Habits for Happiness

I have been re-reading Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project’ in a bid to reboot my own happiness level. Much of what she says strikes a poignant chord.

Depending on the individual, the route to DIY contentment will vary wildly and not many of us can attest to having 12 minutes free let alone 12 months to experiment with all the facets Gretchen explores in her book.

My five key personal takeaways to unlocking my gateway to happiness lie roughly in the areas of:

  1. Sleeping and exercising better
  2. Decluttering and organising
  3. Launch a blog and enjoy the fun of failure (you are reading the evidence of this!)
  4. Mindfulness
  5. Practising gratitude

The problem is that every time I have tried to build good habits to tackle and enforce each of these areas, correlating bad habits have an uncanny knack of sneakily sidling their way to the forefront, eventually obscuring all trace of existence of their better halves.

Examining my own habits in light of these areas, I can ashamedly attest to the following:

  1. Sleeping and exercising better

Good habit: Most days of the week I fit in some form of movement in the form of weights, cardio, yoga etc. I have consistently been doing this, with exception of injuries, for longer than I care to remember. Exercising is a huge destresser for me and, unless performed too close to bedtime, helps me sleep better.

Bad habit: Exercise commitment slides insidiously into exercise obsession. There are times in my life when the days it can’t be accommodated leave me snappy and antsy in much the way of a drug addict being deprived of a hit. Sometimes the desperation for a hit means I exercise even if it is late at night when I know it impacts negatively on my sleep quality.

  1. Decluttering and organising:

Good habit: I am an habitual note taker and list maker. Nothing escapes being annotated and checked off. Post-it notes gild every surface. In a bid to tackle decluttering I invested in a pretty notebook and kept all my notes in one place (see my posts on Bullet Journalling here and here). Check. Having heard about Marie Kondo’s Magic of Tidying Book, I also vowed to store my socks rolled up and orient them sideways – I diligently added it to my To Do list then ticked it off!

Bad habit: I am an habitual hoarder. My one notebook of lists reproduced with the voraciousness of rabbits, sprouting notebooks in every room of the house, for every category imaginable. Worse still I am harbouring a treacherous clothes mountain in the corner of our bedroom, threatening to avalanche and suffocate a small child.

  1. Launch a blog and enjoy the fun of failure

Good habit: Since its conception a few years back I have generally been consistent in tending to the frugal needs of this blog. Go me! Even when I fail to get a single read of my posts it is still fun (so I keep telling myself).

Bad habit: There may be a small chance my fear of not consistently posting on this blog are bordering on potentially obsessive, when really, my time has so many more pressing, arguably more important demands on it. For instance, making some effort to bother with applying makeup daily or stop wearing my gym kit all day rather than just the hour I am actually at the gym. Plus, though I say I don’t care that no one reads it, in truth, the lady doth protest too much, meaning the whole exercise leaves me filled with self-doubt and inadequacy.

  1. Mindfulness

Good habit: I am consistently being mindful of healthful, real food-based eating and almost daily, shop, prepare and cook meals for my family.

Bad habit: Justifying excessive sugar consumption (albeit in its natural form) and mindless ‘treat’ eating, under the guise of it being Paleo/ whole food/ real food/ healthy/ whatever. Bottom line is it’s all mindless and unnecessary consumption that is feeding and suffocating deeper seated issues rather than tackling them.

  1. Practising gratitude

Good habit: One of my many notebooks (Point 2 above) was a dedicated ‘Gratitude Journal’ – gold star.

Bad habit: I mislaid said Journal amongst the pile of other journals and notebooks I amassed.

Better habit: I now include a daily gratitude line in my Bullet Journal – no extra notebook required and it is partnered with the habit of Bullet Journalling.

My one saving grace is that Gretchen urges above all else for ultimate happiness, to be true to yourself. It looks like my clothes mountain may be a permanent landmark and I have already invested in the mothership Bullet Journal to keep track of every other list and notebook that I own. Still, a mindfulness of my bad habits is a useful tool in keeping them (largely) in check.

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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.

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.

Twiddling Thumbs

It’s been exactly one week since I remembered what silence sounds like. A week to the day the 2 year old officially started pre-school and the 4 year old was upgraded from pre-school to the fully fledged version. Albeit the silence is just for a precious 3 hours 3 times a week, I now appreciate that it is more than golden – it is priceless! The tapping of the keyboard actually resonates round the room – I never knew that. Thoughts can run without interruption and toilet trips can finally be taken alone.
But at the same time, their voices echo continually in my subconscious and in the stillness of their rooms resound the patter of their little feet. I think of the 4 year old, brave and bubbly (and often defiant). The 2 year old, full of love and laughter (and more often than not, selfish and possessive). And how incomprehensibly and comprehensively I miss them…
Then too soon, my brief respite is over and they are home, shrieking, arguing, wrestling, playing. Silence has taken cover away from the line of fire in a war zone. But I don’t mind too much because I know it will be back soon and there will come a day when it comes back and never leaves, when the children are grown up and gone. And I don’t want that day to ever come.
But for now it begs the question: aside from the groundhog day style drudgery of washing up, laundry, tidying, cooking and gym sessions to ward off mid-life spare tyre-dom, how best to fill that time?

