Quagmires, Self-belief and Sunscreen

Humans are contrary creatures. We spend our whole lives seeking happiness, meaning and validation, but in the process somehow manage to repeatedly get dragged into the toxic quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough’ thinking.

I’ve been languishing in the quagmire again myself this week, worrying about my son’s health – as usual – but this time also about money. We are hardly on the breadline, but we are managing on one income this year. It was a decision we took together that we were – and still are – confident in, but nonetheless there are moments when we waver. Like when the bills are more than we’d anticipated, or when we check the account and realise that we’ve been more frivolous than we should have been for the past few weeks. We knew that moving back to London on one salary would be painful and so it is proving to be.

But it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture. We made this choice because it’s best for our family that I become self-employed. And the career I have chosen – coaching – is one that is still largely unregulated and full of amateurs. To stand out amongst the crowd I need credibility, and to build credibility I need credentials. The path I have chosen begins with further study, which is why I am taking this year to return to my MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at the University of East London. It’s not been an easy road so far this year with my son’s ill health hampering my ability to study, but nonetheless I am managing to forge ahead. Some people have commented that perhaps it’s too much to have a one year old and study for a degree, but keeping up the momentum is critical for my confidence and self-belief.

On that note, I have a tattoo on my right arm which says ‘Believe’ (or ‘Belieber’ as my husband takes great pleasure in saying to wind me up, due to the curly script in which it’s written. But I digress..), in a nod to my writing ambitions. I got the tattoo some years ago when I took the decision to accept a four days per week role in order to devote one day a week to my writing. For a while it went well, I got some commissions for features, was shortlisted for a fiction competition and really felt I was on the right track. But for myriad reasons I got demotivated, lost my confidence, and before long my writing day had turned into an extra day of weekend. I have always regretted this, and, ironically thanks to my tattoo, now have a permanent reminder of what happens when you don’t believe in yourself. But you know what? It spurs me on to never make the same mistake again. This time around I’m older and wiser, and I know in my heart that coaching is what I want and need to do. It will take time and require sacrifice, but I am now in a place where I am able to accept and embrace those truths.

All that said, I still have moments of weakness and self-doubt. I’m only human, after all. But life has a funny way of showing you the way, if only you look for the signs. Take this morning, for example. After a bit of a rough night/morning with my son (bad conjunctivitis, yet another cough, pre-toddler mood swings) I got him to nursery later than planned and was running late for my Body Balance class at Studio Society (I know I sound like such a Hampstead Mum, but I cannot tell you how much this class sorts my head out, it’s literally balm for the soul). I was rushing along the road, battling with my brolly against the wind and the commuters, checking my watch every two seconds to see how late I was going to be and feeling general sense of stress and unease. Then I consciously took a moment to check myself, noting that checking my watch was pointless as it wouldn’t get me there any faster. I decided to let go of the anxiety and trust that my legs would carry me there as fast as they could. If I was a few minutes late to class, so what? The world would keep on turning. And in the end, not only was I only a couple of minutes late, but for the first time today the teacher was ten minutes late! There seemed a certain serendipity in that outcome, and certainly a life lesson.

I have one final point to make in this meandering but cathartic post. In 1999, the year I left school and started university (literally showing my age here), Baz Luhrmann’s song Sunscreen was released. In the years hence I have often found myself returning to the lyrics, and this morning was reminded of these ones specifically:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

When I’m in the quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough,’ I try to remind myself that none of the things I am worrying about are actually significant. All that really matters in life, at least as far as I’m concerned, are love (loving and being loved by friends and family) and health. I’m at an age where it’s becoming harder to convincingly wear the cloak of invincibility. Several people close to me have experienced cancer in the past year, and right there are the real troubles that Baz Luhrmann talked about. So for as long as I’m fighting for my lifestyle rather than for my life, I will try to remember how very lucky I am.

