I’m 39 weeks pregnant and we’re a month into living in a new house. I’m huge, exhausted, excited, distracted, anxious… so it’s fair to say my thoughts have been a bit of a jumble of late.
I turn 36 today and it was only when I acknowledged the mental chaos I’m currently experiencing that I realised what I want to say to mark yet another birthday.
And it’s this: The older I get, the better I get at figuring out WHY I feel the way I do. With each year that passes, I gain a little more self-awareness. And that’s more useful than any birthday gift you can wrap.
Becoming a mum has helped a lot. I can’t expect my daughter (or her imminent sibling) to undersand their feelings if I can’t comprehend my own.
I try hard to make time to work out what’s behind my response to situations. Am I tired? Hungry? Feeling inadequate? Intimidated? Distracted by a timetable my daughter has no idea I’m trying to keep us to? So enormously pregnant I fear my stomach may BURST any minute?
Because nobody’s response to anything is just about what’s happening in that moment. There’s always more to it. Our history, our physical and mental wellbeing, our worries, our hopes, our fears… they all play a part. It’s a wonder we get through the day we’re carrying so much invisible weight around.
When I consider where my reaction is coming from, I handle things so much better than when I don’t. And I feel happier with who I am too.
But of course I’ve only learnt this by reflecting on all the times I haven’t managed things so well. I’m a fallible human being so I’ve let my insecurities, bad habits, and misunderstandings get the better of me LOADS of times. And I’ll 100% do it again. Age can’t magically protects us from that. But the better we know ourselves, the better we get at slowing down and seeing things for what they are.
So at least I know why I feel so overwhelmed at the moment. And I try to bear that in mind when I feel like overreacting to the smallest thing. (What do you MEAN the bakery has run out of jam doughnuts?! I NEED ONE.)
I’m about to have a baby and become a mum of two. It’s no surprise that I’m feeling 400 emotions at once.
What I like about being older is my understanding that there’s no point wasting energy fighting tricky feelings. It’s better for all of us if I acknowledge and lean into what’s driving them instead.
Whether it’s the nervousness I feel about the physical turmoil involved with birth and its aftermath, or the desperation I feel to bring our baby into the world safely and do a good job for them and their sister, it’s all OK. I can’t have all these wonderfully grown up experiences without them.
The only promise I can make is that I’ll do my best and keep learning from every high and low that comes our way. I’m confident my 37th year will be filled with plenty of both…
I’m old enough to know that most people don’t give a damn that it’s your birthday. But, seeing as you’re here, I’ll tell you that I just turned 35. *releases single party popper into the ether*
This is the first time in a while that my age has felt significant. I see it written next to other people’s names and think ‘Woah, they must be a REAL grown up.’ And then I see it next to mine – a woman who still can’t let her feet out from under the duvet at night in case a scarecrow bites them – and I realise that’s not necessarily the case.
But that’s fine, I like getting older and being reminded that the idea we’ll have it all sorted out by a particular age is a joke. One thing that is guaranteed though is that the more years you live, you more you learn.
And that’s why for the last six years, the birthday gift I’ve given myself is time to type out the lessons I want to note at this particular point in time. It’s great to have it to look back on. (This was last year’s series of hot takes).
So here’s this year’s big five.
1. Accept your decisions – good and bad – because without them you wouldn’t be where you are
By 35 you’ll have racked up a good few decisions that you look back on and think “What on earth was going through my head when I did that?“ I’ve certainly got a strong number, and while it’s super fun to wake in the night and dwell on my own idiocy, I’ve come to realise that they all form a crucial part of our stories.
If I hadn’t taken that terrible job, or experienced that heartbreak, or had that regrettable hair cut for so many years, life wouldn’t look the way it does now. And I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experience I need to keep making better choices.
I think the same rules that apply to your CV apply to life in general – if you can explain what everything you’ve done has taught you, it doesn’t matter if you made a few ill-advised moves along the way.
2. Those moments when you feel like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing often mark the start of something exciting
Just when we thought we knew what we were doing as parents of a toddler, we decided to start potty training.
We kicked off and within minutes I went straight back to feeling like I did when I first became a mum – totally unprepared, out of my depth, and terrified things would never get easier.
But of course they have. I realised as the week went on that I wasn’t just afraid of the messy reality of teaching a little one how to go to the loo, but also of what teaching her this meant. Independence. The more she learns, the less she’ll need me, and that’s a scary prospect for a parent to face. But it’s also essential and, when I remove my hormones from the situation, incredibly exciting.
All of the best decisions I’ve made in my life – going to university, making new friends, starting a relationship with my husband, having our daughter, pursuing the career I want – frightened the life out of me.
But it’s often that fear that proves this is something you really want to do. Because if it was out of the question, you wouldn’t entertain it. But if you’ve gone so far as to let yourself imagine the possibilities, it might just mean you should go for it.
When we go on holiday (remember holidays?) my husband and I have a rule that if we’re umming and ahing about whether to go on a day trip/do an activity, we always do it, because then we can’t regret not trying. And applying that to daily life has helped me a lot. I don’t want to regret not doing things, however scary they may seem.
The ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ feeling doesn’t become any less daunting just because you’re a grown up. But you do at least have enough experience to know that you’ll figure it out before long.
