Tag Archives: normality

On choosing change (and the end of maternity leave)

If you can picture Dick Van Dyke dressed as a chimney sweep, bring to mind his terrible cockney accent and remember the tune of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ then you can bring to life the words I’ve had floating round my head today. (If you can’t, brace yourself for some slightly random song lyrics from Mary Poppins):

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.

(Ooooh, can you feel those tingles? Mary Poppins is on her way!!)

The seasons are a’changing. It’s true of national and international politics (about which I will make no comment here), it’s true in our garden, but it’s also true in our little family. Maternity leave has come to an end and the rhythms of our life are shifting. The shape of what’s coming is still unclear, but I feel excited; hopeful. I have been doing a lot of thinking in the past year, and especially the past months (you might have noticed the lack of blogs…), about what I want to do in the future. I thought I might have a roadmap by now, but it hasn’t arrived.

I find myself without a set timetable, or a fixed job (yet), but I have intention. I have thought about what matters most. I have thought about what I don’t want to do. I have found things I want to explore further. I have some strong instincts and I am learning to trust them, rather than needing exact plans. Just a few weeks ago I felt in turmoil over it all, but some convictions are settling.

If the idea of my maternity leave ending has confused you, since I announced in my last blog that I had quit my job, then let me explain. I am not going back to Tearfund or to my old job. But I am not staying in my maternity leave rhythms of full-time childcare. It’s maybe an artificial decision since I am still at home, but for me it is an important one. We decided on 9 months of maternity leave, and so I am moving into a different headspace. Jubilee has begun to settle with the childminder some of the week (very happily), and I have (the extraordinary gift of) some child-free space in the week.

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I could tell you that I have mixed feelings about the end of maternity leave, but that’s not really true. I have loved having so much time (in fact, all the time) with our little girl. I am deeply grateful for this country’s maternity policies and the situation of our family that mean I could have nine months with some income whilst staying at home every day with our kids. But I am also really happy to be able to start to work a few days a week outside the home, and share the care of the kids more with Andy and our lovely childminder. I am more alive and fulfilled when I have something else to do in my week away from my children. And I am happier when I come back to them (which they love).

I once had a slightly eccentric colleague who thought that married women shouldn’t work outside of the home because they flood the labour market when there are men out there who need the money more (the implication being that married women can live off their husband’s earnings). I have all kinds of problems with that philosophy, but the main one is this – it assumes that the only reason people work is for money, for economic survival. I think work (both inside and outside of the home) is so, so much more than that. It is a way to find purpose, meaning and fulfilment, it is a way to contribute to the wider culture and society, to serve and to show our love for the world, to express the people that we are. I believe that the work we do raising our kids is all of that, too. Work confers dignity on people – I’ve seen it in many corners of the world. When we believe we have something to offer, and can thereby support ourselves and our families, we feel worth something (and I don’t just mean as a capitalist unit). I know it isn’t always all of that, and I  undoubtedly have an idealised and privileged view. But it’s how I feel.

I believe that raising children is an extraordinary privilege. I also think it can be a brilliant life rhythm – when we (as women, at least) are of childbearing age, we also are at a point of life when we have the energy to change the world! (Or at least, we have some energy!) We could get ahead! And get stuff done! And then these tiny people arrive who demand every ounce of our energy. We have to switch gear and focus, and invest so much in the next generation. Having children upsets career paths and slows us down. But painful as that sometimes has felt for me (not that I even have a ‘career path’), I think it can also be a healthy life rhythm, and not just for mothers – if other members of the family also get involved. Andy’s life has certainly taken on a different, slower rhythm since Jesse arrived.

I believe in the work of raising kids, and I also believe it’s ok to want to be doing other things too. I want to go out into the world again and do some work beyond my family. Raising children is definitely the hardest job I have ever had, and I’m grateful that I can share that work with others (mostly Andy), and make some space for something else. If I have the choice, and I do, then there are other ways that I want to contribute to the world at the same time. There’s always a lot of chat about needing to go back to work after maternity leave for financial reasons. Maybe as women we feel we need to apologise for not being with our children full-time. (Did you see that BBC pilot, Motherland? Remember the impossibly perfect super-mum who says to the working mum demurely – “I don’t know how you do it, I just love my children too much”). Probably financial pressures do push a lot of women back into work sooner than they might otherwise choose. But I think returning to work can also be a positive choice, for a woman and for the whole family. It certainly feels that way for me, and (I think) for the other three members of the family.

