My Twelve Days of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas my family gave to me

Twelve minutes’ silence

Eleven days til Hamilton

Ten years of parenting

Nine filthy rooms

Eight more days of school

Seven unshipped presents

Six empty cupboards

Five hungry rodents

Four loads of laundry

Three annoying children (including hubby!)

Two stinky dogs

And an empty cup of tea for Mummy!

Happy Christmas! And may all your online parcels arrive on time (even the ones you accidentally ordered from China)

The Superfan and the Psychometric Test

img_6357Doesn’t that sound like a book title to grab the attention, if only for the wrong reasons? Maybe for my next book I should come up with a random title and then write the book to fit? Anyway I digress. The title actually refers to the highs and lows of my weekend.

On Saturday I had an ‘author event’ at our local library. Originally it was going to be a book reading and signing, but that got cancelled due to lack of interest (it was on a school night) and swapped for a Saturday morning craft session. Only I forgot to sort crafts. So at 5am Saturday, full of cold, I searched Pinterest for ideas, and produced craft unicorns, Minecraft Torches and bookmarks. I was still cutting out cardboard at 9.30am when I was meant to be leaving for the library! Me, disorganised? Hmmm.

Anyway, it was a bit of a washout. Five or six  girls made unicorns, but no one really knew why I was there. (The minecraft torches ended up being used for my son’s Nativity Pringle Pot, so not totally wasted!) Until a young lad came in, carrying a copy of Hope Glimmers. And next to him, his dad, who it turns out I went to school with. But they were there to meet Mandy Martin the author, not Mandy Jarman from school. The dad’s surprise when he figured I was me was awesome. The best part, though, was that Hope Glimmers had been purchased online and they’d brought it to be signed. By me. Like I was a real author or something. And when I said there was a new book based on Minecraft, the lad’s smile made my year.

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Nativity & Santa Pringle Pots

I read an article a while ago (written in 2008 and updated here) by a guy called Kevin Kelly, who said that what creative people need to succeed is a 1000 true fans; superfans who will buy anything you produce. I’ve never had a superfan before, generally my books are bought by people I know, or anonymously on Amazon, where without reviews you don’t even know if they liked it. I’m not saying this boy was really a superfan, but it certainly felt like it at 11am on a Saturday morning as I signed books for him.

My happy bubble was short-lived, however, when I received an email from Boots (a High Street Pharmacy Company, for non Brits) with feedback on a job I had applied for as a trainee pharmacy dispenser. Please note, ‘trainee’. As in, to be trained to do the job, surely?

This is my first experience of interview by computer and I’m not impressed. Having clicked ‘apply’ through the job website, they asked for my job (just one) and my education (just one), so I put Invigilating and a Masters in English, as my two most recent. No request for CV or experience or anything. Just an email with a link to a psychometric test.

Now, I hate psychometric tests, especially now I’ve been out of the work game for a while and am fully entrenched in ‘me’ because ‘me’ is a socially-awkward introvert who finds people challenging. But ‘work me’ is outgoing, confident, creative, innovative and all that jazz. So anyway I tried to understand what the questions were getting at, although that’s pretty tough in most psychometric tests as that’s the whole point of them. Except we’re not all black and white, either or, ‘this statement best reflects me’ without context.

I worked in a bar when I was a uni student, and loved it. In fact I wanted to be a bar manager when I graduated, but my first class degree actually proved a sticking point in the interviews I went to because the starting salary was so low. Anyway, six months after I’d been working in the busy train station pub, dealing with difficult customers and working alongside a team of twelve people, they made me do their psychometric test ‘for their files’. I failed. They said they would never have hired me because funnily enough it showed that I am a reserved introvert who doesn’t much like people. Thankfully they had six months’ experience of me being a complex human being who was able to act a role at work, convincingly too, and they trusted me enough to have me run as assistant manager for a while.

Given all that, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I failed the test from Boots. But I was. Surprised and gutted (the job was perfect for me). And angry. Because this was their response:

We’re sorry to have to let you know that you haven’t been successful on this occasion due to the level you attained for the questionnaire assessment.

