“Wear ‘clothes’ every day”

In this week’s Happier Podcast hosted by the ever insightful Gretchen Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft (the sage!), they really threw down a gauntlet with the challenge to “wear ‘clothes’ every day for a month”!

A daunting prospect indeed. It’s not that I spend my days wandering around in my birthday suit but apparently the definition of ‘clothes’ does not include such slatternly attire as my regulation uniform of:

– gym kit (not even high end athleisure wear of the Lululemon ilk counts so it’s safe to say my common-as-muck Nike and Sweaty Bettys won’t cut the mustard),

– Running shoes/ gym trainers (smart trainers are apparently allowed so thank goodness for my leather Ash hightops, though not sure my trusty Uggs will pass the muster

– Hoodies (unless of a sumptuous fabric that redeems their slovenly stereotype, think cashmere, cable knit, fine merino wool)

– Sweatpants (nooooo – I love my sweatpants sooo much, especially my chavtastic, wannabe teenager ones, with ‘Wills’ emblazoned down the leg)

And to state the obvious, no PJs (yes, I am wearing these when my husband leaves for work at 7am and back in them by the time he’s home around 8pm so he’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve loafed around in them all day).

To make a tough challenge even tougher than a tough mudder, the challenge is to stay in these until after dinner! I can barely stay in my ‘not clothes’ (ie a veritable combo of aforementioned sartorial no-nos) until the kids’ bath time when I’m positively itching to put on my PJs. This makes the Whole 30 sound like a walk in the park. I really don’t think I could do it.

Then to make an absurd challenge even more insurmountable, in addition to wearing real ‘clothes’ the goal is to also wear makeup AND change jewellery! I have been wearing the same pair of earrings and necklace since circa Year 2k. I do take them off occasionally (not without much harrumphing at the inconvenience) for x rays, surgery and the like. Or if a big fancy do like a ball then I deign to put on something a bit more bling. But really, there just aren’t enough minutes in the day to be faffing around with changing jewellery.

In The Crown, Lilibet has someone put it on for her, remove it at the end of the day and store it away safely. Us mere mortals of the non-Royal variety have no such privileges. Though I daresay I have a lot of wasted jewellery that never sees the light of day. Ditto my clothes.

While listening to the podcast I realised I was still in my gym kit – gym vest, capris, sports bra (so much easier to machine wash than a real bra), a relic from that morning’s Piyo class – that ended 3 hours earlier. And I swear doesn’t warrant enough sweat to justify post workout shower. Only on the days I do a proper workout eg running, HIIT, do I shower after my workout and am hence forced to remove said kit and change.

I also had no makeup on (as usual) and my hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail cum bun thing with hair grips to tame wayward straggly bits from annoying the heck out of me when doing downward dog. I’m too old to pull this off with the nonchalance of a French ingénue. To be fair even in my youth I couldn’t pull this look off.

I used to relish getting dressed up when I had a job in the city back in the days of yore. Though increasingly, as I spend the majority of the day alone, I choose comfort over glamour every time and throw on some sweats, a breton top and a hoodie then pull my Uggs on for the school run. If I’m lucky I don’t even need to get out of the car for the drive-through pickups so I could be naked waist down for all anyone cares!

The reasoning behind this challenge (condemnation) is allegedly a test to find out if wearing ‘clothes’ makes us feel different in our outlook – in Elizabeth’s words, more ‘ready’. She also highlights that the stretchy nature of ‘not clothes’ encourages relaxed overeating (think inverse corset effect) but she clearly hasn’t seen my collection of jumper dresses which do away with the need for waistbands altogether! It may even serve to illustrate that our choice to wear ‘not clothes’ is still what makes us feel the happiest and most content.

Most days I go the gym, swim, yoga etc so my choice of outfit is legitimate. Sadly, my choice to stay in said outfit ALL DAY based on the activity of 1 hour is highly illegitimate. The thing is, it’s just so darn comfy and I just love to be comfy. If onesies weren’t such a nuisance for toileting I’d no doubt be in one of those 24/7.

