Project Awesome

Making my life more awesome

Free at last! But what to do…?

The symptoms of my depression have been getting worse over the past week or so.  I feel much more anxious.  I feel tired.  I feel like crying quite a lot.  I feel like a miserable failure at most of the things which matter to me. I am irritable.  I am unmotivated and I don’t really enjoy doing much.  It’s not fun.

It’s not very surprising either.  There’s a lot going on at the moment: the background stress of the threat of redundancy and the unsettled atmosphere at work, and the return to the pressured school day.  And it feels as if every day there is a new and overwhelming challenge: I arrived home to a letter stating that I had claimed free dental care that I am not entitled to, and as well as being asked to pay for it, I am being charged a penalty of £94.  My entitlement to free dental care and prescriptions has, I think, come with my entitlement to tax credits.  My circumstances have not changed and I did not realise I had to pay: no-one told me.  I need to appeal but I am too tired.  And the night before last I was up for an hour and a half with Big Girl – she woke up feeling sore and uncomfortable and crying with the pain.  I ended up ringing the out of hours GP (God bless the NHS!) and getting her sorted and back to sleep, but the worry, the sense of impotence, the disturbed sleep: the cumulative effect of these challenges is that I am not sure how much more I can carry.

So, here I am at home on a Friday – it’s my day off work and now the girls are at school, it’s an opportunity to have a little bit of time and space, and to get my house tidy and make life a little more ordered. But I also want to lie around doing nothing.  Or, more to the point, I want a break from the effort required to do anything.  I am, always, responsible.  I am responsible at home for ensuring we have food, clean clothes, an environment where Big Girl and Small Girl can be happy and healthy and feel loved and secure.  I am responsible for getting them to school on time and making sure they do their homework.  I am responsible for establishing a good bedtime routine and making sure they sleep.   I am responsible at work for dealing with complex and unresolveable problems, for keeping customers happy, for working with staff in other departments to achieve goals.  My job is actually impossible and unachievable, but I am not sure what level of lack of success is acceptable.  So I would like a break from all this responsibility, just for a while.

Depression is often described as a black dog in your life.  I am not sure how best to use today, my free time, to make living with this dog feel easier.  I could be productive, get things done now so I don’t have to worry about them later, feel productive, feel competent.  Or I could have a rest, have a break, be kind to myself.  There is something about the very act of doing nothing which is beneficial: I am proving to myself that my life is not unmanageable.  If my life were so very pressured, I would not be able to spend an hour watching Doctor Who. If I can spend half an hour lying quietly on the sofa, it must be ok.  And so, I must spend half an hour quietly doing nothing to remind myself that actually, everything is ok enough.  It is a discipline worth practising.

I’m not sure it has to be an either/or question.  I can be productive and spend time resting.  I can do things which need to be done but which I also enjoy – or at least don’t mind doing.  Part of the pleasure of these Fridays is that I am alone and, whatever I choose to do, no-one interrupts me: no arguments or requests for drinks or demands that I pretend to be a donkey.  In itself, this freedom from external accountability is something to cherish.  I can flow around my house, entirely in charge of my destiny, answerable only to myself for what I achieve.  So I wonder if, perhaps, it’s not so much what I do that matters, as how and why I do it.

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Under pressure

Small Girl started school last week.  Aside from some tears on Monday morning, and the usual complaining about having to get up in the morning and not being allowed to wear pyjamas all day, she seems to be enjoying it.  And I love seeing her beaming face when I pick her up each afternoon, as if being collected by me is equivalent to a lottery win.  But she’s only four-and-a-quarter, so she looks tiny and it’s quite a lot for her to adjust to.  She comes home exhausted every day but struggles to settle to sleep.  And Big Girl, now in Year 1, is also adjusting to more structured learning and a new classroom and a new teacher.  So we’re all pretty tired.

Getting two children dressed and to school is not much different to getting one to school and one to nursery, except you can’t pass off a pyjama top as school uniform in quite the same way that you can pretend it’s nursery clothes.  But during the chaos of the summer holidays, lazy days at home and trips out and juggling arrangements for the girls and never quite being sure what day it is, I forgot quite what the school routine is like.

