Complimentary Thinking

I think there is something about sharing your darkest secrets with the wider world that makes people trust you and feel comfortable sharing their own stories with you. As a result my head is spinning a bit. I have already learned so much in the two short weeks since I started this blog. I’ve received messages from people I’ve not seen for years, telling me about their struggles with depression, and messages of encouragement from mental health professionals congratulating me for my honesty and advocacy. This means more to me than I can articulate.

It’s been a scary, scary process so far. Two weeks ago not even my dad knew about my depression and neither did some of my very closest friends. Everyone has been incredibly supportive, but still I admit I’ve questioned myself. I have a terrible habit of reading in to things that people say and imagining hidden messages that usually aren’t there.

For example, one very dear friend asked me via text message how I felt about my story being “out there in the wider facebook world”. Her message was of genuine concern for me, having recently found out things about me that had previously been unknown to her. She was worried that I was feeling regretful. However, my mind started racing and my imagination went in to overdrive. Does she think I’m over-sharing? Are people talking about me or criticising me for putting so much “out there”? Does she think I’m doing the wrong thing? Am I doing the wrong thing? What have I done? This was absolutely my own self-doubt rearing it’s ugly head.

The point I’m making is this: Even though written and statistical evidence support the fact that lots of people have been helped by this blog (it’s now had over three thousand views in under two weeks), this is still a very scary thing to do. Particularly for someone prone to anxiety. I don’t take compliments well and I have a hard time in believing nice things people say about me. There is a technical term for this that I learned during my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and it’s called Mind Reading, or assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts.

For me, it’s not enough to just share my story in the hope that other mums like me will know that they’re not alone. Reminding mums that they’re not the only ones feeling like proverbial swans on a lake, seemingly gliding along on the surface whilst underneath kicking and thrashing about to stay afloat is all well and good. There must be something I can do to encourage other mums, above and beyond sharing my own (mis)adventures in parenting.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and there will be more than one post on this topic. But first I’d like to cast my mind back four years. In my old life, I used to have a pretty high profile job negotiating advertising contracts for a national newspaper. I was responsible for bringing in tens of millions of pounds a year in revenue. It was a big responsibility. But I had a manager, she had a manger, he had a manager and his manager reported in to the City. Everyone was accountable to someone. We had regular one-to-one meetings and appraisals and knew in no uncertain terms whether or not our performance was up to scratch.

Move on four years, and I find myself doing the most important job in the world, raising two small children. But I have no boss (well, actually, my son often feels very much like the Boss of Me but that’s not the point!). I don’t have regular appraisals (I know the health visitors are there if you need them but I stopped paying attention to them when they told me to limit my son’s carbohydrate intake when he was seven months old).

As mums, we’re only really answerable to ourselves, and we’re our own worst critics.

Rightly or wrongly, other mums are the benchmark for how well I feel I’m doing as a parent. My husband or mum may tell me they think I’m doing a good job, but in my mind they’re obligated to say that. It’s in their job description. (There’s a CBT term for this, too actually. It’s called Discounting Positives, or dismissing positive things as trivial).

Now luckily for me, and as I’ve said before, I have a very supportive group of friends. We are usually pretty honest when it comes to the highs and lows of raising babies and toddlers and we don’t feel the need to compete with one another. With this in mind many of them seemed hurt that I hadn’t told them about my PND at the time I was going through it. The reason I held back wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, far from it. I didn’t tell them because I knew them well enough to know the words of comfort they would offer, I knew what they’d say and I knew they were right. It just wouldn’t have made any difference to me at that very low point in my life. I couldn’t really believe anything complimentary that my friends might have said to me. I discounted their positives without even hearing them.

My point is this: We may believe we know someone, but deep down, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. The mum who you think has it all together may well be falling apart at the seams and feel completely unable to discuss it with anyone. But what can we do? How can we make a difference?

