I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth. Well, not quite; I’m certainly nowhere near Hamlet’s level of sadness and introspection, but I have found myself somewhat on the grumpy side recently. You know, that state where everything seems like a big deal, nothing strikes you as terribly funny, and life just feels like hard work.
The makings of such a mood can come from any quarter – professional setbacks, disappointments in friendships, money problems. For me, it’s been due to feelings of bog-standard overwhelm. I am coming up to the sixth month of my first pregnancy, and my husband and I are currently looking to buy a house and move just outside of Paris. Not bad when it comes to life-changing decisions, huh? Add to that our full-time jobs, families, friends, my writing and coaching, and it all seems like a mountain from which even the fearless Bear Grylls would run screaming.
The inconvenient truth
And the thing is, there’s not really much to be done about overwhelm. You can roll your sleeves up, make a plan, start a list, make a plan B, and discuss options with your partner ad nauseam, and those actions are practical and wise. But they’re not always enough to quiet the nagging little voice that pipes up at 2am and whispers some variant on, “It won’t all be ok; you shan’t get through this; you cannot manage”.
It is my firm belief that the only thing to do in those situations is to GAG oneself. No, we’re not getting into 50 Shades territory here; GAG stands for “Get A Grip”. It’s an old expression that sounds rather shocking nowadays, doesn’t it? In an age that favours self-examination even to the point of self-torture over the old “buck up” attitude, exhorting someone to simply get a grip seems callous. But I maintain that sometimes it’s the only way.
It’s like a mental self-slap. A reminder that we really are dealing with first-world issues, here. My husband is fond of asking me to imagine how I would feel if the things overwhelming me weren’t happening – if I weren’t able to have children, if we couldn’t envisage getting a bigger home, if I didn’t have employment, friends that want my time, family who need me… The simple answer is: I’d feel pretty rubbish (he can be infuriatingly right at times)!
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a problem really is a problem and needs talking through and solving, but it’s often just a proliferation of activity, obligations and, well, life that puts us in a tail spin. That’s when a self-shake and a firm “For God’s sake, Jo, Get. A. Grip.” works wonders for me.
Do try this at home
GAGging works best when performed using a specific accent. I occasionally hear a plummy-voiced Malory Towers- type Sports Mistress barking at me. You may prefer an American drill sergeant or even an exasperated version of yourself. Sometimes I like to hear my Scottish grandmother’s voice softly burring, “Now, now, dear, you know I love you, but do try to get a grip for goodness sake”. She never said anything of the kind to me, but somehow the vision of this strong, no-nonsense yet kind and loving woman works every time.
GAGging is also best achieved when used entirely on its own. No extra pep talk, no list of “examples of times when it has all been ok in the past as so will be this time too”, no reasoning or cajoling. Just a mental “No Entry” sign that brooks no argument.
It’s not easy at first, but if you GAG each time you head back down the road of ovewhelm, it eventually comes more quickly and more naturally. Give it a try. I’m interested to know how it works for you!
To resolve or not to resolve, that is the question. It’s the one we ask ourselves each January as the annual invitation to start over rolls around. In the media, there’s the usual flurry of “How to make resolutions that last”-type articles (the kind of stuff I love to read), along with the expected slew of “Why making resolutions is a waste of time” pieces (not my cup of tea). Personally, I feel resolution-making as an expression of the will to self-improvement is never to be discouraged: the simple act of voicing a desire to change and then attempting to do so is a massive step forward. For me, failure to keep a resolution does not indicate that making resolutions is futile; rather it suggests that the resolution was perhaps the wrong one for you, or it was made for the wrong reasons, or – crucially – it was badly worded.
Specific and committed
The way in which we word and specify our intentions is crucial to their longevity. The difference between “I’m going to be healthier in 2015” and “I’m going to jog for 10 minutes twice a week in 2015” is huge. The first is vague and contains no real action, the second is specific and involves a solid commitment. Which is more likely to be kept?
