Smash Your Inhibitions

inhib

Oh, hey, just thought I’d start a blog post with an image for a change. Here’s Liam from One Direction smashing his inhibitions.

So I took the toddler to the aquarium a couple of weeks ago. Partly because I needed to look at something new with my eyes that wasn’t anything to do with laundry or Playmobil and partly because I wanted to try out my new ‘you can walk! we don’t need the pushchair! look at us going into cafés and not being in the way!’ backpack that I’d just swapped the changing bag for. (Spoiler alert: my arm muscles got quite the work-out that day).

We’d been before, every now and then, each time with me hoping that she might at least acknowledge the fish, if not actually enjoy herself. But this time she did! She saw the fish, she named the fish (“sea fwors!” “gally fish!”), she ran up and down the ramps, she danced over the patterns the light and the water made on the floor… and she wanted me to dance too. And I didn’t want to. I felt awkward. There were people around. And however fun and silly I think I am while I’m doing the full dance routine to One Direction’s Best Song Ever in my pyjamas in the mornings while the toddler watches me with a mixture of glee, confusion and concern, I am the worst when it comes to going out of my way to be invisible when in public. I even like the people I am with to be invisible. And yet “Mummy! Dancing!”, she insisted, and it suddenly occurred to me that, even if she had been able to understand an explanation of why I didn’t want to dance, I wouldn’t have wanted to say it to her. Because what an awful thing, to assign negative qualities like embarrassment and self-consciousness to something as innocent and carefree as dancing over the patterns of light. I want her to grow up feeling as free as I feel when I’m dancing around my bedroom. In public. In private. Uninhibited. At least until someone or something else inhibits her. But I don’t want that person to be me, so from now on I’m going to have to try really hard to smash those stupid inhibitions and be the person I want my daughter to see. Starting with bopping really horribly awkwardly over the patterns of light in the aquarium. Honestly. It would have been less cringey if I’d gone all out with the dancing. I’m going to hate every minute of it but I must try harder. For her. And for me too, I guess.

Anyway, overall we had a lovely day. We ate cake. We looked at boats. And then on the way home we got stuck in an excruciating four-hour (FOUR HOUR) traffic jam, ended up having our tea at a deserted service station as bedtime approached, sang 40 minutes of nursery rhymes to stay awake on the home straight and came away from it more bonded than ever. Funny thing, motherhood.

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My New Normal

It gets to Friday afternoon at work and everyone else is thrilled that the weekend is approaching. They always laugh when I express just how much I hate the two days at the end of the working week. Whether it’s in an “oh you” way, or with barely concealed horror at how awful a person I am I’m not sure. But, for me, the weekend has become synonymous with two full-on days with a whinging child to get through, when everyone else is busy doing couple things and family things, and I get just as little rest as I usually do. I am envious of my friends lying in until lunch time, deciding to pop out and see a film on a whim five minutes before it starts and just generally doing all the things that I don’t do any more. I had always imagined that weekends as a parent would involve simply getting on with your normal life, only with a small child in tow. Tesco shopping, lunch out, a bit of housework and gardening, visiting friends, a trip to the zoo – I don’t think there was much about my pre-baby weekends as part of a couple that I couldn’t have continued enjoying as part of a couple with a child. (Except maybe the afternoon naps.) But now, as a single parent, my plans more often than not involve counting down the hours until the toddler can go back to nursery on Monday morning. Which is an awful way to look at it, but I am tired and that is the truth. I love my job and I get to sit down all day and drink hot coffee and talk to adults and try on clothes in my lunch break. I can’t think of anything more restful. What exactly is the weekend supposed to be a break from?

Except.

This afternoon I started to get that Friday feeling.For no good reason at all.

This is a cruel trick, I thought. Stop winding me up, brain.