The best bosses I ever had in my media career were those who asked for input from their teams and gave feedback on a job well done. And yet, the majority of comments I’ve had so far on this blogging adventure have been from mums who feel inferior to other mums, who feel in competition, who feel they are judged by their peers on every parenting choice they make.

Only this morning, one of the mums at nursery said to me “I never really had many female friends before having children, but I thought this would change once I became a mum. In actual fact, it’s even worse. Women can be so bitchy and competitive, especially when it comes to child-rearing. I can’t be bothered with it all! Where’s the solidarity and sisterhood?”

Now this? This we can do something about. This is where we can affect change.

If you see a mum who’s managed to make it out of Tesco’s with shopping done and sanity seemingly intact, what’s to stop you saying “Nice work there, sister! Last time I tried to do the shopping with my kids in tow I aborted the mission and contemplated abandoning my children along with the shopping trolley. I take my hat off to you. Well done!” ?

Conversely, when the mama with the screaming kids in the supermarket is, for once, not you, a friendly smile or words to the effect of “we’ve all been there, love, don’t worry” could well go such a long way in helping her to survive her ordeal. I’d argue that random words or encouragement from strangers are just as valuable as praise from those who know you well. And remember, we don’t know what’s going on under the surface of even the most immaculately made-up face.

I genuinely believe that if we were more confident in our abilities as mothers and less focussed on our insecurities we’d be able to brush off some of the more tactless comments we’re regularly bombarded with. I think it’s our lack of confidence in ourselves that cause us to find hidden meanings in otherwise harmless comments from our peers.

I think if we focus on praising our fellow mums by giving credit where it’s due we can go a long way in remembering that we’re all in this together. We’re all fighting our own individual battles and we could be lightening each other’s loads. I bet you can think of countless mums that you admire for different reasons. But do they know this? Could it be that whilst you’re comparing your insides with her outsides, she’s doing the same and finding herself to be lacking?

Here is an excerpt of an email I received from a friend after she read my blog. I’m nervous about sharing it as it feels a bit like blowing my own trumpet but I think it proves my point:

“To use the not-so-random example of you, who was never anything other than friendly and supportive to me, I enjoyed seeing you but it was always mixed with envy/insecurity that Monkey* was advanced in crawling, walking etc, that you had family close by, a routine, less night waking, a spotless child-friendly but stylish house and that you always looked great! It’s not that I was unaware you had a horrible birth experience and were upset that breast feeding hadn’t worked but in my mind, the things you could control, you excelled at. I don’t know how relevant that is but thought you might be interested to hear it.”

This whole paragraph was a revelation to me. It had never occurred to me during those early days that anyone would look at me and see anything worth looking up to. But there it is, in black and white. Who knew? I wonder if having this knowledge would have made a difference to me when depression hit two years later with the birth of my second daughter? Impossible to say.

But we’re not just talking about me here. I genuinely think that almost every mum could benefit from a bit of encouragement now and then from her peers. That by consciously making the effort to support one another with kind words, we can help culture an environment of solidarity rather than competition.

I asked an online group of mums to tell me if they’ve ever received a lovely compliment and how it made them feel:

“My autistic sons paediatrician said to me ‘you clearly have a great understanding of his needs and are so in tune with him, he is lucky to have you as a Mum’ she may have said that to everyone, but I don’t care! it helped.”

” A friend recently told me ‘You are incredible. You’ve had so much to deal with lately and you just get on with it; you are a wonderful mum and a fantastic friend and your children are a credit to you.”

” I was on my way home from the school run with my three year old twins in the pram. A lady stopped me and asked me if I didn’t mind her telling me something!! She went on to say what lovely children I had, how they were always well dressed and polite, that my daughter was always on time for school and how calm I was all the time!! I was gobsmacked!! And I felt very emotional as I had been struggling so much. I told her how much it meant to me! It made me feel like the best mum in the world! My friends often compliment me on how well behaved my children are! I have struggled with PND since having my twins so compliments mean a lot to me.”