3. The pursuit of perfection will destroy you, so let it go
I want my daughter to grow up knowing that everybody makes mistakes. What matters is that we pick ourselves up, understand what went wrong and what we learnt, move on and do better next time.
It’s a perfectly simple concept for even a two year old to understand, and yet, at 35, I still struggle to remember it.
I’ve been particularly hard on myself recently when I’ve made a mistake or a bad decision. Whether it’s something I’ve done whilst driving, something I’ve said, or a parenting choice that’s backfired, I’ve been giving myself a really hard time about it.
I wonder if the current environment has something to do with it. Life feels more fragile, precious and scary than ever right now, so any false move feels significant while our stress levels are heightened.
I’ve always struggled to forgive myself when my interactions with people haven’t gone exactly as I’d like. Despite numerous attempts to stop caring what other people think, the truth is that the older I get, the more I care. I get so few chances (particularly at the moment) to see or speak to the people I love, it feels like it really matters that it goes perfectly when I do.
But of course we can’t control how things go. The only things we can control – in any situation – are our words and our actions. And there’s a world of other factors that also play a part, so we can only ever do our best.
When it comes to parenting, trying to do a perfect job will not only destroy you, it’ll destroy you before 7.30am. There’s no way anybody doing such an emotional, unpredictable, and exhausting job could get every single element right all the time.
Despite my best efforts I make wrong calls numerous times a day. I also make the right call a fair amount too, but if you think they’re the moments my brain likes to put into a montage to show me when I’m lying awake at 3am then you’ve very much misunderstood the tone of this blog.
But the longer I’m a mum the clearer it becomes that perfection isn’t the goal here. Happiness, safety and good health is. There’s nothing like living through a global pandemic to make you realise that’s more than enough to ask for.
4. Whether you like a feeling or not, at least accept that you’re feeling it
Allow me to share my incredible time saving method.
Instead of beating ourselves up for feeling nervous ahead of a social event, stressed out by a heavy workload, or still scared of the dark at the age of 35, how about we just… accept it’s how we feel. All of a sudden our problems are cut in half as we no longer have self loathing to deal with too. We can focus instead on exploring why we feel this way, and what could help us feel better.
I spend so much time trying to mentally push away feelings that I don’t think I should have. I lose hours feeling ashamed of my fear, frustration, or upset and guess what? It just makes matters worse.
We can’t help the way we feel. The way we respond to each situation is entirely personal. So our time is better spent listening to what that feeling’s trying to tell us, rather than hoping that if we berate it enough for existing it’ll just disappear.
5. I do my best work as a human being when I slow down and think about what I’m doing (don’t we all?)
It’s when I trick myself into believing that everything has to be done in a rush that I make decisions I’ll later regret.
And it’s when I react NOW rather than waiting a few seconds to think, empathise, breathe and then speak that I’ll end up saying something I’ll wish I hadn’t.
Since the world plunged into lockdown, there have been few reasons to rush at all. And though I wish I’d learnt it in different circumstances, the lessons this has taught me about the importance of slowing down are invaluable.
I’m a better mum when I take a moment to consider the world from my daughter’s point of view before responding to her 55th request for a snack before 10am. And I’m a better wife when I stop and think about whether I’m really angry because my husband has forgotten to change a toilet roll, or because I’m tired from living through a global crisis and need to go to bed.
We’re all better people when we try and see the world from other people’s perspectives and consider how our actions could affect others. Right now we’re being shown in the bleakest way possible just how crucial it is that we do.
As I head into my 36th year, I want to keep all of this in mind. To be more empathetic. To make good, thoughtful decisions. And to be kind to myself when I inevitably slip up and learn more lessons along the way.
I’ll look forward to telling you all about them when my birthday comes around again next year. Thanks for reading.
Every year to mark my birthday, I write a list of lessons I’ve learnt or things I want to say at this point in time. It’s a therapeutic ritual and I recommend it.
So here are 34 things I know about myself and the world now I’m 34 – yet another age that doesn’t feel anywhere near as old as I thought it would…
1. I know that when I sit on the sofa with a drink at my feet and think “I’ll definitely remember that’s there, there’s no way I’ll spill it,” what I’m really saying is: “I look forward to kicking that all over everything in a few minutes.”
2. I know that cheesecake is the world’s most overrated food and I do not apologise for this opinion.
3. I know that there is one person in every group of friends who is in charge of organising get-togethers and who LOVES to complain about how nobody else ever does it and then FREAKS OUT if anybody else ever tries. And hello, yes, that’s me.
4. I know that a solo trip to the cinema is one of the greatest gifts a person can give themselves and I’m just sorry I didn’t realise it sooner.
5. I know that the more energy I put into trying to make somebody like me, the less I will end up liking myself.
6. I know that periods can be a painful, inconvenient nightmare, but there is something undeniably joyful about selecting your biggest, most comfortable knickers to get you through those first, bloated hours.
7. I know that one of the things I find scariest about being a parent is the amount for which your children will forgive you.
8. I know that there’s a huge difference between someone who wants you, and someone who wants you to want them, and that unfortunately it’s not always until you’ve experienced the former that you can recognise the latter.
9. I know that splitting the backside of my favourite pair of jeans open taught me this about clothing: Just because you can do something up, it doesn’t mean it fits.
