Mother’s day

Perfectionism. The sneery big sister of procrastination, it is the curse of my life. It undermines everything I think and stifles every dream of mine at birth. We have a long and toxic relationship, perfectionism and I. We have been locked in battle since I was tiny.

When I was a kid, I didn’t think perfectionism was that bad. Sometimes she was actually my friend. I would strive and slave over something and the brief flicker of triumph I felt when it approached my unattainably high standards was, I thought, what satisfaction felt like. The litter of half-started or unfinished projects rustling around my ankles was studiously ignored. As I waded through them to reach my desk and start work on another cherished idea, I thought only of how happy perfectionism would be when this time, finally, I got down on paper what was glowing in my head. But she never was happy, and after a while neither was I. Going back to an incomplete task began to feel like a struggle; having to face my shortcomings on the page, not knowing how to address them. I began to stay away.

As I got older, the pain of constantly failing began to take its toll and I started to think ‘why bother?’ Because perfectionism doesn’t like success. Perfectionism is a recipe for failure, the great excuse to do nothing. When you know in advance that you can’t achieve what you want, why bother even trying? Why bother to start? The pain is too much, the pain of trying something once, not being perfect at it and having to confront your utter worthlessness. Much better not even to start but just to stew quietly over everything you could have done, if only you’d had the chance/been given the opportunity/had all the breaks that that guy had. And of course, the more time you spend doing nothing, the more time you have to think about how crap you will be at anything you care to try, so y’know…why bother.

Perfectionism is evil. It engenders nothing but negativity in the mind of the sufferer: other people’s hard won victories are to be envied, while your own successes are invisible and worthless because they are not perfect. You cannot learn, as a perfectionist, because you never understand that failure is GOOD. It has taken me over twenty years to grasp the concept that failure is necessary to progress, twenty years in which I have thrown away opportunities, cowered away from things I wanted and stifled myself in every conceivable way.

What does this have to do with Mother’s Day? Well, I was always a perfectionist kid with massively high stress levels, but when my mum killed herself it sealed those corrosive habits right in. Her death at her own hand was an eloquent abutment to the belief, carefully nurtured by her over the fourteen years of my life, that I could do anything. Perfectionism, enemy of progress and lover of stagnation, whispered in my ear ‘Why even try? You will end up here sooner or later. Your mum tried, and tried and tried. She didn’t succeed and now she’s dead. Don’t even try. Be kind to yourself.” At a time when I needed kindness so badly, the voice was seductive and I gave in.

Now I have my own kids. They have just this minute brought me the most awesome mother’s day card, by the way, and a lovely present too:

Mother's Day awesomeness

Do I care that what they do isn’t perfect? No. I love them for it. I see them learning every day through their mistakes and grapplings. I respect them for it, the same as I respect my husband for sitting down to finish a drawing or a bit of music whether or not he feels it’s started off sufficiently well. I encourage my children to try and keep trying when they don’t at first succeed. If ever there was a time to embrace my failures, surely it’s now.

So up yours, perfectionism. From now I pledge to embrace halfarsedness. I pledge to write that blog post I thought of earlier, rather than obsess over the detail before it’s even begun. Reader, I pledge to give you sloppy work and badly formed sentences on the page rather than that elusive perfectly formed sentence in my head. Hell, there might even be a spelling mistake in there sometimes.

Failure is my new benchmark for success.

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A weekend in the country

Misty, frosty morning. I couldn’t sleep past 6.30am (backache/need a wee) so here I am, staring out at the quiet frosty fields. The cars are coated in ice and there is a chilly peach glow in the sky. My kinks ache pleasantly, the kind of ache that comes from rest rather than clocking wearily on once more. I’d forgotten what it felt like. I had forgotten it all.

I am on a weekend away with a group of friends, who also happen to be fellow mums of at least one 4 year old. We met through coincidental pregnancy but we are friends through five years of gossip, advice, worry, online shopping tips and plain old cackling. We live at all ends of the country so to spend a whole weekend together is quite an achievement. Our children have been palmed off on various relatives and for two glorious days we revel in the privileges of the individual: answering to our names, wiping only our own arses, showering in blissful solitude.