So, wake up at 6.  Get up and eat breakfast, hoping the girls will sleep until I’ve finished.  Experience, again, the minor disappointment of interrupted coffee.  Get dressed while fending off demands to play on the tablet before they are dressed.  Encourage children to get dressed.  Ask if they’ve put their knickers on yet.  Put their knickers on for them.  Negotiate around use of the potty and/or toilet and whether they want to eat breakfast at home before going to breakfast club at school. Put more clothes on them.  Explain why they aren’t allowed to wear pyjamas to school.  Brush their hair and teeth.  Get my lunch out of the fridge.  Ask Big Girl to put her socks on.  Ask Big Girl again to put her socks on.  Ask Big Girl how many times I’ve asked her to put her socks on.  Put her socks on for her.  Advise Small Girl that if she doesn’t wear her school shoes she will be walking to school in just her socks and they will be dirty and uncomfortable.  Explain that they can’t take huge cuddly toys to school with them because I don’t want to carry them to work with me.  Remember that I haven’t fed the guinea pigs yet.  Put on my shoes and coat.  Check the bathroom tap is turned off to avoid a repeat of the flooding incident a couple of years ago.  Feed the guinea pigs.  Ask the girls to put on their coats and book bags.  Walk out of the door followed by children wailing about various things including cold legs and being hungry and tired.  Try to encourage the children to walk to school without screaming at them.  Explain that Small Girl can’t have a carry because she is at school now and needs to walk, and that yes, she is tired, because she didn’t go to sleep until late last night.  And that yes, she might feel poorly, and if she is poorly her teacher will ring her and I’ll pick her up.  And yes, if Big Girl is poorly, *her* teacher will ring me, and I’ll come and pick her up.  And if they are both poorly, I expect their teachers will work out between them who will ring me, and I’ll collect them both.  And then we get to school and there’s some reluctance from one or the other to go into breakfast club, but we manage it.

And finally, I’m released.  And I walk to work feeling like I’ve already done a working day, and then, like a pinball, fall into a world of customers and complaints and problems and emails and phonecalls and priorites and meetings, and a to-do list which is never done.  And then I’m spat out again, back to school to pick up my two children and usher them home and convince them to, eventually, stop climbing trees and cartwheeling so we can get home, and disagreements over who is going to carry their coats and book-bags and directives to avoid standing in dog poo, and a desperate desire for them to walk at a reasonable pace home, and then into the house and shoes off and arguments about whose turn it is on the tablet and making tea and making a mess and then the usual long drawn-out saga of bedtime – overtired but not sleepy – and my need to make my lunch for the next day and get uniforms out and hang up laundry and fill the dishwasher and, finally, I crawl into bed, and I really haven’t stopped all day.

All this is compounded, just now, by announcements last Thursday of redundancies at work: voluntary redundancies at first and then, probably, compulsory redundancies.  Some people are pleased to have an opportunity to leave earlier than they had expected and some people are planning to leave with a better deal now, rather than waiting for compulsory redundancies. I do not want to lose my job.  I have working arrangements which suit me and a job I can do and I work with people I like.  I have a mortgage to pay and not much to fall back on.

I’m not really anxious about this yet.  But there’s constant back-ground stress.  Work feels very uncertain, lots of questions and people discussing what might happen.  Everyone is at risk.  I hope that my job is at less risk than some, but we don’t know how things will pan out, and even if I do keep my job I may lose some of my flexibility or my part-time hours or my guarantee of a return to full-time hours if I wish.  Terms and conditions are being looked at, and we may have to take a pay cut.  And if I do survive, there will be far fewer people to do the work, so my job is very likely to change.  While this could be an opportunity to find new and better ways of working, it feels very scary.

Working to get through each day with enough food and clean clothes available, and then hoping to keep my job plus, last week, trying to influence government policy on refugees, means that other issues, anxieties, concerns, disappointments are, to an extent, left untouched.  I go to bed each night and sleep, weirdly, deeply but badly, and wake up feeling tired and ten steps behind myself already, before I even start.

So I’m very excited about this forthcoming weekend.  It’s the first full week of school and, as I don’t work on Fridays, my first day where I’ll drop both girls off at school and then go home.  Their dad is picking them up tomorrow and dropping them back at school on Monday.  So I have a whole child-free weekend with very little planned.  I’m going to read.  And sleep.  And read.  And run.  I might meet up with friends.  I’m going to eat good food without arguing with anyone about it (this isn’t true.  I’ll probably eat toast all weekend).  I’m going to live in a clean and tidy house for three days (this also isn’t true – I’ll do some frantic cleaning on Sunday evening and wonder why I didn’t do it sooner).  It’s going to be a mini-break from my normal life and all the pressures of the past week.

All I have to do is survive one more school run…

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Little by little

This morning I ran my third Parkrun.  I got a new best time, and I think I ran more consistently, and I had a coffee afterwards with someone I know and someone he knows, so it felt like a good start to the day.  This was followed by a long stint in the bath reading the Saturday Guardian magazine, and now I am lounging around in my pyjamas eating chocolate.

One of the things I enjoy about running is the sense of accomplishment it gives me, of challenging myself and meeting that challenge, at my own pace.  Often I settle into a comfortable pace and then realise I could try a little harder, run a little faster.  I suggest to my legs that perhaps we could, if we wanted, pick up the pace ever so slightly.  And then I congratulate myself on just doing a little more than I thought I could.  It’s very affirming, and I am grateful to my legs for the valuable role they play in improving my self-esteem.

