“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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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.

The Career Carousel

This article was first published on 13 March 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/03/13/the-career-carousel/.

I am considering a change in career. Given I am currently in extended limbo since the abrupt end of my most recent career over three years ago,  this would seem long overdue.

The 10 month old is now old enough to consider the possibility of farming out some of his pastoral care without inviting negative comments regarding my maternal negligence. I am free to find my life’s calling again; though the beckoning bray of The City’s charms are somewhat less musical now than they once sounded to my singleton status twenty odd year old ears.

Therein lies the difference. The three year fallow period aside, I remain the same individual who managed to wrestle her way through half a dozen interviews and claim my place as a bona fide broker. Minor mental deterioration owing to sleep deprivation and nursery rhyme overdose is a moot point. But I am no longer single – my ball and chain baggage is a family. And I am no longer in my twenties – raucous socialising at the expense of expense accounts no longer floats my boat.

So where does that leave an ex-banking mother of two? The principle requirement is for flexibility around nursery/school drop-offs, pickups,  holidays, sick days, dentist/ doctor visits… I am beginning to understand why Lord Sugar claims he would ‘think twice before employing a woman’. So far, the only options on this particular career carousel are teaching (I shudder at the thought of dealing simultaneously with so many children) or setting up some form of self employment where my employer (me) won’t be tempted to fire me for moonlighting as a mother.

The  last time I reached this junction in the road of considering my career options, I gave up and postponed the difficult decision by plumping for the easy option of having another baby. Unless I harbour a hidden desire to form our own family five a side team, I suggest I shift up a gear and get my backside on this carousel pronto.

Totally taboo – my CVS and me

This post was written over a year ago but i haven’t been brave enough to air it for fear of judgement or recrimination. For all those other mothers to be who are having or have had a CVS and all the associated mental baggage, you’re not alone…

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There are some phone calls one hopes never to be on the receiving end of. The one from the hospital labour ward, calling a mere two days after blood tests were taken, with the opening gambit, ‘Is this a good time to talk’ would be one of these. The results were meant to come after a minimum of two weeks and the parting words at the time were, ‘No news is good news’.

So I ask, ‘Then surely this must be very bad news?’

Time stands still, stranded on the pavement equidistant from home and the music makers playgroup we were en route to. And instead of a morning of making music, I find myself dragging an uncertain Babybel back to the hospital where she first graced the earth. Mr A is there to hold my hand and support my crumbling world – but there are some things even he cannot save.

I would not be able to cope with a down’s syndrome child. There – I have voiced the unspeakable. I am selfish and mentally weak. The precipice of sanity has been teetered too close to already. Babybel senses the seriousness of the situation – her solemn and beautiful face looking at me intently. How lucky I am to have such a perfect child. How could I burden her with a lifetime of a dependent sibling? Because after Mr A and I are gone, it is inevitably she who will be the sole provider.

The consultant is so kindly that I sense this is the beginning of the torrent of sympathy reserved for those bereft. And that feeling of grief is creeping up surreptitiously around us like garden weeds. Tomorrow we will have a CVS. Followed by the longest two weeks of our lives waiting for the results.

If we lose this baby, I know with a heavy certainty that I will not have another. Because I will not want another. Nor shall I deserve another.