Motherhood: a catalyst for ambition

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The truth is, I thought that motherhood would curb my ambition.

 

A little over four years ago, I nobly determined that my focus instead would be on empowering the dreams of my imminently arriving daughter. I had had my time, I mused; after all, I’d had 39 years to devote to my goals.

 

My thinking no doubt influenced by growing up at a time when there was a still a sense of motherhood vs career, where there was a choice to be made – you couldn’t have both. Not unless you were a ‘superwoman’, as was often the term used to refer to women who pursued career aspirations with family responsibilities.

 

And yet, I am a woman of my age. We eagerly planned to take advantage of shared parental leave, with my husband taking responsibility for the lion’s share of the childcare whilst I went back to work.

 

But here’s the rub: whilst I was absolutely committed to balancing work with my soon to arrive daughter, I didn’t envisage balancing it with a career: with growing, with aspiring, with rising. I thought that I would stay stagnant, that I had no more ambitions to achieve.

 

How wrong was I.

 

Becoming a mother was the most daunting, amazing, scary, yet fulfilling thing that I have ever done, a role I was not trained for or experienced in. But as I watched my daughter blossom I asked myself: ‘I wonder what else I can do?’ Because quite frankly if I could do that, if I could successfully care for this precious child, I could do anything.

 

And that question was the catalyst for a future which led to me setting up my own business when my daughter was 18 months old, even though my supportive and empowering boss had given me the flexibility that I had wanted. Because, whilst working for myself would give me even more flexibility, allowing me to pick and choose when I spent time with my daughter, I wanted more than that. I decided to set up my own business because I realised it was something I aspired to do, because motherhood had made me brave enough to do so – and because I actually believed that I could do it. This was a belief which I had never once entertained before.

 

So here we are now, two and a half years on and all my daughter will ever have known is mummy working for herself, doing what she wants to do. I fervently hope that she sees me pursuing my goals and it is a positive influence for her as she determines and follows her own dreams: she can do whatever and be whomever she desires.

 

And there are so many, many mothers who are also following their goals, so many inspiring women I have met along the way. Mothers whose abilities and skills have been absolutely enhanced rather than diminished by becoming parents. Who are recognising their own value and pursuing their ambitions, achieving as they follow their paths with grit and determination. They are everyday superwomen.

 

Men too. Fathers who have been changed by parenthood, who have added skills to their repertoire through taking care of children, who have brought those abilities to bear across their lives. My own husband is an example of someone whom I have watched admiringly extend his capabilities through caring for his child.

 

And there are some great companies out there who have recognised that working parents – and importantly, mothers – are an asset within the workplace, that they bring fantastic skills; companies who are making tangible, proactive and inclusive efforts to empower career aspirations.

 

But there are still workplaces where mothers – and fathers – are not empowered or recognised for what they can bring. Where opportunities are limiting, and where the conversation seems to linger predominantly on working hours – when the parent can work rather than what they can bring to the party. These companies are missing a trick – and ultimately potentially missing out on a wealth of talent which can add huge value to their business.

 

Employers often underestimate the abilities and goals of parents – and particularly mothers – in their employ.

 

But perhaps, even more so, we underestimate ourselves. Becoming parents allows us to develop and grow our capabilities, and certainly should not mean the end of our desire to achieve more. Quite the opposite in fact: it could be the catalyst for our ambitions – and for empowering the belief that anything is possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Parent is an Island

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‘How can someone who is never alone feel lonely?’

 

There has been much talk recently about the subject of loneliness amongst mothers, particularly new mothers. It is an important subject and one which is rightfully getting air time. After the initial fuss – the excitement, the visitors, the interest – tails off,  reality kicks in. Partners – if there is one – go back to work and the mother embarks on a new normality with her baby. Often, especially in those early weeks, this will be spent in the home trying to make sense of this new world order, trying to interpret those screams, trying to understand baby’s needs, and trying not to feel completely out of one’s depth. It is a scary time, and a lonely one too.