10. I know that realising I’d done the above just seconds before I left the house to go to brunch taught me you should ALWAYS CHECK YOUR REAR VIEW BEFORE STEPPING OUTSIDE.
11. I know that I sometimes absentmindedly rest my hand on my stomach, trying to protect a baby who now lives out in the world.
12. I know that there will come a point when I have to stop calling my daughter a ‘baby’ and I will get there in my own time. Do not rush me.
13. I know that the way you feel when you see your partner unexpectedly tells you everything you need to know about whether you’re spending your life with the right person.
14. I know that each of us has to take responsibility for our relationship with the internet and to choose to live a life where we feel in control of it, and not the other way around.
15. I know that it’s hypocritical of me to talk to my daughter about the importance of sharing when I find it so very difficult to share her.
16. I know that carrying a yogurt in your handbag is the riskiest game a human being can play.
17. I know that just because you’ve walked into a room and feel like you’re wearing the wrong thing, it doesn’t mean that you are. It’s always OK to dress like you.
18. I know that of all my life goals ‘That I will one day get on top of the washing’ is by far the most ambitious.
19. I know that the more evenly spread the balance of power is between two people, the better their friendship will be.
20. I know that every friend you make isn’t necessarily meant to be in your life forever. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t still worth knowing each other.
21. I know that if you value your time and your energy you shouldn’t even think about chopping a butternut squash. Just roast the bastard for an hour and a half and then do what you need to do with it. Save your blood, sweat and tears for a more worthwhile activity.
22. I know that just because somebody’s on their own it doesn’t mean they’re lonely, and that just because somebody’s in company, it doesn’t mean they’re not.
23. I know that if you want to make a dream a reality, you have to start being able to talk about it whilst looking people in the eye.
24. I know that though migraines are the bane of my life, they have taught me a lot about how much activity, stress, and socialising I can handle. Your body knows what you can take, so listen to it.
25. I know that I’ve never been to an actual swamp, but I have been in the bathroom after my husband has been in the shower, so I’m pretty confident I know what one looks like.
26. I know that it’s always a good time to remind the person you’re spending your life with that you love them just as they are, mess or no mess.
27. I know that you have two choices: spend your time doubting whether there’s space for you and your creative work, or spend your time creating that space by doing it.
28. I know that the gap between what you imagine putting your child to bed will look like (reading them a bedtime story, rocking them to sleep, singing them lullabies) and what it actually looks like (being repeatedly kicked in the face/poked in the eye whilst you lie down with them to help them ‘settle’, saying ‘Yes, that’s a lovely tongue’ when they choose this moment to show you their entire mouth, getting so good at pretending to be asleep yourself that sometimes you do drift off) is VAST.
29. I know that there will come a time when I don’t sit with my daughter in my lap every night, reading her the exact same books before she goes to bed, and I miss it already.
30. I know that we trick ourselves into thinking that we’re working towards an end point in our lives where our achievements will be added up and evaluated. And I know that the older you get and the more milestones you tick off, the more apparent it becomes that that end point doesn’t exist.
31. I know that one of the greatest gifts my daughter has given me is total abandonment of my sense of self-consciousness. I will sing in the street, I will moo, baa and neigh on the train, and I will dance like she’s the only person watching. In so many ways, she has set me free.
32. I know that the moment things go wrong, you realise just how happy your life made you as it was, but that we don’t have to wait till then to notice.
33. I know that at 34 there’s still so much that I want to do, but that for the life we’ve built so far I am grateful.
34. I know that it never ceases to amaze me since we started our family how quickly our time together passes by. And that all I really want for my birthday this year is more, so much more of it.
That when job applications ask if you speak any other languages, you should be able to get credit for speaking ‘Conversational toddler’.
That preparing a toddler for nursery, transporting them there, dropping them off and then negotiating the buggy shed requires so much energy and generates such volumes of sweat that it should be recognised as an Olympic sport.
That toddlers make you so attuned to risk that even when there are no children around and you see a small object you still feel the need to warn everybody in the vicinity NOT TO PUT IT IN THEIR MOUTH.
That trying to get a toddler to wear a sunhat may be the hardest work you’ll ever do.
That the volume of books you read to toddlers about farms and zoos highlight the gaps in your education when it comes to animal noises. If there’s a Facebook group dedicated to achieving consensus about the sound we should all make to represent a giraffe, I’d like to join it.
That toddlers throw so much food on the floor and you have so little time to yourself that before long you start hoovering up every damp, chewed up morsel and calling it dinner.
That there is no ‘correct’ way to help a toddler eat, sleep, or do anything really, because they’re human beings, not robots. You just have to find a way that works them and for you and resist the temptation to compare it with anyone else’s.
That the confidence and sense of entitlement with which a toddler will steal food off your plate/out of your hand/straight from your mouth is nothing short of inspiring.
That toddlers teach you more about who you really are than any personality test ever could. Mine sighs like me, dances like me, and becomes impossible to communicate with when she’s overtired, just like me.
That toddler demands are generally pretty reasonable. The trouble is that, because they can’t really communicate yet, the process of getting you to understand those demands can feel somewhat unreasonable. I find it helps to remember that it’s the situation that’s difficult, not the person.
That a toddler’s absolute faith in you to be there to save them should they fall off the sofa, misjudge their ability to balance on the bed, or regret climbing into a cupboard is both touching and terrifying in equal measure.