“An older lady stopped me in the hospital toilets to tell me that my son (age 6) was a lovely spoken, polite little boy. It feels lovely when it’s a stranger telling you rather than somebody you know (although that’s still nice too)”.

I hope you’ve got examples of lovely compliments that you’ve been paid. I hope that you’re able to accept genuine words of support and encouragement and not discount them. I hope more than anything, that in reading this article, you’re formulating a mental list of women you know who deserve a pat on the back and some recognition for the incredibly important and often hard job we’re all doing our best at. A psychological pay-rise, if you will.

So with this post I’m setting you some homework. Please go out in the world and practice some Mummy Kindness today, and come back here to the comments section to tell me and your fellow readers how it felt to make someone else’s day.

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Having A Word With Myself.

For the past couple of weeks ours has been a sick-house. For one week P had can’t-get-out-of-bed flu, and for the following week both kids had bugs too. This is, of course, no different to thousands of other families across the country in January. The thing is, though, is that their illnesses knock me for six. I don’t just mean that they pass their germs on to me (although I am writing this through streaming eyes with scratchy throat). What I mean is, psychologically, it takes a while for me to recover from the fact that they have been ill. The obvious reason for this would be that of course, any parent worries when their child is ill, even if it’s just a nasty cold. Having sick kids is stressful and exhausting and generally pretty horrible. As mums, our own needs are usually pretty low down on the priority list and when your children are sick, this is more apparent than ever. For me, I can live without an uninterrupted wee and deal with not getting in the shower until 2pm. Their needs are more important, particularly when they’re sick. And as soon as they’re better, in theory, things go back to normal.

Or not.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider myself to be “in recovery” from my depression, in that it’s a constant work-in-process that I need to remain aware of. One day at a time. There are thought processes and strategies that I use to keep myself on the upward bounce as much as I can. But I find that in stressful times and particularly when there’s been illness in the house, I don’t get the chance to pay attention to my own emotional wellbeing and this can take me down a slippery slope.

So the purpose of this post is to have a word with myself in order to get back on track. Contradictions will follow, I’m afraid! That’s how my mind works.

When I was getting professional help with my depression and anxiety (which I highly recommend. Getting help, that is, not the depression or anxiety. That really sucks) One of the things the counsellor repeated regularly was this: “Rachel. It is what it is.”

Let me explain….

I struggle with overcoming the notion that I have no justification in feeling depressed; I have two beautiful children, an amazing husband and the support of my family and friends. There is a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table and countless other blessings. What right do I have to be depressed?

I have a strong tendency to compare my circumstances with others who I feel have far more reason to feel low. I have friends who have recently suffered through bereavement, infidelity, miscarriage, divorce and serious illness. And that’s just people I know. Don’t start me on the pain and suffering out there in the wider world.

Drawing these comparisons can leave me feeling self absorbed, selfish, ungrateful and ridiculous. None of these feel good, let me tell you. So I remind myself that my own struggles are no less valid because others have suffered more. Telling yourself you can’t feel sad or upset about certain things because others have it worse is like saying you can’t be happy because others have it better than you.

Depression is chemical. My brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin to keep me on an even keel. This is simply not something I can control. (More on the subject of control on future posts). The same way that a diabetic can’t control their body’s insulin production, I can’t control the fact that primarily, the cause of my depression is chemical and physical. It “Is What It Is”. All I can do is be aware of it, “own” it, recognise what triggers it (like sickness in the house and letting myself get tired and run down) and use the tools at my disposal to manage it.

Luckily for me, on the whole, the good days far outweigh the bad and there is one quite simple tactic that I use which really helps me keep things in perspective, and that is practicing gratitude whenever I can. Because I really am grateful for what I’ve got.

