A very dear friend, whom I consider to be one of the wisest and kindest in the world, said these words yesterday and I could not agree more with her. The other amazing thing is that she said this in front of a group of …
I’ve been on a journey to discover how to be happier for some years now. Initially it was pretty vague, but as the stressful events in my life ramped up, it took on a great deal more focus. Funny how that happens.
Happiness research has similarly taken off in the past decade or two, and I won’t attempt to be an expert on this. You can go wild reading the excellent work of other people who are experts in happiness. Some of my favourites are Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Dan Buettner who researches the Blue Zones. There are loads of others – I hope you read them all!
What I am an expert on is how I gradually learned how to happy. Yes, not how to be happy, but how to actively create happiness in my life. Happiness has not been a state that descended upon me from the Gods because of a lucky day or positive external events. It’s been a constant striving, continual learning, repeatedly picking myself up off the floor and putting one foot in front of the other type of journey. A bit like life! So that’s why I think of happy as a verb. To me, happy is a doing thing.
Also, for me, happy went in stages. I couldn’t incorporate the other happy things before the first few happy things. There are loads of ways to boost your mood but until you go back to the very basic, dirty, grubby, boring bits, the very foundation of how you think about yourself, I believe the other happy things will just float off like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.
So here was my very first Happy step: Being Kind (Or Gentle) To Myself.
I have written before about Impostor Syndrome. When I realised I had Impostor Syndrome, when it was verbalised for me, it was a revelation. That was many years ago. I worked with my Lovely Psychologist on many things not the least being Impostor Syndrome and the Voice In My Head. Do you know that voice? “You’re not good enough” “you don’t belong here” “You’re stupid” “You don’t know anything” “one day they will find out”.
One early morning, as I walked to the bus stop, thoughts swirling round my head in the usual ruminating pattern, I suddenly stopped and had an epiphany. I was creating my own prison. Nobody was keeping me in this unhappy, miserable state except for me! I felt like slapping myself. Except, I didn’t. I started treating myself as I would a very dear friend. Sometimes you want to slap that friend for the things they do. We’re so close to them that we can see everything, the good and the bad. But we don’t slap them, not physically at least. We might gently say to them that they’re being completely silly and suggest another way forward. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We sit quietly and listen. We’re gentle. We’re supportive. We hold their hand and say, I’m here with you.
The thing is, I wasn’t being there for myself.
Gradually, as I became kinder to myself, the Voice In My Head went away. First it was quieter. Then it disappeared. It pops up from time to time. I’m learning to notice it rather than give in to it. I notice how my heart starts to race (not in a good way) when the Voice talks to me. After the episode when the Voice appeared, I reflect on what happened. Why did it appear? what was going on? How can I do better next time? And most importantly, I don’t berate myself about how I behaved when the Voice took over. I was nervous. I said the wrong thing. I reacted. etc. No big deal! I noticed the Voice and gradually I’ll be able to manage it even if I’m in an important meeting or having a crucial interpersonal event.
I now tell all my patients that they have to be kind to themselves. Start with kindness. If you can’t be kind, at least be neutral. Everyone can at least hold their tongue, to themselves. Notice the things you did well. Be honest when you stuffed up – everyone does. Then move on. No big deal. You can try again. Kristin Neff is a self-compassion expert – I recommend you read what she’s written too.
So there you go. That was my first happy step. There will be more to come! I’d love to learn about your happy steps. Happiness is a personal journey, and what works for me may not be as important for you. Please comment below! x
Recently I took some time off during the school holidays. We woke up late. We went cycling and rollerblading a lot. We had leisurely lunches and long walks. It was beautiful weather and the days seemed to stretch on forever, filled with wonderful things like …
You got on the bus and stood the entire way home because there was no room for you to sit down – the strollers took up the entire priority seating section. Your children were restless. I don’t blame them. The bus was crowded and the trip long and boring. And they were only about three years old.
You brought out snacks. Cheerios, in a container, that you (or someone else) had packed earlier that morning, or the night before.
You shushed them constantly so that they wouldn’t bother the people commuting home. Truth is that a third of them would have been thankful that it wasn’t them with their children on the bus, and a third of them would have been thankful that their time was over. Perhaps for the rest of the bus, it might have been a mixture of indifference, a renewed desire to stay childless, or a longing to hold a baby one day. Who knows. But you shushed them because you didn’t want them disturbing the peace of the bus. The peace of all those people travelling home without two small children to look after.