In my next blog I’ll talk about what I’m actually going to do! And what I’m exploring too…but in the meantime I would love to hear about your experiences of maternity leave ending, or how you think about balancing family and work…

 

 

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These are the days of…

Well, as the weeks go by it seems I have less time to write rather than more. Hello sleep regressions and early teething. I rack my brains for something interesting to write about but I can’t seem to pull it out of the daily practicalities. But then I remembered a post I wrote earlier this year, about a book called Simply Tuesday, and how it talked about the importance of marking and naming each phase of life, and so I decided to write something about the very humdrum, beautiful dimensions of my life in May 2016.

These are the days of small things. Of small people and small ambitions. These are the days of endless plates of pasta for the wee man who won’t eat much else. Except pizza. And cheese. And endless handfuls of grapes. These are the days of fighting an endless battle against his eczema with creams and medicines that he hates, of dressing him in vests and babygrows to limit his scratching. The days when we don’t take him swimming and might not get to put him in shorts for the summer.

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These are the days of new words multiplying on his tongue every day. Of hearing him call everyone ‘guys’, most amusingly when telling the bath water to listen to him and stop running away down the plughole. These are the days of cuddles and stickers and dens and putting out pretend fires every day with the help of the entire cast of Fireman Sam. Of big emotions and amazing comebacks.

And for the smaller of the two, these are the days of gurgles and early grabs, of smiles and dark hair turning blond. These are the days when we never know whether to expect long stable sleeps or waking every hour. When my little finger is the only dummy she’ll take and settle with. When white noise permeates our waking and sleeping.

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These are the days of being in the house and sitting on the deck and gazing at the broken fence and overgrown garden beyond. There are afternoons to bask in the sunshine and chase toddlers down with sunscreen and hats, and hold crying babies and try to fork platefuls of dinner into your mouth while calming and bouncing them.

These are the days of contentment one moment and drudgery the next. The days of a unique and short season with its inimitable but unpredictable rhythm which ends I don’t know where. The days that end with lying on the sofa because it’s already nearly time to feed her again.

These are the days of romcoms on netflix, even the ones I never thought I’d watch.  Of The Mentalist and The Good Wife. Of podcasts that always get drowned out by shouts and screams from small people. These are the days of spending nap time tidying up but never getting anything really tidy. Of baking just to have something to show for myself at the end of the day.  Of writing lists and menu plans to make myself feel I am achieving things. Of a weekly outing on my own to a yoga class where I am the youngest participant and I never talk to anyone.

These are the days of solidarity with other parents who share our small rhythms. Of playdates and improvised picnics. Of endless singing of nursery rhymes and doing actions, even after the kids are in bed, because it’s the only music in my head. Of blind panic in the school holidays when all the toddler groups stop too. These are the days when I walk the toddler up the hill to the childminder with his sister in the sling, and he insists that I carry him too, and so I waddle up the road with a child on each hip. The days when we plead with him to share his toys and to stay in bed at night and to eat something and to get in the car and to wear a hat and to take his medicine and to hold hands when we cross the road. And the days when sometimes we don’t bother (that’s not to say we let him run into traffic).

These are the days of longing for purpose in the world beyond my children (not that there isn’t full and deep purpose to be found in nurturing our kids) and an afternoon that doesn’t involve carrying a baby everywhere. These are the days of feeling spent and like there is so much I am failing to do. Of wondering when I’ll find the energy to talk to the neighbours or even get hold of a compost bin. Days that feel small and never-ending. And then there are days of blissful gratitude for these two most indescribably beautiful kids who are greedy for my attention.

These are the days that will be gone before I know it.

 

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The new normal

In the past four months we’ve moved house, moved city, seen our boy turn two and added a whole new person to our family (which also means I’m on maternity leave). ‘Normal’, for us, has had a facelift.

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We’ve moved from a community where our way of living was really deliberate. We knew why we wanted to be there, we made space and time for our neighbours, we wanted to be in the inner-city and make it a good place to stay. And now we’ve moved away, to a town, and we’re not sure what to be deliberate about. Except the two very demanding small people in our house. So whatever ‘normal’ looks like right now feels very time-bound, and it’s hard to see the shape of things beyond.

Today’s ‘normal’ has extreme highs and lows. These early weeks of a having a baby are full of blissful snoozy snuggles, but also the insane frustration of not being able to put the baby down to do anything useful like, say, pack away the shopping or use the toilet, without accusatory screams ensuing. The sling sometimes works as a way round this, when I’m organised enough to have tied it on, but often it just means resigning myself to being pinioned under a baby for large chunks of the day. And on my days when I’m just with the baby, that’s ok. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with her?

