as women. Because as wonderful as it is, motherhood can also be really bloody hard.

Sometimes, as a mother, you just need to hit the reset button. Fortunately I’ve been able to do that today. After missing nursery yesterday (for the thirteenth day since February), my son was well enough (just about – insert guilt here) to go in for the afternoon, so I packed my laptop in my bag and sought out an excellent coffee shop in which to spend the afternoon. I spent 45 minutes having a belly laugh-inducing conversation with one of my best friends (also a mum), which defused most of the tension of the last few days. I finished sorting out the logistics for my son’s first birthday party this weekend (no small task). I people watched (listening to a conversation about the forthcoming series of Love Island, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m rather excited about). I tried to get my addled brain back into study mode (this part has been harder. There’s always tomorrow). I drank a flat white and ate a sugary pastry. And with every sip and every bite and every breath I have somehow made it back to the calmer, happier version of myself who has made it to the end of this blog post. Praise be.

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Learnings from Month One of Parenting

Hark the herald angels sing! Glory to the new born King! Yes indeed, our little man made his long-awaited entrance into the world at 11.45pm on 24th May. Introducing (drum roll please…) Charlie Joseph Batt! We are, of course, delighted with him. We have also experienced a maelstrom of other emotions in the past five weeks, some of which could be categorised as somewhat (read: significantly) less positive. In this post I will spare you the blow by blow account of the labour, not least because I have some friends whose own labours are imminent, and I’m not sure they would thank me for it. Instead, I will share the following:

Learnings from My First Month as A Parent:

  1. Sleep Deprivation
    It’s not as bad as they say: It’s worse. These days “who am I?” is less an existential question and more a genuine 4am moment of confusion. If you loved your sleep before, the first thing parenthood does is smash that love affair to pieces. And believe me, it’s the worst heartbreak there is.
  2. Alcohol
    The hard, sore boobs when the milk ‘comes in’ were enough of a shock to the system, but more so was the painful realisation that, far from being able to drink wine at every opportunity as soon as you’ve pushed the little bugger out, the breastfeeding period is basically an extension of being pregnant. Unless you’re super organised (two things you are definitely not in the first month of parenthood) and express your milk in advance, you can only have one drink without raising eyebrows in the mummy – and wider – community. This, for someone who had literally been dreaming about champagne and red wine for nine months, has been a bitter, bitter (so bitter it needs naming twice) pill to swallow.
  3. Caffeine
    Apparently, stimulants such as caffeine can dehydrate you and lead to a hyperactive baby (trust me, no one likes a hyperactive baby). Ergo, after months of dreaming of coffee, I can only safely have one a day – and believe me, when you’re not getting more than two to three hours sleep at a time during the night, one coffee doesn’t even touch the sides.
  4. Maternity Leave
    Having spent months looking forward to time off work, dreaming of balmy summer days brunching and drinking mimosas with other new mummies, the reality is somewhat different. Admittedly it’s still early days, but thus far our attempts at meeting for brunch have fallen considerably short of our expectations. It turns out there’s one thing balmy summer brunches need to be relaxing and enjoyable: no babies.
  5. Comparison with Other New Mums and their Babies
    This one’s a killer. Even though you all got on like a house on fire during your pregnancies, as soon as you’ve popped the sprogs out everything becomes a competition. As you drain the dregs of your single cup of coffee or glass of wine (sigh), other new mums will regale you with tales of little Ophelia, who was sleeping through the night at only three weeks! And she never poos at night, making nappy changes obsolete! How wonderful, you reply, whilst staring murderously at your coffee grinds and ruminating on last night’s 5am poonami.
  6. Baby Books
    During your pregnancy you spent hours poring over books charting the daily changes in your little one inside the womb. Then you realise, too late, that what you should have been reading for the past nine months was the books about what to do with them when they arrive. Because once they do you will never again find more than five minutes to sit down and read anything.
  7. Personal Grooming
    As soon as you deliver your little bundle of joy, personal grooming becomes a thing of the past. Your legs are the first to suffer – as if you’ve got time to shave them when you’re grabbing a micro-shower as baby naps in the next room. Next you find yourself staring longingly at the tweezers and nail clippers, noticing you’ve still got the (now very chipped) pedicure you had when you were waiting for baby to arrive five weeks ago. From now on, the only nail maintenance you’ll be doing is clipping your baby’s nails so they don’t gouge your eyes out with them as they writhe in digestive discomfort post-feed. You’re welcome.

Aside from the learnings detailed above, I thought it would be helpful for those that come after me in this joyous and rewarding journey if I also listed some tips on how to cope in the first few weeks of being a parent.