But the feeling didn’t leave me and, as the toddler had a meltdown over the fact that Granny wasn’t waiting for us when we got home and then she turned up two minutes later and she was so over seeing Granny now, I realised I was looking forward to the weekend. For the first time in as long as I can remember. It felt amazing and all of a sudden everything made sense. I’ve spent so long begrudging it and looking backwards that I didn’t even notice that the way I spend my weekends now is my normal. My new normal. More often than not just hanging out with my mum, filling the day with strolling round garden centres and going for coffee, laughing at every gorgeous thing the toddler does and says. I potter half-heartedly doing housework while she demands Granny plays with toys and reads books. We muddle through naps and mealtimes. We have a roast dinner at Mum’s house every Sunday tea time. And I even get a little bit of time to myself while the two of them go to Tesco or feed ducks. What is more restful and rejuvenating than that?

I need to forget the lingering dreams of a husband and the 2.4 children. This is my family. This is our normal. And, actually, I think I rather like it.

Lasagne

I feel sad today. And very alone. Let’s get this straight: you don’t understand. Or at least today it feels like unless you are a single parent yourself you couldn’t possibly understand. I want to paint you a picture about why, because sometimes this blog is the only outlet I have.

I’m lucky. My 19-month-old is a great sleeper. I’ve been firm and consistent since she was four months old. She often sleeps through. Generally just needs a quick cuddle and then back to sleep if she does wake up. And it’s great, because I need my evenings. She is utterly exhausting and non-stop during the day. I don’t get a second to myself. I’m not the most selfless person in the world and I need my me time. I need my sleep to recharge my enthusiasm and patience. But right now I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since before Christmas. All our sleep routines have gone out the window. She’s been coughing. Snotty. Waking every hour. Won’t go to sleep unless she’s cuddled up on me. I don’t remember when I last slept in my own bed instead of on the sofabed in her room. For the last five nights, my day has ended when hers has. From 7pm I have been confined to a dark bedroom, half-heartedly watching Netflix on my phone and wondering how long it’s going to be before she next wakes up. Because there’s just no point even trying to have an evening when it’s like this. Because having to stop what I’m doing every 15 minutes is more painful than doing nothing at all. Because I’m so tired I can’t do anything useful anyway.

On Mondays I usually work late and my mum puts her to bed, but tonight I worked hard all day, rushed home in time for story time, threw on my pjs and ended my day at 7pm. I’m currently writing this on my phone as the toddler finally sleeps on me after two hours of resisting sleep. These are the bleakest times, when you sit in the dark on your own and it feels like there is not a soul in the world who is thinking about you or really gives a damn about how you just feel like crying at how hard it all is.

Here’s what I imagine it might be like if there were two of you in this instead of just one. Here’s what it should be like, anyway. You could alternate your sleepless nights, for a start. Anyone can survive disturbed sleep every other night. And you’re probably not running on an accumulated 19 month sleep deficit to start with. Maybe your husband would have dealt with feeding the cat and loading the dishwasher and putting the toys away if you were going to be confined to the toddler’s bedroom all evening, so it wouldn’t all be glaring at you when you came down in the morning. Maybe he would bring you a cup of tea or a glass of wine as you struggle to get her to sleep. He might be making your tea, so you didn’t have to have cereal at your desk as a main meal (again) because you wouldn’t get a chance to eat later. Maybe, when you’d spent an hour trying everything and decided to resort to letting the toddler cry it out, he might have given you a hug and told you that you weren’t a total failure. He might have rolled his eyes with you when she took her sleeping bag off and threw all her teddies out of the cot in protest. He might have given you the moral support you needed when she was still screaming an hour later. Later, once you had given in and finally got her to fall asleep on you, he might encourage you to sneak downstairs for a cuddle on the sofa and persuade you that your evening is not lost and this phase won’t last forever anyway.