That toddlers make simple things suddenly seem magical. There’s a metal elephant in our garden, left by the previous owner. I’ve always thought it was fine but my daughter thinks it’s AMAZING, so now I do too. A toddler’s ability to get excited about small things is contagious and good for the soul.
That toddlers are little people learning to make decisions. And when that decision is to give you a cuddle, it feels like the best present you’ve ever received.
…But when it’s to empty the entire contents of your purse across a restaurant floor, it feels like maybe letting them look through your handbag was a mistake.
That toddlers are here to teach you that the answer to the question “But how much mess can one small person really make in this house with a yogurt anyway?” is: So much that you’ll wonder if it would be easier to just move out and start again than to even attempt to try and clear up.
That toddler-care involves a lot of jobs: feeding, dressing, changing, washing, translating, lifting, feeding some more. And it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks and lose sight of the little person you’re doing them for, particularly when you’re tired. I’m trying my best not to.
That being the parent of a toddler is the reason I’m now incapable of walking passed a dog without saying “Doggy!” Or that’s what I tell people anyway.
That when it comes to books, toddlers have two settings: 1. I will allow you to read one sentence from this book, close it so quickly that you get a paper cut and then select another; and 2. This is my favourite book in the world, please read it again and again and again until one of us passes out. (It’ll be you).
That there is no need to have a toddler and a gym membership. All you need to do is tell your child that you’re going to put suntan lotion on them and by the time you’ve chased them down and applied it, you’ll have done all your exercise for the year.
That toddlers have the warmest, softest little hands, and that walking about with my daughter’s in mine is my favourite thing to do.
That, if you let yourself, you could spend every second you’re responsible for a toddler feeling scared, worried, exhausted and confused.
But that it’s better for everyone if you focus instead on how joyful, love-filled, and fun this job can be, and just keep on doing your best.
You’re about to discover just how strong you really are. That’s the sentence I find myself saying to friends about to have babies.
I say it because it sounds wise and reassuring, but also because it’s gentler than saying “That child is going to DESTROY YOU – but don’t worry, you’ll cope.”
The trick to parenting is resilience. Without it, you’re screwed. But the good news is, you can’t help but develop it.
As I see it, these are the three main things that simultaneously test and build your resilience when you’re a parent.
1. The fact that you don’t really have a choice
My daughter is almost 16 months old and at no point in her life so far have her demands been negotiable.
When she wants milk, she wants it now. When she wants a snack, she wants it now. When she wants me, for reasons only she understands, to let her into the bathroom so that she can grab a clean nappy and wear it around her neck like a scarf, she expects this opportunity to come about THIS INSTANT.
Since the moment she was born, it’s been our job to give her what she needs, when she needs it. No matter how tired, emotional, confused, scared, fed up, distracted or lost we felt, we had to keep going.
What it means to be truly at someone’s beck and call 24/7 takes some getting used to. You know that’s what you’re signing up for, but not what the reality will feel like.
I’m grateful that I don’t have a choice in the matter, that it’s my duty to serve her, and that I’m unable to function if she’s unhappy. Because it means I don’t have time to stop and think.
I don’t take a moment at 3am when she’s calling for me, to ask if this particular moment is convenient. And I don’t make time to notice that I’ve made her breakfast everyday for almost a year and a half now and never once has she even offered to make mine.
This is my job and I need to show up for it, rain or shine.
But of course that doesn’t mean your wellbeing isn’t important. Strength comes from giving yourself permission to matter too. To speak honestly about how you feel, to do activities with your baby that fill you both up, and to acknowledge that if you’re happy, they’re happy.
2. The fact that the best and worst bits will be a surprise
Your resilience is tested every time something happens that you weren’t expecting. Which is all the time.
Every single one of our best and worst moments has come out of the blue.
I didn’t expect to find breastfeeding so difficult.
I didn’t expect to realise in the middle of Heathrow Airport after we’d checked in our luggage, been through security, and ordered an ill-advised salad with a well-advised side order of chips, that those spots on our daughter’s ears were chickenpox and we wouldn’t be flying anywhere today.
I didn’t expect to spend 28 hours in hospital with her whilst she had antibiotics pumped into her little veins to rid her of an eye infection.
I never expect her to fall over but she does, all the time.
I often lie awake at night worrying about all the things that could happen and trying to work out how I can become organised enough to ensure that they won’t.
It’s a tough moment when you realise that there are only so many to-do lists you can write and parenting articles you can read. Surprises will still occur. But with every one that does, you gather more evidence that you can and will cope.
3. The fact that your heart lives in your child’s hands, and they can crush it whenever they like
I can find the words to describe most things, but I can’t describe the way I feel about my daughter.
When she was born, the love was so overwhelming that it broke us; more than the sleep deprivation or the attempts at feeding, or the c-section recovery. The hard and fast tumble in love with this baby was almost more than we could handle.
But of course, only almost. You get used to functioning in a world where you feel this way.
You get used to feeling genuine physical pain when your child cries.
You get used to how brutal it feels every time one of your efforts to give them a good start in life is rejected – a homemade muffin chucked on the floor, an attempt to get them dressed that ends in tears, a lovingly-read bedtime story during which they get up and leave the room.
You get used to feeling guilty every time they get ill, sad, hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold, frustrated you won’t let them eat paper, displeased with one of their socks… basically every second of the day.
