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.

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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I had a dream… I was tattooed to the hilt

This article was first published on 6 April 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/04/06/my-new-tattoos/

More specifically, I was sporting the ‘sleeve’ tattoo equivalent on both my legs (technically could they be referred to as ‘trouser leg’ tattoos?).

There is no doubt that this dream is entirely induced by the continual and compulsive viewing of ‘Prison Break’ that I have recently undertaken. For those unfamiliar, it is a drama series featuring the dreamy Wentworth Miller (Mensa-level intelligence coupled with Adonis looks – what’s not to like?) and charts his attempts at, as the title suggests, breaking out of prison. His secret weapon is the prison building blueprint he has tattooed across his entire upper body, like a long sleeved T-shirt.

I have no idea what guise the tattoos covering my legs came in as the shock of indelibly branding myself in such an un-middle class way woke me up instantly in a cold sweat.

I have nothing against tattoos per se; nor against the people sporting them. In the manner of sartorial freedom of choice it is no skin off my nose whether my neighbour has a daily dress code of leopard print or twinset and pearls. My aversion to tattoos is on a more personal level – I have never and would never consider one for myself. The permanence is too unsettling. How can one guarantee that the Chinese/ Sanskrit/ Arabic characters interspersed with some tribal art, that was deemed so universally cool in our university backpacking days, might not date in the manner of ’80s shoulder pads?

Some women are addicted to body art the way most of their peers can’t resist the latest ‘it’ bag. For most though, one tattoo usually suffices to sate the rebellious streak. It will serve as a reminder of that point in their life like a scar, whether a moment of drunken impulse or a sentimental dedication to some long lost love, whose name is now probably anathema.

At the height of the tattooing popularity sweeping through my contemporaries, most victims fell into one of two camps: the emblem (rose, dolphin, lizard, dragon, flower etc etc) on the lower back, versus the Chinese characters, most memorably ‘girl power’ (the Spice Girls have a lot to answer for) on the upper arm. Even Samantha Cameron it appears wasn’t immune and bears her dolphin as a relic of her youth, albeit tactfully discrete below her ankle.

As for me, a henna version was more than adequate to quench my tats thirst. Even then I couldn’t quite decide whether it looked boho chic or simply chav-tastic and was more than happy for it to fade to oblivion. Perhaps I am more prone to ambivalence than most and indeed there could be a whole host of grannies out there still enamoured by their body art, no matter how distorted by gravity’s pull on sagging skin. I wholeheartedly salute them.

As for everyone else, unless you have a supremely strong reason for it (for instance, as a means for breaking out of prison), the temporary tattoo might prove a filling taster.

Back with a Bang (and Baby Number Two)

After an extended hiatus of mammoth proportion I am ready to write again.
It’s been almost a year in exile. They say time flies when you’re having fun – I say it depends on your idea of fun.
Baby-Bel (I hereby re-christen her Tinkerbell) is no longer a baby by any stretched imagination. The elevated ranking from baby to big sis is a quantum leap in the life-lesson of growing up. She is no longer the fulcrum around which this household pivots; she is now the proud owner of one baby brother – no previous owner, a few scrapes on the bumper, no MOT.
Mr A refers to him as Golden Boy (GB) – a reference to the hypothetical beacon of light that shines out from his behind. Obviously there is no truth in the allegations of GB being a mummy’s boy; furthermore, the only visible output from GB’s derriere is neither light nor shiny.
The last 12mths have seen a settling in to suburban living; gaining (and alas not quite losing) 2 stone in weight (and bringing home another baby as a byproduct); starting Tinkerbell on her long and fruitful educational road to riches; buying and losing a house (damn those fickle vendors). It’s been a rocky road but the pot holes are slowly being filled (still a few down my road, dear Council).
To 2011, the year of the rabbit. To resolutions, revelations, and relations.

The ‘Burbs

[This article was first published on 21st January 2010, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/sound_off/1162.cntns].

