Here, now, nothing else

Mental health

Well here we are. Hello. All of our human hearts, beating. Except when they stop.

Sometime back in mid-January, I started reading about the coronavirus. Soon, I couldn’t stop reading about what was happening in Wuhan. How terrifying it was. I started to obsessively wash my hands. By the beginning of February, my eldest boy had started picking up Lego with one of the youngest’s baby wipes, saying confidently, ‘Mummy, look! I won’t catch any germs this way.’

I went too far, constantly talking about hand-washing. I made them feel alarmed. The eldest, especially. He’s become a little fixated on death. He’s fascinated about the Titanic, and about Hitler. This is partly because he’s always demanding that I ‘tell him facts about history’ and my knowledge is sketchy even though I aced history at school. It was my favourite subject. Fascinating stories. But real.

Now we are living through history.

Late last year, I started this thing of thanking my former self. Just for small tasks or actions. For example, I’d clean the kitchen a little extra before I went to bed (by that I mean, clean it like a normal person and not a slovenly harlot), and in the morning I would be like ‘Well thank you, Jacqueline of last night, you have made my life so much more pleasant this morning.’ I’d use it for the utter drudgery, like folding laundry, putting it away neatly instead of leaving it in desperate stressy piles. I’d be so grateful to my sage self of yesterday, that thoughtful person who’d crisply folded my kids’ clothes and put them away, ready for the next day of spilling succulent spaghetti sauce and rolling in the ink black mud.

I also used it in parenting, finding that minute moment before I lost my shit and expanding it, or even just acknowledging it was there. Thank you, former self, for not viciously verbally attacking your sweet babies because you are tired, not coping, whatever. Thank you for the silence instead.

Now I wonder, through all of this, what can I thank my former self for? What can I contribute? Like many, I feel helpless. I’m not going out to the frontline every day, every night, and potentially exposing myself to this frightening virus, which is killing people, old and young. I’m not saving lives. I don’t work in a supermarket.

I think about the people who are dying. I read on the news: 839 people have died here, 381 there. And I think about my beautiful beloved uncle, who died on March 6. He didn’t die of Covid-19, but there he was. Laid out in his coffin. Such a perfect expression on his face, exactly the same one as he had on his face when he was alive. He was smiling, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. He radiated love, as he did when he was alive.

The tens of thousands of people who have died. The twenties of thousands more who loved them desperately. The people who died alone. The people who are dying alone.

The things we can do are so very tiny, but so very large. We can just keep hunkering down, keeping our families safe as best we can. We can help people who need tiny-big things – just a bit of shopping, or conversation. I just met Phyllis the other day. She’s in her 90s. She’s my neighbour. I didn’t know that until recently, when I saw her at the window nine doors down as I walked by. She wanted to talk about the neighbour’s cat who kept coming around to be double-fed. We talked about that, and I said I’d see her again on my next loop around the square.

I want to help. I want to thank my former self for not burying her head in the sand in this crisis.

We feel helpless, but we can help. We have to.

Big, shiny success

Creativity, Motherhood

What is success in life? What is your definition of success? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the weekend. Is success outside of you?

Happiness 101 dictates that it is nowhere to be found outside of you, only bloody inside of you. What a drag! Is it true? Now I’m not going to start waxing on about how you can be perfectly content without material things or concrete achievements because I’m not a barefoot monk sitting under a benevolent tree weeping fragrant blossoms. But I have started to question what success is.

This is because I consider myself a failure at certain things. Either I haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t tried at all, or I have given up too easily. If I were happy with that state of affairs then that would be a success, I guess. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I am happy with my state of affairs. And a lot of the time the answer is: yes. I feel incredibly lucky to be the mother of three sons and the stepmother of a beautiful daughter. I feel lucky to be married to a man I love, even though we are very different, it still feels right (when we are not fighting, of course.) If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to ‘be’ or ‘do’ (ugh, that question), I would have said ‘mother’.

Being a mother featured big on my to-do list, as I’ve mentioned here several billion times before. So am I a success? Do I feel like a success?