On Saturday we go for a walk along the towpath. The ground is muddy but the sun shines in a flawless winter way. We pick our way along, marvelling quietly at how we have left the house with only our coats and scarves – no bag full of other people’s layers, no spare everything, not even an emergency banana. It is a revelation: the quiet space inside my head and out; the way the stiffness slowly eases itself out of knee and neck and elbow, lazily unfurling in the sun; not having to raise my voice in order to chivvy people along or inventory numbers/items/behaviour. Being able to look at things. The shiny mirror surface of the aqueduct. The brightly coloured coats of my friends.

Not to mention being able to walk to a pub, order a pint with lunch, have another just because the first was so good, then amble mistily back along a busy A road where – oh no! – one of our number has a blister issue that forces a stop at another pub. When was the last time I strolled? Really can’t remember.

The cottage we’re staying in advertises itself as luxury, but it’s not. The pool is not heated and there are dead things drifting along the bottom.The bathroom lights are motion sensor activated, so they ping on to an initial ‘ooh!’ of satisfaction as you open the door, but they are also on a timer so they ping off again after ten minutes of showering unheated pool water from your hair. There is no wifi access. The iPod dock causes our music to skip.

None of this matters at all though because we’re here for the company and that has proved to be luxury beyond price. We talk, and talk and talk and talk. We plunge in the chilly swimming pool, and talk. We drink ten thousand hot cups of tea, followed by ten thousand bottles of fizzy wine, and talk. We talk fast, slow, uninterrupted, swearily and with vigour. We occupy space in a way it is very difficult to do when in charge of small people, because your mind is always registering them – where they are, what they need, who is about to fall into the canal, who is going to need a wee in about ten minutes – and editing itself as a consequence.

I had forgotten what it felt like to completely own my mind. The memory, restored by my weekend away, has already carried me through a horrible week of toddler illness and preschooler strops, so thank you, friends. Let’s do it again sometime.

Charity shop princess

I’ve never been one of those people who finds good stuff in charity shops. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the stones to make second hand stuff work. Like a moth to a paisley patterned flame, I am automatically drawn to the wacky so-bad-it’s-good racks and I suspect that is my downfall. You have to commit to that shit. As a student (when I had the legs to really work it too), I spent months lusting after an orange nylon playsuit that slouched sassily in the local vintage shop window. I used to walk up and down outside the shop, mooning like a teenager over their first crush. But I never quite made it inside to buy. Considering some of the stuff I used to wear out clubbing in those days, shyness wasn’t the issue. I can only conclude I was scared of making a statement.

On the rare occasion that I do find something I love, it generally doesn’t love me. Those 60s femmes were pretty tiny, eh? Or take this purchase from a few years ago:

Look at it! Isn’t it awesome? I bought it from a vintage fair in Leicester because I just couldn’t resist that print, also I harboured some notion that I would look like a coltish runway model striding down the city street in my boxy shift dress. But I am short and well rounded all over and when I put it on, it becomes a lifeless sack. It is also too long, but to alter it would be to ruin the impact of the print. Thus it has lived a sorry half-life, moving from wardrobe to wardrobe, ever since I handed over my tenner.

So given my historic bad decision-making and my refusal to pay £8.99 for a Primark top that probably cost £3 new, charity shops don’t often yield up their goodies to me. Yet still they draw me in with the promise that today might be the day that I find an unbelievable bargain, and in fact one day last week that promise finally came good.

This black skirt from Topshop is made of a silky cotton, falls in perfect pleats from a wide and comfortable waistband, and only cost me £5.49. Something about it reminds me of the illustrations from my childhood copy of A Little Princess. Oh, the hours I spent lost in description of her rainbow of beautiful frocks…even ending up with the servant’s outfit makes me smile a little more.

First steps into sexism

You know, this kind of thing really pisses me off. Daughter is now walking, so we went along to Clarks to get her some shoes. I like Clarks products and I generally find their staff competent and helpful. But while browsing the racks of first shoes for boys (uniformly blue/brown, dinosaur motif) and girls (uniformly pink/purple, flower motif), what do I see but this:

In case it isn’t clear, the text under the boys’ shoes says ‘For every wobbly step’ while that under the girls’ shoes says ‘For every gorgeous outfit’.