I also find, in Quakerism, that sense of challenging myself to try a little harder.  ‘Advices and Queries‘ is a little booklet with a gramatically dubious title, produced by British Quakers.  It poses questions and offers advice but is not prescriptive: the introduction says that “we are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies”.  It encourages me to think about where I would like to develop or stretch myself, what things I could do differently, but there is no pressure to conform.

I have been thinking recently about what I’m doing with my time and how to balance the different parts of my life, and the extent to which I see the point in doing any housework.  I was looking through Advices and Queries during my Quaker meeting last week and came across no. 26, which seemed to speak to my questions:

Do you recognise the needs and gifts of each member of your family and household, not forgetting your own? Try to make your home a place of loving friendship and enjoyment, where all who live or visit may find the peace and refreshment of God’s presence.

So things are worth doing to the extent that they increase our enjoyment as a family and as individuals.  Housework which contributes to a peaceful and refreshing environment is beneficial.  And although my primary relationship to and responsibility for Big Girl and Small Girl is as their mother, I try to do this in a manner of loving friendship as much as possible.

  • Recently I’ve been feeling that I need some quiet time to myself at the end of the day.  When Big Girl is in bed, she wants to ‘just tell me something’ or hurts herself or wants me to help her with something.  Every time she shouts to me I come to the bottom of the stairs to hear what she is saying, disrupting whatever activity I was involved in.  Usually I am doing something like hanging up laundry or getting clothes ready for the next day or loading the dishwasher.  I am not enjoying myself or having a party.  But I would like to finish my jobs in peace and, possibly, then enjoy myself after a day of caring for my children and responding to demands and complaints and needs at work.  So I’ve bought a gro-clock.  This is after only about four years of people suggesting it, so I hope friends feel I have been listening.  During sleep time, the clock face is blue and has stars on it.  When it’s an appropriate getting-up time, the face turns yellow and the sun comes out.  So when the sun is on the screen, they can ask me things.  When the stars are out, I’m available for emergencies only.  Of course, they can still climb into my bed when I’m asleep in it, but they can’t get me up until the sun comes up.  Probably.  So far it seems to be reasonably effective and I am delighted.
  • It is far more efficient to sort the laundry once a week or so and put everything away than spend ten minutes every day rummaging around for pants and socks.  This reduces stress and frees up time for playing and sleeping.  I’m planning on teaching the girls how to sort their laundry with me, although they mainly see laundry-sorting as an opportunity to roll around on my bed in the middle of all the piles of sorted clothes.  It’s a work in progress.
  • I have been asked why I tidy up when visitors are coming if I’m not bothered by the mess.  This question was posed by someone who cleans a lot and has never been to my house, but still, it’s a good question.  Now I have an explanation.  I want people to feel peaceful and refreshed when they come to my house.  I’m not bothered by my mess, but that’s because it’s mine and I’m used to it.  It’s much nicer to go to a house where there’s space to sit on the sofa and there aren’t bits of guinea-pig hay and toys strewn around the floor causing mental distress for those not used to this degreeof mess.  And there’s a tendency to equate messiness with dirtiness. I think it’s courteous to save visitors the anxiety of wondering if they may get typhoid drinking a cup of tea in my house.
  • If there are clean bowls and plates and cups ready in the morning, and school and nursery clothes are set out, there is much less shouting and much more kindness in the morning.  It’s worth running the dishwasher before I go to bed to give us a better chance of a peaceful start to the day.

This doesn’t feel revolutionary, or a work of domestic genius – just a change in focus from aspiring to external standards of a well-run house, which I could never hope to meet, to finding ways to make our routines work for us.  And if I am working towards an increasing sense of peace and friendliness, I find things run much more smoothly than if I’m motivated by an unachievable domestic standard – my children respond better.  In the words of the lovely Dr Greene*, ‘I set the tone’.

*ER nostalgia never really goes away.