In a disillusioned phase of thinking my writing might, could or would be published one day, I rather vainly penned my brief memoirs of that lifetime ago I spent cavorting in the City. Worry you not, that pipedream was more rapidly and potently flushed away than by an almighty dose of heavy duty Domestos. The shelving of the book that will never be more than pixels rather than tangible paper pages is not the subject of today’s navel gazing. It is the Epilogue I was pondering this morning in a moment of suburban silence, as I assessed my current surroundings and compared them to the denouement I had envisaged. The Epilogue is interestingly the only fictional chapter of the dust-gathering book; in a gaudy attempt at a Happy Ever After ending, formulaic of fairytales and Disney films.

But the sun didn’t quite shine on the picket fence on the day we moved out of our London abode and into our suburban sanctuary. In actual fact, it coincided with the start of the unimaginatively monikered ‘Big Freeze’. Furthermore, the rental property had been without heating for the past month and the closest thing to a picket fence was a rusty gate on a limp hinge. Home sweet home.

Though I might now (just) be able to say that things have thankfully gone uphill since square one, it is more a consequence of things careering on a freefall trajectory downhill for a good month before embarking on a slow and Herculean struggle back up the summit. The first month was a haze of boxes and bubble wrap. Then suddenly Mr A went back to work and Baby Bel and I were all alone.

What was once viewed as the Rolls Royce of nimble and compact baby buggies in the context of urban living became utterly devoid of use in the inches of snow. We were officially housebound – on alien territory, friendless and trapped; imprisoned in a house that didn’t feel like home. Not to mention the lying awake in the night listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the house creaking and foxes screaming – not dissimilar to that of a woman being strangled (I imagine), which some may suggest holds some deeper Freudian interpretation. 

Aside from the revelation that our undertaking to up sticks to the suburbs is significantly more common than I ever thought possible (the streets are literally paved with baby buggies and there are small people aka children everywhere – it’s like living in Lilliput); plus that it is not a myth about service being substandard outside cities (don’t get me started on this); and also that Mr A despises his daily armpit to armpit commute and Baby Bel sees less of him than she ever has, things are just hunky dory.  In all seriousness, I am yet to regret this move despite how it may sound. Wearing my long term investment hat, this is just a short term blip. Somewhere on the horizon lies our picket fenced home, a good local school and a family friendly environment to raise little ones – fairytale ending and Disney theme tune optional.

So begins my journey from banking, baby and beyond, to the ‘burbs and baby number two. And judging from the perfect domesticity of yummy mummies at every turn, sipping their skinny lattes in their fuzz-free cashmere, so also should begin my quest for Stepford wife status.

The other R word

[This article was first published on 1st May 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/the_soul_clinic/at_work/941.cntns.]

First Redundancy and now Rejection – numbering in excess of the fingers I can count. On both hands.

I am learning (the hard way) that getting writing published is more onerous than pinning down a job in banking – and in this era of financial Armageddon, that really holds some considerable weight.

Once upon a time, in a moment of whimsical aberration, a bright(ish), young twentysomething fancifully decided it would be jolly fun to join the banking clique. She’d been a long time hearing of its bountiful bonuses hanging from every gilded tree, like low hanging fruit ripe for the picking by any ambitious, industrious go-getter. So she decided to see for herself and indeed endeavour to ‘go get’ some of the tempting fruit from the ‘Pick Your Own’ Garden of Financial Eden. In a surprisingly short space of time – mere months and half a dozen interviews of soul-bartering haggling later, she sold her soul for membership of the Square Mile sect.

Misguidedly she assumed that having attained membership, the subsequent process of picking and eating would be as taxing as a stroll through Cloud Nine. As it turned out, the Garden was prone to long bouts of famine, tempered only with fleetingly brief periods of feasting. And even the short-lived feasting would be a time of upheaval; hungry hoards battling for morsels of the transient banquet. Membership eventually expired with little notice; her now worthless soul flung back at her from the powers that be – having sucked it of its life blood.

So once more, the For Sale sign is being pinned to my soul. The resell value, as with a second hand car, well below the original untarnished version. This time, I am attempting to peddle my unworthy wares to the publishing posse, who so far seem marginally more discerning than their banking brothers, spurning my every awkward advance. As I battle on through my ‘death by a thousand paper (rejection letter) cuts’, it dawns on me that if banking has taught me one thing then it is the virtue of thick skin.