How to Cope

  1. Establish a routine.
    For me, mornings are now sacred. When you’ve barely slept it’s imperative to have some things you do daily to keep you sane. For me, that means washing myself, getting dressed, drinking my coffee while it’s still hot (or at least warm), and – God forgive me – watching the previous night’s episode of Love Island while I eat my breakfast. Only once these milestones have been reached do I feel truly able to start my day.
  2. Accept you will henceforth (or at least for the next two years) be covered in puke and poo.
    And make peace with it.
  3. Accept that your brain is essentially broken.
    At least in the short term. Anything important must be written down or forgotten forever.
  4. Your ‘To Do’ List should now be renamed ‘Not to Do’ List.
    Linked to point 3. If you do find the time or energy to do anything on it you will literally feel like Superwoman. Revel in that feeling. It won’t last long.
  5. Live by the ‘Good Enough’ Rule.
    If you were a perfectionist before, you need to adjust your expectations. The ‘good enough’ rule applies to everything, but in particular baby changing: baby’s pooed/puked a little bit on his/her Babygro? Unless it’s sodden/stinks to high heaven, give it a wipe and it’s good to go. Unless you’re prepared to give your kid more outfit changes than Naomi Campbell on the catwalk, this is the only way to go to preserve your sanity.
  6. Everywhere you go must be baby friendly.
    Or you don’t go there. Simple.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to revel in my five minutes of feeling like Super Woman..

The Little Prince Himself

The Little Prince Himself

The Baby Monkey Metaphor

This is an honest post about an emotion that clings to my back like an orphaned baby monkey every day of my life. That emotion is guilt.

To give examples, here are some of the myriad things I feel guilty about on a daily basis: Not working hard enough; Not being ambitious enough; Not being a good enough fiancé; Not being a good enough daughter; Not being a good enough friend; Not writing; Not pursuing my life goals; Watching too much crap instead of writing/pursuing life goals; Caring too much what people think about me; Being so privileged when so many are not; Not appreciating being so privileged when so many are not; Never being satisfied/always wanting more; Eating badly; Not going to the gym; Not being mindful; Worrying about everything/sweating the small stuff; Being too apologetic; Wasting too much time on social media. I could go on. In fact, I daresay I could fill ten pages with all the things that I feel guilty about from one moment to the next. But I won’t (because I’d only feel guilty about the time I wasted writing it). It’s a depressing (if somewhat exaggerated, for the purpose of this post) truth that the only time I don’t feel guilty is when I’m sleeping, although if I remembered more of my dreams I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt guilt in most of those as well.

It never fails to amaze me how humans can be so intelligent and yet so utterly stupid at the same time. Unless felt in a justified context, for example when we have genuinely done something to upset another person, guilt – like worry and anxiety (which I could also fill a small tome about, let’s not go down that road here) – is a useless emotion. After thirty four years of living with it I can vouch for the fact it does not increase productivity – far from it, it is productivity’s antithesis. It also doesn’t improve personal relationships, or indeed help other people in the slightest. I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a selfish emotion, because it is usually underpinned by a sense of duty towards others or towards our true (non-egotistical) selves, but it sure is good at making a person introspective to the point of being boring.

So in the spirit of the age old ‘new year, new me’ mentality, it’s time to face the truth: the baby monkey on my back, whilst cute, has never led me anywhere positive; in fact, it has only led me into procrastination, anxiety and paralysing self-doubt. In short, cute or not, it’s time to ditch the monkey. Life is too short to be paralysed by useless emotions. It’s time to start fostering the useful ones.

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It’s the Little Things…

My boyfriend has a theory about me. He says I’m a product of my own environment, which apparently means when faced with challenging situations – like the one in which we met almost four years ago in Borneo – I thrive, but when conditions are less harsh, I struggle. He says sometimes he can’t believe I’ve travelled on my own around India and Indonesia, when only last week I got so anxious about moving to a flat five minutes down the road.

I haven’t been convinced about this theory until today, when I got to work and spent most of the morning fretting because I’d accidentally put some salt crystals in the rinse aid compartment of the dishwasher, and the dimmer switch for the kitchen lights appeared to have broken. After having to get a plumber in to descale the shower head yesterday morning I was loath to tell the landlady there were two new issues to deal with in our first week of residing here. It was bothering me so much, in fact, that I felt that familiar feeling of panic rising up inside me.

Considering this in the context of my boyfriend’s theory, I realise he is absolutely right. When I was in the wilds of Borneo – dealing with giant bugs, floods and lugging 20kg bags of cement up hills whilst also fulfilling the dual roles of communications officer and photographer – I was in my element, with rarely a moment to dwell on the minutiae of daily life. Sure, it was emotionally and physically draining at times, but I didn’t let silly things get me down. I didn’t have time to worry (least of all about a dishwasher – that’s if I had actually had one), I needed to survive; I wanted to excel.

Fast forward four years and here I am, living in a lovely flat in Brussels, with a lovely man and a pretty great job. But with no threat of danger and no great challenges to occupy my time, the little things are slowly but surely creeping back in. Whereas a broken light would have barely registered in my consciousness when I was recovering alone from a sickness bug in the remote Himachal Pradesh region of northern India, now it’s enough to set my pulse racing and make me feel sick with dread.

I’m glad to have recognised this tendency because I want to nip it in the bud. Life’s too short to stress about broken appliances, and too precious to waste on negative emotions like worry.  It’s important to keep things in perspective, to sense check whether the thing that’s causing stress will really matter a year from now, which invariably it won’t. So from now on I will try to do just that. One broken appliance at a time…

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