In writing this I’m concerned that it’s going to come across as a bit sugary or cheesy. But It Is What It Is, it helps me be a happier person and maybe it’ll help someone reading this too. So I make no apologies.

Here’s an example;
A few minutes ago, I surveyed my living room. There are toy bricks EVERYWHERE. There are play-doh crumbs under the table. There are very small handprints all over the patio doors. A half-built train track lies abandoned in the kitchen waiting to trip someone over. A little pile of clothes shows me where my strip-o-gram of an eighteen month old daughter has stood and removed all of her clothes. Just because she can. She doesn’t care that it’s snowing out and she’s recovering from a nasty cold. My house looks like a bomb has hit it.

I can look at this situation in one of two ways; I can grumble and moan about the mess or I can smile, thinking of Madam’s excitement and pride at the big tower she built by herself, hence the bricks everywhere. I can be grateful for the toys we have that keep the children busy whilst I jot a few ideas down for this article. I can be grateful for the children themselves, that they’re better now. That they’re up to their usual mischief. That they’re well enough to climb the walls.

Another example, and one that I cringe a little bit about sharing, but I’m going to anyway, is the ironing. Boring subject I know. I LOATHE ironing. But at least once a week (ideally, but rarely, more often) I stand and I work through the enormous pile of ironing. I often huff and puff and complain about this. It’s categorically the dullest activity ever. But what I try to do, whilst I’m ironing, is be a tiny bit grateful. Grateful for the little ones who bring the clothes to life. Grateful for the fun times they spend wearing their clothes. Grateful for the job my husband has that requires him to wear a shirt each day. Despite the ironing it necessitates.

Similarly, when washing floors and cleaning mucky little handprints off a surprisingly varied array of surfaces, I try to be grateful for those little hands and feet. I try to remind myself that whilst raising (and especially cleaning up after) little ones is hard, one day they’ll be grown and gone. And I’ll look back on the days of smeary windows and crayon wall graffiti with nostalgia. And I’ll probably wish that I’d spent more time enjoying them and less time worrying about cleaning up after them.

And every so often, when they wake in the night, I might sit and hold them for a few extra minutes, and be grateful for them. I’ll hold them a few extra minutes after they’ve fallen back to sleep. I’ll drink in their sleepiness. I’ll try to forget and forgive myself for those dark early days and nights where I wanted to be somewhere or someone else and I’ll remind myself that they won’t remember. I’ll be grateful for the fact that I am able to be grateful. Because if I’m feeling grateful, then I’m feeling better. And now that I’ve finished writing this, I’m feeling a bit teary, but I’m feeling better. And I’m grateful for that, too.

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Picture credit: http://www.bravegirlsclub.com

The Evolution of Shirley

Wow. What a journey this new blog is taking me on. Again, I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to leave comments here on the blog and also on the facebook pages where I’ve invited discussion on the topics I’ve looked at here.

So far, in the four days since I started this adventure, mummykindness.com has had over two thousand views. That just blows my mind. I say this not to toot my own horn but to illustrate the point that maybe, just maybe, I’m on to something here. Maybe my ideas and thoughts are echoed by others. Maybe I can make a difference to people by being open and honest about my own struggles, and helping others to think about being kinder to themselves and to one another.

The Shirley post struck a chord with lots of people and I received some really heartfelt messages from women who have put up with some incredibly hurtful comments from their fellow mums. In fact, the topics they shared with me will undoubtedly be the subject of future posts.

Other comments offered suggestions as to things I might like to consider writing about. This is one of them:

“Rachel – I just wanted to say I love your blog! I am not a mummy – I am a baby care consultant who meets lots of wonderful mummies who have suffered at the hands of Shirley. I have also met lots of Shirleys! What I would like you to consider writing – if you are able to get your head round it – is something from Shirleys point of view. In my experience Shirley is often the most insecure mother out there who is really struggling and life often isn’t how she is portraying it. The only way she can make herself feel adequate is to make those around her feel inadequate. Now I am not saying that is right or even that it’s OK but it might be a perspective you would like to explore. I would be most interested to see what you make of that thought. Bless you! You are raising such an important awareness.”

