Making the New Year mindful
New Year’s resolutions might give you the chills, but there are lots of other practices and rituals you can use to ensure you step into the new year mindfully and with intention.
It has been said that April is the cruellest month. However, with all due respect to T. S. Eliot, I would suggest that January is the hottest contender for the title of Bleakest Month of the Year. Where I live, it’s the coldest time of year with some of the longest nights. Even for people in the southern hemisphere, it has to be rough. The festivities are over, and the next holiday to look forward to is St Valentine’s Day, and for many that’s the ultimate anti-uplift. Unless you actually have a dinner date with Chris Hemsworth on 14 February, it certainly doesn’t pack enough of a punch to make up for having to take down decorations and sorrowfully finish the last bite of pudding. With that in mind, doesn’t the tradition of making often draconian and self-depriving resolutions at the beginning of this somewhat dreary month seem faintly ridiculous, indeed almost inhuman?
Now, I’m a resolution-maker. I’m a coach, it’s like a professional requirement. However, many people find the whole business stressful and see it as a direct path to disappointment, which is a shame as the turn of the year can be a natural and uplifting cue both to look back and plan forward. So, if you want to use the beginning of a new year to reflect on the one gone by, or to turn a page and enjoy a fresh start without actually making resolutions, here are a few turn-of-the-year rituals I enjoy that you might like to try.
Year-end stock take
In the no-man’s land between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, I like to sit down and write a list of my achievements over the past year. Reminiscing over the high points of the year is a real mood boost. It might be a little harder than usual this year, but that’s all the more reason to spend time actively seeking out the good. Remember to include the little things as well as the big: everything from repainting a wall to redecorating the whole house, reading some good books to teaching your child to read, doing some yoga online to running 10K. Simply keeping up with mortgage payments and doing your job. It all counts. What did you achieve this year?
Look for learning
Another uplifting ritual is to take a moment to think back over the year and list the things you have learnt. It might be something about what makes you tick or what you need to be happy. Or a new life skill, like sewing. Or maybe you’ve read the newspapers more this year and finally have a good grasp of your county’s political machinations. What did you learn this year?
Visualise the year ahead
Now, shifting your mental gaze to the year to come, close your eyes and imagine the year. I see it as a giant planner with gold stars on the big dates like birthdays and anniversaries. Now imagine yourself entering the year. What does it feel like? What colour and flavour does it have? This simple exercise helps me feel like I’m going into the new year more mindfully. I’m stepping into it, paying attention – not just being swept along by the inexorable march of time. What do you envisage for the next 12 months?
Set your intention
Rather than setting a resolution to give something up or change something you do, try setting an intention for your being in the coming year. Complete the sentence: “Next year, I will be…”. Healthy. Patient. Kinder. Calmer. More grateful. Think of your intention as an over-arching theme for the year that will drive all your decisions. Only once you’re decided how you want to be (and therefore feel) can you align your actions and decide what you want to do. How do you want to be this year?
List positive goals
Another great alternative to negatively-worded resolutions (I will eat less chocolate. I will not smoke. I will stop shouting at the kids.), is creating a list of positive goals. I will eat one bar of chocolate per week. In January, I will only smoke on weekdays (And in February, I will only smoke four days a week, etc.). It has often been said that our subconscious mind cannot process negatives. I say “don’t think of an elephant” – what’s the first thing you think of? I say “drink no wine” and I find myself reaching for the corkscrew. Whether you believe that not, it is true that positive statements of intent are more motivating than negative ones. So express what you want, not what you don’t want. What do you want to do this year?
Make a plan
A goal without a plan is just an idea. Once you’ve set your intention, written down your goals, or done whatever you need to do to step into the new year mindfully, ask yourself: what do I need to do to ensure that in 365 days’ time, this is a reality? Write down every tiny step you need to take to get there: from asking your partner to watch the kids next Saturday while you buy running shoes to making a doctor’s appointment for a pre-training medical. Now, read the first task on the list and Do. It. Now. Maybe your goal is to learn a foreign language. Or perhaps you want to write a book. Or find a new job. The second you finish downloading that vocab-builder app, digging out your old laptop, or asking your best friend to help you re-do your CV, you’ve already taken the first step to achieving your goal! How are you going to make it happen this year?
Recently, my daughter had her first ever rentrée – an initiation to an autumn ritual every mother in France must face. No uniform or stationery purchases were required (more’s the pity – I love buying notebooks); my 14-month-old simply started going to a childminder four days a week. We’ve been building towards this momentous event all summer, ever since we found our lovely assistante maternelle and signed the contract. I’ve been busily packing a bag with all her essentials and talking to Alice about her new adventure. When the big day arrived, we were ready.