But Gretchen is right, it’s not putting your best foot forward.

So this morning, I wore ‘real clothes’ (well, jeans rather than sweatpants) to my son’s class chapel service first thing. Though I have to concede that I didn’t put on any makeup as I was heading straight for a swim afterwards (tell me no one wears makeup to go swimming?) It was a total nuisance packing separate sweatpants in my swim bag but the idea of wrestling into a pair of skinny jeans with damp legs, in a cramped changing room, with questionable hairy bits all over the floor was too much to bear.

Truth be told I did feel less self-conscious in ‘clothes’. On a typical school foray I have a teeny weeny inferiority complex anyway (blame it on my  school days and experiences of, let’s call it, ‘racial disparity’). I secretly will no one to cast aspersions and I’m not even referring to those working mums looking all smart and coiffed ready for a day at the office, but rather the glamorous stay at home mums in their over the knee boots, faux fur jackets and up to date colourist appointments – the ones who would be horrified with a challenge to wear ‘not clothes’ every day.

Doing a bit of amateur psychoanalysing (a favoured pastime) while listening to the dulcet tone of forty something little boys singing about Moses, I deduce that my ‘not clothes’ are a manifestation of my comfort zone – physically and emotionally. Physically I just crave a sense of warmth, comfort and being cossetted. Who doesn’t? As for emotionally well, said clothes are usually black, don’t attract attention, are unassuming, practical and plain. Gosh is that really how I now see myself??

With this in mind, the moment I came home after my swim I went immediately to change out of my ‘not clothes’ before I got distracted and immersed in a completely unplanned task or had a chance to start procrastinating (I’m very good at both). Granted it’s just a pair of jeans, a T shirt (with real underwear) and a hoodie (I know I know it’s on the forbidden list BUT this one is cashmere blend, pale pink and really rather pretty), I feel different. Less comfortable certainly (the jeans are kind of tight) but more…. determined and purposeful.

It’s not just about what judgements people make from your appearance – judging books by covers and all that, but about how the external reflects the internal and caring about that external is symptomatic of caring for the person inside. I’m not really a vain person (pointing out the obvious to anyone who ever sees me on a school run) but I do want my kids to be proud of (ok, let’s just settle with not embarrassed by) their mum. And I definitely don’t want them thinking I’ve consigned myself to the middle age scrap heap. Perhaps feeling more ‘ready’ will radiate a more positive outward expression.

Recently the green eyed monster made a brief cameo when my son’s classmate wrote (of his permanently immaculately dressed and made up mother), ‘My mummy is beautiful’. My son, on the other hand, wrote, ‘My mummy is dairy free’ – great epitaph that will make; I might as well be a carton of almond milk.

So I am determined to try just a little bit harder, to make just a little bit more effort, by stepping out of my comfort zone. I’m not saying I’m going to venture too far but wearing ‘clothes’ every day is a start.

 

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A Mother’s Place is (Still) in the Kitchen

[It’s been a while since I opened this dusty ol’ blog. It could be forgiven for thinking I’d abandoned it for good. Shhh – don’t tell it but I think I had. Then one day this week I realised I missed it; I missed the writing, the knowing that my jumbled words can reach other people leading just as jumbled lives as my own (though most likely only get read by myself marvelling at my own words gracing the wider world of cyberspace). So I started spilling forth my inner dialogue like an escaped convict embracing his (her) freedom. I posted this over on a recently discovered blogzine Selfish Mother and it feels good to be writing again…]

A Mother’s Place is (Still) in the Kitchen

All through childhood I wondered what could possibly lure my mother into spending 90% of her waking hours in the kitchen; seamlessly segueing from cooking one meal, to tidying up then washing up that meal, to preparing the next meal and so on and so on, like some relentless ground hog day.

Ha ha! I thought when I lived my joyous, frivolous, utterly selfish life as a single gal, whose spotless kitchen saw about as much cooking action as a Magnet showroom and who proudly wore her kitchen incompetence like a badge of honour. “Haven’t a clue how to turn on the oven!” I’d brazenly declare when guests came round for canapes that couldn’t be cooked.