Now, you’d think that, self-improvement info junkie that I am, I’d be able to sidestep these kinds of mental potholes. Think again. This New Year, I caught myself making a whopper of a rookie error as I sat down to set some intentions for 2015. There I was with a nice list of all the things I wanted to find more time for over the year – yoga, new coaching clients, promoting my work as a writer – when I noticed that every item on that list was – mentally – preceded by the words “I will find more time to…” See the fatal flaw? Answers on a postcard to the woman who’s still looking through her chest of drawers to find where she left that bit of spare time she just knows she put somewhere for safekeeping.
Stop searching, start creating
What was I thinking? You don’t find time for anything. Time is not a crumpled fiver you come across down the side of the sofa, nor is it something you discover left over at the end of a long day. Time is finite; no-one gets any more than 24 hours in a day.
The minute I changed the word “find” to “make”, my perspective on my resolutions changed. I am going to have to make time to prospect for clients, clear space in my diary for that extra yoga class, and – whisper it – make the choice between crashing on the sofa like an extra from The Walking Dead and getting out the laptop to write. Finding time is about trying to cram even more into the day, snatching five minutes here and there. Making time is about saying no to activities that aren’t priority, crafting your schedule to work towards your objectives, and making conscious decisions about where you put your energy at any given moment – which sometimes means giving up things that aren’t useful and don’t serve you.
A sense of agency
It all comes down to a feeling of agency, really. Making time puts me firmly in the driver’s seat of my life, relying on myself to make the decisions that get me where I want to be. Finding time – just like finding a forgotten banknote – relies to a large extent on luck and good fortune. And my goals are a little too important to me to leave them in the lap of the gods. Aren’t yours?
It’s 31st October, Halloween; and pitch black outside. As I type, a single candle glows on the coffee table and the street lamps are starting to flicker to life. All spooky stuff, of course, if you’re in the mood to get into it, which sadly we in Europe don’t tend to do that much. I rather like Halloween – it has always seemed to me to be a great festival of autumn – the orangey colours, the pumpkins (a good excuse for pumpkin bread and soup), the nights drawing in. I love it for the same reason I love Guy Fawkes Night – the cosy, gather-round-the-fire, be outside wrapped up against the cold feeling it gives me.
But this Halloween, I’m turning my attention to tomorrow’s holiday. Here in France, 1st November is a national holiday for All Saints’ Day, a Catholic celebration of all the saints in heaven, known and unknown. I’m not Catholic but the message of the day speaks to me on some level. For some reason, this year, it’s made me think about all the everyday saints that touch our lives.
I’m thinking particularly of a man who works in the canteen in my office building. He rings up the workers’ meals for payment and cheerfully wishes us a good day. He reminds you if you forget to take a paper napkin, and always has a genuine smile and a “bon appétit” for everyone. I always go to his queue to pay for my lunch, just because I know he will brighten my day. Now, I’m not actually suggesting anyone petition the Pope for canonisation, but I do want to take a moment to give thanks for this unsung hero of the lunchroom who never fails to put a smile on my face.
They’re all around…
And while I’m at it, I’d like to remember my friend Patricia, who, while I was off work sick recently, texted me a video of naughty baby pandas that warmed my heart. And the kind lady on the tube who silently handed me a tissue when I was literally crying with laughter at a David Sedaris book. And Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife – I’m on the third book of the most humbling and uplifting trilogy. And my chum Jimmy, who always greets me with “Hello, you beautiful thing”, something which will never cease to buoy me. And my Mum, who will make a full roast with parsnips whenever I am home for the weekend, as well as buying my favourite type of coleslaw, only to delight me. And my husband, who just has to look at me to make me smile.
These people will never have churches names after them. They won’t be praised in song or verse. But tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of them – and the million other people who touch my life – and giving thanks for the joy, warmth, humour, love and light they bring me.
Now that’s a happy thought strong enough to scare away any Halloween ghouls that may still be lurking in the morning.
Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.
Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.
Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.
My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.
All good things
Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.
Profit and loss
The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.
Making your mind up
So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.
Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!
Recently, my husband and I undertook a major challenge. Now, just for context, you should know that we have both climbed some serious mountains in our time. I moved to Paris alone at the age of 23, we moved house with a one-month-old baby, and my best beloved is a fan of Bear Grylls-style hiking, for heaven’s sake! Yet nothing prepared us for what we did last month: We went on holiday with our baby.
For the first time.
Abroad, travelling by plane.
Friends warned us it would be hard. Some said the air travel would be hellish. Others cited disrupted sleeping and eating as reasons to stay home. One, on what I hope was just a particularly tiring day for her, told me simply to wait 18 years for my next real holiday. But, true to form, we rolled up our sleeves and decided to give it a go anyway.
And, do you know what? It was hard. But it was also fine. In fact, it was fun. True, the trip in no way resembled holidays pre-baby.
No lie-ins. No romantic late-night dinners. No real down-time to speak of, and a lot more stuff to haul around with us than usual. But it wasn’t the frazzled nightmare that I was led to expect.
It helped that I approached the project drawing on my work as a coach and had done some mental preparation in order to limit stress, disappointments and complications. I won’t offer advice on sun cream (other than to wear it) or whether to pack or buy nappies, but here are my tips for preparing your mind for the vicissitudes of holidaying with a baby.
1. Make reasonable choices
When choosing your destination, method of travel and accommodation, be gentle with yourself and your baby. Downsize wherever possible. For our first family flight, we ruled out anything over two hours. We also researched a resort that offered a particularly good set-up for children. I’m of Scottish stock, and my daughter and I are so fair-skinned that we’re almost blue, hence our choice of a spring holiday when temperatures wouldn’t exceed 25 degrees celsius. Which leads me to my next point…
2. Take into account what your child would choose
I always hear my mother’s words when I’m making decisions that have an impact on my daughter: “Children don’t choose to be born”. It was my choice to have a baby, and while that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve any rest, fun or relaxation, it does mean I have a responsibility to secure said pleasures for myself in a way that isn’t gruelling for my child. Yes, you may want to visit your friend in Argentina, but will the heat, the long flight and the time difference be too hard for your tot? If the kid is having a rough time, it’s guaranteed that you will too – why do that to yourself?
3. Prepare. Prepare.
Get as much information as you can from your travel agent or travel guides, friends and the Internet about the weather, the food, the journey. I phoned our hotel and got a list of exactly what was provided for my baby’s needs. Think through your child’s daily routine and make lists of all the things you use for each one. I had the dining table spread out by activity: in one corner, everything we’d need for Feeding (bottles, formula, bibs); in another corner all things Hygiene (nappies, wipes, cotton wool); and so on and so forth.
In short, make like a Boy Scout and be prepared.
4. Change your expectations
Do not go on holiday imagining that it will be anything like past vacations; you’ll avoid so much frustration if you can expect the unexpected. It’s like the first time I tried goat’s cheese. Yep, that’s the simile I’m going with, folks – humor me. I assumed it would taste much like cow’s cheese and so I hated it. Once I got my head around the fact that it was just a whole different thing, I grew to love it. Expect something new and you can’t be disappointed.
5. Be a team player
And make sure your partner is too. Take turns doing the post-pool bath while still in your own sopping swimwear. Give each other a break by taking baby out for a pram nap while the other person gets some afternoon shut-eye. Go back and forth on who feeds baby and who gets to eat their meal hot. These are all things we probably do naturally in the home environment, but on holiday it’s so tempting to just kick back and not notice your partner is slogging. Make sure you both pull your weight.
6. Remember you’re lucky
Whatever kind of holiday you’re planning, remember that you are lucky to be doing so. It’s so easy to bemoan the fact that babies have no notion of lie-ins, or that your evening apéro is somewhat less serene than before as you wrangle a wriggling toddler. But – without getting into gratitude diaries or counting blessings – think about the fact that you have the time and money to go on a family holiday and how lucky you are to have both that family and that holiday.