 

I certainly recall feeling isolated at times during those early months. This was for two reasons. Firstly because of my own – incorrect – perceptions. I believed I wasn’t that good at the job, that everyone else was a better mother than me, that I was an impostor into the role. This was despite the evidence to the contrary – my daughter was thriving, she was happy, healthy and flourishing. Yet I was still hung up on an inferiority complex which made me feel isolated – because, surely every other mum knew exactly what she was doing at all times, right?

 

The other reason for my sense of isolation was that my husband and I did things slightly differently. After a few months, I returned to work and my other half took Shared Parental Leave. For us, it was the right choice and we both benefitted from building our own bonds with our beautiful daughter. There was though an element of isolation in what we did for each of us. This was due to some of the responses we got from others, and I also had a sense of not quite fitting in:  I felt like I was half in the work world, half in the parenting world and at times, I felt isolated.

 

But what helped me were the kind words of friends who were also mums. When they told me ‘you’re doing a great job’ or ‘your baby’s such a happy baby because of you’ my spirits soared. And with each positive comment, my confidence started to build and those self-imposed perceptions started to crumble until eventually I started to see things differently. I was doing fine. I was a good mother. What I learnt from that experience was the importance of a gentle, thoughtful word for a mother – it can empower, support and inspire self-belief. I purposefully want to encourage other mums with my words.

 

The other thing that helped, unexpectedly, was feedback I received online. I started to share my thoughts and experiences in a series of posts and some of the supportive opinions shared made me realise: I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Lots of parents struggle with a sense of being torn between our varying roles and responsibilities – and, however we parent, we are all doing our absolute best.

 

Isolation and loneliness can really challenge mothers, and indeed, fathers, particularly at a time when they may already be feeling vulnerable and emotional. We can all help to overcome this by supporting each other so we as parents know: I’m not on my own.

This first appeared on http://www.meetothermums.com

2016: Take The Good With You

 

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And so it turns out that the smouldering embers of 2016 still have power to burn. That even in these dwindling days, there is still time to heap more sadness upon a brow-beaten people. The death of a beloved musical icon, a tragedy amplified by the fact that it occurred on Christmas Day – what should be the happiest day of the year – is rendered even more poignant by the subsequent tales of his generosity and humanity. What a legacy to leave.

 

This, and the other recent celebrity deaths, appear to pile misery upon misery. This year, no doubt, has witnessed the loss of a number of people who touched the lives of many others. They made an impact, be it through music or film or service for others, or just by the sheer force of their personality,  and their loss has been felt keenly with fitting posthumous tributes; one hopes that they knew of the esteem within which they were held during their – sometimes short – lifetimes.

 

But it’s not just the deaths, as tragic as they have been. In 2016, our screens have been filled with scenes of human suffering, almost too horrific to fathom. Then there has been the hate, the vitriol, spoken and written, which has underlined deep divisions within society. And politically, wherever you sat, campaigns and debates often got ugly. Indeed, the EU Referendum felt like a deeply unpleasant experience, setting families and friends on opposing sides, creating rifts and anger.

 

So no wonder that people are talking about 2016 as the worst year ever. It’s no surprise that people are looking over the horizon to 2017, and the potential for a brighter tomorrow. There is a sense that the world will exhale a collective breath of relief as midnight comes around on 1st January.

 

All understandable; this year has been strange. Odd. Scary. Sad. I suspect in the future, my daughter will be taught about the events of this year in school. But to me it feels wrong to reduce a whole twelve months to just a few words, just a ‘terrible’ year. Because to summarise 366 days in this way negates all of the good, all of the happy that there has been.

 

And it has been there. The tales of heroism, like the Brownlee brothers embodying what it means to be family. Or the outpouring of love and support, in the form of more than 250,000 Christmas cards, for a little boy with terminal cancer. Or the fundraising for Stand Up To Cancer or Children in Need, people putting their hand in their pocket to help others.

 

It’s been there in our own lives too. In the big things, like getting a gorgeous new nephew to love. And it’s been there too in the small things, the everyday things. The reassuring grip of a baby’s hand around the finger. A thoughtful text sent on a long day. A compliment about an outfit, the one you weren’t sure about but now you’re so glad that you wore.