No *uttered in pathetic, small voice*. Because we are programmed to always want more. We always want more, and we always want to be more. It’s a cursed thing, it’s a great thing, it’s a human thing. We will always want more or feel like we should be more, or that we are missing out on something, or that we are missing out on being something.

How many of us think, often, even once in a while, ‘Jeez, my life is exactly the way I always dreamed it would be.’ Actually, writing that sentence, I can say that I have thought that thought, briefly, recently. It was early in the morning. The coffee was glugging and chuffing its way out of the machine. The boys were playing around me; the littlest one ran up and hugged my leg. There was crappy white toast in the toaster (my goddam favourite) and salted butter ready to be slathered all over it (I’m not allowed it because of gallstones, therefore I can’t stop eating it.) An old Beatles album, Rubber Soul, played in the background. I’d like to add that sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window, but it was pissing down. No matter. I still thought: living the dream. Living the goddam dream.

And that is success.

PS I have a deadline coming up which I’ve been avoiding and I would rather do anything else – pull off my toenails, iron my vulva (to steal a phrase from a funny old friend), pluck out my my eyelashes one by one and glue them back on again with yesterday’s porridge – than go near my book draft. See above. What is success? I’ll report back from the front soon.

How to parent yourself

Motherhood

Ambitious blog title, eh? I haven’t got a bloody clue how to do that, but I am interested in finding out. I think there are adults who have managed to reach maturity fairly unscathed and there are adults who simply have not reached maturity yet, even at 35, even at 60.

Even the unscathed grown-ups are still hauling around that inescapable inner child, and though they might be treating them fairly well, now and then they might get a shock when that wayward young one stamps their foot to try to get things to go their own way.

As well as mothering my children, I often notice the need to parent myself, and frankly it is exhausting and I fail at it quite a lot of the time. I get my kids up, dress them, feed them, take them to activities I think they would enjoy (like today, for example. My toddler son had a marvellous time hiding in the shoe cubby-hole while the music teacher sang about monkeys jumping in the bed and the other tots clapped their chubby hands in delight), I read to them. I remember that I actually have to, like, hang out with them also, sans distractions, so I crouch down and try to just think: isn’t this great? Me and my three boys just hanging out, spending quality time together. I try not to think about: the laundry, the dishes, what’s for dinner, have they had enough fresh air today, where have all the socks gone, why is there only one of every shoe readily available just as we are about to leave the house, why can’t I keep my voice light, calm and gentle, should we be doing crafts, are they going to be fucked up, is this enjoyable, really? Is parenthood enjoyable, really? I want to read my book, I wonder if anyone has sent me an urgent What’s app message, is it just me or is parenting three young children shockingly hard, what if this were the 70s, does that mean I wouldn’t have to worry so much about meeting their every need, how is their emotional development coming along, oh crap am I their blueprint for relationships, how long before I can put the TV on, if they play in the street will they get run over, what is the point of cooking dinner if no-one ever eats it, why do I feel so old all of a sudden, do I have early onset Alzheimer’s, how long can I get away with not washing their hair, do they have cavities yet, is hanging out in the living room with them like that movie Room where the mum and kid are being held captive or is it ok to hang out in the living room, should we go back outside again…

These thoughts come in between moments when I snap to and think – Jesus, they are growing so fast, can you JUST. ENJOY. BEING. WITH. THEM. I’m parenting the only way I know how – it’s fuelled by love and incompetence – but the deeper I wade in to their childhoods the more aware I become of the need to parent myself.

Myself has gone absolutely wild with the lack of mothering. No boundaries when it comes to sleeping or eating. Emotions allowed to run unchecked. I haven’t taken a firm hand with myself to even cover the basics. I think I can coast like this for a while but it’s not fun.

If you’ve reached adulthood without any inner anchor of self you have to try to find it. I think you do that by parenting yourself. Trying to understand yourself. Giving yourself what you need, and not simply what you want in that moment. Setting boundaries. Respecting your dreams. Telling yourself No when necessary and equally Yes when it’s called for.

Ultimately, being there for yourself. You have to be, because no-one else really will. You are the mother of you.