When I was a child, my mother worked part-time. Because of this, I gained an early appreciation of the wealth of options offered by flexible working hours. Indeed, I made elaborate plans for my future career. Or should I say, careers? When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always some variant of the following: “I want to be a doctor and a singer. I also want to write for a newspaper and be an actress. In my spare time (ah, such innocence!), I’ll be a criminal psychologist.”
When adults, perplexed, would ask how I planned to achieve these myriad goals, I would smile sweetly and say, “I’ll do it all part-time, of course!”
Now, as an adult and a mother, I actually do have something resembling this life I had planned out. I work part-time to have Wednesdays with my daughter, plus weekends and evenings, and do volunteer work once a month on the weekend. I also write, practice yoga, attempt to maintain some kind of social life, and spend time with my husband. I occupy a multitude of roles, and I find that in Paris, that is the norm. Women are expected to return to work after having a child.
“You’re pregnant, congratulations! Which crèche are you planning to register with?” No one raises an eyebrow if parents continue to have evenings out, and it’s mandatory to prendre soin de soi. But whereas child me envisioned clear demarcations between each job (Monday at the hospital, Tuesday as a journalist, Wednesday on stage…), adult me knows that my arrangement is more fluid than that, a constant juggling act where roles merge and meld, and I wear several different hats each day. I doubt I’m the only woman to experience this feeling.
And I like it. I’m told it’s because I’m a Gemini that I like diversity and can juggle with relative ease. Whatever the reason for my chameleon-like nature, I don’t want to change it. The part that can be a struggle, however, is making the switch between roles. Turning off coach brain when I go to pick up my daughter. Resisting the urge to pop into a children’s clothing shop to buy new pyjamas for la petite when on my way to a client meeting. Stopping myself from mentally composing my latest article while watching a film with my husband. So, I have developed some techniques to help me move between “jobs” throughout the day. If you, like me, are managing multiple roles, maybe they can also help you make the switch.
1. Mentally close your files
At the end of your work session, always make a list of what’s to be done when you sit down to your next work session. Get the list out of your head so you don’t need to “carry” it with you. Then, as you make your way from work to the crèche, mentally close your work files – picturing actual files is better than electronic ones. Visualize yourself putting away the papers, putting the binders into a filing cabinet, closing the drawer and locking up. This exercise, which you can do as you walk, drive or ride the bus, can really help you get your head out of the office.
2. Change your uniform
Taking off your work outfit (and maybe even having a shower) and putting on “Mom” clothes when you get home can really help you mentally leave your desk behind and step into your evening. Simply changing your hairdo can help you transition from the work day to an evening out with friends. I actually have a casual jacket that I only ever wear on days off. It’s now become so synonymous with “family time” that just putting it on helps me to change my mindset from pro to perso.
3. Give yourself a moment
So often we drop off bébé, jump on the métro to work then plunge straight into emails and sit in meetings all day. Then we finish work, down tools, run to the nounou, charge home, start cooking, rush to the gym, come back, plop on the sofa, then fall into bed. How often do you take a minute to really experience each transition? What if each time you change roles (worker, parent, partner, exerciser), you took a few seconds to breathe and step into your next activity? Contemplate what you’re about to do; consider how you want to be (professional? loving? fun?) and what values you want to honor as you embark upon the next part of your day. Giving yourself a moment to mindfully step into each role you occupy helps you stay present and enjoy each moment.
4. Be here now
If thoughts turn to work while you feed your baby, or you find yourself completing your online shopping when you should be coming up with new marketing strategies, gently remind yourself to “be here now”. Forcing yourself to focus on the task at hand will help you avoid the dissatisfaction of never feeling like your mind is present in your body – that nasty feeling of “I fed the kids, but now that they’re in bed, I realize I never gave them my full attention”, or the annoying “I could have done the report quicker if I’d actually concentrated.” Your other tasks will be waiting for you when you finish what you’re doing, and you’ll finish what you’re doing faster, better, and in a more fulfilling way if you give it 100%.