 

Yes, this year has been replete with sadness, tragedy, hurt and pain. But there has also been love and joy and fun and laughter.We need to look for the light because it’s there. And so, as the year draws to a close, take from it the memories that made you smile, the feelings that lifted your soul; those are the things to treasure.

The Lies My Pregnant Self Told

 

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Look at her, all smug and deluded, completely unaware of what’s coming next….

 

 

That woman…the one with the huge, protruding bump, so enormous it looks as if it will cause her to topple over. That woman, with the beatific smile and the dreamy look in her eyes. That woman, who has just said to her friend, with a self-assured nonchalance: ‘I know it will be hard but I’m sure it won’t be that bad,’ a remark met by a knowing look, and an unspoken ‘you’ll see.’

 

That woman….she’s a fool. A fool who told herself lies.

 

And that fool…was me…..

 

  1. ‘It’ll be great having a baby in the summer. I’ll be able to sunbathe whilst the baby sleeps in her pram in the shade’.

Oh how I laugh bitterly at my pre-baby fantasises of a relaxing maternity leave, on a par with a break away. This lie was absolutely absurd on so many levels. Firstly, newborn babies do not sleep. At least not when you want them to. Secondly, take my child outside?! Are you joking?! It took us half the day to make it downstairs, a venture into the garden is completely beyond us. And even in the shade, my precious daughter is far too close to the perils of the sun – she’s best off right beside me, safely tucked away in the house where I can spend every waking moment keeping a beady eye on her. Besides, it’s pouring down with rain, as it does every year during our short window of ‘summer.’

 

  1. ‘Once we get her into a routine, after a couple of weeks….’

Routine? A couple of weeks? The level of delusion I was operating under was overwhelming.

 

  1. ‘I know baby’s nappies are pretty horrible but surely they can’t be that bad’.

Anyone who has experienced a teething induced nappy explosion which has necessitated an immediate bath knows that yes, they are that bad. And yes, it is incredible that someone that small and cute can produce a stench so horrific that it assaults your nasal passage with such ferocity that it makes your eyes water. They aren’t that bad. They are worse.

 

 

  1. ‘We’ll have a date night once a month and leave the baby with a family member’.

This would have worked beautifully were it not for a few extenuating conditions, including a complete unwillingness to leave my child with anyone else for the first few months. Then finally, when we eventually did get out for our first post-baby dinner, one glass of wine had me tumbling down in my chair, longing for my bed with a heartfelt yearning, and no desire to repeat the experience for a good year or two at least.

 

  1. ‘The house won’t be that messy. I’m not going to let it turn into a pig sty just because we have a child’.

My house is constantly in disarray. Toys are found in the most obscure of places, crumbs are in every crevice and a milk trail runs through the house as if a snail has been on the rampage. The best way to deal with it is not to attempt to tackle the mountain of mess, rather to just leave my glasses off. Things don’t look so bad when viewed through a blurry fog.

 

  1. ‘I’m going to be a strict parent. She’ll know who the boss is’.

‘What’s that darling? You want my phone. Here you go sweetheart. Yes, you’re right, it does make a very loud noise when banged against the door. Better give it to mummy though….yes, darling…give it to mummy – whoops! Oh no, you’ve broken it instead. Oh please don’t cry, I know you’re upset that mummy’s phone, I mean, your new toy, is broken. Oh don’t cry, here, have a chocolate button….’ (which leads me on to)

 

  1. My child won’t eat rubbish. It’s healthy stuff all the way.

I’ll be honest, there weren’t a lot of health giving properties in the crisps that I allowed my daughter to eat that morning at the airport when, brow beaten, I finally gave into her demands for the most unusual of brunches. And to be honest, the only fruit that might have been found had been squashed and fermented into my pre-flight glass of wine (I’m far from the best at flying.)

 

But, there was one truth I did tell myself.

  1. Everything will be ok.

It is.

I’ve got this.

Sort of.

Self-Esteem: The Most Precious Gift of All

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A few weeks ago, we had our daughter’s 12-month assessment. It was the second one she’d had, the first having taken place a month or so earlier, but concluding unsatisfactorily when our little girl was deemed to have not met all the criteria. Fortunately, there was no such problem this time around. ‘She’s doing great,’ the health visitor announced kindly, going on to make reference to the areas where our girl hadn’t met the target last time.