We did a few trial-run days with the childminder over the summer which went well, but as I dropped her off on D-Day, I still steeled myself for some crying and clinging. To my utter horror, Alice simply gave me a kiss, let me put her down, and happily started playing with a ball.
I walked to the door, braced for a sudden scream. I turned to say a final “goodbye” to find her smiling and waving at me.
The childminder texted me minutes later to reassure me that all was fine and that Alice was banging a drum and shrieking with pleasure. That’s when the hysterical crying began – mine.
Now, I get that Alice’s cheerful and easy-going acceptance of the childminder is, in many ways, sickeningly ideal; and I’m very grateful to be spared the earth-shaking screams that some other parents experience at every drop-off. But, while it is a comfort to know that Alice likes the childminder, the fact that she’s taking the rentrée in her stride doesn’t mean that I am. I’m experiencing a host of classic feelings:
- Guilt (motherhood gold) at leaving her
- Worry at our choice of nounou (agréée and apparently delightful, but Dr Jekyll looked perfectly normal too, didn’t he?)
- Fear that my daughter will prefer the nounou/forget about me/resent me for leaving her
- A sens of being incomplete without her – as if someone removed one of my limbs.
I doubt there’s a parent alive who can’t identify with some part of this, so, drawing on my own limited but recent and raw experience, here are my suggestions for dealing not with your child’s reaction to the rentrée, but your own.
1. Trust yourself
The first night after starting with the nounou, Alice’s sleep was rather disturbed. At around 3 a.m., my husband and I simultaneously voiced the inevitable thought: She’s clearly traumatised by the childminder! The only thing that talked us down from that particular ledge was remembering that we did lots of research before choosing our assistante maternelle, met with several, and spent some time getting to know the one we chose. We also just had a really good feeling about her. You undoubtedly did your due diligence when choosing your childcare – trust that and trust your instincts. (It turned out to be a molar pushing through that was keeping Alice awake, by the way. How foolish we felt.)
2. Give yourself time
Most new childcare requires a kind of easing-in period, the période d’adaptation. That’s not just for the kids, but for parents too. In those first days and weeks, expect to be emotional and off-kilter. It will take time to adjust to the new routine as this new chapter begins. If you can, try not to go to work on that first day. Returning to work after a break feeling emotionally wrung out is to be avoided if possible. Give yourself the day to be with whatever you’re feeling and prepare for your own rentrée. If that’s not an option, try to find time between leaving the crèche and arriving at work to sit calmly, let yourself feel, and then close the door on whatever happened at the drop off.
3. Accept that this is a big deal
Don’t mentally downplay the significance of leaving your child with a nounou, at a crèche or at school. For me, using a childminder was like adding a new member to my family – someone who will care for and influence my daughter, and who will have an important impact on our lives. That’s a big deal, so don’t be dismissive (or let anyone make you feel silly) when you have big emotions in response to what you’re doing.
4. Remember the benefits
Whatever your child’s age, and whatever your chosen form of childcare, you and your little one will — in some way, shape or form — benefit from this time apart. Without denying your fears and worries, make yourself a list of all the good things that will come from the situation. Note them down and keep them at hand.
You may feel your child is too young to be at crèche. Think about how being with other children sooner rather than later will stimulate and encourage him to develop.
You’re using childcare because you have a career you love and want to get back to, but you feel guilty about that? You’re a model of vocation and ambition for a child who’ll grow up to expect joy from the workplace – that’s invaluable!
When that little voice inside says “But, I’m abandoning my baby!” (or “I shouldn’t want to work”, or “I’m a bad mother” or whatever nasty thing your mind chooses to bash you over the head with), look at that list and bash the voice right back.
A recent incident involving, of all things, footwear, got me thinking about all the ways in which I take excellent care of my family, particularly my daughter, but not myself. I book appointments around nap times so she gets enough rest, keep her carnet de santé up to date, and am religious about hat-wearing for warmth in the winter and for sun protection in the summer. But when it comes to myself, I am often a sloppy caretaker.
The other day, as my two-year-old daughter and I were walking home from the nounou, she lifted her foot and cried, “Mummy, feet, sore, shoes fait mal!” The next day, we were in the shoe shop, measuring my child’s feet, and getting comfortable new footwear the next size up. As my eyes watered at the exorbitant prices that seem to be the norm for little shoes, I looked down and realised that my own feet were actually rather sore too, and that my flimsy, old and now rather unfashionable ballerines were not actually comfortable at all.
They all hurt me – and until now I would just sort of grin and bear it. But I wouldn’t put our daughter in shoes that gave her blisters, would I? So why would I do that to myself?