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Turning Points

No matter how well you know that life with a baby is one phase after another, it’s hard to think rationally when you’ve been woken up at 3am three days in a row and your normally sweet tempered baby has turned into a raging ball of fury due to teething. Off the back of weeks of illness the past few days have been a bitter pill to swallow, and if I’m entirely honest there have been moments when I’ve genuinely questioned my ability to do this parenting gig. Fortunately such moments pass quickly (everything is just a phase after all), and other moments come along to remind me what an amazing little person I’ve helped bring into the world, and why it’s all so worth it. Like yesterday, when we got out in the sunshine and went walking on Hampstead Heath, and C tried his first dairy free ice cream (damn allergies). Funnily enough the real turning point in this latest low patch occurred after yesterday morning’s horrific poonami episode as we were rushing out the door to the doctor. As I stuffed C’s poo-filled (I kid you not) trousers hastily into the nappy bin, deeming them too far gone to save (much as I consider myself to be these days) I realised in that moment I had the choice of laughing or crying. And as I’d done quite enough crying up to that point I chose the former. Turns out it was the best decision.

Since yesterday’s turning point I’ve felt considerably better. I’m sure the sunshine is playing it’s part, but what’s really made the difference is doing some exercise. When the baby is ill and in hospital/off nursery I go stir crazy being cooped up inside, although I don’t always make the connection with needing to exercise until I’m entrenched in another slump. Yesterday, thanks to various appointments, I ended up walking for two hours, and by the end of the day my mind was so much calmer and clearer. Today after dropping C at nursery (finally back to nursery! Praise be!) I went to my first spin class in what I worked out must be six years. I’ve been doing Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance classes semi-regularly for the past few months but have yet to bite the bullet and get back into cardio. Needless to say I was terrified beforehand and pretty close to requiring hospitalisation afterwards (God help me tomorrow when my body’s had a chance to process what I did to it), but there’s no denying the endorphins that have lain dormant for so long were firmly kicked back into action. Exercise is vital for keeping a balanced perspective, it really helps to prevent a negative mind spiral.

Another thing that has helped to lift my mood has been finally submitting my university extenuation claim. It’s been tough seeing my fellow students approaching submission day (which was yesterday), knowing I couldn’t hope to make the deadline. For a while I convinced myself that maybe I could, but last week’s illness and nursery absence was the nail in the coffin. I have therefore been vigilant in collecting all the supporting evidence that I could to give my claim the best chance of success. Now I’ve finally sent it I feel a weight off my shoulders. I’m still pushing myself to complete it way ahead of the September resit deadline, but at least now I’ve accepted I need more time and can relax a little and give myself a break.

All in all I’m worn down but not defeated. This crazy ride called parenting ain’t getting any easier, but somehow I’m finding the reserves to ride out the rough patches and keep my sanity (just about) intact. Every day that goes by I have more respect for my own mother and all the other mums out there, especially those with more than one child, and/or with children who need extra help and attention. Until you are a mother you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the task; the endless demands, the sleepless nights, the sheer relentlessness of the responsibilities laid out before you, not to mention the fact all of this is FOR LIFE, or at least until your child/ren leave/s home. Then there’s the constant fight for your identity, the longing for freedom and fun and carefree, lazy days. You could actually kick your pre-baby self for not appreciating how much time you had to do as you pleased. But on the flip side, having a child changes you in profound and meaningful ways. It makes you less selfish, more thoughtful, more organised, and it brings moments of such pure and unadulterated joy you could hitherto only have imagined. So, on balance, I’ll take the lows if it means I get to keep the highs. That said, I’d sell a kidney for a decent night’s sleep. Any takers for a sleepover with a nearly one year old tonight?

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Royal Babies & Mat(/Et)ernal Guilt

“He’s the dream. He has the sweetest temperament. He’s really calm.” I can’t be the only mother to read Megan Markle’s comments on her newborn baby this week and reflect upon the naivety of motherhood in those first few hours and days. I mean, I hope for her sake it’s all plain sailing from here on in, but experience tells me she may have some nasty shocks in store (or maybe not, given that she probably has an army of nannies to care for baby Sussex when it all gets too much. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. As you were)…

