Giving Up Guilt For Lent

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Guilt-Free McD

So it’s pancake day already. Not entirely sure how that happened. I’ve just been for a swim and realised it’s only the third time this year and we’re two months through already.

The heady world of work appears to have been short-lived. Having had a completely unproductive week last week checking my email every ten minutes hoping for the next project, this week I’ve had to rediscover self-motivation. Funny how it can be lost in a couple of fortnights of someone else’s schedule.

It helps that I’m solo parenting this week, so having to be extra organised and switched on. Also the children ask me what I’ve done while they’re at school and I can’t keep shrugging and saying ‘slept’.

But it’s hard now I’ve tasted ‘earning money’. It’s hard not to feel guilty sitting down to watch Brave while knitting (albeit knitting things I hope one day to sell). It’s hard not to feel guilty taking the dog for only a short walk (because rain) or sitting in McD after my swim when I could have lunch for free at home.

But equally I’ve just resurfaced from the one week a month when my medication falters, as it comes up again hormones, and I have to fight the black thoughts. A week when tall buildings and deep rivers look inviting.

Today I feel joy in life again, after a week of, ‘Tell me, what’s the point?’ And, despite some horrific stories on my FB feed that have left me sick and sad, I’m aiming for content today.

My kids asked me about Lent as I made pancakes this morning. I explained about giving things up. They immediately suggested that wine and chocolate should be on my list. How well they know me. But I generally turn to those things to fill the hole in my soul when life seems stupid and pointless, or when I feel like a terrible wife, mother, writer, person. Which is often. Being unable to give them up makes me feel weak and pathetic and guilty that I’m not a better human being.

So this Lent I’m giving up guilt. Or I’m going to try anyway. It’s harder to judge whether you’ve slipped, compared with finding a glass of Pinot Grigio in your hand or scoffing down a big fat bar of dairy milk. But Lent’s about the effort right?

The Dreary World of Self-Doubt: 2013 365 Challenge #78

Coffee Art

Coffee Art

Hello self-doubt how nice to see you again. I started the day with such positivity. I went to Costa to write my Claire installment and spent a splendid hour wedged into a comfy sofa drinking a rather artistic flat white (it seemed a shame to spoil it!).

Then I did the usual chores: a two-hour supermarket shop, dishwasher stacking, floor vacuuming and lunch preparation. Okay I didn’t really do the last one as we had pizza.

My wonderful husband tidied my larder which had got so cluttered with lid-less Tupperware and random party paraphernalia there was no room for food. Life was good.

Then I sat down to work on Baby Blues, after two hours of ‘social media stuff’ (tweeting, commenting on blogs, reading blogs, retweeting interesting articles etc). I managed thirty minutes of editing before giving up in disgust and taking the dog out for a walk.

My Writing Den today. Lovely

My Writing Cave today. Lovely

I have read so many blogs about how to write, how to edit, how to market, how to manage social media, what to do and not to do as a self-published author I’m ready to run down the road screaming. It feels like being a new parent all over again. You know, that time when you realise ‘parenting comes naturally’ is complete bollox and you consume every article you can lay your hands on searching for answers only to come back with more questions.

My biggest problem, as a parent and a writer, is that I like to be told what to do – within certain parameters. I want to be given a fairly detailed brief with clear goals and deliverables. Like at school: write this essay or this one, choice of two. You have your brief: deliver. I’m good at solving problems. I’m not so good with choices. Or weighing up conflicting advice.

A friend recently told me about a new TV show discussing ways to get kids to sleep better, because she knows ours have never been all that great at sleeping. And because I complain about lack of sleep a lot. But we’ve been through so many sleep training methods and none have worked. When the children are happy, physically tired, well fed and not ill, they sleep great. Usually that’s when worry or snoring keeps me awake instead, but that’s just god’s wicked sense of humour.

Gorgeous Hubbie tidied my larder today. Now that's love.

Hubbie tidied my larder. Now that’s love.

Unless I know something is definitely going to work better than what I’m already doing, I’m not interested any more. I’m going with gut feel and to hell with it. It’s taken four years and a lot of tears to get that self-confidence as a parent and it’s still pretty ephemeral. I’ll be wallowing in parental guilt and self-doubt within ten minutes of picking up the kids. [actually it was less than that.].

Now with the writing I’m back at the beginning. I don’t know what I’m meant to be doing. There is SO much advice but most of it merely serves to convince me I’m no more cut out to be a writer than I am a parent.

Well, it’s too late to send the kids back and nor would I want to. But I might have to seriously consider if I can sacrifice another four years to find peace of mind as a writer. Do I really want to embark on a career that has no answers and the only way I will know if I’ve done a good job is if my 5-star reviews out-number my 1-star reviews? Jury’s out, but the feeling in the courtroom is no.