 

As the lady spoke, as lovely as she was, I bristled with annoyance. Who was she to assess my daughter in this way, because she’d come to walking ‘later’, because she’d only recently learnt how to grip a pencil? Who was anyone to determine that these would be the measures of success for my beautiful child? What about the fact that she was now able to show love and would throw her arms around me spontaneously? What about the fact that she could laugh uproariously at her dad pretending to be The Gruffalo, her strong, powerful giggle reverberating around the room in joy? What about the fact that she was kind and would always try to share her meals with others? What about the fact that she could put a smile on anyone’s face within seconds of meeting her, and had brought more happiness into our lives than we could ever have envisaged? How did none of this count towards the whole, how come these weren’t considered when carrying out a review of my daughter’s first twelve months on earth? I appreciate that this was a developmental assessment to identify concerns but still, as a parent, it jarred.

 

Then later, I had another thought. And it was far more worrying:

 

This was only the start.

 

This was just the beginning of a lifetime of being assessed, of being reviewed against changing standards to determine whether my girl was ‘good enough’. It would be there in school, with tests and exams. She would have it in the workplace, when sitting nervously in interviews or stepping forward for promotion. She would experience it when applying for a loan, or mortgage. And she would even experience it in relationships, when prospective partners would assess her against their own set of personal expectations. This benchmarking, this being held up to scrutiny would be inevitable. It wouldn’t all be bad either; indeed, it could positively encourage and empower her. But without doubt, this process of assessment, at one year old, was just the start.

 

I can’t change that. But I can change how ‘being assessed’ impacts upon her as an individual.

 

And I can do that by helping to build her self-esteem. Since becoming a mother, I have come to the realisation that the best gift I can give my child is a belief in herself. This will make her resilient and able to deal with the tough times, but also humble and measured when celebrating success.

 

How to do this, however, is another question. Fair to say I’m no expert: some days it feels like I’m winging this parenting thing. But, I do have some thoughts about how I might be able to help her self-esteem to grow.

 

I can ask her questions and truly listen to her answers; that doesn’t mean I will always give her exactly what she wants but I can let her have her voice so that she feels valued. I can also ask her questions for her to answer herself; from my experience of coaching, I know that finding out you had the solution inside all along is incredibly empowering. I can also empower her by helping her to learn and increase her own capability; I can give her some responsibility, however small, so she feels equal. I can praise her, but not excessively, and I can distinguish feedback about what she has ‘done’ from her as a person. I can be careful about the labels I use and endeavour to not pigeonhole her as ‘sporty’, for example, as she may subsequently believe she will only get her worth from playing these roles. I can also try and watch the language I use around her so she doesn’t grow up with a negative self-image; this extends to how I talk about myself in front of her. But above all else, I can just love her, so she knows that she’s loved and loveable no matter what she does in life.

 

These ideas sound great in theory but implementing them will be a challenge. But I will try. Because I want my daughter to grow up knowing her value, her worth as a person, regardless of what feedback or purported ‘failures’ she endures in her life.  I want her to be proud of who she ‘is’ above what she ‘does.’ I want her, ultimately, to be happy.

The Pramshed
Hot Pink Wellingtons

Empowering Men To Be Themselves

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The 19th November is International Men’s Day and if you’d have mentioned such a day to me a few years ago I would have probably – shamefully – rolled my eyes. Growing up in a gender that has historically and famously experienced bias might have made me wrongfully cynical. Today though, I truly believe that International Men’s Day matters because men matter.

 

Over the last few decades, some work has been done – with much, much more still to do – on redressing some of the imbalances that exist within society. As a woman, I have experienced some small progress like improvements to maternity leave and more recently, gender pay reporting. But somewhere along the line, it does feel to me that whilst society is gradually, slowly, evolving, our perception and expectation of the male role hasn’t. And for me, there are two very good reasons why we need to take a moment to think about men.