This week we had yet another middle of the night dash to A&E when C developed a sudden cough which quickly progressed to wheezing and breathlessness. Only the day before I had been thinking how great it was that we’d had two weeks of good health, which must be a record since the beginning of this year. But it wasn’t to be. So, just two weeks after his three day hospital admission we were back in an Uber to A&E – just me and the baby because my husband had to be up at 5.30am to catch the Eurostar to Belgium for a meeting. Almost four hours and three nebulisers later they sent us home, only for C to wake up two hours after I put him down sounding worse than before. By 10.30am we were back in A&E for another six hours. Fortunately this time it didn’t end up with an overnight admission, but it was borderline. The consultant paediatrician said we were right to take him and was very sympathetic. She also said she sees a lot of babies with this problem and it’s hard to manage. The jury’s out on whether any of the medicines actually work for viral wheeze/bronchiolitis (especially steroids which seem to have medical practitioners divided – all the junior doctors in A&E have told us to stop giving his steroid inhaler but the senior paediatric consultants tell us to continue. Needless to say the lack of medical consensus is frustrating and stressful, but on balance I’ll always go with the most senior advice). Fortunately our son is what they call a ‘happy wheezer,’ which means he usually presents as being better than he really is. I always feel a bit of a fraud when I turn up at A&E with a grinning baby, but when they examine him they are always shocked that his condition is worse than it first seemed.

I don’t mind admitting I’m struggling a bit at the moment. Not in a constantly-tearful-and-unable-to-cope sort of way (which I have been in the past), more in a tired-resigned-and-frustrated sort of way. I suppose it’s not exactly a secret that motherhood is hard, but until you experience it for yourself you really have no clue. Because us women are very good at putting a brave face on it. We don’t like to complain, less so to appear incompetent, or – God forbid – ungrateful with our lot. This last point is really true for me at the moment. I have friends who’ve had a bloody awful time of it this past year, from cancer to infertility and everything in-between. I hate to admit I’m struggling because compared to the things they have gone through this doesn’t compare. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes hard. And I’m trying to cut myself some slack for feeling this way, because sometimes the guilt is like a monkey on my back, it’s all-consuming.

Being a mother is a gift, and it’s wonderful. But the truth is there are moments when you wonder what the hell you’ve done. You wouldn’t trade your baby for the world, but my God you’d love a few hours to yourself, to just be, without worrying about everything to do with your baby’s welfare. And when they get sick it’s just the worst, there is nothing more heart-wrenching than seeing your baby in a hospital bed (even if you do have a ‘happy wheezer’ like us – and believe me I do realise how lucky we are that he doesn’t have more serious health problems. The one he has is hard enough). Then there’s the constant maternal guilt – ironically the focus of my Master’s research proposal, as I think I’ve mentioned before – which is beyond draining. Is baby eating well enough? Is he getting the right stimulation? I feel these worries even more keenly when he’s off nursery because of illness. What if I’m doing it all wrong? Will he suffer when he’s older?

And then, cards on the table, there’s the guilt about wanting time for me. With hindsight returning to studying ten months after having a baby was a brave decision. At the time of my re-enrollment it seemed perfectly achievable, because C would be going to nursery three days a week and I’d have all that time to study. In reality, he’s now missed four full weeks of nursery since the beginning of February, and despite my reluctance to admit I was falling behind, I’m now having to submit a claim for extension due to extenuating circumstances. The deadline for my proposal is next week and I’ve managed a paltry 750 words out of the required 5,000. There’s just no way I can achieve it. And whilst I know this wasn’t my fault and couldn’t have been foreseen, it doesn’t stop the guilt about not having done it. Or the guilt I feel every time I manage to grab half an hour to myself – something which is getting harder to do when, like now, C is off nursery and also inexplicably fighting every nap time – and I just want to sit down with a cup of tea and a magazine instead of returning to the 750 page textbook on qualitative research methods (although, in my defence, having spent the last two nights waking every 4 hours to administer an inhaler to my baby, my brain isn’t really coping with anything more taxing than reading Closer magazine atm..).