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And on the days with both kiddos, there are even moments when I sigh with deep contentment and satisfaction. We’re ok! We’re doing this! These kids are beautiful! Everyone’s happy! Seconds later, of course, everyone is crying and overtired and I feel entirely inadequate and how many hours is it till Andy gets back? Jubilee is strapped into her car seat and we’re about to go but Jesse has just done a poo and doesn’t want me to change him so now both of them are screaming and no-one is happy and how hard can it be just to get out of the house for one appointment?

There are no evenings in this new normal. There are only hours spent camped out on the landing, putting Jesse back in his bed, and hours spent downstairs bouncing and soothing and feeding the baby.

 

It’s hilarious to me how only months ago, looking after a toddler seemed like a really demanding job, and now it seems comparatively easy. Just one kid? And he doesn’t have to be carried everywhere and fed through the night? What a dream!

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The new normal also has a different geography. No longer are there a zillion coffee shops, main stream supermarkets and world-class (free) cultural landmarks on my doorstep. The new geography requires use of the car. If I’m going to walk into town I need to factor in the reality of pushing a double buggy back up a big hill on the way home, so I often think twice. I don’t know the lie of the land so well. We’re less spoilt for consumer opportunities, but the countryside is so close and we can go on walks!

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A huge part of our London landscape was church. We loved our church family in Camberwell. We felt so at home there, so loved and inspired, so woven into the fabric of what was happening there. It was a wrench to leave. And we’re not sure where we belong yet in Luton, church-wise. Finding a church family is a big deal for us, and there’s no perfect fit. Every family has its own mess and imperfections, but we really believe in being part of the conversation, learning to love and be loved by others, and to work out how to follow God together. So we’re looking around for a home.

And what about work? When I went back to work after my last maternity leave I was a happier person again. Getting to spend half my week doing a grown-up job and having uninterrupted grown-up conversations – PLUS a commute during which I could read books – felt like a gift. I loved the mix of days with Jesse and days at work. But right now, I’m good with the days at home. We have the little man at a childminder he loves for two days of the week, so for a couple of days it’s just me and the little lady. Andy freelances from home a couple days a week and it makes a big difference having him there for back-up. The days don’t feel monotonous, like I feared.

Now is fine. Now I am sleeping more than I anticipated. Now I have more friends than I expected and more support than I dared hope for. Now I am enjoying my kids more than I realised I would. Now I have a little space to dream. Now I am learning to not be on top of all the practicalities. Now we get through the tough days. Now won’t last very long so I’m trying to dive deep into the moments of joy.  In the blink of an eye it will change. It will be different in a month, in two, in three, in six. Jubilee won’t need to be carried around so much, she’ll be more awake and will interact with the world more. She’ll vomit on me less. She’ll be less fragile, she’ll interact with her brother more and they’ll play together. Sometime, she’ll sleep whole nights of sleep. Before I know it she’ll be eating meals and moving around on her own.

We’ll work out what else to be deliberate about as the weeks and months pass. And part of that will be working out what to blog about. I’m writing less often (you probably noticed!), and more about our small family life right now, whereas I set this up originally to explore our experiments with living simply in the inner-city – where we no longer live! I’m pretty sure I want to keep writing, but I’ll be thinking some more about the kinds of things I’m want to write about (and what I won’t write about anymore).

I’d also love to hear about the kinds of posts you like to read, and those that are less interesting to you. Write a comment or email me at jennyflannagan at gmail.com.

 

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Holiday missive from Luton

Greetings from misty, wet, bewildering, welcoming Luton. And from the much reduced but still evident chaos of our beautiful new home. We’ve made it. The furniture and boxes are all here. Most things work. We have beds to sleep in (although Jesse has just worked out how to climb out of his – yikes). The boxes in the house have mainly been unpacked (the others have been moved to the man-cave).  Life here is slowly beginning to unfurl.

Jesse outside our new front door

Jesse outside our new front door

Everyone is asking how we’re settling in, and how I’m finding my feet in a new place. It’s just overwhelming, to be honest. It’s been a month now, but a week of that was spent in Ireland, and half of each week I’ve been commuting to work, which now takes two hours each way. I leave in the dark, and arrive back in the dark, and in between there is a lot of waddling. There have been days when I felt like the major achievement of the day was simply reaching the office (but apparently I was also expected to work when I got there). All of which is to say, I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of time to build much of a relationship with the town itself.

I am trying to find my way around, but I have to use sat nav to drive anywhere, including the supermarket. There are no longer Tesco Expresses and mini Waitroses on every corner. I am trying to retain a healthy, pedestrian lifestyle and resist the urge to jump into the car at every opportunity, but we live at the top of a big hill and Andy is pleading with me to give in to the constraints of my current elephantine proportions. I had a day off this week and made it to the cinema alone (joy!) but had to consult google to work out how to find my way from the car park to the screen. I had failed to notice that they were next door to one another.