All I want on this earth is for my daughter to be happy, but because she’s a human being, she’s going to experience a lot of other emotions as well. As her mum I have to become resilient enough to handle that reality.
Because it’s not just me who needs to be able to cope. I have to help her grow up ready to face the highs and lows life will throw her way, too.
When I look back on my life before my daughter was born, all I do is search for her.
Where was she on our wedding day? Where was she on that city break? Did my mum hold onto her while I took my A-levels? Did she sleep by my bed in halls?
I search our photos for a pram just out of shot, or a tiny hand clutching my trouser leg, because I struggle to believe there was ever a time before.
I knew that having a baby would change my life, I just didn’t know how.
I didn’t know that whilst the tiredness, relentlessness, and lack of moments to myself would be hard to adjust to, it would be the weight on my heart that would change me the most.
I knew that I’d love her, but I had no idea what that love would feel like. She’s starting nursery now, and I had to fill out a form explaining what she needs to be happy. A form about me would just say: HER. Bring me her. Show me she’s OK and everything will be fine. She’s what happiness looks like for me now.
Our baby will turn one this week, and the oddest thing about this milestone is how simultaneously quickly and slowly this year has passed by. I’ve lived every second of the last 12 months, and yet it’s slipped through my fingers. There have been days when I’ve been awake for and aware of almost every hour, but I’m still not sure how quite so many of them have gone by.
One minute she was a newborn who lay down for most of the day, and now she’s a little person, on a one-child-mission to destroy our lounge. I can’t tell you how a year has managed to sneak passed in the life of a girl whom I swear we only just brought home.
Back at the start, once the initial weeks of fear and feeding and figuring it all out were done, I realised that I didn’t know where to put myself. I wasn’t sure what day-to-day life with a baby was supposed to look like once you’d got your sh*t together. But then I joined some classes and groups, I tried doing too much, I tried doing too little, and I found a balance that worked for us. Maternity leave is an education in how to cope when you feel lost. You’ve got to do it your way, the only problem is that it’s you who has to work out what that is.
Motherhood has changed who I am and confirmed who I’ve always been, all at the same time.
Becoming a mum wiped the floor with me – it shattered my heart, rewired my brain, and stretched, scarred and knackered my body more than even the most high-tempo zumba class ever could. It’s fundamentally changed how I see the world, and given me a sense of purpose like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s slowed my desired pace of life right down, and made me see the benefits of a life lived locally.
It’s done all of this whilst also cementing everything I’ve always known to be true: That I need fresh air everyday. That too much small talk leaves me cold. That I never wanted to go out on Saturday nights anyway. That I need to be creative to feel alive.
The trick, if you can manage it, is to let the person you’ve always been find a way to thrive in this new world. It’s not easy – I’m still working on it. We all just have to keep on working on it.
We’re moving into a new chapter now – I’m going back to work part-time, and our daughter will be looked after by somebody else whilst I’m gone. She went to nursery for a few hours last week, and I went to a café to write this. I cried into my hot chocolate as I typed, and then later my scrambled eggs. I’m just not used to being away from her.
It’s funny because so much of parenting is about trying to secure time away from your baby. You work hard to get them to nap so that you can rest. To play with a toy long enough for you to drink a hot drink. To. just. stay. there. whilst you go to the toilet for once by yourself. But it’s all short term, they’re always close by (she can push the bathroom door open now anyway). I hope she knows that I’ll still be close by.
This time last year I was about to have a baby, and now I have a one year old, a toddler waiting to happen. Time’s flown by, we’ve all changed and grown up, and discovered just how strong we can be.
All I want for this baby on her very first birthday is to bring her as much joy as she’s brought me.
You know the drill by now – I’ll turn 33 this week, so, as is tradition, I’ve written a list of things I have to say at this point in time. This time it’s some of the lessons this period has taught me. My 33rd year has been dominated by pregnancy and my daughter’s first seven months in the world, so they’re mostly about that, with a few bonus points chucked in for good measure.
(Here are the lists I wrote when I turned 29, 30, 31 and 32, in case you’d like to catch up before we get going.)
1. I’ve learnt that you have absolutely no idea what it’s like to have a baby until you have a baby and that, even then, you only really know what it’s like for you.
2. I’ve learnt that the return of mid-length shorts to the world of fashion could not have come at a better time. I spend most of the day bending down to pick up my child and I need to be able to do so without fear of arrest.
3. I’ve learnt that optimism is heading down to theatre to have a caesarean section with your knickers on in the hope that the surgeons will just cut along the waistband.
4. I’ve learnt that marriage is having to take those knickers off and hand them to your husband to store in the pocket of his scrubs. The spiral of indignity started there and ended… hang on, when will that be?
5. I’ve learnt that when you have a baby your body changes. Mine is bigger, it’s wobblier, and it’s scarred. Of course it is, I housed a giant child for nine months and then had her cut out of me. I am grateful for everything my body let me do and I am happy to look a little different as a result. Women, there’s enough nonsense out there about how we should or shouldn’t look. The least we can do is refuse to add our own voices to the noise.
6. I’ve learnt that instead of thinking ‘What would Beyoncé or Oprah or Emma Thompson do?’, it’s more useful to think ‘What would I do in this situation if I wasn’t worried about what anybody else thought?’