You will need to allow a 12 month period before applying for a similar role as this will give you adequate time to develop your skills and experience.

Adequate time to develop my skills and experience? How do they know anything about my skills and experience? They didn’t even ask for my CV. See that I’ve worked front of house in Hotels, Restaurants, Youth Hostel, Bars and a Clothing Store. See that I’ve worked as a Marketing Manager with direct reports, worked in Communications and handled the grumpy ‘Letters to Director’ that were received. I could go on. And I did, in my head, at 3am, full of cold and disappointment and a little bit of despair. This was a trainee role, where presumably a person would be given the relevant skills and I didn’t even get a look in.

Sigh. Breathe.

It doesn’t matter. A company that interviews by bot is not one I want to work for. But it’s battered an already bruised confidence.

Thank goodness for superfans, that’s all I can say.

Definitely Drowning

It turns out teaching is a bit like parenting, once you make your announcement, people can’t wait to tell you how dreadful it will be.

Only whereas, as a not-yet-parent, I could dismiss all the scaremongering and doomsaying, now I know better. Parenting has taken me to edges I didn’t know were there and left me drained, frightened and unsure of everything.

Not a great position from which to make a great leap forward.

Yesterday I had my compulsory ‘Safeguarding Children’ training that I need as an invigilator. Only this time I listened with increasing horror as teachers swapped stories about neglect and abuse. One or two ‘examples’ of neglect – such as letting a child watch videos late at night – made me question my own parenting.

And then the lovely teacher delivering the training explained that, as adults working with children, we can be held personally liable for a failure to report or disclose a concern. Suddenly I felt like I was standing on a sea wall facing a tsunami.

But I know my anxious brain magnifies worries and turns everything into the monster under the bed. So I went to talk to the charismatic teacher, who clearly loved his job, despite everything he’d been sharing. Tell me about teaching, I pleaded, everything I’ve read and heard makes it sound terrifying. And he said it was rewarding, and gruelling and disheartening and very hard work.

And then he said, ‘As long as you can engage with the students, you’re fine.’

I’m screwed.

I’m the least-engaging person I know. People confuse me, and I spend most of my time trying to second-guess what they’re thinking and feeling. Which I don’t even get right with my family most of the time, so goodness knows how I’ll manage with hormonal teenagers.

My husband’s very pragmatic – take it one day at a time, it’ll be fine. But so far I dipped my toe in the idea of teaching and got swept out to sea. And you have to ask, if they’re so desperate to drag you in with mentors and bursaries and personal plans, what are they not telling you?

Working as a train driver is starting to sound appealing.

Waving Not Drowning

Hellooo! I can’t believe another month has blustered by in a swirl of dead leaves, and still I haven’t blogged. Rubbish. I feel like I’m strapped to a dinghy and I’m travelling down a grade five river, out of control with too much sensory input and not enough breath to scream.

Well, actually that’s all a bit melodramatic, but I’ve been gorging on Sky Arts painting programmes as better for my mental health than murder-mysteries, and the language is quite hyperbolic and addictive. They’re always looking for the bold and innovative and brave (the opposite of little guinea pig me, darting at shadows).

That said, I’m making decisions that will shape mine and my family’s future, so hyperbole is perhaps not misplaced. And actually it started with the art programmes. Having decided that my 42-year-old brain couldn’t handle learning C and Python, I was back to square one. I decided to brush up my Microsoft skills, since I find excel fun to use, and needed a backdrop to drown out noisy neighbours. So Sky Arts.

I watched Portrait Artist of the Year, Landscape Artist of the Year, and The Big Painting Challenge. And remembered how much I love art and how I should have done that instead of History. To cut a long story short I investigated all possibilities of doing A Level or Foundation Art, with a view to teaching, and realised it was too expensive.

But teaching has floated as an idea since forever. Dismissed because I don’t do people, and fifty-hour weeks trigger my anxiety. But so did the idea of going back into an office environment. What to do?