There’s also the (*speaks in whisper*) ever pressing issue of another baby. I can hardly believe we’re even thinking about it given how stressful having one has been (and again I reiterate how lucky we’ve been with him – he may have a lot of issues with his chest but generally he’s such a happy little chap, everyone comments on it), but I’m hyper conscious I’m not getting any younger (38 in October – how the hell did that happen?) Plus, after having a miscarriage before there’s an increased risk of it happening again, alongside the other risks associated with being a ‘geriatric mother’ (God I loathe that phrase). Hypothetically I love the idea of another child but there’s a (big) part of me that wonders how on earth I’d manage. I know people do, of course they do, but how much do they sacrifice to do it? Am I too selfish to have more than one child? There, I said it. I’m a 37 year old mother of a nearly one year old who would, quite frankly, like a bit more time to read, to study, to exercise, to set up my business, to drink wine, to shop, to gossip with my girl (are we too old to be called girls now?) friends, to have FUN. And let’s face it, another baby is going to put more of a strain on all of the above. But despite that, and the still-fresh memory of the somewhat traumatic birth (the nurses commenting he had the “biggest head we’ve ever seen” being a particular low point moments after finally pushing him out), I can’t ignore the ticking of this goddamn body clock. Actually, that’s a lie. I fully intend to ignore it ticking until after my girls’ holiday to Ibiza in October. I would say you’re only young once, but as that particular ship has now sailed I will instead say you only have one child once….

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Look at that face, he makes it all worthwhile… ❤

 

Motherhood (cont’d), Guilt & Moth Balls

I have decided that the topic of the research proposal for my master’s degree will be guilt and shame in new motherhood, because my God if there are two emotions I’ve felt near-constantly since having my son 9 months ago it’s those. I was pretty good at the guilt thing before having a baby, particularly where pursuing my ambitions (writing, studying, going freelance) was concerned. But since the baby things have amped-up ten fold. Now, on top of kicking myself about not pursuing the ambitions, my inner monologue spends much of the day berating me for all the things it perceives I’m doing wrong as a parent. Whilst the rational side of my brain knows it’s wrong (or at least grossly exaggerating) and I’m doing the best I can, it’s a hard voice to ignore.

Since returning to London in January (how is it already March?!) we’ve started to settle into a routine, or at least we had started to, until the cycle of nursery-related illness started. In the past month alone I’ve had to keep C home from nursery three times (once for a full week). He’s currently on his second round of antibiotics and whilst he is livelier in himself he’s still coughing and congested. It’s felt like Groundhog Day for weeks; as soon as he starts to show signs of improvement he gets ill again. I feel bad for him but also for myself (and here’s a prime example of where the guilt comes in), because when I have to keep him home from nursery it knocks my schedule out of kilter too. Last Friday, for example, I had to miss a whole day of uni, and given that returning to my studies has been having a hugely positive impact on my mental health that hit me hard. As weekends are family time and Mondays/Tuesdays are time with my son, that’s meant not being able to do any uni work for several days, which is stoking the embers of my anxiety nicely.

But on the flip side, I’m trying to make the most of being with C on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’m conscious of the importance of being really present (the other part of my research project involves mindfulness interventions) and not distracted (still working on this but getting better). I’m also trying to make sure we have fun together, because I know this time will never come again. We now attend Zip Zap baby classes every Monday morning, which he loves, and this afternoon I took him to a free trial of the local Gymboree class (not so sure about that one – bit too ‘organised fun’ for my liking). Nothing makes me happier than seeing his little face light up when he experiences something new. He’s such an explorer and I want to nurture that as much as possible.

When I’m not guilting or attempting mindful parenting, I seem to be permanently preoccupied with a million and one things, from the important (booking summer holidays) to the exciting (organising my best friend’s hen do) to the downright mundane (moth balls for the wardrobes). It’s incredible how every spare second can be filled with so much stuff. Pre-baby me was not dissimilar, the difference now is that there’s even less spare time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like life is one giant to do list, by day it’s things relating to the baby and by night everything else. It was only last weekend, when my husband gave me the greatest gift of breakfast in bed and some time to read my dusty stack of magazines, that I realised how long it’s been since I allowed myself to just relax.

On the social front we’re managing pretty well. Now we have a baby we’ve realised that the best way to keep the social life ticking over is to invite friends round for dinner. Fortunately my husband is a total Masterchef so it’s working out well (for me, as it means I don’t have to cook..). I’ve been ordering cases of premium wine like there’s no tomorrow (in the guise of wanting to broaden my horizons, but in reality just wanting to get rat-arsed and have less painful hangovers) and our flat is perfect for hosting dinner parties in. We’ve also enlisted a couple of babysitters so we can have the odd night out too. I have to remind myself that a few months ago this seemed completely out of reach – it’s all about the small wins when you are navigating early parenthood, and this certainly counts as one of those!

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Third Trimester: Entering Warp Speed..