7. I’ve learnt that having a baby makes you look at your parents completely differently. Finally, true empathy and gratitude starts to kick in. Oh wow, you did all this for me. Holy sh*t, this is hard work. Thank you, thank you so much.
8. I’ve learnt that when I look at a picture of my daughter on my phone, I think: That’s my heart right there. That is a photograph of my heart. Oh no wait, that’s 76576 photographs of my heart and my phone memory is full AGAIN.
9. I’ve learnt that marriage is hard when you’ve started a family because you both spend all your time cuddling somebody else. It’s important to make a little room for each other too when you can.
10. I’ve learnt that if you want to eat an iced bun you should eat an iced bun because life is short and cake is delicious.
Picture by @ben_cameron. I’ve learnt that he can articulate my feelings in a drawing.
11. I’ve learnt that, whereas I used to be too afraid to wear a jumpsuit because you have to take the entire thing off to go to the toilet (what if somebody walked in?), so many people at our local hospital have now seen me do so much more than that that I no longer care. Join the freakin’ list, lads.
12. I’ve learnt that there is a serious gap in the market for a wearable drinking vessel for breastfeeding mums. No activity on this earth makes you thirstier, and yet you don’t have any hands free to hold a drink. Come on, someone, invent something.
13. I’ve learnt that people who show up at your door with food during the first few weeks of your baby’s life are the greatest people in the world.
14. I’ve learnt that perfect strangers think you don’t know very much about your own child. “She’s tall isn’t she!” Yep. “She’s a big baby isn’t she!” Uhuh. “She’s long for that pram isn’t she!” SHE USED TO LIVE IN MY BODY. I AM AWARE OF ALL OF THESE THINGS.
15. I’ve learnt that all it would take for me to be interested in the World Cup is a nice man in a blue waistcoat in charge of the England team.
16. I’ve learnt that one of the greatest gifts motherhood has given me is the opportunity to say “Come on then, let’s get you home!” into the pram when I need to get out of an awkward social situation.
17. I’ve learnt that it’s hard when you’re in charge of a small person’s life not to see everything else in the world as utterly trivial. But it’s important that you don’t.
18. I’ve learnt that no human being on this earth yields more power than a baby who finds themselves momentarily without a nappy.
19. I’ve learnt that the reason it’s so difficult to just be ourselves is because who we are never stops changing.
20. I’ve learnt that when people tell you to make the most of your free time before you have a baby you think ‘Yeah yeah yeah, what does that even mean?’, and then you give birth and you realise exactly what that would have meant, but it’s too late.
21. I’ve learnt that I’ll feel sick for the 12 hours before I’m going to be away from my daughter, but that, if it’s to go and do something fun, and she’s in safe hands, I will feel better when I get there, and that the time away will do me good.
22. I’ve learnt that it is possible to feel nostalgic about things that you found really difficult. Pregnancy was tough – my back hurt, I had migraines all the time, and I became so enormous that I could hardly walk. But still, sometimes I miss it. I miss carrying her around with me, and the freedom only retrospect has made me realise that I had.
23. I’ve learnt that any mother you see feeding a baby will probably have been through quite a journey to get that child to eat in a way that works for them both. I thought it would be simple, but it wasn’t.
24. I’ve learnt that my hopes and dreams outside motherhood are very much still alive and well, it’s just that I have to use my free time more wisely now to make sure they happen.
25. I’ve learnt that the second you start to get used to whatever stage your baby’s at, they’ll move onto the next one. Don’t you dare start to think that you know what you’re doing.
26. I’ve learnt that I wear make-up for my own benefit. When I first became a mum, I discovered that I felt better if the face looking back at me in the mirror looked as nice as I think it can. It was my view I was concerned with, not anybody else’s.
27. I’ve learnt that having a baby increases your ability to hold a grudge. I’m sorry, was that a negative word/thought/exhalation in my daughter’s direction? Goodbye forever.
28. I’ve learnt that it’s good to do things that scare you. Maternity leave can be daunting as hell, as I wrote here, but it does help if you leave the house, try something new, and meet people. If you’d told me last year that I would join a choir and be up for singing with them in front of other people, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. A lot can change in a year.
29. I’ve learnt that you discover just how good your hearing is when your child is born. I’d be able to hear our daughter crying through a typhoon. I can’t hear my own mobile phone ring when it’s in my hand, but at least I’ve got her covered.
30. I’ve learnt that if somebody sat you down and really made you understand what the first few weeks of having a baby are like, you simply wouldn’t do it. So thank goodness they don’t.
31. I’ve learnt that if somebody had sat me down and tried to articulate how incredible seeing our baby being born would feel, they still wouldn’t have been able to prepare us.
32. I’ve learnt that I feel like I’ve aged a lot more than just one year in the last 12 months.
33. I’ve learnt that, even though it’s been hard and tiring and more emotional than a season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
A couple of years ago one of my best friends and I arranged to spend a Saturday at a spa.
It sounds like a wonderful, relaxing way to spend a weekend. And it would have been, if I hadn’t been deep in the throes of what I now know was panic disorder. It’s hard to describe what I felt like at that time without just repeatedly saying words like INSANE and HORRIBLE and LIKE MY HEART AND BRAIN WERE TRYING TO DIG THEIR WAY OUT OF MY BODY THROUGH MY MOUTH.