Suddenly I’d applied to observe lessons in a school (next week!), with a view to teaching English (obvious really), and now I’m on a crazy train of potentially starting Teacher Training next September. How did that happen? No idea.

Which is all good, except I’m still typing, invigilating, have an author event this Saturday, and a karate exam the following weekend. And Christmas, which any mum with school kids knows, is a full-time job for the next four weeks of carols, fetes and fun stuff (for them!)

Cue panic city.

So I had this crazy idea of increasing the dose of my marvellous anti-anxiety meds. Except I forgot the first week of change is hell. I feel sick, woozy, jittery and basically a little surreal. Idiot. I’m working on Friday and right now it’s a challenge to get out of bed at 5am to let the pup out. But I recently read this quote from the artist O’Keeffe (one of the class names at my kids’ school which are all named after artists) and I try to keep it in mind.

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

Bravery is my watchword right now. I entered the karate championships two weeks ago and not only did I win two trophies, I discovered I rather enjoy sparring, even if it means getting bopped in the face. For someone who can’t stand physical contact much of the time that’s a little bizarre, or maybe that’s what gives me the edge to defend myself. Who knew!

And the author event gives me the heebees but what is there to lose? And I might sell a few books. So teacher training could just be the next big adventure. As long as I get through the psychedelic weirdness of upping the meds. I’ll let you know!

Dependence before Independence?

It’s 4am and the puppy just woke up. She’s crying and I know that a) she needs a wee and b) if I don’t go soon not only will I have extra laundry, but she will have woken up the kids.

That’s fine. Parenting is about getting up in the night. The problem is I also know I won’t make it back to bed. Because once she’s done her business, she won’t go back in her crate without protest. And by protest I mean yelping, crying and rattling at the gate until it sounds like armageddon.

We’re on dog two. We know the rules. Ignore them when they cry and they stop. And we did. A bit. She goes in her crate at bedtime without crying now. But the mornings are different.

Firstly, I’m not so great at 4am. I go from calm to banshee really quickly. When I threatened (in hyperbole I hasten to add) to drown or sell her, I knew it wasn’t working. That whine, man, it’s like a chainsaw to the nerves pre-dawn.

Secondly, I’m not the only one who becomes vile on too little sleep. A couple of weeks ago I left the puppy crying and took off to the outside room, where I couldn’t hear her. I slept beautifully for a couple more hours, but awoke to carnage. The whole house was up, poo everywhere, tempers frayed. It took days for husband and kids to recover.

It was the same when my youngest child was born. My eldest was a light sleeper then, and only 19 months old, so whenever the baby cried he was instantly hushed. I spent the next five years dealing with the consequences. Even now I wonder if I caused his separation anxiety by trying to protect the family’s sleep/sanity.

And there’s the rub. At 4am, when I’m taking one for the team, I’m also telling myself what a terrible parent/dog owner I am. Creating a needy, spoilt puppy whilst also creating a grumpy exhausted me.

My only salvation is something a therapist said to me once. I wasn’t there for parenting advice, but it was the only good thing about the whole experience, since they did more harm than good for the thing I was there for. Anyway, the advice was ‘Dependence before Independence’. A child has to learn to trust you before they can leave you. A child has to know you’ll be there no matter what.

That phrase has been our parenting mantra. For every 3am cuddle, for every event left early or extra five minutes spent saying goodbye. It helped me too, because nothing triggers my anxiety like having a screaming child dragged from my arms, no matter how well-intentioned. I’ve had stern words with teachers and left childcare institutions that insisted my child was crying ‘crocodile tears’. I believed in my mantra.

And it’s worked, with the kids. My timid frightened children are now pulling away, finding their wings, choosing to forge their own path, without being shoved. They go on camp and sleepovers and run happily into school without a backward glance. And my sanity has remained intact.

Time will tell if it holds true for puppies.

Pesky Pets and Puzzling Programming

September didn’t get much better. I don’t know if it was exhaustion or a change in meds supplier but I was (am) fragile as a poppy. Any attempt to process more than one thing and I crash like a crappy computer.