Yet I had, and I am quite sure I’m not the only mother, indeed parent, for whom taking care of others is paramount, while taking care of oneself falls by the wayside.
The recent trend for preaching self-care has produced a slew of articles emphasising the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. But what does that really mean when applied to the kind of rich/busy/full/hectic lifestyles we lead in the City of Light? You can book a massage, reserve an evening out with cherished friends, or make time for date night with your Beloved to remind yourself that s/he is more than just the Other Parental Unit. These things are important, but they don’t make up the quotidien of your average mother.
1. Lighten your load
I’m already worried about the huge cartables I see French schoolchildren lugging around and the impact one might have on my child’s spine. But I’ll happily fill my handbag to cracking and cart it around with me, Atlas-like, until my shoulders plead for mercy. No more! It takes two minutes to remove the unnecessary items from my bag in the morning (or better still, in the evening), keeping only what’s required for the day, and I’ve bought miniatures of the cosmetics that I like to have with me (hand cream, sanitizer, etc.)
2. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
Remember the song? Well, he has a serious point. I wouldn’t dream of letting my child out in warmer months without sunscreen. So, I’ve replaced my face and body moisturizer with factor 50 for the summer and bought a small tube of cream to keep in my handbag so I don’t get caught out. Burning is not an option.
3. Take a look at your plate
My daughter’s dinner is always comprised of three things: protein, vegetables, carbs. She eats three leisurely meals a day, usually at the same times. So why do I rush through the ironing once she’s in bed then inhale a pizza and a glass of red before jumping up to deal with emails? Making my own eating as healthy as hers isn’t hard – I still have some pizza (and, sometimes, a glass of the red stuff), but there’ll be a side salad and fruit for dessert. The ironing will just have to wait until I’m fed. Ironically, by making her my role model for healthy eating at regular times, I become a better one for her.
You can keep tabs on how much your children drink since most kids’ cups and bottles have handy oz/ml marks up the side. Keep track of your own two litres a day by filling up an empty mineral water bottle each morning and making sure you get through it by bedtime. Job done.
5. Make TV mindful
I feel brain dead and kind of depressed after too much television but I still sometimes manage to veg out for hours in front of mindless rubbish. My daughter, on the other hand, gets a single episode of Peppa Pig a week (usually to allow us to complete the dreaded task of cutting her nails). Making my television viewing as mindful as hers – though perhaps not quite as limited – frees up time for other things and ensures I truly choose and enjoy what I watch (GOT night is now an even bigger deal).
6. Keep warm, my dear, keep dry
Alanis had it right (Morissette, that is – for anyone reading who wasn’t an angsty teen in the late 90s). How often have I failed to bring a cardigan or worn silly shoes when it’s threatening to rain because I can’t be bothered or just think, “Oh, I’ll be fine”? The French are a bit nutty about their courants d’air and wearing une petite laine, and much as I mock them, they’re right. Keeping warm and dry are basic human needs. Don’t neglect your own.
7. Book your check-ups
Baby has a carnet de santé with its handy list of check-ups and vaccines to consider. Create your own by making a list of all the medical visits you need to book per year and putting them in an eternal calendar, or on your phone or an app. This way, you’ll remember to make a dentist appointment every May and see the gynecologist each time the rentrée comes round. Consider making a preventative osteopath visit part of your yearly routine, and don’t put off going to the doctor when you have a problem. Going back to the old oxygen mask image, you can’t help with homework if you’re in toothache hell, and you can’t even carry your baby if your back is in agony. On the latter subject, I speak from painful experience.
8. Watch your mouth
Do you often insult or belittle your children? I hope not. Now, how often do you put yourself down? “God, what an idiot I am, I didn’t think of that!” “I’ve got a memory like a sieve.” “Crikey, I need to lose weight, what a heifer!” Watch what you tell yourself and others because your self-talk can be self-fulfilling. Why would you let anyone, including yourself, speak to you so disrespectfully?
I’ve no doubt you cherish your children, husband, and family life as I much as I do – so in order to continue giving them the best of yourself, remember to take care of yourself too.
I’m a stickler for good table manners. I can’t bear it when people don’t pick up their feet. And finger drumming really gets my goat. I have, I am aware, multiple bêtes noires; but by far the most unpleasant “bad habit” in my book is interrupting. As bad behaviour goes, it’s one of the most common and also the most damaging to interpersonal relationships, but luckily, it’s also one that’s relatively easy to correct.