This really interested me. Several of the comments via Facebook had been from women honest enough to admit to being Shirley at one time or another. I wanted to look in to this further. I was hoping to get some insight into what makes Shirley tick so I posted on two mum forums where I knew I’d get full and frank answers. I asked women to tell me about instances where they’ve been made to feel inferior by another mum, or explain situations where their inner Shirley may have come out.

One mum had a newborn baby so intolerant to lactose that she couldn’t even tolerate breast milk. She was devastated to have to formula feed her baby but genuinely had no choice in the matter. You can only imagine how she must have felt, whilst giving the baby her bottle in public, when a nearby mother loudly voiced the opinion “Look at that poor newborn with rubber in her mouth! I get so angry when I see that! She can’t even be a month old!”. My mind boggles as to how any woman could so openly criticise a fellow mother, especially within earshot, but this actually happened. Of course the poor mother ended up in tears. This goes beyond unintentionally triggering someone else’s insecurities by a country mile.

I was a bit unprepared for one of the first comments I got, though….

“Rachel, with regards to ‘Shirley’, every mother is one. Including you. If a mother tells you her child walked at 15 months and your child walked sooner than that, unless you lie about when your child started walking, you too are being a ‘Shirley'”.

Whaaaat?!! I thought. She has completely missed the point, did she even read the blog post in the first place? I was just about to send her a message highlighting these points when I started thinking about it. Could there be some truth in what she was saying? Whilst I was pondering this, she added to her original point by saying that we are entitled to feel “smug” about our kids from time-to-time. Now this raises something really interesting. Of course a parent is entitled to feel proud of and to discuss their children’s progress. If the fact that someone else’s child walked before mine made me feel bad, that would be my issue and not their responsibility for bringing it up. If we all walked on eggshells around one another for fear of offending the parent whose baby doesn’t walk yet when ours does, play dates would be pretty tricky and conversation would be stifled to say the least. In short, articulating your pride in your children does not a Shirley make.

(I highly recommend you check out this fantastic blog if you’re interested in why it is that we may feel it’s inappropriate to sing our childrens praises).

Another astute mama (I’ll call her Laura) expressed how proud she is of the routine she’s managed to get her daughter in to and the fact that her baby has slept through the night from an early age. Laura worked very hard to do this but worries that she may come across as a Shirley to other mothers for discussing this with them and potentially making them feel inadequate for not having accomplished what she has. I’d say that this is a really good example of how our insecurities (and sleep deprivation, in this case) could easily find us comparing with Laura and finding ourselves to be lacking. But Laura isn’t intentionally trying to make anyone feel bad, far from it. I’m sure if asked she would gladly offer advice and tips to her sleep deprived friends. The issue here is in the mind of the beholder. Another example of how we may read unintended meanings into our conversations, assuming that we’re terrible mothers because our children still wake regularly and someone else’s slept through from eight weeks.

Even as I write this, more and more brave mamas are sending me messages about situations where they’re unsure if they’re being a bit “Shirley”. Kate makes a really interesting point. Her son has been very easy when it comes to sleeping, eating and discipline. But Kate feels like he has to bite her tongue, she feels judged for having it too easy, like she isn’t entitled to contribute advice to her friends because she worries that they’ll think her “smug”. Not having a common complaint makes her feel alientated from her friends.

I think the real point here is our definition of “Shirley”. She clearly represents different things to different mums. Everyone who read the original Shirley post seems to have their own mental picture of who she is, and what she means to them. She is voicing our inner insecurities. Often literally.