Hitman

Motherhood

My youngest son favours hitting or biting as a way to get things done. Won’t let me turn on the oven on its hottest setting and put my play pasta in? Take that *brutal slap across the face. You want to strap me into this restrictive straitjacket of a car seat? Not on your nelly – how about this *sinks teeth into my wrist.

What? What’s that you say? I am not allowed to precariously carry these piled up glasses I’ve hunted from the cupboard by pulling my highchair over so I can teeter on the edge to get them? I think you should revise your opinion *throws all the glasses on floor and punches my leg.

He is often violent with his brothers, pulling their hair or biting them when they snatch a toy or berate him for destroying their intricate lego games; he has experimented with hitting smaller babies and – yes, well he just keeps hitting me. I get a good whack or scratch in the face for just about everything I do, bar breastfeeding, although once he also got pissed off with my boob and hit that too.

He’s an angry young man, and it appears to be his default mood. Of course, I blame myself. I was monumentally cranky in the third trimester carrying him and it’s hard not to wonder if all the Tupac I kept listening to had some kind of effect on him. Tupac blasted out during labour and even up to the point of birth; I have no idea why, all I knew was that I had to listen to something that was the opposite of gentle to distract myself from the pain I felt.

Now he is like a small and angry rapper from the ghetto himself and I know I have to love it out of him. It is going to have to be severely loved out of him, just oodles of extra stretchy infinite love. Just like I have to love all the irritating unhelpful (straight up understatement) qualities out of myself, I am acutely aware that I have to love this tendency out of him.

I’ve been pretty angry with him a few times, usually based on the level of pain or surprise experienced in relation to the latest wallop, and obviously unleashing anything on the rage spectrum works the opposite way. More anger from me, tenfold back from him. Getting all shouty is clearly not going to bring out the sweeter qualities in my little ball of frustration. So it’s all about love. And I love him so much but gentle is not my default mode in any of these situations.

So I have work to do. Countless times a day I have to catch myself, ramp up the gentle, scoop out the love, set my inner Tupac firmly aside and channel – I don’t know – Celine Dion instead (alternative suggestions welcome).

Undone

Mental health, Motherhood

My middle son has this tiny pair of walking boots, impossibly cute, suitably hardy and adorned with preternaturally long laces that are always coming undone.

Putting shoes on my three small boys is – sheesh – I dread it. If my husband is around I will diligently go find the socks in our massive odd sock basket (my new way to store the endless mountain of insolently unpaired socks) but I will attempt to avoid the actual putting on of the shoes, which seems to go on forever, can involve getting kicked in the face or, worse, one of the boys lying luxuriously on the ground, foot aloft like a very short emperor, waiting to be shod.

Lately, my son’s walking boots have had me beaten down because no matter what way the laces were tied or how carefully maneuvered, within minutes they were undone again, ready to trip him up, say, at the top of the stairs, or as he was crossing the road (my brain likes to keep me on my toes with all the worst case scenarios). The top of one lace was frayed out like a dried old bunch of weeds, which, upon regular viewing, sparked a sense of hopelessness inside of me. It would never fit back in to the tiny top eyelet on his shoe, yet I knew that maybe if it did – just maybe – the laces might have a better shot at staying tied.

So I laced and laced again, every day, ten or twenty times a day, observing the frayed head, sighing when I looked at the eyelet, thinking about where to get a new pair of such laces and adding that to my list of Important Things That Need Done.

Shoes. Socks. It’s the tiny things that will derail you when you are feeling overwhelmed, as I am at the moment with the monumental task of motherhood. Straightforward things can seem insurmountable.

Then, the other day, after we’d all hurled ourselves in the door from school, I grabbed the boot from where it had been thrown in our hallway. I sat down on the bottom stair, and picked up the dried weed lace, rolling the top of it slowly between my thumb and forefinger, then threading it easily into the pinpoint eyelet. It all took less than a minute.

Briefly, I marvelled at how simple it had all been. I knew also, in that moment, how really simple everything else is too. How things can change on a dime. How all it takes is a tiny action, a small shift in perspective, and life will become just that little bit easier.