Similarly don’t even ask my confusticated husband about the time I offered to make him dinner and tried to make his favourite dessert of sticky toffee pud – without scales (bathroom scales aren’t interchangeable it appears). Oh, and without any preceding main course. Clearly he didn’t marry me for my culinary prowess.

More importantly though, it marked the unsaid pronouncement that I didn’t need to know about such piffling trivialities as cooking and cleaning – I had restaurants to go to, a steep and glittering career ladder to scale, glass ceilings to demolish in my high heels and sharp tongue. In short my pre-baby fabulousness scoffed at the mere though of scullery duties – pah!

Fast forward days, weeks, months, years, decades, to a marriage, two children and a proper house, with not one but TWO ovens (and a steam oven that seemed so indispensable at the time of installation but has seen about as much action as the fondue set lurking in an upper cupboard since circa 1995). And all I can think is that my mother must have accidentally left her shoes here because it appears I have accidentally stepped into them.

Having in my youth positively spurned all but the bare necessity of crossing the threshold into the ‘dungeon of female domesticity’ (bar the very necessary trips to the fridge/freezer for champagne or icecream), it is now the room in which I reside, oh, let’s be generous, and say 70% of my waking hours (I have more school runs and afterschool activities than my mother did in the ‘80s). I have even adopted a favoured spot in the kitchen (by extension, this is therefore my favoured spot in the whole house?)

My husband has dubbed this square foot in the kitchen, within which I nigh-on perennially reside, as my ‘docking station’. At the time I remember thinking, ‘Too right, if only I had a real docking station to recharge my permanently waning/ flat battery,’ until the shocked realisation of how many hours a day I actually spend in this spot struck me dumb.

This is where I, among other things (and in no particular order of importance):
• make breakfast
• prepare the kids’ snack boxes
• test spellings
• fire off times tables questions with the relentlessness of a fully automatic firearm
• listen to random chapters of David Walliams offerings intermixed with who knows which number Storey Treehouse, with a smattering of Hobbit appearances to liven things up (an interesting book indeed this collaboration might make)
• order my weekly online grocery shop (and sort out the delivery when it arrives)
• deal with all comms and consent forms from school (the children know to dump said letters exactly as if a giant X marked the spot, straight from their schoolbags – on the days they think to empty their schoolbags that is)
• open the post (and at times, gaze longingly and nostalgically at the luxury holiday brochures that are about as useful as a chocolate teapot in this season of my life)
• fill in my daily bullet journal to ensure the next day is planned with military precision so as not to fritter away a precious nanosecond
• talk on the phone (reception permitting, plus I don’t mean chatting conversationally with old friends but rather, perfunctorily organising the services of plumbers/painters/electricians etc, or barking complaints down some customer services line, or listening to elevator music on hold with NHS appointments)
• scarf down Naked bars, green Nutribullet smoothies (and a host of other less healthy snacks that I don’t care to brag about) whilst simultaneously doing at least one other task on this list
• decipher recipes to make any dinner that isn’t on the regular rota of bolognese/ risotto/ jambalaya/ everything chucked in the oven masquerading as a feeble take on a weeknight roast
• make dinner (not confined to the docking station per se as this generally entails covering every available work surface in the vicinity)
• organise birthday parties/ presents/ write cards
• sneak a read of the latest Waitrose magazine under the guise of doing something more productive (less selfish)

Sometimes I’m known to just stand in this spot – at the counter in the corner of the kitchen, by force of habit, wondering what it is I’m meant to be doing. My husband jokes that this is my Sleep mode and that I have worn size 5 shaped Ugg slipper grooves into the tiles.

This, I have come to realise, is my ‘safe spot’ – whether this is because it roots me to my childhood, my mother and where I’m from, who knows. Possibly a reminder of who I am in the chaos of a life I often barely recognise and a self I no longer truly know when I look in the mirror. Or maybe it’s simpler than such psychobabble analysis and is solely by virtue of having spent so many cumulative hours in this spot that it now evokes a sense of attachment. Chicken or egg?

