Friday, 24 November 2017

How to Be Happy with Young Children

It’s very simple. It’s so simple, you probably won’t like it. But regardless of how we feel about it, in my experience it’s extremely true. Are you ready to hear the secret to how to be happy whilst raising a young family? Here goes:

Lower your expectations.

I know, it sounds like every moron’s motto, ‘I expect things to be a let down, that way I’m never disappointed’, which is quite a cynical way of living and is mostly conducive to perennial disappointment rather than its absence. And it will stop you from getting invited to any parties.

That’s not what I’m talking about. I am referring to doing things well, doing them to the best of our ability. What does that have to do with lowering your expectations? Well, it all depends on whether we know the true meaning of doing things well.

Doing things well doesn’t mean doing things perfectly. It doesn’t even mean doing things successfully– whether or not we manage something has no relation to whether we are doing it well. Sometimes we manage something even though we are distracted or disinterested in it, because we have a natural aptitude for it so the task doesn’t demand much of us. Sometimes we don’t manage something because it’s the kind of thing that requires repeated attempts, the kind of thing that is only ever achieved gradually, over the long-term.

I know this difference well because I’ve spent my whole life being ‘good at school’ without ever studying well. Not because I’m a genius, but because I find it easy to bluff and cram, which has nothing to do with intelligence levels but which is highly rewarded in most academic systems – sometimes it’s even rewarded more than application, discipline and long-term learning. But just because I got good grades, does that mean I learned a lot about the subjects I qualified in? Does it mean I organised my time well? Does it mean I was seriously committed to each task? No, I only learned to do all those things as an adult, once school was over and life demanded it of me.

And I am still learning every day how to do things well. It requires commitment (long-term), discipline, resilience, and openness of heart. This last part is the one most closely linked to lowering your expectations.

Why does lowering your expectations mean you open your heart? Because expectations are linked to control: you don’t want a happy family, you want a specific image of a happy family. You want happiness to come in a form you readily recognise, perhaps the happiness you knew as a child, or the type you’ve observed in a friend’s family, or the kind captured in a Christmas advert. That’s not happiness, that’s a mirage – it’s short-lived, it’s an image, and, most importantly, it’s not real.

When you lower your expectations you let go of false ideals. When you accept that today might not feature one, two or more well-behaved children; it may not include a husband who comments on how radiantly beautiful you look after having cleaned the whole house, it may not have a single moment of fun – you may be working thanklessly from dawn til dusk in fact (any mum who hasn’t had a day like this, please tell me your secret). When you accept that you might shout at your kids, argue with your husband, cry, you might not have time to brush your hair, you might be stuck at a pointlessly long meeting, you might cook a crappy dinner – or run out of time to cook altogether – you take the first step towards happiness: you relinquish control.

When you relinquish control, two things naturally follow.

1.         You feel the pressure ease. If you’re not in control, it’s not your responsibility. You accept that there are many things (dare I say it, all things) that are simply not down to you. All you can do is show up and be willing to keep trying when the going gets tough.

2.         You ask for help. Feeling we ‘burden’ others by asking for help is in fact a type of pride. It sounds like it’s us being selfless, but in fact we are refusing to humble our selves before others: we are ‘doing it all’ so that we don’t have to become reliant on others. And that breeds competition and isolation – which are definitely not conducive to happiness.

So there you have it: lower your expectations, and ask for help. You’ll see the difference!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

How Leaving Britain Made Me Realise I’m British

I’m not legally British. Did you know British citizenship costs £1163 just for admin fees? As an E.U. (Italian) citizen and a U.K. resident I had most of the rights that citizens had, so I never bothered. In addition to this, I never identified as British – despite moving there when I was nine years old and living there most of my life, I’ve always felt like an outsider. ‘Classic Brits, never talking about their feelings because they’re too busy applying their Protestant work ethic!’ – that’s the sort of thing I thought all the time. But since we moved to Italy this summer, I’ve come to realize a number of ways in which I am, in fact, British (In light of Brexit, I’ll be setting up a crowdfunding page to pay for my citizenship…)

1. Spatial awareness
If I say 'excuse me' whilst pushing a double buggy with two babies, I expect the person I’m saying it to to move in such a way that allows enough space for me to get through. I don’t expect them to reluctantly move four inches to the left, waiting for me to describe the patent facts: ‘I can’t get through’, and then to reluctantly move another four inches, repeating this again and again until we’ve reached a multiple of four that matches the width of the buggy.

2. Staring 
In Britain, making eye contact with someone you don't know, without smiling or saying anything, is okay for approximately 1.5 seconds before you become arsehole of the year (or are diagnosed with sociopathic disorder). The window of time in Italy is about fourteen seconds north of this.