That’s right, girls. Your shoes aren’t for walking. Silly girls!
I read those two apparently innocuous sentences, and then I looked at my one year old daughter toddling proudly around the shop floor, trying to climb on the seats, investigating other people’s buggies and generally being her forthright self, and I thought how dare you? Anyone who has watched a baby master the art of bipedal movement knows how amazing it is to see the focus and determination shine out of such an apparently soft and helpless thing. How dare you, marketing drones of Clarks, suggest that my daughter’s shoes are not to form part of the celebration of movement, when she has dragged, rolled, stumbled, crawled, bumped and cruised her way to independence?

And then I just felt depressed, because if this is the message that pertains to her at 1yo, how much more sexist shite is she going to have to wade through in her life?

Craven that I am, I still bought the shoes. They fit well and keep her soles safe and are mostly not pink. But I’ll be writing to head office about their marketing strategy, and I will be looking around for a decent supplier of children’s boots. After all, when wading through shite, cute maryjanes just don’t cut it.

Desperately seeking style, part 1: the basics

Do you have your own style? Are you confident in your look? After I had my daughter, I found for the first time in my life that I really cared what I look like, all the time. Don’t get me wrong, the preceding years weren’t all BO and egg stains, but growing up in a lesbian household meant that the development of feminine skills wasn’t really to the forefront. Whatever I know about being a girl, I’ve had to teach myself. Some has come easy: I love make up and like to think I do an alright job with it after my early years at the experimental blunders coalface (orange eyeshadow up to the brow, anyone?). Many aspects of day-to-day style still elude me, however. The words ‘draw a veil over my hair’ may as well be an instruction at this point, and I still look back fondly at the day an ex-housemate told me “you have the colour sense of a toddler”. I was 28.

Most importantly, I lack the vision of personal style. My best friend, who is 5’10 and charismatic, can put an outfit together out of whatever she has lying on the floor and make it look effortless, unique and flattering. This is the source of endless envy for me. Growing up among crew cuts and dungarees afforded a view of clothing as a purely utilitarian procedure, the wide world of accessories reduced to a single wimmin-symbol earring.

As I said, it hasn’t all been bad. There were the usual permutations of 90s fashion and (contextually!) they looked good on me: short skirts, big boots, hipster flares and crop tops, skintight fluoro clubwear and Bjork knots in my hair. But it’s easy to dress when you’re young, thin and stoned all the time, and in my late twenties I lost my way badly, a combination of weight gain and unrecognised depression leading to what Mr Bones dubs, with withering accuracy, “the hairy cardigan years”.

My children brought with them an improved sense of self, as well as providing a handy all-day workout, so now I’m back at a reasonable weight, in reasonable underwear after a year-long breastfeeding sabbatical, and seeking to clothe myself as a grown-up woman. Trawling style blogs and message board threads, the general advice seems to be: know your shape, know what works for you and buy less but better. So, first up: know yourself. I’m still not a girly girl (you can take the girl out of the lesbian household etc.), which means that while I may love the look of floaty, dreamy romance or bright prints, I need to add the phrase ‘…on other people’ to the end of that sentence. The well heeled, well groomed likes of DoesMyBumLook40 and the WornOut crew provoke admiration and provide inspiration, but there’s still too much tattooed techno kid in me to ever 100% work that look. Plus, I’m shorter, rounder and skinter than all those fine ladies. Put me somewhere between them and Sea of Ghosts’s sci-fi elegance, with a trip to flirty vintage rockabilly land now and then, and I’ll be happy.

After years of being trapped in a loveless marriage with the British high street, the truth of ‘buy less but better’ is slowly dawning. I recently purchased this lovely Me&Em tshirt in the sale. WTF, it’s a plain dark tshirt that cost thirty quid, I hear mid-twenties me cry. Ah, but it is so soft, so fine, so much the right length (sleeves over hands, hem over hips – take that, builder’s arse crack of mumsiness). In an ideal world, this tshirt will last ten times as long as all those cheap cotton Dorothy Perkins numbers I’ve tugged down over my muffin top. And none of them made me feel remotely grown up, just peeved and slightly desperate. None of those DP tshirts ever gave me a thrill, or made me feel that I deserved better.