My friend H works full time. She doesn’t want to but she has no choice. A stay-at-home mum recently told H that she was damaging her daughter by going out to work each day. H was understandably left feeling devastated and more guilty than ever. But the stay-at-home mum has barely enough money to put petrol in her car. She is struggling to make ends meet. Could it be that her comment to H came from a place of envy? Could it be that she wishes she had a way to contribute financially to her family? This does not excuse the mean and thoughtless thing she said but it does illustrate that her unkind words probably came from the place where her own self-doubt lives. Her Inner Shirley was speaking.

The point I’m making is this. What if we ARE all a bit Shirley? What if Shirley was all in our minds, all along? A bit like Fight Club?! What if she is the devil on your shoulder, causing you to doubt your parenting skills? Making you read judgements where actually none were intended? What if by having more faith in our skills as mummies, we could silence our inner Shirleys? Or to take this logic one step further, what if we harnessed the power of our inner Shirley to ask for help?

Here’s an example.

It’s playdate time again. You turn up at Shirley’s house, and you’re dreading it. You’ve been up all night, pacing the floor with a screaming almost-toddler in your arms. You’re exhausted, emotional and by your own admission you look like you’ve just survived a natural disaster. In a way, you have. You’re asking yourself why you didn’t just cancel the arrangement, but in a toss-up between an afternoon with Shirley and an afternoon listening to the ironing pile calling you, Shirley wins by a narrow margin. Let’s look at how this conversation might go and the meanings that you may very well be reading in to the conversation that weren’t actually even there.

Shirley says: Hello! Crikey! You Look tired!
You hear: Oh God, I look even worse than I thought. She can see right through me. How on earth has she managed to get mascara on both of her eyes? She hasn’t got porridge in her hair either! And look, her socks are matching! How does she do it? I’d sell a little bit of my soul right now for some sleep. Did she REALLY need to point out how rough I look?!!I

This is a prime example of how one comment from Shirley can be like the starting pistol on your very own mental marathon of self doubt. Pointing out that someone looks tired is never the most tactful thing to say. But what if, actually, Shirley was coming from a place of care and concern? What if she doesn’t feel comfortable offering unsolicited advice to you, for fear that you might think her “smug” or a show-off? Or what if she worries you’ll-think-that-she-thinks-that-you’re-doing-it-all-wrong? What if, actually, what we’re all doing is paying too much attention to our Inner Shirley and second guessing each other all the time?

Think about it. Shirley here could have said “Sweetie, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look shattered, is there anything I can do to help? We’ve all been there. I know exactly what it’s like to feel so utterly exhausted that you look at childless friends with envy, knowing that they’ll have no-one to interrupt them just as they get comfy tonight. What can I do to help you?”. Now this could open up floodgates. Shirley could stop being someone you feel is judging you and start to be the person who directs you to the one sleep-training technique that saves your sanity. (For me it was the Baby Whisperer’s Pick-Up/Put-Down technique but I’ll go into that another time).

By listening to our Inner Shirley and paying attention to what she has to say, we can ask for help and guidance. Equally, by thinking a little bit more about the words we use with others, we can affect change. We can be more confident in our own abilities, both as parents as friends.

Most of what we hear when other people speak comes from our own Inner Shirley. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. That I do know. The woman you think of as “Shirley” has undoubtedly got her own issues and most of the battles we’re fighting are with ourselves.

So, in answer the the question posed in my last post: “Are You Shirley” the answer, in all of us, is actually Yes! But some of us are more capable of keeping her in check than others. She is the voice inside us that makes us sometimes doubt ourselves. We (read: I) need to learn to ignore her when she is in our heads causing us to doubt ourselves, or recognise that we need support in certain areas and ask for it.

I was asked to look at Shirley through her own eyes. Turns out her eyes are brown, like mine.

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(Picture credit: Pinterest)

PS.. I’m going to paste some of the Facebook comments below, where is says “what do you think?” as to put them all in the blog would’ve been a bit of a lengthy read.

PPS.. as always, please do leave your thoughts here and share via Facebook if you think a friend would like what’s going on here.