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“Michael? It’s Claire.”

“Claire, you’re okay. Thank god. I was so worried. Where are you? What happened? The police were going to call me back but they haven’t yet. I’ve been frantic.”

“Whoa, slow down.” Claire inhaled to calm her skipping heart. “I’m fine. I was mugged.” Michael made a guttural sound but Claire ignored him. She needed to get her words out and be done.

“The police found me just as I was coming round and took me back to the hostel. I’ve got a lump on my head the size of a duck’s egg and my hair is matted with blood, but apart from that I’m good. I was lucky.”

She wanted to hang up before Michael could speak again but he was already talking. “I’m so glad the police found you. When you called and then the phone went dead I didn’t know what to think.” He inhaled and released a shuddering laugh. “I thought. Well. Never mind. I’d seen on Twitter that you’d just left the pub and I thought you might be walking somewhere. You should take more care.” His tone took on the preachy note of concern that always set Claire’s hackles rising.

“I’m not a child and this isn’t exactly inner-city New York. I was unlucky, that’s all.” She thought about him tracking her every move. That’s a bit creepy. “What does Debbie think about you following me on Twitter?”

“It’s none of her damn business.” His voice scraped at the soreness in Claire’s head. She tried to puzzle through his bitter tone but her thoughts were still muddled. She shook her head and pain rattled through it like pills in a bottle.

“Ow!”

“What? Are you okay? Have you seen a doctor?”

Claire laughed. “Yes I saw a GP this morning. I’m fine. Mild concussion that’s all. It hurts to move.”

“Come home Claire. You’ve proved your point. Come back and have a proper sleep in a proper bed.”

The affection in his voice weakened her. She slumped against the side of the phone box and dropped her head. “I don’t have a home to go to anymore. Besides, it’s not about proving a point.” As she said it she realised it was true. Part of her was actually looking forward to having Sky for a week or two, to explore the East Coast with her and write about it on her blog. “And the beds aren’t that bad. You know that, you stayed in one of the hostels I’ve visited. With Debbie.”

“We’re back on her again are we? Let it go, Claire. There is nothing between us, there never was after I met you.”

“Ha!” Claire winced as her voice reverberated around the confined space. She lowered her voice. “So it wasn’t you and her I bumped into at the airport?” Swallowing down the metallic taste in her mouth Claire cursed herself for rising to the bait. I promised I wouldn’t discuss it. Why couldn’t I have just sent him an email?

“We were coming back from a wedding.”

Claire’s stomach dropped down to her shoes and the breath stuck in her throat.

“An old friend of Debbie’s,” Michael continued, as if his words hadn’t left Claire’s ears ringing. “Debbie didn’t want to go by herself and I said I’d go. As a friend.” He emphasised the last three words, as he might to a difficult child. “You know where my heart lives.”

There was silence on the line. Claire could hear her heartbeat dancing an Irish jig, could hear her breathing rasping, her breaths making wisps of vapour in the freezing air. Inhaling deeply through her noise Claire immediately wished she hadn’t as the scent of Saturday night bodily fluids floated up from the floor of the phone box. Switching to breathing through her mouth, Claire searched the fog in her mind for words.

A loud hammering on the glass broke the spell. Claire looked up into the face of an old man wrapped up in several dirty jumpers and coats. He had a small scruffy dog at his feet and he was gesturing at the floor of the phone box. Looking down Claire realised what she thought was a bag of rubbish was actually the man’s possessions.

“I have to go Michael. I’m in a man’s house.” She realised how bad that sounded but didn’t have the energy to explain. “Thanks again for the knight in shining armour bit. You always were good at that.”

She hung up the phone and pushed her way free from the tiny box, gulping in the fresh morning air.

***

The Long Silence and Giving up Guilt

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Life, like Christmas, should be all about the children

I realised today that it’s been well over a month since my last blog post. That sounds a bit like “Father it’s been two months since my last confession”. Not that far wrong, really, as my blog often feels like the place where I confess my true self.

Well today I am going to confess to the crisis of Identity I had at 2am this morning, after my first night out in months. It wasn’t even a night out, just a meal with my baby group girls, who I’ve known for four years. They consist of a Paediatrician, two teachers, a psychiatric nurse and a self-employed business woman. That’s half the issue right there: Marketing Manager or Writer seems pretty weightless and meaningless next to those guys. I worry about not earning enough money while I fart around writing novels and they worry about whether one of their clients is going to kill themselves or if a child will die that week.

It’s always a humbling experience for me when we get together.

We always talk about parenting – we are a baby group after all, even if after four years our offspring aren’t really babies anymore. That leaves me feeling inadequate too. Two of the parents are from big families themselves and now have big families. They have parenting sussed. Their kids are gorgeous and lovely and polite and eat all their dinner and go to bed on time and their parents are fully in charge.