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Seeking myself

When my children are away, I have a tendency to feel a little deflated.  The past week and a half has been very full-on: we went on holiday to Butlins – beach, playground, swimming pool, lessons about not running by a swimming pool, bravery at venturing onto the flumes, shows, soft play, fairground rides (here’s my tip – if you have to take your children on big rides one at a time, take the bravest first onto the scary ones, and then explain to the more timid child that they really wouldn’t like it, and take them on something different), ice-cream, candy floss, puppets – non-stop fun.  And then straight home into Small Girl’s fourth birthday celebrations: on Saturday making a cake for her party on Sunday and unpacking; then on Sunday icing the cake, leaving for the party and dropping the cake upside down in the middle of the road.  The party, fortunately, was at a soft play centre, so didn’t involve too much organising, but when we got home Big Girl gave herself a small hair cut to add to the excitement.  Oh, and I also made a mermaid skirt/tail for Big Girl’s ‘Under the Sea’ dressing up day the following day, which had all but fallen apart by the time she got to school.  Apparently space blankets are not as robust as I imagined.  Having remembered how to get into school and work, with a streaming cold, and survived Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday was Small Girl’s actually birthday: lots of presents, a trip to the park, a visit to the supermarket to buy a birthday cake and for Small Girl to spend some birthday money, and then I discovered I’d lost my housekeys so had to call a locksmith out.  My family arrived and we had a barbecue, and then Thursday there was school and work again.  It has felt somewhat like a runaway train I couldn’t stop, an ordeal I am surprised to have survived.  And now my girls have gone to their dad’s house, and I feel like a ship with dead sails. I’ve been driven by my children’s needs and demands, and the requirement to produce food and clean clothes and a good birthday celebration, and now the wind has gone and I am becalmed.

I’m not sure if this feeling is a natural response to having been so constantly busy or if it’s a sign that my life is out of balance.  This feast-or-famine way of living doesn’t really suit my temperament.  I don’t want to spend all my free time recovering from and preparing to be a parent.  But equally I want to be able to enjoy the time I have with my children without feeling exhausted, and overwhelmed by housework.  When first I had my childfree evenings and then weekends, I was so busy, fitting things in, having fun, making the most of every moment.  And then I realised that actually I like having an evening in by myself, and need some space and time to relax.

But now I feel somewhat purposeless, unsure of where I’m going.  I feel like I’m drifting – not so much like a fallow period as wasted time.  I’m not actually doing anything – I’m watching old episodes of West Wing, which are onto their third viewing now, by myself.  I’m not growing or changing or learning anything.  I’m not making new friendships or deepening older ones.  I’m trawling Facebook hoping to feel connected to something and mostly just seeing that other people are doing things which look more fun.

I don’t think the problem is with how I use my child-free time.  I think it’s that I allow myself to get lost, subsumed, when I’m caring for my children.  Somehow I need to refind the boundaries between myself and my children: when I was on retreat, I found that I could distinguish between me and them, their needs and my needs.  Somehow I had become blended with them and blurry around the edges, and the time alone enabled me to become distinct again.  I think I need to find that distinctness again.  It’s hard as a single parent: my children can be demanding and all-consuming, and there’s that sense of competition, of someone biting at my heels – if I am not good enough they may decide they’d prefer to live with Daddy.  I have to make the most of them, because they grow up so quickly and this time is precious.  But equally, I cannot have them be my full life, because they are not always here, and because my hope is for them to grow up and away, and to become independent, and it will be harder to do that if I also want to cling to them as a source of my self-worth and identity.  I am pulled in many directions, and I allow myself to become ragged and thin.

I’m not sure how I can do this, but I think there must be a way: more silence; more community; more sleep; and a little bit of courage. I think I owe myself that.

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Brain failure

My depression is playing up at the moment.  Having increased the dose of my previous medication to the point where I was falling asleep while putting the girls to bed and had no time or energy left to do even the most minimal of housework, my GP suggested I tried a different drug.  So I weaned myself off Drug One (having a moment of giddiness and euphoria on the way down, when the soporific side-effects were first removed) and started, very cautiously, to take Drug Two.  Drug Two has not improved things.  Drug Two has left me feeling gloomy and tired, unable to make conversation, indecisive, apathetic and troubled by constant morbid thoughts.

It is like being swarmed by wasps at a picnic – no matter how much I shoo them away, they come back, relentless, until I give up.  And my surrender, in itself, becomes another shameful failure to despise myself for.

It is like trying to swim to shore.  I know that when I get there, there will be sandcastles and ice-cream.  And I desperately don’t want to drown.  But I’m tired of fighting the tide.

It is like running, unable to keep up, struggling under a weighted pack which no-one else is carrying; trying so hard and moving so slowly.

It’s a lack of oxygen, struggling to breathe.

It’s a surge of tears, threatening, behind my eyes.

It’s looking for something good and finding nothing.

It’s flatness and inadequacy, conversation dying on my tongue.

It’s a fear of something terrible, just out of sight.

It’s a wasted day, inert and immobile.

It’s self-accusation: blessed with abundance and unable to enjoy it.

It’s the hope that if I cry, or sleep, or run, this anxiety might be released.  But it never is for long.

It’s merely a failure of brain chemistry.