The logistics are overwhelming, and we are battling with the seemingly endless list of tiny domestic dramas that need to be set right. On good days we remember that this house is a spectacular and beautiful gift and that so much has gone smoothly. On less good days our ineptitude at DIY seems like a cruel joke.

But what is already amazing is the welcome we have received. So many people have stopped by to help unpack, or assemble flat pack furniture, or bring provisions. We’ve been to a birthday party and a Christmas fair, we’ve been round for family tea and over for coffee, there have been playdates and poker parties (that last bit is all Andy). Yesterday I even thought it would be a good idea to invite another nearly-two year old over to make gingerbread men (which, frankly, was insanely optimistic). In those sociable moments it feels like the easiest and happiest of moves, and in the scheme of things, that matters more than the bewildering logistics of a new place.

Perhaps I expected too much of everyone...

Perhaps I expected too much of everyone…

We even have our first real, family Christmas tree and have rounded up enough decorations to make it look festive, although crawling underneath it to reach the light switch is more than I can manage. Also, Jesse demands that all decorations be hung at the top of the tree, so it’s a little odd looking. We are hosting Christmas this year, mainly due to my size, and are already looking forward to having grandparents around for the whole holiday season – both for the sheer delight it will bring Jesse, and the incredible help it will be to me (and us). I could almost cry with gratitude already.

Thanks for all the encouragement and love and prayers along the way. A new chapter is beginning and we feel very grateful (if also freaking terrified about next year).

(Jesse did eventually let Andy in)

(Jesse did eventually let Andy in)

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Only boring people get bored

It’s come back to me recently that when I was a kid complaining about being bored, I was told that only boring people got bored. That’s to say, that if I was bored, it could only mean I was a boring person.

Photograph: John Slater/Getty Images

Photograph: John Slater/Getty Images

I couldn’t tell you whether that philosophy was offered in a one-off, flippant fashion, out of frustration with my constant whining, or whether it was a deeply thought through and oft repeated mantra; I don’t remember whether it was said once on a bad day, or repeatedly over many years. But I realise that it has stayed me.

Before you get too concerned, let me be clear that It didn’t make me think I was a boring person. I didn’t silently and morosely internalise a belief in my essential boringness. No. I remember thinking “Ok. I get this new rule. I must never again own up to being bored.”

So I’ve always been good at hiding it, at sucking it up and dealing with it.

But over the past few years I have started to come across the wise words of others, telling me to lean in to the discomfort of my life – and specifically (if only I could remember who to credit here), to lean into the boring and frustrating parts of life, as much as the heady joys. And I guess that the reason those words have kept bouncing around my head is because they offer a philosophy so different from the approach I have taken for most of my life.

Boredom, rather than something to acknowledge and reflect on, to question and to sit with for a while (maybe even to embrace?), has always been something to hide, to ignore, to pretend I have never really encountered before.

The truth is that I often get bored.

I did one of those psychometric tests at secondary school to tell me what jobs I was best equipped to do. I don’t remember what careers it suggested (at the time all I cared about was that actor appeared somewhere on the list of suggestions, which I think it did), but one of the first comments it made said something like – ‘you need a job involving variety and challenge as you will get bored very easily.’

Earlier this year, during my quest to find a new job, I revisited the Strengths Finders tests (it’s a great tool for working out what you’re best at and what you bring to a team) and was reminded that my ‘top strength’ is activator. Yep, I like to get things done. And guess what? My compulsive need to make things happen can often lead to “boredom and impatience”.

It’s not that my life is quiet or dull. You might have noticed my constant quest for self-improvement?! But the truth is that I get bored. Looking after a small child is joyful and rewarding and grounding and exhausting, but it is also repetitive and mundane and, dare I say it, sometimes boring. And how do I deal with that?

I’ll tell you the main answer: I pick up my phone.

It probably ramped up when I had Jesse, because in the early days of motherhood I was so often pinioned under a sleeping or feeding infant, unable to move and undertake other tasks. Which has the potential to be really boring and frustrating. And so distraction became my friend. In longer stretches it could be box sets or iPlayer. But during the day it was all about short bursts. Email, facebook, twitter, Instagram, blogs…these have all become my daily companion over the past two years. Hourly, in some instances.