The Intrepid Explorer

Golden Boy has started cruising. If this conjures up images of him cruising with his homies in an approximation of a scene from ‘Pimp My Ride’, I assure you it is nothing remotely like that. Rather, he is making his first tentative steps at navigating his way across any room using the furniture to forge a route and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

I am thrilled at his newfound foray into the realm of independence; not least because of the sigh of relief my back is breathing at not having to heave his almost twelve month’s of body weight around in his every waking hour. This is offset slightly by the extra hours spent hunched over retrieving toys and other paraphernalia from nooks and crannies in the house I was previously unaware existed.

Secretly and shamefully, however, I am somewhat wistful for my baby boy. As he takes each more confident step away from me, I feel increasingly redundant. Soon (well, probably not that soon given he is yet to turn one) I will be a discarded crutch with about as much remaining use as firewood.

There are days where, though I never resent my children, I resent the drudgery that now consumes my life as a result of choosing to have children. That is, until my ingratitude slaps me in the face and thoughts of the friend with two failed rounds of IVF under her belt drown me with guilt.

It strikes me that being a mother is a bit Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde – we can’t stand the relentless requests and being on call 24/7, tethered by the ball and chain of our children. Yet equally unbearable is the thought of becoming surplus to their requirements. It’s like the proverbial rock and hard place and I am officially stuck.

Tiger tiger burning bright… here to give your child a fright

This article was first published on 20 January 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/01/20/tiger-tiger-shining-bright/

Oh how this media circus surrounding Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, or more specifically, her child rearing philosophy, must be helping her Amazon stats!
Being inadvertently the offspring of a ‘Tiger Mother’ (of sorts – she was coincidentally born in the Year of the Tiger but that’s by the by), has instigated innocent inquiries by the truckload at the nursery gates regarding my stance on the issue. With narrow-eyed  suspicion, the underlying question is, ‘Am I a closet control freak with borderline child abuse tendencies? And if so, may I please retract last week’s invite for a playdate’.
My reply would make a politician proud; discretely adopting a different angle to cater to the appropriate audience. Say, in response to mum who still co-sleeps with her as yet un-toilet trained three year old, I laugh off Ms Chua’s philosophy as just an exaggeration of any conceivable reality. But in the spotlight of mum who has slept with a copy of her Gina Ford bible under her pillow since her pregnancy tested positive and is not altogether against the theory of corporal punishment, I am willing to concede Ms Chua has me wondering how best to utilise her technique with my own children.
In the aftermath of the consumerism that epitomises Christmas, my two year old was dutifully making a mountain of Thank You cards. A few cards in and probably already bored at the tedium of drawing a big smiley face under the stick-on googly eyes, she rebelliously scrawled and defaced the next card. Not quite as severe as Ms Chua’s throwing it back in her face and declaring it ‘rubbish’ approach, I did deem it substandard and suitable only for some distant relation, too distant to judge her (me) on my, ahem, her, artistic abilities.
As we resumed the card-making production line, I wondered whether any unintentional criticism is an assault on my daughter’s self-esteem and rather, should I err on the side of caution and deem her every effort worthy of a Turner Prize. Because that is invariably the way of the modern western world: confidence is boosted to the point of delusion. How else does Simon Cowell ensure a steady stream of willing fools convinced of their X factor status?
The dirty truth is that I do want the best for my babies. Who can argue with that? Growing up, my Tigress of a mother ranted relentlessly about the importance of doing myself justice in life. I strived to be the best (refused to partake if I wasn’t haha) and achieved straight As (pre the A* era) throughout my school years .  While I may not have engaged in the fun of my friends smoking, snogging and downing Diamond White behind the bike sheds, I don’t feel remotely deprived.
I don’t condone ruling with a rod of iron and whipping children into high achieving automatons but, being a mother myself now (Tigress status to be confirmed), I do believe in encouraging our future generations to be the best within their ability. There is a risk that in this age of plenty we lose sight of instilling an appreciation for opportunities taken for granted, encouraging a squandering mentality.
Ms Chua may well engender the Marmite love it or hate it response in the manner of a Gina Ford technique for our older offspring but as Gina fans know, there is method in her madness!

Gender confusion

Babybel has started speaking. Well, strictly speaking, not fluent adult-speak per se but rather reiterating any of a dozen words she has mastered in a loud and sometimes nonsensical fashion. Most of her words begin with the letter ‘b’ curiously – bear, ball, bus, bike, balloon, boy – though she has a tendency to drop the b when saying (ba)nana.

She is now en route to deciphering the difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl (initially all children were indiscriminately labelled ‘boy’), though I am yet to be convinced that her correct labelling is not simply a byproduct of inordinately good guesswork mixed with a good observation of hairstyles (ponytails and/or hairclips = girl; inverse = boy).

This morning as we walked less than a foot behind a woman veering on the hirsute side of humanity, Babybel stretched out her arm, finger pointed, and armed with the confidence of unwavering certainty, declared ‘Man!’ Hoping against hope that the (wo)man was either hard of hearing or at least deaf to the English language, I tried to quieten the over-excited Babybel. Instead, she assumed it was me who was hard of hearing and embarked on a repetitious and really quite loud monologue consisting solely of the word ‘man’, in the manner of a dysfunctional record player.

Grimacing as the woman turned round, I realised Babybel might be more perceptive than I gave her credit for.