Interrupting during a conversation takes two main forms: cutting someone off to make one’s own point and finishing someone’s sentence for them. Both drive me mad. The former simply shows a lack of respect for the other person, their right to express themselves, and what they have to communicate. It says, “What I want to say is more important and/or interesting than what you are already in the middle of saying, and frankly, I don’t much care about what you’re trying to tell me”. The latter annoys me because I want to be allowed to express my opinions in my own specifically chosen words. When someone cuts me off and finishes my sentence for me, they almost never say exactly what I was going to say, so I feel like my point is misrepresented and I’m not being fully “heard”. I regularly want to shout “I’m not running out of steam and I don’t need help to make my point; am I just not speaking quickly enough for your liking?” but of course, I’m British, so I just seethe silently instead…
Being regularly interrupted makes the “victim” feel unheard, frustrated, disrespected – none of which helps build a relationship with another person, which, ironically, is often the point of having a conversation in the first place. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being interrupted… which is odd since we are almost all both victims and perpetrators of this destructive conversational habit.
So, what happens when you’re the interrupter? In addition to the message you’re sending the person you’re talking to, you’re not doing yourself any favours either. How stressful is it to be responsible for both sides of a conversation – both your own and the end of every sentence your partner tries to get out? How tense do you get when, instead of listening and then responding, you’re formulating your reply to your friend as they’re talking so that you can start making it even before they’ve finished? How often do you finish someone’s sentence only for them to say, “Well, no, that’s not where I was going with that”?
Curbing the urge to interrupt – to butt in with my idea or push people to make their point quicker – is something I’ve been working on for a while now, and I have to say the benefits are both powerful and immediate. When I’m not thinking ahead to my turn to speak, I can fully listen to friends, right to the end of their sentence or story – which lets me relax and makes them feel unrushed and heard – which makes them relax too. Since I’ve heard their full point in their own words, my replies are more pertinent and structured; which makes for a richer conversation.
It’s no fun being interrupted, but short of actually calling someone out on their bad habit, there’s not much you can do about it. But in a spirit of being the change you want to see in the world, you can work on your own tendency to interrupt, and it really is win-win. The less you do it, the better your conversations and, as everyone relaxes and gets used to being fully heard, the less likely it is that you yourself will be interrupted. So, next time you’re chatting to friends, mentally note how often you start talking before others have really finished. The first step in changing a habit is to acknowledge it – and when you do start noticing, I bet you’ll shock yourself. And when you start to stop yourself and force yourself to listen patiently, you’ll be amazed at the effect it has on both the people around you and on your own stress levels and enjoyment of the conversation!
You know he’s tired when your husband confuses you with your daughter… of eight months.
Last week, I plopped down onto the sofa, baby in arms ready for a feed, and asked my husband to pass me a bib. Ever obliging, he brought it over and proceeded absentmindedly to tie the thing around my neck. Once I realised this was not a joke and got over the hysterics that ensued, it struck me just how tired he must be. And how tired I am. All the time.
I can’t really blame sleep deprivation – Alice is a pretty decent sleeper. So I don’t need to read yet another book/lecturing tome with a catchy title like “How to get your baby to sleep wherever and whenever you want, including 15 hours a night plus at least five daytime naps”. The truth is that even when you sleep well, the very act of being a parent is itself tiring. Pushing the buggy, carrying the increasingly heavy baby, tidying toys, endless loads of washing, the constant vigilance any time you put the baby down, the permanent nagging worry about [choking/illness/normal brain development/school options/inappropriate friends] *delete as appropriate.
So the only way forward is to accept the tiredness and to adjust life accordingly. Because fighting fatigue is itself exhausting.
Here are the fatigue-accepting commandments that work for me:
1. I no longer stay up late.
Other parents of small children are not merrily quaffing Bordeaux in front of a good film until midnight. They are, like me, falling asleep in front of the TV using their spouse as a human pillow. Suck it up, record the movie, and go up to bed while you still have the energy to brush your teeth.
A sub-section to that: I limit my alcohol intake. Pre-children, most evenings involved a glass of wine with husband or a friend – we live in France, for heaven’s sake! Now, that glass of wine will cause me to pass out even earlier than usual, so it needs to be kept for weekends and occasions.
2. I lighten my day.
I am a list person. And I like getting through my list each day. I now accept that what I can and cannot get done is no longer solely dependent on me; and that I usually won’t get it all done. And that’s ok, because the unwritten task on every list I’ll ever make from now on is “take excellent care of child while doing all the other stuff”, and if that one gets done well, then we’re doing all right.