So far October is okay. I did four hours of karate training this weekend and, while my body is broken and I can’t walk, my soul feels replenished.

I reached a nadir last week and decided a proper career shift is essential to my sanity. I put out a query for career paths where people skills are not a key aspect, and programming was the answer. I did go for a programming job as a new graduate and got 87% on the paper. Unfortunately the pass rate was 90%. Apparently I needed to slow down and read the questions better. Funnily enough I say the same thing to my son every time he gets stuck on his maths.

So it isn’t completely crazy for this ditsy arts student slash author to try and learn something as methodical as programming. But the brain is soooooo slow at 42 (even if it is the answer to life, the universe and everything!) I’m doing an online course from Harvard and have already nodded off during a lecture.

Mind you, the pesky pets have a lot to do with my exhaustion. Puppy is growing, and can escape from her pen and scramble past the stair block. She came into our bedroom six times last night, and when I finally locked her into her crate, she cried non-stop. Don’t be fooled by her cuteness, she’s a clever little minx.

And even my therapigs are being pickles. I keep trying to combine them into a herd but I have one that’s a bit of a bully. In my advice emails from the lovely people at Wood Green, they said that some gps are just like that and “it’s great that she has a companion already.” Ha! She’s basically me: impossible to live with and lucky she has a life partner who will put up with her. What it does mean is they stay in separate cages, so two lots of mucking out and laundry. Perhaps I need to stick to the guinea pig Mum gave me for my birthday.

Writing is still happening, in between all the chaos and mayhem. I gave Esmerelda Smudge an overhaul, using the awesome Save The Cat book, and renamed it Dani and the Djinni. [As an aside, I’m quite excited to see there’s going to be a Save the Cat book for novelists, although the screen play version has revolutionised my writing.]

I’ve submitted Dani and the Djinni for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Award and, if that goes nowhere, it will be the next in line to be illustrated. I’m doing a book signing at my local library next month so I need to keep plodding on with the writer bit of writermummy.

In the meantime, I’m surviving on coffee and beautiful sunrises. The only benefit of a 5am start.

Clubs, Jobs and Therapigs

Phew, what a month! September is always crazy, with back to school and son’s birthday. But this year has been extra mental with the son now eligible for school clubs.

Between them they now do Zumba, Indoor Bowls, Bridge, Fitness, Basketball, Brownies, Beavers, Swimming, Karate, Flute and Cornet.

That’s a lot of cheques, emails, kits, and a whole heap of headspace.

They haven’t even started half of them yet, that begins Monday, but just processing the details, alongside birthdays and vet appointments and windy weather and packed lunches for the fussitarian has about finished me off.

And the money! Oh my days. My cheque book is weeping.

So this month I’ve been trying really hard to get proper paid work. Grrr.

I’ve re-signed up to Findaproofreader (that cost £36) and renewed my website (another £36). And I’ve applied for two typing jobs. Failed the first test process, distracted by a crying puppy that was meant to be sleeping.

Passed the second rather more rigorous process, and got through a whole heap of security checks and referees and other employment palaver, only to discover not only is it minimum wage, based on my current typing speed (which is a not-too-shabby 80wpm) but also I need liability insurance and updated virus software. Which all would be at least another £100, if not double.

I can’t do it. I know about ‘speculate to accumulate’, but this is ridiculous for a £5 an hour, no guaranteed work job.

I have degrees. I have skills. I have a damn migraine!

Seriously, what do I tell my daughter? If you want kids, don’t bother with uni, train as a plumber or a hairdresser or an Electrician, because degrees don’t mean shit if you ever take a career break to raise sprogs.

Okay, I’m whinging I know, but when unskilled labour would pay me more than knowing the difference between elicit and illicit (one of the many tests I passed) I wish I didn’t have a brain, or an education, because then I wouldn’t feel such a failure.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. There’s always checkout jobs at Waitrose, although most part time work involves people and it’s not my strong suit these days! 😂

Thank goodness for therapigs. In a world of chaos there is always a little bit of guinea pig calm.