In our house we epitomise those t-shirts you see on babies, “Mum and Dad know that I’m in charge.” Hmmm

Needless to say I approach baby group dinners with a certain amount of trepidation, because I always come away feeling like I’m failing. I’m not funny enough (they all are), I’m not thin enough (they all are – or they’ve just had babies), I don’t work hard enough (they all do – long shifts, extra shifts, three hours marking homework every night. I fall asleep watching Strictly It Takes Two), I’m not a strong enough parent (my kids have no routine or consistent discipline) and most of all I’m a horrible parent (I shout at my kids way too much and tell them they’re being stupid or pathetic. I told myself I’d never use words like those. I know the power of words).

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Goldie Hawn’s Great Book

So I lay in bed at 2am this morning, unable to sleep due to the thoughts whirling round my head. I picked up a book I bought months ago but lost (it was at the back of a drawer of clothes for some reason – one of my “tidy the room by chucking everything I a drawer” moments). It’s called Ten Mindful Minutes by Goldie Hawn and Wendy Holden. I bought it maybe even a year or two ago (tempus fugit) after hearing Goldie Hawn talking about her MindUP programme on the radio. I remember thinking at the time that it sounded like something I needed – reprogramming your brain so it doesn’t get hijacked by your emotions.

For some reason I stopped reading it after a couple of pages and that was the end of my attempt to be a better parent. Last night I started reading halfway through and got hooked. When I went back to the beginning I realised why I’d stopped reading. On the first or second page it says that British children are the unhappiest in the world. I didn’t want that guilt on top of all my exiting guilt so I obviously stuffed the book under the bed only to lose it in a the-family-are-coming drawer-stuffing tidy up.

It seems almost fate that I came across the book again yesterday in my rummage to find something -anything – that still fit that was suitable for a night out with the girls. After laying awake chastising myself about losing my temper with the kids so often and saying terrible things to them in my rage, it was wonderful to read that it’s possible to learn control. And learn it from a neutral person. I’ve been told it before but by some of the perfect parents I know, and so in the past I’ve been resistant. (Defensiveness = stubbornness).

After reading a chapter I got out of bed, went in to tell my daughter I love her and I’m sorry and then, when she came in twenty minutes later for a cuddle because I’d obviously woken her up, lay snuggled into my beautiful girl and thanked the universe for her and her brother and my general good fortune. Because despite my apparent failings as a parent I, too, have gorgeous and lovely and polite and caring children who go to bed when they’re told and 99% of the time are amazing (note I left out the eat-all-their-dinner bit: you can’t have everything).

I vowed to change.

I didn’t vow to be a better parent, or reading Goldie Hawn’s book cover to cover, or to lose weight, become organised, or anything that I’ve vowed and broken before.

I vowed to give up Guilt.

Happy Smiley Children
Happy Smiley Children

 

Because during my hours of wakefulness I recalled something my husband said the other morning. “You could accomplish so much more if you stopped feeling guilty about everything.” I remember responding, “Great, one more thing to feel guilty about.”

Guilt is like that. It’s an addiction. It’s a habit. Feeling guilty for being a rubbish parent or a meaningless person or for eating too much cake is just a way to not have to do something about it. At dinner last night my psychiatric nurse friend was talking about someone with depression who wouldn’t get out of bed to talk to her. She said of her client, “She bloody well had to get up. If she isn’t trying to get better I’m not interested.”

It really got me thinking. By feeling guilty about everything, I’ve given myself the excuse not to get better. Every time I yell at the kids I feel guilty for being angry and aggressive like my Dad. Instead of thinking of all the great ways I’m like my Dad – how I’m creative and spontaneous and loving. I forget that Dad didn’t have the chance to be self-aware, so he didn’t have the chance to change. I am self-aware. So I have no excuse not to change. No excuse not to take a deep breath when my children have pushed me to the limit, to walk away, to swear at the plant in the kitchen rather than them, until I have my brain back under control.

When I feel guilty about writing novels instead of having a life-saving, world-saving job, I forget how many people’s lives are changed by reading books. Maybe not my books, maybe not yet. But one day one of my books might save a life. My own life has been saved or enriched or expanded by literature. I undersell myself and let the guilt box me in until I’m spending more time wringing my hands than I do writing my books.

When I feel guilty because my kids have had pasta shapes and toast for the third night in a row I let that guilt stop me from trying to give them something different. I feel guilty when they don’t like their dinner and don’t eat it, instead of being a proper parent and encouraging them to try new things and eat healthily.

So, although it’s a bit early, I’m making a New Year Resolution: No More Guilt.

What do you feel guilty about? Have you started thinking about New Year’s Resolutions yet?