But you see, I don’t have any of that. Just this dread that creeps in around midday when I remember the physical pain of being dragged from your sleep for the eighth time in four hours. When suddenly you have nothing to look forward to at the end of the day apart from another 12 hours of parenting. When you look around at work and realise you are surrounded by people that just don’t have a clue how you are feeling. I must have tried to reach out to people today a dozen times. Whether I was looking for sympathy or understanding, I don’t know, but I got neither. Just the disinterest of people who – through no fault of their own – can’t grasp how desperate everything can feel when you’ve been doing the mum thing for so long on your own.

I don’t know whether us single mums make it look easy or give the impression we’ve got it all sorted, but we haven’t. Sometimes we really need a hug, or a lasagne, or even just ten minutes of your time where you really try to understand. …I’m too sleep deprived to think up a deep or poignant end to this post – something about making a single mum you know a lasagne? Everyone likes lasagne. So off you go – go and find someone you know who’s doing a bloody good job at this parenting thing and give them a lasagne. I’ve got wine to drink angrily. The end. (Lasagne)

A Proper Christmas

Last Christmas I was totally skint. It was the first time I can remember admitting defeat and not buying anyone presents (apart from the new small child I found myself with). My mum made me a food hamper as a present. The Christmas before that I was skint. I was desperately saving for an impending baby while her hapless father spent all his spare cash on cigarettes. I bought everyone socks as presents. The Christmas before that… I can’t even remember. Something along the lines of being skint. And the problem with having no money at Christmas is that you feel somehow excluded from the whole thing. You can’t buy those 3 for 2 presents in Boots, or that Christmas jumper that’s suddenly (boringly) trendy, or all the cool lights for your garden, or the gingerbread men cookie cutters, or all the cheese. You feel sad. You love Christmas. But you feel like Christmas is a club you’re no longer a member of. So Christmas can pretty much just sod off.

This year the toddler will be 19 months old at Christmas time. Our current favourite activity is murmuring “woahhhhhhhh” at the Christmas displays in garden centres. She demands “more! lights!” every time we spot some Christmas lights on the 40-minute drive home from nursery. And as I thought about the scraggy 10-year-old tinsel I usually drape half-heartedly over pictures, I realised that the toddler and I are rapidly approaching the stage where I can no longer coast through the very early years of motherhood because she won’t remember any of it. I need to start thinking about the kind of childhood I want her to have and the memories I want to create for her.

I grew up with tradition and moderation at Christmas. We had a real Christmas tree that didn’t go up until a couple of days before Christmas and stayed up for the full 12 days. My mum picked greenery from the surrounding fields and tucked it behind pictures, although not until the 23rd for some other traditional reason that I’m not even going to guess at. Church on Christmas morning. Phil Spector’s Christmas album blasting out from the record player while mum cooked as I sat cross-legged on the kitchen side eating Pringles for breakfast (at the age of 22). No presents until after lunch (apart from stockings, obviously). A genuine belief in Father Christmas until I was 11. It was WONDERFUL. Christmas came to mean so much to me that I was fully prepared to break up with any boyfriend I happened to be seeing if he insisted we spend Christmas Day with his family instead of my mum and brother.

Because we live so close to my mum, her Christmas traditions will likely become the things my daughter remembers about Christmas. Which is fine by me, because as far as I’m concerned my mum has got Christmas spot on. But I am fed up with my miscellany of rubbish Christmas decorations that make the house look messy rather than festive. For a couple of weeks a year I want our funny little house to match the traditions that are so important to me. In five years’ time I want this little girl to come home from school, see the twinkling lights on the garland on the stairs and feel that frisson of excitement that Christmas is nearly here. I’m fed up of waiting to not be skint before I can do Christmas properly. I want to get it right for her.

The fact remains that I still have very little money. But I’m determined to make it work. I’m going to concentrate on buying things for one room each year. Not go overboard. Keep it classy. A few choice pieces. And after a couple of years of doing the same my Christmas collection will be complete.