I think about my depression as a physical illness.  It’s not a rational response to something terrible which happened to me, and I don’t need to pick apart how I feel about to find a resolution.  I just think my brain got too tired last summer and stopped doing all the things it needs to do with chemicals.  I spoke to my GP this morning and she reassured me that, with a bit of scaffolding in place for a while, my brain may well get back to what it’s supposed to be doing.  There are probably things I can do to help: exercise; eat well; train it to look for positives rather than negatives; send it to bed at a sensible time; avoid too much stress.  And we’re moving onto Drug Three, which I hope will be more successful, at least, than Drug Two.

I feel fortunate to be able to see, most of the time, that there is a difference between my depression-warped perception and reality, even if I’m not entirely sure what reality is.  I know that what I feel about myself and my life and my abilities is probably not the truth.  I look at my friends, who seem to like me, and think that if I really were all the things I sometimes feel I am, they probably wouldn’t like me, so I’m probably not.  I’m engaged in a battle with and for my brain*, and it’s one I’m hoping to win.

*There’s a sci-fi film in there somewhere, I’m sure there is: The Girl Who Battled For Her Brain. Awesome B-Movie stuff.

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Everything is awesome…

Something strange has happened recently. When people ask me how I find being a single parent, instead of being very clear that although it has its benefits, this is NOT WHAT I WOULD HAVE CHOSEN, or bursting into tears, or getting very cross at the suggestion that I might actually like being away from my children, I have started enthusing.  “It’s awesome!” I say. “I do miss them, obviously, but I really enjoy it.  It’s a great way to be a parent – when they’re with me I get to do things exactly how I want – no arguing or negotiating with the other parent about bedtimes or discipline, and if I want to let them come into my bed every night (which usually happens), I can.  And then, when they’re not with me, I can do what I want.  I don’t have to negotiate about what I’m doing, or who is looking after the children, and if I want to stay out all night, I can and no-one cares!” Obviously I miss my children.  Obviously.  Although by the time their dad picked them up on Friday morning, I was very keen for them to go and be somewhere else for a while, asking someone else for food and then not eating it, complaining that it isn’t fair, arguing, crying and demanding peacekeeping interventions, when all you want to do is go to the toilet.

I still think my children would prefer to see Mummy and Daddy every day, and live in a house with both of us, and I am regretful that none of us are having that experience.  But previously when a two-adult-household parent expressed the slightest suggestion that that there might be some good things about my parenting arrangements, I would have to hold myself back from physically attacking them while screaming “How dare you suggest that I might like this? How can you think I would want to be apart from my children? This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me!  Not just to me! This is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone!”  Now, I’m more likely to say that yes, too right, they should be jealous of my awesome life.

I haven’t got to bed before midnight this weekend and I’m nursing a tiredness-hangover.  I’ve spent an afternoon and evening playing board games with friends, pretending to rampage around Europe raising an undead army as Dracula.  I’ve popped over to my best friend’s house, who lives about 90 miles away, to do some charity-shop shopping and have lunch.  I’ve been for a run, and been to a wedding, which I had to run out of, Cinderella-like, to catch the last bus home (but then was kindly given a lift and avoided turning into a pumpkin).  I had an unexpected visit from my parents and bought a new washing machine.

And now here I am, living the dream.  6.30 pm on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, and I’m in my pyjamas on the sofa, preparing to watch Paddington on DVD, on my own.  My children are away and I am making the most of it.

Yes, fellow-parents, you should be jealous.


Retreating and returning

By fortuitous coincidence, I had five child-free and work-free days at the start of this week.  (By ‘coincidence’, I mean that I booked the week off work for the half-term holiday and then arranged for Big Girl and Small Girl to stay with their dad for half the holiday).  Between work, single-parenting two lovely but demanding children, and the effects of my depression, it’s been quite challenging recently and I felt I needed a break.  So I’ve spent a couple of nights at Woodbrooke, a Quaker study centre in Bourneville, having a bit of a retreat.

I went to Woodbrooke about 18 months ago to go on a course for Quaker parents.  I’d expected it to be worthy and a bit lentilly, but the food was lovely, the grounds were gorgeous and it had a fantastic library with lots of interesting books.  I thought it could be a good place to head to for some space and a rest.  And I was right.