What I do know is that back in the day, the kitchen tasks my mother tackled in the kitchen were just that – kitchen tasks. Now, looking at the tasks tackled in our kitchen it seems the entire organisational web of our family life is orchestrated from this central hub, with my docking station as the beating heart. It’s quite literally the server (does that make me the glorified head servant?)

As a mother to a daughter now, I wonder whether she will view my relationship to the kitchen with the same curiosity, followed by determined defiance, followed by comfortable acceptance, in some inevitable circle of destiny. It’s always been my hope that she will carve her own destiny; one that will have only an upward trajectory rather than a loop with a foregone conclusion.

Yet I look around me now, from the vantage point of my docking station, and I can’t think where else I’d like to be (aside from that idyllic 5 star Maldives retreat in the latest tantalising Abercrombie and Kent brochure maybe).

Then it strikes me that our kitchen holds the most memories of any room in the house. Christmas dinners scorching in the oven(s) while kids zip in and out with new gifts. Birthday cakes, lit and resplendent, emerging to the many renditions of Happy Birthday. Tears over homework and cuddles to comfort. Crafting and baking with the kids. The summers in the garden seen through the kitchen window. The afterschool chats. My dear husband making my first and last hot drink of every single day. This is us. And that’s why this is my sanctuary; surrounded by family and the familiar, a sense of purpose mixed with belonging and just a touch of pride.

Mundane my younger self might justifiably argue but this older, wiser (and quite possibly marginally wider!) version of me recognises that fast forward another decade or three, it is this time here and now, in this kitchen, which I will hold close to my heart.

Now you must excuse me while I come out of Sleep mode and venture off the docking station to pick up the kids.

What age is deemed too old for a woman to return to work after a career break?

Apparently it is forty. So I have been reliably and rather bluntly informed this week by a head hunter.

Actually, the way he phrased it (“can I ask you a delicate question”) made him (note, ‘him’) come across as conspiratorially in my camp. He backed this up with declarations of his honesty and desire to minimise my disappointment in rejection.

My response followed a vague timeline of emotions.

The initial response was a typically British manner of apologetic embarrassment. I am terribly sorry to be wasting your precious time when you could be speaking to a more worthy (younger) candidate; do please forgive my imposition.

This was probably concurrent with the second (or joint first) sense of shock. It had never crossed my mind that I might be deemed technically over the hill when I am hell-bent on still viewing myself as in my thirties.

Which leads to my third reaction of defensiveness. Not wanting to labour the technicality but I am technically speaking still clinging on to the vestiges of my thirties, albeit by a few fingernails.

Calming the rising flush (not menopausal before you ask), I responded in a deliberately controlled tone, that surely a woman in her forties is no less employable than one in the 25-35 age bracket (his specified optimum hire-ability age range); posing the question, is it really better to hire someone likely to embark on a career break or someone returning from a career break? Neither of whom deserve to be discriminated against for heeding the call of nature to reproduce.

Mr Headhunter, not enjoying the direction of conversation, proceeded to chivy along the call to a close. I offered him my contact details (again) in the hope of being considered for any future roles that arise, which he was polite enough not to decline. Whether or not he even jotted them down I don’t know. Hastily wishing me luck in my future ventures (a true indicator that I shall not hear from him any time soon with any job offerings) he hung up.

With the passing of adequate hours to stew over the accusation and implication that a five or so year career hiatus, combined with being on the precipice of my Big Four-Oh, renders me ultimately redundant and unemployable, now gives rise to a sense of injustice. A twelve year career reduced to scrap fodder.

Would a man having taken a similar break be deemed equally unfit? I can’t answer that.

Despite the ongoing talk of encouraging women back into the workplace, the evidence is glaring that there is a long way to go. Mindsets need to evolve and embrace not just the notion of mothers reintegrating into careers they spent hard years building, but also the reality.