Today I’m 27 weeks’ pregnant, officially at the beginning of my third trimester. I can hardly believe how fast the last few weeks have gone, it feels like only yesterday I was staring at the digital test in disbelief, and now we’re 13 weeks (or less!) away from meeting our little man. Crazy. Despite the sleepless nights, leg cramps, mood swings and anxiety, I’m so excited about entering into this next phase of our lives. I know it’s not going to be easy – far from it – but I’ve needed a new challenge for a long time and this will certainly be that!

Talking of challenges, this week I’ve finally put to bed the first (long!) year of my Master’s course (or at least I hope I have – results of the assignment are still pending..) which is a huge relief. Now I can finally turn my attention to the list of ever-more-pressing baby-related tasks that need doing. We’ve managed to sort the basics (so he will at least have somewhere to sleep and something to be moved around in) and have this week managed to confirm a creche place starting in January (this has been really worrying me as in Belgium creche places are few and far between, with women urged to start the application process when they are only three months’ pregnant – what?!!!!!), but we have yet to fill out all the complicated paperwork (in French – which complicates things more, given that neither of us have much of a grasp of the language) which will confirm our maternity/paternity leave and baby-related benefits. And as for all the other stuff we’ll need, I’m not sure where to start!

Something else I have confirmed, after thinking about it for a while, is the presence of two doulas at the birth. In case you don’t know what a doula is (as I didn’t a few weeks ago), they are basically non-medically trained birth support partners. Apparently, evidence suggests that women who have additional support beyond their partner and medical team have shorter, easier labours. For us, there is also the additional concern of our limited language skills, so I see our team of doulas as being critical in ensuring that our wishes are actioned by the medical team. I also figure that the more support we have the better – living abroad is great, but at times like this you miss your friends and family more than ever.

So things are moving along, which is just as well, because if his recent Tyson-esque bouts of stomach boxing are anything to go by, this baby is keen to get out and make his mark on the world….

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Week 23 woes

I knew January would be hard, but this is something else. Navigating the rollercoaster of a stressful job all week, then spending every weekend trying to pull off my end of year master’s assignment would be brutal if I wasn’t pregnant. But it is what it is. The only way out is through. So on I go.

Last night I went to see the doctor. When I stepped on the scales she raised an eyebrow and told me I had put on 3kg in a month. Apparently rather more than the 1.5kg she would have expected. She put it down to ‘Christmas eating’ (fair) and told me to cut down my sugar intake (cue immediate guilt about the double sized portion of egg custard tart I had consumed not two hours before my appointment). She told me my blood pressure was low. I told her I was stressed, so she wrote me a prescription for a magnesium supplement, asked if I needed a doctor’s note for some time off work. I’d love that, frankly, but right now it’s not the solution.

I’m trying to manage my stress better. It’s strange knowing that now I’m not just responsible for myself but another tiny human. Whereas before I would have pushed through the pain barrier, stayed late every night in the office, deprived myself of sleep and food and whatever else stood in the way of hitting deadlines, now I just can’t do it. I’ve set myself boundaries – not working past 7pm being one of them. I’m also trying to adopt a ‘one day at a time’ mentality, focusing only on the things I can realistically achieve in each day, instead of the mountain of things I can’t. If it means deadlines sometimes can’t be achieved, then so be it. I’m human, not a machine.

Prenatal yoga three times a week is helping, but it’s not enough. So when it feels the walls are closing in – like last night – I’m just allowing myself to stop, talk to a friend, have a bath, do whatever I need to get my heart rate back down, my blood pressure back up. This baby is more important than work, than course, than anything. I have to prioritise him.

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Acceptance

Yesterday I had a little freak out. A tough day at work had me wishing I could reach for the wine, and when I say wishing I mean REALLY WISHING.

As I sipped lemonade over an otherwise boozy dinner with my colleagues I found myself pining for the uninhibited party girl in me, and finding it hard to reconcile with the me who is preparing to welcome a new human into the world, and working on a master’s degree at weekends.

But today a sense of calm has washed over me. I’m enjoying waking up without hangovers, I love learning (even if it stresses me out 80% of the time because I feel I’m not good enough – another demon to exorcise on another day), and being a mummy is what I’ve always wanted more than anything.

Everything is ok. I am exactly where I am meant to be.

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