Musical chairs

Meditation, Mental health

My friend’s been playing little ten-minute meditations to her kids on the school run. I probably should be doing it myself, but I like to drown out the dog-eat-dog world that exists in the three car seats to the rear with the volume cranked up on the dulcet, comforting voice of Marty Whelan on Lyric FM.

‘Is meditation like – a chair for the brain?’ asked her four-year-old, who has clearly nailed it when it comes to all things zen, as all small children have really. It is a perfect way to describe what that kind of mental restfulness can feel like. You get a break from yourself, from your worries, from the relationship you have with the most important person in your life: you.

That relationship is most important because if you aren’t being good to yourself, you probably aren’t being so great with others either. And I don’t mean ‘good to yourself’ in any kind of cream-cake eating hot purchase kind of way; I mean respecting yourself, giving yourself what you need emotionally so you can give that to others in your life who need it too (say, for example, three small children).

I’m off the chair at the moment. My brain isn’t sitting anywhere, it is all over the place. I’ve let the wild horse out and it’s running absolutely amok, totally out of control. I haven’t even started to look for the lasso to rein it in – I’m too far gone for that. This is what depression feels like. It feels almost exactly the same every time I get it. I’ve stopped meditating because meditating can – sometimes – make you feel worse.

Why? Because it releases stress. It gets rid of pain, by stirring it up. The idea is to let it go. That’s the hard part. Meditation can be like bleach for a blackened soul, and actually, I’m learning, it must be approached with caution. I will go back to it but at the moment I’m stepping back, once again hunkering down, once again waiting for the terrible storm to pass.

Hug

Motherhood

When your chest

is touching mine

the beat of your wee heart

fluttering and thumping

so close

and you are sad

and you have been screaming

and it’s been oh, such a long day

(it’s only 9am)

and I am sad

and I have been screaming

time calls a truce.

An infusion of love happens

electric,

unbreakable.

We pull apart –

always you first;

there’s a lot of stuff to do

when you are three.

I linger,

your heartbeat still resonates

in my chest,

and I think –

I needed that

quick-wire kick

of love

more than you.

Am I good enough?

Creativity

First off, the answer is yes.

Yeh, you are. You are good enough for that which you are brave enough to try. If the idea is in your head, if the urge to do it, attempt it, become it, is there – then you are good enough.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that if I am not immediately able to do something, then I must be shit at it, ergo, I must give up. If, as a child, adults reeled off that old mantra to me “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” I just wanted to tell them to fuck off, even when I was about four.

I’ve half-heartedly said the same words to one of my sons; I’ve noticed he has the same problem as me, stopping his play or his drawing if things get too tricky. It feels false, and as an invigorating phrase, it simply doesn’t work. As to what does – well, I’ll tell you when he’s a grown up. I’m well aware much of it is about setting an example in my own life, that much (if not all) of what children learn is simply modelled to them by their parents or caregivers.

Well, now I’m writing a book, and I’m just at the part where I want to give up because it’s too difficult. I offered a sliver of it up for criticism at my poetry class last night and – wow! I’m kind of glad I did because it taught me, in one brutal, quick, excruciating instant, how far I have to go. In writing (that’s a given, it’s a first draft) but more importantly, in how I accept criticism.

I am not good at accepting criticism. It was pretty comical last night when I was trying to accept all my criticism. First, I was quite perky and able to catch people’s eyes. Then, I grabbed my pen and dutifully started to scrawl down some snatched phrases (my brain was already packing up to go, literally shouting at my body: come on! Let’s get the hell out of here – like, yesterday!). I looked at the verse I submitted later; there were words littered all over it like ‘Would you really add a swirl of pink to red?’ or ‘There’s problems with ‘we’ who are ‘we’ or ‘Is there supposed to be no voice in this piece?’ (That was my personal favourite. No, there is not supposed to be no voice in this piece. Why would I write a character with no voice?). The third phase was reassuringly predictable, if you knew me: I burst out into hysterical tears.