It’s got to be something of an addiction. And if I added up all the time I spent on my phone (which I will NEVER be able to face doing) it would make me feel pretty bad. Not because phones are evil, but because my phone just turns me into an endless spectator and consumer of often fairly mindless information – because I’m just hiding from my own boredom, whilst never giving it the chance to propel me towards something more worthwhile or interesting.

I’ve been thinking all this for a while, and then I watched a random stand-up set from comedian Nick Offerman (the exquisite and inimitable Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreations). He had a riff about social media and phones and how we can’t really handle just being where we are anymore, or being content with where we are. We have to constantly check in with what’s happening elsewhere, probably comparing where we are with what else is happening to our friends and feeling less content as a result. Anyway, maybe it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

So I’m trying to break free from my phone addiction in order to face up to my own boredom. Because maybe leaning into reality a bit more will help make me that bit more present to my own life. And hopefully that extra time will allow me to think about what I could do which has a little more substance and participation involved than surfing social media. Maybe I’ll dream up some creative projects. Maybe I’ll become a compulsive baker. It’s hard to tell at the outset.

I realise that trying to do this at the very point at which life is about to become more fully consumed by the care of small children could be viewed as just being a bit hard on myself (it’s not an unfamiliar pattern in my life choices!). There’s a certain amount of ‘doing what it takes to survive’ that will inevitably characterise this next year. And some touchpoints with the adult world, if only virtually, can be sanity-saving. But I’m going to head into it with some different boundaries and see how I go.

To start with, I’ve deleted my work email from my phone (really, there is nothing I do that is so urgent or life-saving that it can’t wait till my work days), and facebook too. And I’m going for longer stretches without looking at it. Small steps, people.

I’d love to hear how you deal with boredom, and any stories of weaning yourself away from smartphone addiction…

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On identity crises

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When I left formal education behind me in 2004 (I was 23 and had got through school, university and drama school without pausing for breath), I planned to be an actress and I became a PA. No offence to my fellow PAs but it was a long way off my intended target. I did the job for three years and underwent a major identity crisis during that time. (Starting full-time work seems to be a popular time for identity crises). I had an idea of who I was, or who I should be, and it was (quite typically) very far away from my daily reality.

It was a temporary reality, I told myself. Only the two month contract kept getting extended.

It’s hard to trace all the different threads that made up my particular crisis but I can remember one of the biggest ones: it was the realisation that what I wanted to do (act) suddenly didn’t look very important in light of the overwhelming injustices of the world. You know, the stuff about people starving and suffering so unnecessarily across the planet. They were suddenly impossible to avoid in charity-land. I didn’t know how to reconcile all that with my life plans.

I still don’t have that one nailed, but I’ve come to believe that it was poor logic that led me to abandon my passions and gifts because “the world doesn’t need another artist”.

Or, as I read yesterday in Savor by Shauna Niequist:

How many bands does the world need? Yikes. That’s the wrong question, the worst ever, most art-killing question there is.  So much of life, really, comes down to asking the wrong questions…The general world population will survive without one more stage production and one more gallery showing.  This is the thing, though: you might not. We create because we were made to create, having been made in the image of God, whose first role was Creator.  We were made to be the things he is: forgivers, redeemers, second chance-givers, truth-tellers, hope-bringers.  And we were certainly, absolutely, made to be creators.

Today I’m more at peace with the idea that creativity is a fundamental expression of our humanity.And specifically, of mine. At crisis point, however, all that mattered to me was that I could be a cog in the machine of making the world better, and I needed to ignore the questions of what I wanted to do, because they were self-indulgent. I guess the roots of that thinking – the functional approach to life, the convenient simplicity of following instructions – go back quite far. As a kid I was good at doing what I was told and earning approval. At church there was a lot of talk about obedience.

Another way that my thinking has changed, is believing that there are an infinite number of ways to express our creativity. Take acting. Sure, there is the path everyone tells you about which takes you to hundreds of auditions and to agents and casting directors and through unpaid fringe work hopefully on to paid theatre, tv and film. But that’s not the only route to expressing our creativity and artistry (some would even say that it’s more likely to crush it).

After a few years at the desk job I reduced my hours to part-time, and in part it was because I knew that if I didn’t make any space for acting, then it would become harder and harder to believe I still could, or that it was still part of who I was. That led to setting up a theatre company with three friends, which was an incredible adventure. We grew more confident in what we could create ourselves, what we could contribute to the conversation, rather than simply speaking someone else’s lines.

I worked in an environment that felt dislocated from the me I had always imagined myself to be. Having a theatre company made me feel like I was still that person, deep down. But recently I left The Ruby Dolls. So who am I now? Have I cut the last thread between my erstwhile dreams and who I think I am?