I spent a whole evening Googling Christmas decorations. I walked around my living room. I made a list. Me and the toddler had one of my favourite days yet touring round The Range, Homebase, B&Q, etc, gazing at sparkly things, giggling and eating cheese sandwiches. I bought a wreath. Better tinsel. Some glittery twigs. Hanging paper shapes. GARLANDS. And I felt that frisson of genuine childlike excitement that has been missing from my Christmas for the last few years. Suddenly I was part of the club again. And I loved it.

And, yeah, maybe the toddler won’t remember this Christmas, or next Christmas, but I needed an excuse to spend money I don’t have on sophisticated grown-up decorations and this is the one I’m going with, okay?

This post wasn’t supposed to support the idea that money is everything at Christmas. I also have no handy money-saving tips to share. But I think that the most important thing about all this is that you create the kind of Christmas you want for you and your children. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or how they’re doing it. This is the kind of Christmas want, and I’m going to do my best to make it happen on my own terms.

Anyway, I was so excited about my new decorations that all plans of being restrained and waiting until at least the 14th to put them up went straight out the window. Well. One garland, the wrong type of lights and a fight with some glittery twigs later and I was ready to opt out of Christmas all over again. It’s possible that being festive is harder than I thought…

A Normal Mum

Tonight, as I watched fireworks from my bedroom window, I pondered how strange it was to be essentially imprisoned in your house after 7pm every evening. No option to pop out. No-one to fetch anything for you. I started to think about it too much and was gripped with a claustrophobic tightness that spread across my chest.

I told myself off for being weird then, but that made me think about just how weird I have become as a result of spending the best part of 17 months in my own company night after night. You don’t notice not speaking. Especially in daylight. You can’t believe you don’t utter a single word after the sun sets, apart from perhaps to tell the cat to piss off (because by then you have either been at work all day or looking after a disagreeable toddler all day and you are ratty and tired and every last drop of your sympathy and understanding has been used up). Sometimes spending these too-short evenings alone has been a good thing. In some ways I am more myself than I have ever been in all the years I have spent in ill-fated relationships, consistently failing to work out how to share my space and myself with another person who won’t behave exactly as I want them to. But I am also aware that I am withdrawing. I feel alienated and angry. Sometimes I hate everything and everyone for no good reason. I spend too much time on the Internet and social media, which – although my only real window to the world from my prison – ultimately leaves me feeling dissatisfied, like eating a huge pile of junk food and afterwards wishing you’d had a baked potato instead. I feel like a victim, a trait I absolutely deplore in other people. I have to remind myself that I am not a victim of anything. In so many ways I am the lucky one.

Recently I have wondered whether I would be a happier better mum if I gave up certain things and became a Normal Mum. If, once the toddler was in bed, I did a bit of housework, or cooked something that consisted of more than a packet of microwave rice or a hot cross bun warmed slightly in the toaster, or did some ironing in front of the telly, or planned the week’s meals, or cleaned the mud off the toddler’s shoes, or filled in a bit more of that baby records book, or unpacked and repacked work and nursery bags, or baked something the toddler could have as a snack, or got something out of the freezer to defrost, or did my nails, or ordered some birthday/Christmas presents online, or put the laundry away, or wrote a letter, or watched part of a film with a glass of wine.

Instead, I occasionally load the dishwasher before pretending I can’t see the rest of the mess, getting my pyjamas on and curling up on my bed with my laptop. I hang around on Twitter too long, window-shop on Spotify, send a couple of messages to friends on Facebook Messenger and finally open up the Word document that is my novel. I then spend a couple of hours staring at the screen, desperately squeezing words from my brain. I will sit there, veering from determination to despair, forcing myself to create something, changing the musical accompaniment several times in case that helps, getting sidetracked on YouTube and pretty much constantly thinking about eating. I go to bed too late with that screen haze feeling and a tightness behind my eyes. And the harder I try the more I cannot write this book.