It is no new news that women are breaking glass ceilings left, right and centre, as the business pages tirelessly and tantalisingly remind us. And certainly there is nothing new about women engendering the next generation. But if depicted in my six year old’s Venn Diagram, I wonder how big the overlap set would be? And if we added a third hypothetical circle, ‘women who take a career break to raise a family’ to the diagram as a subset of ‘women who have children’, how would that affect the overlap? (Note Diagram is for purely hypothetical illustrative purposes and is not based on scale nor statistics).

Answers on a postcard.

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From Banking to Body Combat

This article was first posted on Here Is the City on 9 July 2013: http://hereisthecity.com/2013/07/10/from-banking-to-bodycombat/

I used to work in Banking – at times that was mentally tough. Now I’m exploring something physically tough. At the end of the day it’s all about throwing your weight around and winning the order/deal/fight (delete as applicable)!  Welcome to the jungle!

After two solid days of hardcore Les Mills BodyCombat instructor training, I can assure you that BodyCombat 56 definitely has the capacity to make you cry just a little!
DAY 1 was like a Body Combat marathon interspersed with technique drilling sessions – release 56 becoming the soundtrack to our lives. In emotion terms it went something like this (in no particular order):
(1) Paranoia – That I am the least competent person in the room owing to a total lack of training in either Les Mills courses or martial arts – What am I doing here when I could be at the beach with my family building sandcastles and eating ice cream?
(2) Excitement – Am I really going to be a certified Combat instructor? Whoop whoop!
(3) Self doubt – Not dissimilar to the paranoia and recurring sporadically throughout the day. Am I fit enough? Is my technique ever going to cut it? Why didn’t I opt for Body Attack or Body Pump which are at least in my comfort zone?
(4) Exhilaration – I haven’t had this much fun and felt this alive in so long. Who knew that all it takes is a bit of pain.
(5) Fear – Peaking just before stepping up to teach in front of (read ‘be scrutinised by’) everyone else.
(6) Dead tired – I’m not unaccustomed to a bit of exercise but this is in a whole league of its own. 9am to 6pm with teeny tiny breaks where I didn’t dare eat much knowing that the next cardio session was imminent and any food might make an unwelcome reappearance. At the same time knowing that if I didn’t eat enough I wouldn’t have the fuel to carry on! Oh the dilemma.
By end of the day, everything hurt; highlights being butt (from front/side/roundhouse kicking) and shoulders (from obviously punching). I’d sweated enough to fill a small reservoir and Combat training was seeping from every pore and brain cell. I LOVED IT!
DAY 2 I woke up feeling truly pummeled, creaking like an old lady!
I was nervous about being assessed but frankly the limited mobility in all my joints was more cause for concern. I taped up my dodgy knee more tightly than the day before to stop it from collapsing completely and, joy of joys, I was up first to be assessed! (Positive: no time to ponder and dread or make pointless mental comparisons with other participants. Negative: there’s a reason they send the lowest ranking officer in first
to do a recce.)
Twenty or so Combat tracks later came the cringeworthy task of watching a recording of myself teaching and having all my flaws rammed home. Then we broke for a brief fuel stop plus an opportunity to peel off some sweaty kit and rather pointlessly replace it with another set that would be no doubt saturated within the hour.
To ensure there was no one left who wasn’t crying yet, Steve (our lovely trainer) threw in a Grit Cardio session for good measure (it’s been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of such compassion). My personal high point was the jump pushups.
And to round it all off when my muscles weren’t just crying but howling I had to teach my second assessment track and participate in another round of about two hours of Body Combat. In actual fact I had so much fun I didn’t want it to end. Steve was inspiring, encouraging and a truly awesome teacher – I’m not just saying that because I passed!
Now I just need to persuade our club to get the licence so I can teach it. As endorsement my 3 year old says I look just like Tree Fu Tom and that is praise indeed!