I can look back on it now and understand it, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. I had constant panic attacks – I mean, about 25 to 30 a day – whilst trying to hold down a job, a marriage, and a social life. It was not fun.
And there came a point during this day when I just couldn’t take it any more. On the face of it I was just another woman, laughing and joking and sitting in rooms of varying temperature with her friend. But on the inside I was losing my freaking mind. So I decided to tell my friend what I was going through, and that I didn’t know what to do about it.
I think about that moment a lot. About the weight that lifted from my shoulders when I admitted it. About the fact that I could see she didn’t even think about judging me. And about the unquestioning support I’ve had ever since.
Why am I talking about this now? Well, it’s partly because time and distance are a marvellous thing. I can look back on that period – and I do, daily – and see everything it taught me. About myself, about my friends, and about what it takes to admit that you’re suffering.
The older we get, the deeper our friendships become. I guess it’s because we have less time and therefore less motivation to hang around people with whom we feel we need to pretend to be OK when we’re not OK.
I value every conversation I have with friends where we tell each other what’s really going on. But even more than that, I value the courage and the strength it takes for any of us to talk about it in the first place.
On reflection it took me months to admit what was happening to me. I thought that it would pass. I thought that I could handle it. I thought I had to handle it. Saying it was only the beginning – I had a long way to go before things got better – but you can’t get to step 20 without taking step one, and once I’d taken it, I didn’t look back.
We all want to just be all right. It’s more fun to be around, it’s more appealing, and it makes for better Instagram posts. But life doesn’t always let us off so easily.
I’m about a month away from having our baby and, to be honest, I’m amazed that I haven’t yet totally lost my sh*t. I’m not saying I haven’t come close, but I’ve found the knowledge that any anxiety I experience is also felt by the baby to be marvellously grounding. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my moments, but my focus is clear and all I can say is that it’s helping so far.
But I’m also realistic. I know that I have a weakness and I’m not letting it out of my sight. I’m trying to tell myself and those around me now that if I struggle after I’ve had the baby, I want to feel able to say so. All anybody can do is take it day by day, so that’s what I’m doing.
When you’re in the thick of a struggle and you let people in on what’s happening to you, you feel like you’re making such a fuss. Like you’re moaning and exaggerating, and bothering people with the contents of your mind.
And it’s only when you’re on the other side – when somebody speaks to you about what they’re going through – that you can see that simply isn’t the case. They’re not over-sharing or being dramatic, they’re being brave and strong, and giving you the chance to be there for them, which is a gift, actually.
I will never regret finding the courage to say something about what was happening to me. And I can only hope that others will do the same when they need to, too.
So now here comes 32. And whilst all the other ages came as something of a shock, this one feels just right. So this time I’m sharing why getting older isn’t so bad after all. It’s gonna happen anyway so you may as well smile about it.
1. Nobody cares that your main aim in life is to go home at a reasonable hour and get into bed. Most people feel exactly the same way.
2. The older you get the clearer it becomes that – with just a few exceptions – you simply don’t have to do things you don’t want to do. (This TED Talk on how to stop giving a f*** offers very helpful advice on this subject).
3. It finally dawns on you that the idea that if you’re not wearing heels you’re not properly dressed up is BULLSHIT. You can, of course, wear whatever the hell you want.
4. People don’t just compliment your nail varnish, they applaud you for finding time to apply it.
5. You get to regale younger folks with crazy stories about all the things you got up to when you were young. About the time you failed an exam because you stayed up till 5am the night before. Or when you drank triple vodka and lemonades and begged your body to let you throw up. They don’t believe you were ever that fun, of course, but you get to tell the story nonetheless.
6. You realise that the fact that women go to the toilet too isn’t taboo after all. In fact, within minutes of meeting a fellow female thirty something, it’s not unusual to have compared notes regarding the weakness of your respective bladders.
7. The ever growing list of glorious new roles you get to take on. Auntie, sister-in-law, friend-always-happy-to-discuss-the-complexities-of-Coronation-Street-storylines. With great age comes great responsibility, and I am here for all of it.
8. Female friendships at this point in our lives are better than they’ve ever been. Much like wine, cheese and Colin Firth, they really do get better with age.
9. The sweet joy of regressing. Yes maturity is important, but hanging out with school friends and howling about the time Tina hid around a corner waiting to scare me and instead jumped onto a perfect stranger’s back, will never get old, even if we do.
10. Relationships with your siblings. My brothers are two of the best men I know. This is not a sentence I thought I’d write when we were living at home and SCREAMING at each other about who got to sit in the armchair closest to the telly. (I mean, it doesn’t matter but it was always them and it was so unfair). And I have it on good authority that they thought I was pretty ghastly too. Nice job growing up, everyone.
11. You realise that dropping a swear word into conversation with your parents won’t bring the world to an end. It’s been 32 years and we’re finally in agreement that ‘arse’ is an incredibly useful term.
12. We get to look around at a world growing up on social media secure in the knowledge that, unless time machines become a thing – and they SHOULDN’T – the minutiae of our teenage years will never be documented on the Internet.
13. The oddly grounding effect of spotting a grey hair in your fringe. Here I am, it says, the passing of time, happening right here above your eyebrows. Stop dicking about on Twitter and LIVE, for goodness sake.