A lot of my time was spent in the Silent Room, a small room with a comfy sofa and a lovely view, reading, thinking, knitting and napping.  I wandered round the labyrinth in the garden, my mind wandering and creating metaphors for my life as I followed the path.  I went to the half-hour Quaker meeting each morning but failed to make the evening one as I was already in bed by 9.30 each evening.  I borrowed ‘Creating a Purposeful Life‘ by Richard Fox from the library and spent some time reflecting on how I’d like my life to look. In the Art Room I did some drawing.  I unpicked some questions I’ve had about God and found some new and interesting things to consider.  I ate delicious food and talked to interesting people.  What I most liked was feeling part of a Quaker community – feeling accepted and not quite a guest, not quite a visitor.  There was an open hospitality – cake at 4 pm, drinks and fruit available all the time, tea bags and little pots of milk near all the bedrooms, and the library open to all stopping there, with no concern that I might take advantage of this by stockpiling coffee or stealing books.  I was slightly tempted as I was about a third of the way through a novel when it was time to leave…

I’ve come home feeling that I have more inner resources (though how long they will last before my children deplete them by arguing with me and each other and threatening to ‘never be my best friend ever again’, I couldn’t say).  Practising silence at Woodbrooke will, I hope, make it easier to dip back into when I need to at home, like a swimmer lifting their head out of the water to breathe.  I’ve had time to think about who I am and what I would like my life to look like, and space for thoughts inside my head to unwind and rearrange themselves.

I’m glad to be home again (although after three days of not cooking for myself or anyone else I’d forgotten how to cook a meal so that everything was ready on time) and so pleased to see my girls again (there’s a thing, when they come back, where I just want to pick them up and hold them and put my face against theirs  and enjoy the sensation of having them physically close to me.  It wears off.  Quite quickly) and wondering: how long can this peace last?

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From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs…

I had a medication review this week for my anti-depressants. I’ve been struggling recently, feeling anxious and irritable and stressed at work and at home. And I’ve been so exhausted that I’ve been going to bed as early as possible, which takes over the time available to me for things like hanging up laundry and loading the dishwasher, which in turn makes my home life feel more pressured and me feel less competent and capable. In short, my life feels like an out-of-control disaster and I feel like a rubbish parent. But, as I explained to the doctor, work is quite stressful and I’m a single parent to two small children, so it is probably normal to feel under pressure. The GP suggested increasing the dose of anti-depressants and said that my life does sound quite challenging, and asked if I have support?

I do have very supportive friends and family. Big Girl and Small Girl go to their dad’s house regularly for two or three nights and I have almost no anxiety when they are with him. My parents will come and help if I need them, my sister babysits and talks to me about my children, and I have lots of friends who will help me in various ways if I ask. I feel very lucky. But I don’t feel that I have all the help I need. It’s quite hard to say this; it could seem that I’m being a bit needy, or criticising the amount of help my friends give me, or being passive-aggressive, or indirectly asking for help. But the reality is that I don’t have enough time to do all the things I need to do, evidenced by the state of my kitchen.

Sometimes I think I would like some ‘magic time’ – a couple of extra hours a day which no-one else has, between work and school, where I can get things done – do the laundry, tidy, sort, have a quiet cup of tea between the demands of customers and the demands of my children. There is a way to get this magic time – by buying other people’s time. I’d like someone to come in each day and empty the dishwasher and reload it, empty the washing machine and hang up the clothes to dry, put away the clean clothes, do any ironing, hoover and tidy. But I don’t want to spend money on it, or organise someone to come round, or deal with someone else being in my house.

There are lots of things I do ask for help with – things I don’t know how to do, or am not tall enough to do, or which require more than one person or a car or a different perspective or a sense of style. But it doesn’t seem fair to ask other people to give up their time to help me with other things, day-to-day things. I would be asking them to sacrifice their free time so that I could have more free time, and everyone has other things going on – children to look after, jobs, parents, their own DIY and housework.

One of the difficult things about being a single parent is having no-one to look after you and no-one to make sure your needs are met, or even recognised. This weekend, feeling incapacitated by my depression, I have started looking after myself. I realised, or decided, that my girls are now big enough to learn to have some respect for me and to put their needs second at times. This is not in the context of me being a selfish monster, but rather of having put my children’s needs ahead of mine almost constantly for five years. So today, after I had got their breakfast and they had eaten it, I told them I was going to eat my breakfast and drink my coffee and have some peace and quiet and read the newspaper. Small Girl wanted to be with me, and I told her she could, but that I was being quiet and not talking. And, mostly, I got some peace and quiet. They played with their toys and I explained that if they argued over toys I would take away whatever they were arguing about. Big Girl likes me to help her with almost everything. If she needed help or wanted to ask me something, she had to come to me. It was, largely, successful. It’s much easier at the weekend when we don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, but at least it’s a start.

I still believe that one day I will be domestically functional. One day my house will run as smoothly and easily as when Ex-Husband was here and doing all the housework. And every time I visit Ikea I know that if I can just find the right storage systems my home will be transformed. If only it were that simple…

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Three new things for 2015

Apparently December doesn’t exist for this blog.  December belonged to the land of fifth birthdays and fifth birthday parties and Christmas, and a rigorous timetable to achieve everything I needed to (almost) without hysterical crying in the toilets at work.