Beauty and the Beast

The five year old stumbled upon the unimportant fact that the meaning of her name is ‘beauty’.
Jumping back half a decade, the name was chosen purely on its phonological appeal rather than the vain hope of spawning the future Miss World.
Her mouth turns up perceptibly at the corners as she coyly declares, ‘I’m not THAT beautiful’ – implying a decidedly immodest certainty of her own aesthetic qualities. To be fair, the five year old, in my not entirely objective opinion is quite a cute kid (but show me a mother who doesn’t think that of her own child) – for starters she has dimples that would give Cheryl Cole’s serious contention.
Nonetheless, how does one go about teaching a five year old that beauty is just a ball and chain cultural concept devised by anti-feminists to control womankind? Incidentally I don’t really believe that but you get my point.
I pause before venturing casually, “Being beautiful isn’t important you know – what’s more important is being a kind person who respects other people and works hard.” Yes, I could tell I wasn’t selling it even to myself.
Without missing a beat, five year old retorts, “Yes it is important. Belle is beautiful and she gets to marry the prince and live in a castle. She wears beautiful dresses and is really happy.” I’m coming round to her thinking.
But I mustn’t let her descend into a vacant, vacuous epitome of vanity, so I persevere, “Yes, BUT Belle worked hard and read lots of books AND she was incredibly kind. In fact, if she hadn’t shown kindness to the Beast, who clearly wasn’t beautiful, then she wouldn’t have got the prince/ castle/ dress package deal at the end.” Ha. I silently punch the air in triumph. Then because I’m on a roll I launch into a lecture on the pitfalls of superficiality.
Five year old’s eyes have glazed over by the time I wrap it up and I wonder whether she’s digesting the moral code.
“I still want to be beautiful like the princesses and not ugly like the ugly sisters,” she quips with a conclusive tone. And of course she’s right – in her world it’s black and white – the beautiful princesses are blessed with beauty in and out while the baddies are equally offensive in character as to the eye. In our disenchanted grown up reality, there are multiple (fifty ha ha) shades of grey. Disney has a lot to answer for.

“Please sir, may I have some… work?”

Oliver Twist I’m not – not yet anyway do I need to grovel for a second serving of gruel. However, grovelling it appears is what I must do.

After nudging five years out of the workplace I am officially a luddite and beyond employable. Emails to ex-employers remain unanswered; enquiries to potential employers disappear into the mire. The world of work suddenly seems severely hostile – as if repaying me for spurning his offers to hold onto me those many moons ago when the needy cries of newborn babies drowned out anything in its vicinity.

Because now he’s moved on, probably more than once, to pastures new. Fresh talent, youth and the hunger that drives career ambition that only comes without the burden of young children – all things I no longer possess. What about my decade plus of experience I counter? Pah, he spits back, all negated by the half decade of brain and soul-destroying nappy changing. And off he sends me to the scrap heap, sentenced to a lifetime of worthlessness.

How to be a Pole Dancer

Article first published on 17/09/12 on http://hereisthecity.com/2012/09/16/how-to-be-a-pole-dancer/

Times are moving swiftly. What was once deemed a socially taboo form of entertainment, indulged by the rich/ famous/ bankers, usually under the cover of darkness, is now mainstream family fun.

The family friendly local leisure centre in the leafy suburban town in which I reside has introduced pole dancing lessons to its weekly timetable. So, in the glare of day light, with sun streaming into the studio through the windows (only partially obscured by the number of curious faces sneaking a peek), the local housewives can get a fix to rival any sexual fantasy in Fifty Shades.

Mr A deems it a sad pastime for either the vain or deluded, harbouring delusions of an inner pole dancer. Just cast a thought to the majority of those exercising their vocal chords on X Factor and you’ll see his point. Having said that, the instructor is a friend of mine and focuses solely on the strengthening aspect of it as a form of exercise – hauling one’s entire body weight round a pole while contorting into various positions, legs akimbo. Forget about the simultaneously trying to look sexy part, I imagine an elephant hanging onto a lamp post might have better luck.

All that I have to go on though is a brief review gleaned from a fellow gym goer who actually partakes in the pole antics. Apparently after the initial self-consciousness wears off (I dare you to deny you weren’t at all embarrassed in your first zumba class!), it’s a superb workout and immensely fun. And then, I also discovered that she is my niece’s class teacher at a local primary school. Oh how the mums must wonder why all the dads are desperate to do their share of that school run!