I like the idea of having an identity that isn’t defined by my current job (even though I quite like my job). Don’t we all like to think that some super-hero alter-ego is lurking beyond what anyone else can see? (or maybe that’s just me?) There are plenty of times and places when the ability to hold onto an identity which is different to the one that confronts you every day is a saving grace.  For the woman living on the street, the man in prison, the kid in the youth detention centre, the old lady in the care home, the educated immigrant working as a cleaner.

But for me there is a challenge to own up to my own decisions, and be able to integrate into my identity all the different choices I have made, and most especially the ones that explode whatever ‘me’ I dreamt up as a teenager. It’s hard to hold them all together, but it’s the only way to face who I am with honesty.

 

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A thing I thought I’d never do: get a cleaner

It’s time for a confessional blog. I live in small council flat, I work part-time, and I have just started paying someone else to clean our home.

It’s a thing I thought I’d never do. I used to work as a cleaner, for goodness sake. For two long university summers I worked in a fancy hotel cleaning bedrooms, bathrooms and even mews cottages. I am confident handling a hoover. I know how to tidy up. I can shine up a sink using an old hand towel with the best of them.

And I have grown up with a beautiful example of competent, but not obsessive, house-cleaning. My mum worked part-time, and looked after us, and still managed to keep the house spick and span (and she lived in an actual house rather then a flat).  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do the same.

What’s more, it’s not like I’m on my own in this.  When we got married Andy and I divided up various chores and boring household responsibilities between us.  He took the laundry (and, incidentally, the ironing which he has somehow now palmed off to my mother) and I got most of the cleaning.  He does help, but the idea of doing anything weekly is still a fairly ambitious level of frequency for him.  And probably for me too, although I want to be that person.

I have friends who have had cleaners for ages (and are extremely grateful for them; one cites employing a cleaner as “the best thing I ever did for my marriage”), but almost without exception they live in MUCH BIGGER HOUSES.  It feels more than a little shameful to have so small a space and still not be able to keep it that clean.  I mean, I can do the superficial things – I can wipe surfaces and sweep floors and clean sinks.  But behind the sofa? The corners where dust and crumbs accumulate? Somehow, no. I can’t quite keep on top of the chaos except in short sharp bursts.  Nothing gets really really clean. (Except when my parents or my in-laws come to stay and take matters into their own hands – for which I am deeply grateful).

And it’s a privileged choice, isn’t it? To have the income to be able to pay someone else to do something you don’t want to? That’s the hardest bit for me to swallow.  Owning up to my privileged-ness.

Is it compatible with any conception of simple living? Perhaps I could argue that it frees me to focus on things that are more important to me (and that I’m better at!!).  Perhaps it bursts my bubble of self-sufficiency? It certainly shatters a collection of illusions I have about myself and the way we live, and reminds me of all the choices we have.

Our bathroom was beautiful when she (our lovely cleaner) left it a couple of weeks ago, more beautiful than it had been in years. And there was less chaos (partly because I ran around clearing chaos before her arrival so that she could actually see the surfaces). I felt calmer.

But mostly just grateful.

 

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When I no longer have any goals…

Just recently I was reading a blog post about goal setting.  And I realised that for the first time that I can remember, I have no goals.  Which was disorienting. I do not know what I want to achieve in life.

I mean, obviously I want to raise a child who is loved and happy and that’s what takes most of my energy right now. And being a spectacular wife.  And I have your typical list of ordinary tasks to complete like ‘make dinner’ and ‘go to the chemist’ and ‘hoover’.  But somehow there is a hankering in me for more than that, a hankering which is currently shapeless.

During pregnancy I seemed to keep reading articles about these extraordinary women who discover a new burst of entrepreneurial energy after childbirth and begin their own businesses during maternity leave.  I think there was some kind of special series in that free magazine they give women on the tube.

I am not one of those women.

The scale of free creative energy I have is probably best communicated by the direction my musings are taking me: not new career plans, but potential hobbies.  And specifically, photography and gardening.

Let me be clear at the outset: I am shockingly terrible at both.  But recently I have been feeling like maybe I could do something about it.

The photography one is actually more intimidating because of the intense psychological battles I face.  An offhand comment in childhood – “You’re not much of a photographer, are you?” – has somehow hung over me like a weird self-fulfilling prophecy for 25 years, telling me I’m always going to be rubbish at taking photos.

In my last year or two before maternity leave, I had someone work for me at Tearfund whose job was basically to take really great photos and film on her SLR (I don’t even know what that stands for) to illustrate the stories we were trying to tell for Tearfund. (You can see some of her work here or here).  She made everything look beautiful.