When one of your kids got a bit more boisterous, your voice took the edge that mine does constantly. “Stop that”, you said, in a low, terse tone, but it was only for a moment. (My voice usually carries on in that tone for quite a while longer). Then you quickly pointed out the train, other buses, anything to distract them, out the window. You spoke rapidly, and I knew it wasn’t easy to do this at the end of a work day – when your brain is full, your body tired, and you just want to be quiet and still. Like the rest of us. But you had two young children to entertain. On a long trip home. In a crowded, peak hour bus. So you found words, lots of words, in a persistent effort to engage their attention and stop them climbing all over the seats. You let one of them play with your lanyard. Over and over again he pulled on it, laughed, and let go. You held on patiently.
After a while, you gave one of them a device, (you said “turn it down” when it got too loud) and the other one seemed happy to look out the window with you. You leaned over, gave his sweet head a big kiss, and rubbed his little arm. And the two of you looked out the window together. You, standing up, next to the strollers, still standing at the end of the 45 + minute ride home. Your face next to your son’s face, looking at the buildings going past.
And I wondered at that moment what you were thinking. Were you, like me, grappling with that daily riddle, “Am I doing the right thing?” I wondered if you made this trip every day, with the Cheerios, the frantic pointing out of the train going over the bridge, the shushing, the lanyard game? Or was this a one-off, a transient change in schedule? I wondered if you were going home to a dinner that someone else had cooked, and an extra pair of hands to take over and feed and bath small children, read them stories, pass you a glass of wine, or if you were going home to an empty house and solo parenting.
I knew that being a working mother can be a choice, but can also be out of necessity, and is often a bit of both. For me, it’s a necessity though it sometimes seems like I have a choice. I wondered if you felt the same way too – if you questioned why, as you stood there going home on the bus, or if why was never an issue for various reasons. And I also questioned why we still question, in 2017, the fact that some women work after having children.
But I knew, from that trip home, that you were a great mum. You met your children’s needs on that challenging trip home, navigating the journey with aplomb, never losing your cool. You were ready, with the Cheerios, the distractions. You handled it like a boss.
So here are my wishes for you, dear working mum on the bus. And my wishes for all parents.
I wish you loving people to give you a helping hand, or sometimes a shoulder to cry on. I wish you people (partners, parents, nannies, babysitters, neighbours, friends, colleagues…) who offer practical help, humour when there is nothing else, a chance to vent when you need to, a shared experience, understanding, and encouragement. I hope these people are in your house, or nearby, but if they are not, I hope they tag you in funny memes about parenthood so you can have a laugh at the end of the day when you sink into your bed after the kids are finally asleep.
I wish you happiness at work. There is nothing worse than facing the evening after a bad day at work, and nothing better than kissing your children after a great day. May you have mostly great days.
I wish you minimal life admin. You know what I mean. I hoped that that night you weren’t up trying to figure out when to take your son for his four year old immunisations, or hunting for his latest Asthma Action Plan. I wish you the joy of online payments and forms, of automatic renewals and direct debits, and a life without paper as much as possible. When your children are in school, I wish for your school to be completely paperless, so that you don’t find out in Week 8 of Term 3 that you were supposed to bake a traditional family recipe and bring it to school for a talk, and you didn’t know because the letter never made it home.
I wish you the ability to know what you need to look after yourself. This is not an annual massage or a manicure. What you need is often deeply personal. But you also need sleep, healthy food, exercise, rest, laughter, breaks, support. I wish you the knowledge, self awareness and perseverance to tick as many of these boxes as you can.
I wish you lots more tender moments with your children. I hoped that that night would include some long, lovely three year old cuddles (amongst the inevitable tantrums, whining, food refusal, and general three year old ness). I wish you sloppy kisses that make it all worthwhile. I wish you lots of heart melting moments in between all that chaos. When your children get older, I hope you find hilarious notes from them like “I love you mum because you are lovely and have been doing good work”. I hope you keep these notes somewhere special, like in your heart and soul, forever.
Most of all I wish you the courage, the strength, and the determination to get out of bed every day. I am thinking of you now and wondering if you’re making that same trip to the city, on the same bus, with the same strollers, the Cheerios, the pointing out of trains, the pulling on the lanyard. If you are, dear mum, I wish you all the strength in the world. You are, simply put, awesome.
This post is in no way written to elevate working mums over mums who work at home. We are all awesome. And my wishes above are wishes to all parents. May we all learn how to look after ourselves x
This year, I feel like the Queen Elizabeth II that year when Fergie broke up with Andrew, and life in Buckingham Palace was generally falling apart. The queen remarked that she was having an annus horribilis. I’m having my own version, minus the papparazzi. I found …