14. You learn that a successful marriage depends on a strong commitment to little white lies. (My husband refuses to admit that he can see the aforementioned grey hairs and for that I will love him forever).
15. For the most part, the people in your life now are in your life because you want them in your life. Because who’s got time to have things any other way?
16. The freedom to write a birthday list requesting what you really want. You can keep your gadgets, give me comfortable pants and a high quality shower gel and I’ll be happy for the rest of the year.
17. Not being embarrassed to admit that when everybody started going on about Drake, it took you a week to figure out that people weren’t talking about Nick Drake.
18. …Or that “Sifting through a rack of reduced greetings cards” is your idea of a perfect weekend activity.
19. …Or to say that a stool is not a chair (with my back?!) so you will need to find somewhere else to sit.
20. Or that, as far as you’re concerned, anything happening outside of your house on a Monday night is going to need to happen without you.
21. Having the confidence, when a waiter or waitress asks if you have any questions about the menu, to ask them so many that they may as well take a seat whilst you work through your list.
22. The constant novelty of marriage. Yes arguments happen, and no, some people don’t seem to understand that “Unless you’re planning to build some kind of fort, please can you put used toilet rolls in the recycling bin” isn’t a joke. But waking up next to a person about whom you believe all love songs were written never stops being exciting.
23. Knowing that with every day that passes, fewer and fewer people in the world expect you to look or be cool.
24. Realising it really is OK when somebody pays you a compliment to just say “Thank you”. You don’t have to panic and list every single one of your faults in response.
25. The understanding that nobody in your life ever thought you were being ironic when you listened to Steps, Boyzone and Westlife anyway, so you might as well just enjoy them with your head held high.
26. You discover the world of books designed to help make your life easier. I wrote a few months ago about Derren Brown’s ‘Happy’ and learning to focus on the things in life we can control. For this book and the many others about how to keep your sh*t together, I am very grateful.
27. The pressure of time continuing to pass forces you to finally find the courage to SAY what you want to do with your life. Which is excellent because now you can put all the energy you’d usually reserve for feeling embarrassed by your ambitions into realising them.
28. Permission to participate in borderline fanaticism regarding high quality air freshening products. TALK TO ME ABOUT MY DIFFUSERS. I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY.
29. The knowledge that, at any point, should you need or want to, you can go home. Because you are an adult, and you get to decide what you do.
30. Finally feeling like you know yourself well enough. How much sun you can take. How much water you need to feel normal. How many giant chocolate buttons is too many giant chocolate buttons. Sometimes you have to get it wrong before you can know how to get it right.
31. Realising that most of the very best moments of your life don’t make it into the photo album. They’re too good to stop to look through a lens.
32. Sh*t suddenly gets real. I’m sitting here with a small human being kicking, punching and spinning his or her way around my womb, quietly waiting to turn our lives upside down. It’s as bizarre and beautiful as everybody says.
You see, age has its downsides – its aches and pains, its effect on your capacity to party – but without it I wouldn’t be here, somewhere close to ready for motherhood. So I really can’t fault it.
I can only imagine what I’ll have to say about the world by the time 33 comes around.
Existing on this planet feels particularly tough at the moment. In the UK the past few weeks have seen attacks on innocent people, and more horror and sadness that any of us wanted to imagine. It’s impossible to comprehend let alone accept what’s been happening, or the pain and suffering that those affected, their families and friends are going through.
And if any comfort at all can be taken at such an awful time, I am trying to take some from the very fact that we find it so hard to get our heads around such cruelty. Because finding it difficult shows that most of us are good people who would never hurt anyone intentionally. We’re here to love and look after one another, to use our days to experience laughter and joy, and to demonstrate kindness whenever we can.
Most of us do this on a small-scale, day-to-day basis – perhaps to a friend or a colleague, or maybe even to a stranger should the opportunity arise. And others take it to the next level – signing up to be nothing short of heroic as and when the moment requires. And for those people there can never be a sufficient level of gratitude.
Living in London means it’s the norm to joke about the level to which we Londoners ignore/sigh at/silently despise one another whilst commuting or attempting to make progress down Oxford Street. It’s a busy city and I’m as guilty as anyone of getting annoyed about the pettiest of things, and of putting my head down and just trying to get around without yelling at anybody.
But there’s a big difference between cynicism about the pain-in-the-arse daily grind, and actually not giving a damn about other people. Because we do care really, and never is that more apparent than when it really matters.
And it’s this knowledge – that the vast majority of people are good and kind and, normally, just trying to get from A to B – that I’m trying to hold onto today. Feelings of despair and confusion are an inevitable part of dealing with reports of such cruelty – and it’s important to make time for them – but then hope comes from focusing on the positive side of humanity. The sweet joy of having the freedom to live the life you want to live, the love and loyalty we can show our friends, and the bottomless pot of kindness forever at our disposal.
All being well, we’re going to be having a baby in November. (A less serious post will inevitably follow about the endless joy of the first trimester, I’m sure). We’ve a long way to go but, as you do, we’ve found ourselves wandering around shops and spotting things we’d like to put in the baby’s room. And one such item is a picture that reads: It’s cool to be kind.
After this weekend, I’m surer than ever that I’m going to buy it, because there’s no better lesson we can teach our child. And it won’t do us any harm to be reminded of that fact everyday, too.