I use my iPhone and instagram because it’s easy to make rubbish photos look quite cool.  But I dream of more.

And then on the gardening front.  Well, this is our balcony at the moment.

photo (1)Yep, dead as a doornail.  (The picture also illustrates my terrible photography).  I went to a vegetable-growing workshop at our excellent local garden farm a couple of years ago.  I bought some plants at the local market, inspired by my neighbours’ more beauteous doorsteps.  But everything is dead now.  I killed it all. Partly it was the frequent travel, partly my bad memory. (And partly my husband).

I would like to get better at both.  But there is a suspicious side of my brain that thinks I am maybe just a bit bored and consequently becoming overambitious.  Should I direct my energies in more useful directions?  Perhaps I need to make peace with being a bit crap at gardening and photography and move on (as I have done with other areas of life – DIY, physics, personal grooming).

It’s a bit like ski-ing.  Very fun but a bit too high maintenance to incorporate into regular life.

But then again (can you tell I haven’t worked this one out yet?), both are potentially connected to my longterm passions. Photography is a way of storytelling which is right at the heart of what I love to do.  And gardening is a way to reconnect with the natural world – another thing I care deeply about.

One thing, at least, is clear to me.  Doing these things in community is really the only way I’ll get on with it.  I don’t have the kit, the expertise, or the motivation to sustain any great learning curve on my lonesome.

So this has become a cry for help!  Have you any ideas about how I could learn how to grow things and keep them alive on my balcony?  Or to take beautiful photos that tell a story?  They’re doing a gardening workshop on my estate in a few weeks but it’s the day of one of my dearest friend’s weddings!

(I know one man who could do both in a flash but he lives in Northern Ireland, sadly).

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The cost of living

Durban beach

I’ve spent the last week staying with some wonderful friends in Durban in South Africa and oh! the sunshine!   My shoulders have un-hunched for the first time in weeks.  I realised that one thing I love about travel is the headspace.  Even when it’s hard work and the cultural shift is exhausting and I miss my home, there is space away from my responsibilities and meetings, time to think new thoughts  and catch sight of new horizons.  And yes, I love the sunshine (and dislike aircon).

Andy and I have been speaking at a conference about mission.  Well, speaking and singing and acting and listening.  Just this afternoon I was leading a workshop about where we choose to live.  That might seem like a strange question to  spend a workshop thinking about.  I certainly haven’t ever been to conference where I’ve been asked to think about that question before.

For most of my life I’ve thought in a fairly conventional way about the question.  You live in the nicest place you can afford, with the most space you can get (preferably a garden), and in the nicest part of town your pennies stretch to.  And hopefully, surrounded by other nice people (who are quite like you)  It’s obvious, right?

But then I started travelling to countries where (most) people lived in tiny houses, without all the amenities and luxuries I take for granted, and then what my choices should be became less clear.  I read books like The irresistable Revolution which excited and terrified me in equal measure.  We became friends with people who chose to live in slums, or the dodgiest part of town.

I started to realise that the criteria I used to decide where to live – safety, comfort, wherever was considered nice/cool – were maybe not so important to God.  They don’t seem to have informed Jesus’ geography.

Where we have chosen to live now is not a particularly scary part of the inner-city – it’s quite a nice, popular, mixed zone.  There is plenty expensive housing for the rich, but there are also huge estates and large immigrant communities – mainly Nigerians, Latinos and a growing number of Eastern Europeans.  We live on an estate because we hate the growing segregation of the city and we want to be good neighbours.  And because people ‘like us’ usually avoid council flats if we can.

Durban township

In yesterday’s workshop, a woman talked about how she and her husband and daughter choose to live in the same township where they work, doing community development.  It’s chaotic, there’s no sanitation, people are in her home 24-7, it never stops.  On top of that, 70% of women in townships have been raped.  It’s not the community most people would choose to raise their families.

It puts some things in perspective, doesn’t it?  In a country where some people live the luxurious western dream, and others live in houses made of wood and tin in informal settlements and in fear of sexual abuse, to choose the latter costs something.

And it’s not that aspiration is bad, or wanting the ‘best for your family’.  But the pendulum swings so far towards comfort, security, size, and those things have become synonymous with the good life, that the gap between those who can choose and those who can’t keeps growing.  And I’m not sure ‘the good life’ has anything to do with that kind of segregation (or in fact living in such an overly consumptive way, but that’s for another day…).

Certainly, for those of us trying to model our life around the values and teaching of Jesus, there’s a disconnect.  God left heaven and lived among a dispossessed, occupied nation, with few creature comforts.  He was trying to bridge a divide.