My life is chaotic and untidy and exhausting, but what I feel like I am doing is valuable and important and much more worthwhile than having a relaxing evening doing bits and pieces or nothing at all. I need this: these three or four hours at the end of the day that I have slaved for. My me time. The only chance I get to pursue the one remaining dream that being a single parent can’t stop me from achieving.

But now I’m wondering whether this almost obsessive desire to “achieve something” in my spare time is doing more harm than good.

A week or so ago I was recovering from a sickness bug and not eating enough to get me much past 9pm. One night I went to bed straight after the toddler did and got 12 hours of wonderful blissful sleep. I was so well rested I started waking up at 4am, not tired enough to get back to sleep. I didn’t drink coffee or tea at all for 7 days. I probably looked better. I felt annoyingly cheerful at work. I wondered whether I was a more patient and energetic mum. I stopped feeling like a victim. I sunk into bed with a book and slipped happily off to sleep. Life was about nothing more than doing the mum thing or the work thing to the best of my ability. No aspirations. No projects. No targets. No pressure.

It was easier.

So maybe I should put the novel away for a while. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe I’ll give myself a break and get some rest. Because maybe the 17-month-old with the diva attitude currently sleeping peacefully in the next room means I am already achieving more every single day than I had ever thought possible.

Not A Perfect Mother

Today it occurred to me that I might actually suck a bit at being a mum.

I had no idea motherhood would be like this. I didn’t have much of an idea what it would be like, but I definitely didn’t think it would be like this. For starters, I kind of assumed that, as the grown-up, I’d be in charge. Ha. Ha ha ha *cries* At this stage in the game, the toddler is calling 99% of the shots. Strangely, our opinions on just about everything seem to differ quite dramatically. For example, I would really like her to be able to appreciate the finer points of Tesco from the trolley. Quietly. And to not be afraid of anything bigger than a chicken when I’ve just paid £15 for us to have a nice day out looking at animals. And maybe just recognise that getting dressed in the morning isn’t the same as being tortured.

There are lovely moments. Like the time I came home from a dentist appointment when she had just learned to walk and she staggered over to me as soon as I came through the door and gave me a big hug. (I should probably point out here that Granny was babysitting and I hadn’t just left a one-year-old to fend for herself). Or times when I laugh despite myself. Like today, when she repeatedly ignored my very serious requests for her not to climb the stairs on her own and, once she had finished throwing herself around the floor in protest at being removed from half way up the staircase, she looked at me with those dark defiant eyes, said “no” and did a fake sad face, which felt an awful lot like she was mocking my telling off face. I have endless boring hilarious mum anecdotes which I merrily wheel out at a moment’s notice (sorry, work colleagues), so we must have some good times together.

But sometimes she whinges for 13 hours straight. Sometimes I am angry and stressed for the entire day. Sometimes it seems that I can do nothing right in her eyes. Sometimes she throws her food everywhere on purpose or pulls a plant pot off the windowsill or hits me in the face with a spoon and I shout at her (and then immediately feel like the worst person in the entire world). My house is a tip by 7am every day without fail. I am never on top of the laundry. My entire life revolves around timing the morning nap right. A car journey that takes longer than 20 minutes is pushing my luck. The only time she stays still is when she’s eating. There is literally no way to make her do something that she has decided she doesn’t want to do. The list of things she does want to do is subject to change at any time with no notice or forewarning. If we are in a shop or a cafe or a restaurant the only direction she wants to toddle in is the first door. I cannot have nice things. My hip hurts every time I stand up because 25lbs of toddler insists on being carried as her primary means of getting around when out of the house. I can’t make a phone call unless she’s asleep. I am essentially a slave to her every whim. More than once I have eyed up the bottle of gin at 3pm. And don’t even talk to me about the gardening.

It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting beyond anything you could imagine. It is the most stressful thing in the world when your child is ill or – even worse – “acting a bit off for no obvious reason”. And it can also be depressingly mundane.