 

The first reason is mental health. It is a well-known fact that the biggest killer of young men is suicide. We need to find a way to reach out to men and empower them to talk about their mental wellbeing. We need to normalise these conversations, we need to destigmatise mental ill health amongst men and thankfully, some famous male stars have made great steps forward by talking openly about their own struggles. This work needs to continue until men realise that it’s ok to say ‘I’m not ok.’ Culturally, we also need to change our traditional perception of men as the strong ones, the ones who don’t cry, who don’t express how they feel – because what a huge expectation to operate under. We are all human, we all suffer, we all feel, and we should all be able do just that in a safe, supportive society.

 

The second reason is one close to my heart and it is the way that men are frequently treated as the lesser partner when it comes to parenthood. I have often said that parenting feels full of conscious and unconscious bias and inequality – and I say that because of my own personal experience which I have written about here. Whilst the law might have moved on, for example, with the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, mindsets still need to catch up. But it’s not just that. Advertisers frequently focus purely on selling to Mum, it’s often ‘mother and toddler’ group, and even the experience of having a baby can be exclusive of the father. I remember when we had our daughter, I was allowed cups of tea, but my husband, who had not slept for 36 hours like me and who then stayed awake watching our baby all night so I could sleep, was completely ignored. I appreciate that I was the one who had given birth but my husband was there with me every step of the way. I know that women generally still do play the main parenting role, sometimes, incredibly strongly, completely alone. But, there has been a discernible shift. And this will continue, with more and more men assuming the main carer role. There has been some progress already but there is definitely room for more equality.

 

Men should be equal. Women should be equal. After all, we are all just people, people who have a right to be here and to live our lives as we want. And why on earth shouldn’t we empower each other to do just that?

 

 

 

The (Commercial) Meaning of Christmas

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The nation held a collective baited breath. Weeks, if not months of waiting had come down to this. It was a pivotal moment for the country, and one upon which so much hope and anticipation was riding – the risk of disappointment was enormous. Finally, at last, here it was….

 

The John Lewis Christmas ad premiered on television.

 

And the result? A huge outpouring of delight across traditional and online media. The advert became the story itself – and even reached my news feed from Italian and American news forums which I follow. It was a story with a happy ending: the world might be going to hell in a handcart but thank goodness the retail giant had delivered a suitably heart-warming commercial.

 

The John Lewis ad isn’t alone and the other big retailers are also proudly showing off their glitzy or thought-provoking, uplifting or moving adverts which can’t help but make people feel good. The festive spirit is in abundance.

 

Now, here’s the thing, and at risk of being named and shamed as a social pariah – I find the whole Christmas ad thing a little…odd. Whilst undeniably creative tours de force, mini movies which can make us smile or laugh or cry – indeed the Sainsbury’s one from a few years ago which was set in No Man’s Land made me sob – I feel a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. And I guess my discomfort can be summed up thus: here we have huge, commercial businesses, spending vast amounts of money in an effort to encourage us to spend vast amounts of money with them – and in the process, they are laying claim to being our moral conscience.

 

Since when did we start looking to these massive retailers to set the tone for Christmas, to remind us of the true nature of the season? Which they do. And they do it well – as anyone who saw the heartbreaking German advert last year which showed how a grandfather had to pretend to die just to get his family to come to him for Christmas lunch. The ad, which looked like a trailer for a Hollywood movie, was actually an ad campaign for a supermarket chain.

 

For whatever reason, these companies, with their powerful, evocative ad campaigns now occupy a unique position in the run up to Christmas. We are looking to them to take a festive lead, and to remind us just what ‘it’s all about.’ But with such a position comes great responsibility. And I think that these retailers have a great opportunity to make even more of an impact than they already do.