3. I choose when I do my thinking.
I’m unwell, daughter is ill, husband is away for work, and sleep was a pipe dream last night. Now is not the time to start finding solutions to the Great Babysitter Conundrum. Nor is it the moment to consider school choices (did I mention she’s eight months old?), examine our financial future, make a new business plan. Because, in a sleep-deprived state there are no decent schools; we’ll be penniless, destitute, by the time we’re 40. And my business plan looks rather like the Titanic – a great idea that will ultimately lead to my doom. I put those issues to one side and tackle them once we’ve all had a bit more sleep and a calming cuppa.
4. I have stopped talking about the tiredness.
One day a coaching client was in the middle of a diatribe about how shattered she was when it occurred to me to ask, in all sincerity: “Is talking about it helping you?” I am not recommending we “lean in”, but does complaining to the spouse or competing with other mothers (“I was up all night – got about 30 minutes sleep – not even sure how I’m still alive, really”) make you feel any better?
So, in a definite case of “Coach, coach thyself”, these are my strategies for coping with a fatigue that I have accepted will be with me for at least the next 21 years.
A DIY coaching tool for taking stock of your life and getting your house in order
The benefit of regular clear-outs is a fact universally acknowledged. Or at least it is in my house. My husband was stunned by the joy I felt when they installed massive clothing donation bins at the entrance to the metro nearest our flat; and I challenge anyone not to feel freer, lighter and more in control after taking a bag load of I’ll-never-read-these-again books to Oxfam.
But what about moving the stock-take from the back of your closet into your mind and soul? When it comes to having a good sort-out, there are many areas of our lives that would benefit from a little light dusting and polishing, not just the kitchen cupboards. Coaching offers a wealth of great tools to do just that – take stock of your life and see where your figurative house needs to be put in order. While it is always more helpful to do such exercises with a qualified coach, it is also possible to use them on your own and glean some helpful insights.
The Wheel of Life is a simple way to identify the various major “bits” of your life, assess your satisfaction with them, and start coming up with a plan to raise that satisfaction level.
The Wheel of Life aka Not so Trivial Pursuits
Draw a circle on a piece of paper and divide it into wedges like the pies in a game of Trivial Pursuits (number of wedges is your choice – starting with six is pretty manageable). Assign a theme to each wedge. Themes are areas of your life that you wish to take a look at – or indeed, they can just be areas that spring to mind. In this exercise, your subconscious is a good guide. A few examples: one wedge might be “family”, which for some might mean “me, my partner and our kids” but for other people might mean “parents, grandparents, siblings” – and those people might choose to put “partner/love” and “children” into separate wedges on their own. What you mean by each of your themes is your business, as long as you are clear about how you load the word you choose. Other wedges might be “money”, “leisure”, “health”, “career”, “spirit”… it’s a very personal choice.
On your marks…
Once you have your themes, take some time to consider each one and to rate your satisfaction with this part of your life from 1 to 10 – draw lines in each wedge so that 1 is a line near the interior of the circle, and 10 is the further edge. Like so:
You’ll probably end up with a very bumpy wheel!
The next step within a coaching session would be to discuss each area and the mark attributed to it, and to choose one or two on which to work. On your own, you can take your time to look at each one and think about what makes your health an 8 but your love life a 4 – talking to a friend can also help. Then, taking each one in turn, think about what it would take to turn that 4 into 5. Think specifics: spending more time with your partner? eating dinner at the table rather than in front of the TV? a monthly date night? a daily lunchtime phone call? more cuddling? What would it take to bump it up to a 6? And then a 7…
The idea isn’t to go from a 2 to a 10 in two weeks flat, but to identify areas for change and improvement that will eventually harmonise the levels of satisfaction across all your wedges. A wheel with lumps and bumps cannot roll. But the challenge of trying to turn a career “3” into a 10 can simply be paralysing. Concentrate on the areas that naturally attract your attention and list small, actionable changes.
Once you have some action ideas, consider which you can actually put in place, and, crucially, which you want to put in place. It’s no good choosing “go for a weekly run” if you have absolutely no desire to go running. Yes, it might bump your “body image” score up to a 7, but your “time for fun” score might take a hit. I advise kicking off just one action per week and taking a moment at the end of each week to see what’s working for you.
Take your time. Your Wheel of Life is ever-changing. Even if you managed to take all your wedges up to a perfect 10, at some point you’ll decide to buy a house or have a baby, and new wedges will appear for you to work on. The idea isn’t to strive for a perfect circle, but to use the exercise to see where your pain points are, and what you can do about them.
One last thing…
Don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate in the wedges that are looking pretty damn good. If your “friendship” wedge is a healthy 9, why not make a list of all you’re grateful for in your relationships? If your “work” wedge is flying high, why not acknowledge that by taking in some Friday afternoon pastries for your charming colleagues? Work on the low numbers, revel in the high ones.