3. Hobnobs
Italian food is amazing, no question. In fact, one of the many ways I never identified as British while living there, was that I felt British food was borderline inedible (unless you’re wealthy and can afford good quality food, which is considered a luxury – not an attitude I share). But I’ve found that sometimes, when it's 9pm and the kids are finally in bed and I want to mark the occasion with a tiny feast, all I really want is a packet of overpriced hobnobs from the off-licence.

4. ‘Money Talks’
The customer is very much not king here. If it’s the weekend, or August, nobody cares if you’re willing to pay double for something – you’re going to have to wait until they’re available in a few days’ time. Whereas if you’re friends with their cousin, they will drop everything immediately and do it for next to nothing. This is great when you are friends with someone whose cousin has services which you require, which, for a recent immigrant, is approximately 0.5% of the time.

5. Unsolicited advice 
I’m not saying nobody offers this in Britain, but I think over half the population agree that it’s generally unwelcome and unhelpful and, basically, the mark of someone who just likes the sound of their own voice (cardinal sin in British society.) This is not so frowned upon in Italy: the average person’s feelings regarding one’s own voice can range from ‘it’s a pleasant bit of background noise to life’ to ‘it’s on a level with Mozart’s greatest masterpiece.’ In a way, this ‘everyone’s entitled to my opinion’ community-centered vibe is a nicer way of living where everyone looks out for each other. But in every other way, it sucks.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Two Under Two (So Far)

Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, I don’t have time even for a phonecall or a bath because free time = sleep time. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Here’s the good news for those of you going from one to two, particularly if in very quick succession.

1. You're used to it.

Francis was sleeping through the night by the time Louie, our second son, was born, so I was terrified of going back to two-hour naps instead of a full night’s sleep. But now that I’m back there I can tell you it’s nowhere near as bad as the first time. It might be the same physically (I’m not sure, I feel like my body is irreversibly stronger now), but psychologically the devil you know really is much, much better. Even with a ‘good sleeper’ like Francis, once you’ve stepped over the threshold into life-with-kids you no longer feel robbed when you have an unexpected 4am wake up call. Annoyed, sure. Exhausted, frustrated, even pissed off – of course. But gone is the downright indignation of the recently-stopped-being-childless. I no longer feel entitled to things such as rest, finishing lunch, cups of tea, and certainly not to free time or relaxation. I slip them in when I get the chance, and I’m used to it.

2. The sacrifice involved is a source of joy.

It may sound horrible, that I’m used to having ‘no me time’, but it’s actually a saving grace. The secret you discover, that nobody really tells you these days, is that you can pour from an empty cup. In fact, the more you give, the emptier you ‘feel’ from having given so much of yourself, the more you have to give. Some people already know this intuitively – those people you see who may not have a screaming infant demanding it of them, but who still get up at six am and work to the best of their ability in everything they do. I was not one of these people, in fact it took the pressure of having to keep a human alive to force me to give myself fully to the task at hand. I would never believe that doing more and working harder are in fact the best thing for you without having experienced it myself - which is why it’s such a gift. It was a painstakingly difficult thing to learn, a year and half later and it feels like a lesson that affects everything, not just parenting. In all areas of life now, I know that doing what you love, giving yourself fully, gives you more energy, and, while you feel empty and drained and like you have nothing left, your life simultaneously becomes much, much fuller.

3.  It’s not that hard.

I was terrified of how hard it would be to juggle two kids. So far, it’s not that hard. I know it’s an annoying thing to say, but it really isn’t. It is, of course, far from easy. Motherhood continues to be the hardest job I’ve ever had. That being said, it’s not that hard. It’s not so hard that you should be terrified, anyway. It’s not so difficult that you should doubt your ability to live up to the task. It’s a big ask but not an insurmountable one. Slowly you’ll ease into it, your days will become easier, the hard bit will be behind you. As we approach the six week mark I feel myself relax, and this time of course I know with much greater confidence than the first time round, that with any difficult moment, day or stage, this too shall pass.

4. Your husband is better.

He’s done mornings and evenings by himself with your first born by now. He knows how exhausting parenting is. He knows you’re not going to be hormonal forever, and that the baby’s life isn’t in danger just because he cries more than is humanly possible. He knows how tiring breastfeeding is, how hungry you are, how much you appreciate the simple gestures like the offer of a cup of tea. Most of all he knows how to reassure you that you’re doing a great job, and that maybe Googling absolutely every birth mark and odd behaviour at 3am isn’t the best strategy right now.

5. Your marriage is stronger.

Inevitably, the first child forces you to collaborate under huge pressure, and it’s a very steep learning curve: figuring out who’s responsible for what, how to do it in a way where it’s fair and nobody feels resentful (still working on it). Perhaps most important though is not finding the perfect formula of domestic division of labour that enables you to operate at optimum functionality, but rather, learning that 90% of the time whilst raising very young children both you and your spouse are likely exhausted, frustrated, resentful, and saying things you don’t really mean as a result of all this. Case in point: a comment that would have caused me to storm off out of the house in tears a year ago now gets a five paragraph text from me instead (baby steps…)