So here in we are in 2015 with three new developments:

1. Bunk Beds: Big Girl has been asking for bunk beds for quite a while, possibly since she first learnt of their existence, and also growing.  As she was starting to reach the point where she was too big for her cot-bed (she couldn’t fit all her cuddly toys in with her, at any rate), and as the girls’ room is too small for two proper beds, bunk beds seemed the only solution.  My sister gave them both a new single duvet set in preparation, so I was committed.

After some discussion on Facebook, my favourite form of procrastination when I want a decision to be made but am not quite ready to make one, it transpired that a friend had bunk beds she wanted to sell, and was willing to deliver them and help me put them up.  So I found myself last night trying to get Big Girl and Small Girl to sleep in bunk beds.

Big Girl, of course, wanted the top bunk.  Until she was actually in it, and then she wanted the bottom bunk.  Small Girl wanted to sleep in the top bunk, but she is too young.  There was quite a lot of excitement, and then quite a lot of crying, but eventually they were both asleep.  Tonight, again, there was a lot of crying, and about 20 minutes of repeatedly putting Small Girl back into her bed while she tried to leap out to look for treasure, until she got hurt and required a plaster, and eventually, eventually, she settled down and went to sleep.

Currently bunk beds feel like a regrettable necessity.  But they’ve also changed our bedtime routine.  Instead of having a story and drink downstairs and putting pyjamas on downstairs and then going upstairs and chasing round and cleaning teeth, and then settling Small Girl while Big Girl plays in my room, and then settling Big Girl, we do pyjamas and wees and teeth-cleaning upstairs, and *then* a story each in bed, and then I settle Small Girl while Big Girl sits on her bed being shushes, and then I go up and give Big Girl a cuddle.  It feels faster and more efficient and better-controlled.  And yes, currently about two hours of nightmare bedtime ensures, but once they settle into the new routine, I can imagine improvements.  Yes, just like I imagined the novelty of bunk beds would mean they would both lie down and go to sleep.

2. Guinea pigs.  Big Girl would like a rabbit.  So when someone at work was trying to interest colleagues in adopting some very cute baby bunnies, I did consider it quite seriously.  I consulted Facebook as always, and was told in no uncertain terms that rabbits were a lot of work, needed a lot of space and would probably destroy my house.  In addition, they are not great for small children as they are too big to hold.  Ah, but guinea pigs! Guinea pigs are lovely! And ideal for children! Big Girl and Small Girl know people with guinea pigs, and really like them.  I decided that we would get guinea pigs.  I told the girls that we would get guinea pigs, but not until after Christmas, and only when Small Girl stopped pooing and weeing in her knickers and on the floor, as there is a limit to the clearing-up that I’m willing to do.

It’s now after Christmas and Small Girl has (hallelujah!) pretty much got the hang of using the toilet, albeit reluctantly.  We took a trip to Tameside Rabbit and Guinea Pig Rescue with my friend Jo.  I wanted the girls to choose.  This is, probably, a mistake.  They would probably have been quite happy to come home to two cute little cavies, ready to give them names.  Instead they were faced with an overwhelming selection of animals who quickly all blurred into one.  Big Girl is about as good at making decisions as I am.  So they tried to choose two guinea pigs which had already been reserved for someone else, and then settled on the last two that we had looked at.  We’re now getting a hutch and all the essentials sorted, and I’ll collect them on Saturday while the girls are at their dad’s house, to let them settle in in peace and quiet.  I’m looking forward to our new arrivals, but wondering quite what I’ve let myself in for.

3. Three-and-a-half.  This isn’t technically new, because Big Girl was also three-and-a-half, about 18 months ago, but seriously, what is this all about? I love the toddler years, the ‘terrible twos’ (despite all the evidence to the contrary on this blog) – toddlers are funny and fascinating.  But Small Girl has suddenly turned into a monster.  Still cute, but a monster.  She says ‘no’ to everything.  She repeats what I say. I ask her to do something and she tells me to do it.  She screams if she doesn’t like something.  She snatches from Big Girl, and hits her (often with provocation, I would add in her defence).  And every time we go in a shop she wants *everything* she sees, even if she doesn’t know what it is, and whines.  I’m not sure where this has come from, but I’m hoping it’s a phase she’ll grow out of.  She’s lovely and funny and she and Big Girl are very kind to each other, and we have a lot of fun.  But, well, three-and-a-half…

Happy new year? I hope so!