There is a cost, but there there’s another kind of good life that might be possible as a result.

How do you decide where to live?

 

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How to meet the neighbours

Irving House

On Saturday night we had a brilliant evening round at our Polish neighbours’ flat – we ate great food, drank some extraordinary Hungarian wine, talked about travel, love, family and faith.  Andy finally found another chess player on the block and I vowed to teach him bridge so that we could all play together (somehow we have morphed into middle-age).

We *love* evenings like that, it makes us grateful to live where we do, alongside such a diversity of people from different cultures, and it makes the idea of local community feel tangible.

Those are the good moments. As normal and natural as they might seem, they are neither.    Even living in a social housing block where everyone is very close together, it’s normal to keep yourself to yourself.  The moments we’ve experienced of genuine community have come about because of a series of choices, a good chunk of time, and after a fair dose of false starts.

You’ve probably worked out by now that Andy and I aspire to be good neighbours.  It’s hardly a radical idea, but in London it seems to be getting more unusual. Normal is maybe saying hi if you’re on your respective doorsteps at the same time, but that’s as far as it goes.

(Not so fifty years ago, my 85 year old friend Maire tells me.  Everyone knew who you were and looked out for you.  She has lived in the same square mile her whole life and boy, has she seen things change).

A couple of months ago I spoke at an event aimed at helping people who want to get more involved with social action in London.  I was on a “panel of experts” answering questions about our experiences.  I felt like a total rookie and a bit of an impostor, but I tried to talk about our tiny attempts to be good neighbours.  And, weirdly, it seemed to be what people were most interested in.  They just wanted to know where to start.

So if you already know all your neighbours and find building relationships with them really easy, this is not the post for you (but well done).  Otherwise, this is where I share the things we are learning about it.

1.  It takes time.

By this I don’t just mean ‘gosh, people take ages to trust you, you have to stick around for years before they will open up’, although that it sometimes true.  What I mean is that we have learnt that we have to carve time out of the other stuff we do to make time for the neighbours, or else they never get more than a hello.

I moved onto an estate about seven years ago, super-keen to get to know the locals.  But I worked full-time, commuted to work, was really involved in church and saw plenty of my friends.  I was just never in, and certainly never in the daytime.

Partly motivated by this frustrating experience, four or five years ago I decided to start working part-time.  It was a financial sacrifice but it meant that I would be around in the neighbourhood more in the week, and be less exhausted at weekends.  A bit later Andy and I started booking out an evening every fortnight when we would have different neighbours over for dinner.  Sometimes it means turning down other more exciting invitations, and sometimes our neighbours bail out.  But little by little we’re making friends.

Andy’s top tip: When you leave to go out, go earlier than you need so that if you bump into neighbours you can stop for a chat.

2. It takes cultural adjustments

It’s amazing what you discover about your own expectations of people.

We’ve had neighbours show up for dinner with three extra relatives who happen to be staying, and others turn up 90 minutes late, at 9pm, with all their children on a school night.  Some people never turn the TV off (actually, most people) and plenty of them don’t have much of a taste for British cuisine (or maybe just my cooking).

Some people will come round the first time you ask, others take ages to trust you (or still don’t).  Some people invite you back, others wouldn’t dream of letting you see their flat.

All I can say is that we’re trying and we’re learning.  The “how” of making friends is different every time.

3. Look for allies!

Frank

Frank

When we moved in we were lucky enough to be introduced to loads of the neighbours by our landlady.  And one of those, our next door neighbour Frank, has become our most loyal supporter. He has lived in his flat for fifty years and he knows everything that goes on. Whenever we have a party, he’s the first to turn up. When new folk move in now, he’ll make sure we know, tell us their names and send us off with a wink!  We cook him bangers and mash every now and then (he’s not a fan of vegetables) and he’s introduced Andy to the local fish market (we have not been won over to jellied eels).

Some people are hard to get to know – so we make sure we enjoy the friends who are less hard work!

4. Push through the pain barrier.

If you love knocking on strangers’ doors, this whole business will be easy.  But for those of us who don’t, there’s just a pain barrier to push through.  Andy got used to it when he was campaigning to be a local councillor.  I have to psyche myself up a bit before I go, but if I have done that, I’m ok (can you tell I’m the less spontaneous one?).

Go and ask to borrow some sugar or some milk.  Hand-deliver invites to your house-warming.  See if someone will water your plants when you’re away. Ask the Latinos to help you with your Spanish!  I mean, don’t be too weird, but be a good neighbour – people want to discover they have nice people living nearby!

I’d love to hear about how you get to know your neighbours…

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