I hate the books she loves the most. I don’t want to sing Row Row Row Your Boat 20 times in a row, every single day for a month. Certain CBeebies programmes make me want to smash in the TV screen with a plastic xylophone. Sometimes it’d be nice to be allowed to hold the spoon myself when I’m eating my cereal. And I can’t remember the last time I went to the toilet without an audience, or with the door closed.

I don’t mind admitting that I’m not actively enjoying motherhood a lot of the time, but when everyone around me seems to be enjoying it so much I can’t help feeling that I’m getting it all wrong. I remember talking to another mum at a baby group when I must have been about four months into motherhood, in the midst of a sleep regression where my delightful baby would wake up every single hour of the night without fail. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me when she asked me, so casually, whether I was enjoying it, and I said quite frankly that I wasn’t. It was like she was mentally dialling social services.

This isn’t the mum I thought I’d be. I wanted so badly to be that happy, smiling, lovely mum that takes everything in her stride, managing to combine motherhood with having actual fun with her offspring (as well as looking just generally glamorous). In reality, most often I look forward to going to work just for a break from it all. Adult conversation that I can actually participate in without simultaneously chasing around after/chain-feeding a stroppy child. The opportunity to use my brain? I’d forgotten I had one! A lunch break?! EVERYBODY JUST CALM DOWN. I don’t know if it’s possible to stop giving myself a hard time for not being that perfect mother. I try to remind myself that if we make it to the end of the day and we’re both still alive I must have done something right. But I always feel I should be doing more with her, feeding her better food, teaching her more stuff. She’s so smart – I feel like I’m wasting her intelligence. The weight of being responsible for the well-being of this entire person is terrifying, especially when you don’t have a bloody clue what you’re doing.

I had a bad day today. She was being difficult and I felt like a failure. We clawed our way to the end of the day. And then, as I stood looking at her mutter “piggle piggle” as she watched In The Night Garden before bed and my heart filled up with love, I realised the most important thing: I might have days that end with me lying face down on the bedroom floor in despair and exhaustion as a whingey toddler climbs on me and throws board books at my head, but it doesn’t mean that I adore my precious amazing beautiful little girl any less than those mums that don’t end every trip to Tesco sweating and swearing under their breath. For all my complaining, I know really that I wouldn’t want to live in a world where she wasn’t with me. And that, I think, is the main thing.

Not Doing The Housework

I have a rule about not doing housework while the toddler naps.

If, God forbid, we stayed in all day, she’ll have half an hour in between breakfast and lunch, and another half an hour in between lunch and tea. She goes to bed at 7pm and I go to bed with a Horlicks and a book at 10pm drag myself upstairs at around 11pm and immediately spend too long checking Twitter/Instagram on my phone in bed.

I make that a total of five hours of “me time” a day, with at least two of those being when I’m too exhausted to do anything of value. And, even 15 months into motherhood, I’m still finding that a bit of a shock to the system. Sometimes I remember that pre-baby I worked full time, and I didn’t get home until 7pm, and then I had to make tea, and then I was too tired to do anything except hang around on the sofa, and I’d go to bed too late, and I’d spend my weekends catching up on housework and generally being knackered, and what’s the difference between then and now? But most of the time I forget that fact and am in a constant state of “but when will I have time to do all the things?!”

Oh the things. Funny how not having time to do anything makes you want to do everything, when before you were quite happy to watch life drifting past you as you frittered away every evening watching rubbish telly. Suddenly I want to be a talented baker, and make cushion covers, and not only finish painting the kitchen four years after I moved in but paint staggeringly creative and poignant murals on blank walls, and make my own granola bars, and effortlessly transform that scruffy bit down the side of the house with some weed matting and gravel, and perfect my eye-liner skills and sort my CD collection according to colour.

In reality, most often I spend nap time watching box-sets on Netflix and drinking coffee. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with Lost. But I’ll almost definitely get the sewing machine out tomorrow…