So after I bought the Me&Em, someone linked to the Brora clearance sale and I bought two more lovely longsleeved jersey tees. Oh, and this dress. I’ll post a pic once it arrives, if it looks alright.

Kindness

This fantastic post by Alissa Marquess on 100 Ways To Be Kind To Your Child really struck a chord with me. Parenting chez Bones has felt like a hard slog of late; between the house move, the sleepless baby and the 3 year old being 3, Mr Bones and I are worn down to tiny nubs, and it shows in our tone of voice. Well, not so much him, as he gets to interact with adults five days a week. But I have been too often guilty of snapping, sighing and occasional hag-like shrieking.

So it was cheering to read this list and feel validation hit my knotty soul like a hot bath full of vodka. I try to do this stuff every day, because kindness is so obviously important when dealing with small people. I don’t always succeed; it is so easy to be unkind to those smaller and more vulnerable, so tempting to offload. I snap at my son because my daughter’s crying has driven me demented, or cuddle my daughter with hard, resentful arms when she wakes for the nth time at crap o’clock. Later on, I stew into miserable sleep, prepping myself for another day of being uptight.

A lot of the things on this list add up to giving more of yourself – your time, your emotional space. No wonder it feels so hard sometimes, when the invasion of small children into your headspace is already so complete and overwhelming. Even when they’re away, asleep or mysteriously quiet, their needs and wellbeing and opaque, unknowable futures weigh on your mind, leaving much less opportunity to think your own thoughts.

So making the effort to be kind, especially when you just wish there was someone to be kind to you, feels like a crucial skill to hone. It’s like a mental workout: finding a smile the fifteenth time your toddler tells you their made-up joke is hard work, likewise singing a song to try and distract your screaming baby at naptime. Like lifting weights, these things come easier with practice. My kids have forced kindness from me at moments when I didn’t think there was any left to give, and their happiness has bounced a little of that kindness back to me.
So in the spirit of being lighthearted I nominate this for my number 100: buying Weetabix because they love it, even though cleaning the stuff off babies, toddlers, clothes, table, chairs and floors is one of my least favourite jobs ever.

Night weaning

I think the time has come to night wean my daughter. She is nearly 9 months old and totally addicted to breastfeeding. This in itself is not a problem; she is just a baby and breastfeeding is so much of her world – comfort, sustenance, connection, security. Addiction to breastfeeding has naturally led to us co-sleeping, which is also in itself not a problem. Snuggling and snoozing next to a warm, sleepy baby is pretty great, after all. Seeing the smile on her face when she forces my eyes open at 5am almost makes it worth it. Spending all night crunched up in one place isn’t so hot, but the aches and pains just sort of merge into the general blarg of parenthood.

I’m happy to carry on breastfeeding for a while yet – it’s going well and thus my life is made easier by having all this comfort on tap. I fed my son till he was 13 months old and it was no problem at all. We were fortunate in this.

However, my daughter is quite a different creature to my son. He took a dummy; she would not. He took a bottle; she will not. When he woke in the night at 9mo, often as not you could soothe him back to sleep with some shushing and patting. Try that on Baby Bones and you might as well be shushing a fire alarm. One that’s attached to an angry octopus. She knows what she wants and she’s not afraid of speaking her mind.

So, while I value those qualities in my child and hope she carries them on into adulthood, I would also appreciate the chance to live my own life after dark now and again. I haven’t been to a gig in over two years. Mr Bones and I have spent about three hours in each other’s company sans children since she was born. My best friend has been living abroad for more than a year and I haven’t been over to visit her once. And there is a further factor in this decision: Baby Bones is on the cusp of crawling. Once that starts for real, no way can i have her sharing my bed every night, because she will be crawling over the edge before I can say ‘blarg’. Plus, I will need all my energy to manage her movements during the day., since her most desired objects include hot cups of tea, sharp knives, loops of string and my (fragile, expensive) specs.

So here we go. No more night feeding. It is the right thing for us at this time. But…seeing her chubby starfish hand reach out for reassurance last night as she snoozed by my side, there was a certain amount of grit-in-eye sorrow at moving on.