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Yes, I’m advocating drug-fuelled competency

This weekend I have felt like a competent parent.  Like Ofsted ratings, this classification system is somewhat misleading.  Unlike Ofsted ratings, where ‘good’ means ‘satisfactory’ and ‘satisfactory’ means ‘you wouldn’t really choose to send your child here’, ‘competent’ is about as good as it gets when it comes to parenting.  You may have a moment of brilliance, elation, where your child tells you you’re the best mummy in the world, or you feel you’ve exceeded all your expectations of yourself, but this feeling lasts minutes at best before your child breaks down in tears because you’ve given them the cup they asked for when they really wanted a different one, or tells you they won’t be your best friend any more because, well, really, who knows why?

So ‘competent’, for a whole weekend, is pretty good.  Yesterday we had a lazy day, pancakes for breakfast, then a trip to the park to climb about in the woods, eat ice-cream, play on the swings and visit the animals in the aviary.  Then home for homework, tea and bed.  No shouting, no nagging, all reasonableness and patience.  And both girls slept in their own beds until 6 am (I made a half-hearted suggestion that they might like to go back to sleep for another hour, but really felt I’d had as much sleep as I could reasonably ask for).  Today we made it to our Quaker meeting in good time and they (mostly) behaved well, apart from Small Girl having a wee on herself and one of her friends during the Children’s Meeting.  And we chose Big Girl’s birthday present, braved two lots of Christmas Markets and played on a playground and walked home, all with not too much complaining, and then they watched Frozen and we ate hot dogs, and they went to bed, and to sleep.

So where has this competency come from? Well, back in September I started taking anti-depressants.  I’d felt tired since my operation in July and had been waiting for it to clear, and had no energy – starting to think desperately about bed at 8pm – and no motivation to do anything.  Nothing was fun any more.  I thought perhaps there was something physically wrong with me, my thyroid or my iron levels, and then I had one of those days where I cried all day about nothing, and felt like a shit parent, and thought perhaps my children, and the rest of the world, would be better without me looking after them.  Recognising those symptoms, I made an appointment to see my GP, who did some blood tests to rule out any other causes, but agreed that it sounded like depression.

Within a week I noticed improvements.  I had not realised quite how bad things had been until they got better.  I went downstairs into the cellar, where I dry my laundry, to collect socks for Big Girl’s school uniform, and thought I would take all the other pairs of socks upstairs to put away.  This was the first time in a while that I’d done anything other than the absolute minimum necessary for that day.  And the next day I realised I was encouraging the girls to walk home from school by playing games (I tell them they must absolutely not walk *that* way, pointing in the direction of home, and they run off in gleeful disobedience.  It’s the joy of reverse pyschology, where we’re all in on the joke) rather than nagging, shouting and begging.  I was still tired, but now functioning.

And then a couple of weeks ago I got on the bus and felt that everyone was talking about me, and that they all hated me.  I was rational enough to know that this probably wasn’t the case, but the paranoia was still quite disconcerting.  I felt incredibly anxious about work and struggled to make decisions or cope with any jobs which involved two or three different steps to complete them.  So I rang my GP again, and she suggested that I try a different dose.  And here I am, finding life is working, and that I can be a better parent and a happier person, and I’m more able to cope with setbacks. (For example, this week Ex-Husband texted to let me know that he has got engaged to the woman he effectively left me for. I did appreciate the thoughtfulness of him letting me know himself rather than leaving me to hear from someone else, and then I hoped they would both fall into a hole and die.  I quickly amended this to hoping she would fall in a hole and die because I like getting child maintenance and child-free weekends from him, and I’d be sad to lose them.  However, though it did give me a wobbly day, and I’m sure there will be a few more if they ever actually get married and I have to listen to my children talk about being ‘Daddy’s bridesmaids’, there was no crying, and now I’ve moved on.  Not quite to the point of not writing about it on my blog, but enough that it’s only a small aside.  Go me!).

I am quite pragmatic about anti-depressants.  My life can be challenging at times – I’m a working single parent to two small children and I don’t have a car.  If my brain stops working as it should, I need to do something about it, so I can function well.  If, for whatever reason, my brain is not keeping enough seratonin for long enough, I’ll take some medicine to help it get back on track.  I wonder if there comes a point where brains get so overwhelmed or worn out by long-term stress or sleep-deprivation that they just stop functioning effectively, and need anti-depressants to remind them of what they are supposed to do.  (This may be made-up science, also known as ‘not science’.  I’m not a biochemist).

I hope that at some point my brain will regulate its own chemistry without help, but for now I’m happy to have fun with my children, and cope with mean people making snide comments when I queue-jump the enormous line of people waiting for the toilet to avoid an unpleasant incident (“She’s going to do a poo.  Would you like to do a poo in your knickers?”), and face the prospect of marshalling twenty mini-princesses at Big Girl’s birthday party next weekend, and ensure we have enough food in the house and our clothes are washed and we have Christmas presents for lots of the people we love, and all the other things which make up life in our house. And I’m happy to have the help I need to achieve that.