But then – evidence of my evolution as a human being – instead of sprinting out of the room, I stayed there, stifling sobs, sniveling, wiping snot away with my arm, making everybody feel very uncomfortable indeed. I told them all to carry on with another poem, someone else’s obviously, then sat there like a broken glass of water, shards strewn everywhere.

Now, after wrestling with a particularly vile inner critic for so many years, why on earth would I have put myself into this situation? I’m not sure, nope, no idea.

Criticism is great, constructive criticism is a necessity, I know that. This next day, I have emerged unscathed. I think I have. I feel really wobbly. But I still think that what I am creating is good. It is good enough, because the idea is there, I have the urge to do it, I am attempting it. I am becoming a person who follows their creative urge, right to the very end. I’m following its lead into the dark, allowing myself to unfurl the fear of juxtaposing the wild, untamed imagination with reality and form.

On paper. Yes, in a book.

Fog

Mental health, Motherhood

I am wading through fog at the moment, my brain feels like mashed potato, and with too much butter in it, to boot.

I have all these theories as to why I feel like I am lost in the mists right now, all terrifying and unhelpful like ‘early onset Alzheimer’s’ or ‘mercury poisoning’. Can such cloudiness be put down to my three small children and a six-year long accumulation of interrupted nights? Well, I don’t know but I’m sure if I went to the doctor with my tale of brain fog she would probably kindly point that out, and reassure me that everything was ok. I’ve just googled ‘what to pack for a weekend away’ which has really hit home to me what a mental state I’m in. I can’t think where to start with that, honestly. Pants, I suppose.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, I need to fix it. How? I don’t know. Read more books? I’ve already lined up a book called ‘Brain Longevity’ which is full of sensible advice about how to get blood rushing to the brain. Part of me feels like surrendering to the fog, actually. Just stop worrying about forgetting appointments and feeling confused about what day it is. Just go with the flow, however bewildering the current is.

I won’t do that though. I’ll try to follow the dim light I’m sure I will stumble across in a day or two, in a week or two. The brain is a uniquely beautiful, living and sprouting thing, and perhaps mine is, oh I don’t know, recalibrating, or regenerating itself. Maybe it needs to slumber for a bit for new shoots to spring out. I think a lot about how many of my problems would be solved by the purchase of a wall-planner, a giant thing taking up one side of the kitchen. I’d sit there every morning, a master in command, with a big, black marker, arrows everywhere, my life, everyone else’s, planned out. Perhaps if I tethered my thoughts, my brain, my life in this way, things would be simpler.*

*Note to self: A wall-planner is not a radical suggestion. It’s fairly normal if you have a family.

Poetry in motion

Creativity

Poems are everywhere, they are all around you, said the poet Enda Wyley to me and a bunch of other word fiends the other day. Instantly I saw words swimming around me in the air, ready to be plucked down and arranged prettily on the page.

Prettily, and with meaning, I hope. Now, in mid-life, I’ve waded into poetry fearlessly, having previously only paddled in it like a wary toddler. Frankly, I was scared of it. I’ve always had some favourites, poems that were ‘easy’ to understand, by writers like Mary Oliver or E.E. Cummings, but I steered clear of many others; I don’t know – because I was scared, I guess. Not my idea of fun to discover, stumbling around words strung artfully on a page, that I might be, as I suspected all along, a bit stupid.

Oh but what a shame! No human is stupid! We all feel, and that is all we need to ‘get’ poetry. Last week, I also saw a young girl, maybe 16 or so, reading out a poem she’d written, and I was less enthralled by the words than by the way she was speaking them – mainly with passion and conviction that what she had to say mattered. Of course it did – it mattered to her.

I’ve started reading poems to my kids, and if you find the right one for them, you can see a light switching on inside them, which is joyous. Nonsense things (like Shel Silverstein’s Hat: Teddy said it was a hat/So I put it on./Now Dad is saying,/”Where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?”) delight them but it’s the rhythm that gets them, it is innate in little ones to respond to rhythm. These are probably all really obvious things to state – but they weren’t obvious to me!

So poems are all around you, in motion, words dancing and fizzing – queuing up and jostling each other to try to get on to a page near you. If you have the urge to write one, then do. I’m going to try to capture more myself.