 

Because here’s a radical idea: if they truly want to take a lead, to make a difference then why not ditch the glitzy advertising and instead contribute a large percentage of the ad budget to charity? Why not invest in community projects or activities which can benefit many, many people in a sustainable way, leaving a legacy long after the last piece of turkey has been eaten, months after the decorations have been packed away for another year? What an incredible message to send out – and we need this now, more than ever. The country is divided, there are millions of people who could never afford to shop at M & S for their Christmas lunch or House of Fraser for a handbag for mum. But running a cheaper ad campaign and donating to charity a big proportion instead could be much more inclusive, much more meaningful – and could bring this divided nation together under the true spirit of Christmas. I don’t shop in any store because of an ad – but I would purposefully shop in a store if it made a stand in this way.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Scrooge at all and I do enjoy many of these Christmas commercials. I do recognise that the remit of these ads goes well beyond a more traditional ad – and I am aware what a lift Buster the Boxer gave a day after the shocking US election results. I am also well aware that many of the retailers donate to charity through their Christmas campaigning – for example, Sainsbury’s sold chocolate bars with profits going to the Royal British Legion. Yet, I think these influential organisations have a real opportunity. And how incredible would it be if these retailers used the power they have in a slightly different way to benefit many, many more people. That, for me, would be a true example to us all.

Being Kind to Ourselves

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Our lives are extraordinarily busy. Home. Work. Chores. Responsibilities. And when we become parents, our worlds become consumed with our children, with meeting their wants and needs and ensuring their happiness. They are the centre around which we oscillate, juggling all our other demands, slotting priorities together until our days end up resembling a rough-hewed jigsaw puzzle. But, it seems to me that often when that puzzle is complete, there are some pieces left over which can’t be fitted in – our own wants and hopes which we carelessly discard without a second thought.

 

As we shape our lives around everyone else’s needs, putting our children above all else, followed closely by the rest of the world, we most likely feel that we are doing the right thing. We are fulfilling our role, we are prioritising sensibly, we are getting things done. And often what we are doing is right – especially when it comes to our children. But what I truly believe isn’t right is the way that we may forget about ourselves entirely. Because somewhere at the back of our minds, there could be a niggling desire, a tiny voice squeaking out an aspiration to do something for ourselves: Go for a walk. Have a leisurely bath. Go out for dinner. But how often do we firmly hush that troublemaking voice, thinking: ‘There’s no time for any of that’?

 

Yet in doing so, what example are we setting to our children? What message are we sending out to our tiny, impressionable people if we keep putting ourselves last? If we are willing to forego our own wants in favour of everyone else’s? To me it feels that we could be telling our children that we don’t value ourselves. That we don’t matter. And if our children see us doing this, there is a danger that one day, they won’t value themselves either.

 

Just because we are utterly devoted mothers and fathers does not mean that we cannot still have our own lives, fulfil our own ambitions, enjoy our own interests – be us. Just because we have a host of pressing demands upon us, be it work or chores or family responsibilities, that doesn’t mean that these should be the whole focus of our lives. We all need space and time for us. We need to be kind to ourselves.

 

I was reflecting on this recently when I spent the whole day engaged in tasks – childcare, work, shopping, ironing, cleaning, cooking – and it was 10pm before I sat down. And all the time I was thinking ‘I’d love to just read a book,’ but of course, I ignored this want which would have taken me off track. I shouldn’t have done. I should have stopped. Sat down. Picked up a book. Just stopped. It would have been good for my soul. It would have been the kind thing to do on such a busy day when I was utterly frazzled.

 

And if we are kinder to ourselves, if we are taking care of us, we will have more capacity to be kinder to others. To share a good word. To lend a helping hand. Or, just to give someone a smile, a smile which could give a much-needed lift on a bad day. Being kind is good for everyone’s wellbeing; it makes the person on the receiving end feel valued, and for the one offering the positive reinforcement, they can get a warm feeling from the knowledge that they have made a difference to another human being.

 

Being kind also allows us to role model behaviour for our children as they will see the benefits, and will come to view it as the standard of behaviour, something we ‘just do.’ For me, kindness is more important than many other measures of success as it’s a way of ‘being’ in the world. I remember my sister-in-law being rightly thrilled when she received feedback from her daughter’s teacher that her little girl was ‘kind’ to other children. And I have watched with happiness as my own daughter generously offers to share her meals; admittedly, a half-eaten sandwich isn’t the most attractive prospect but the sentiment behind it is beautiful.

 

Kindness can be magical. It can change moods, increase self-esteem and improve wellbeing. Kindness can make the world a better place. And I’m going to start to be a little kinder, to myself and the rest of the world, so that I can be the example I want to be for my girl.