self-care questionnaire

Questions from the amazing Kickstart Your Creative Heart course I’m currently doing.

What does self-care mean in your world?

Keeping myself balanced so that I can give enough of myself to the people in my life. It’s essential and helps me to stay emotionally resilient. It means I can reset myself so I can respond with love to my family.

When was the last time you did something entirely for yourself?

Right now! I have taken an hour so far to write and do whatever I want to while my husband makes the kids’ dinner. I think I am quite strict about ‘downtime’ as we call it in our house. I try to make sure we both get time to do stuff we enjoy, and balance it with family activities and work.

How do you know when you need some self-care? What are your ‘symptoms’ or warning signs?

I feel irritable and hear myself snapping at my husband and the children. I notice that my breathing is not as deep as normal. My reactions are more extreme than usual and my stomach feels clenched. Sometimes I get a headache or feel extra-tired.

How would you like to feel when you sit down to write?

Calm but energised, knowing I have enough time to write without interruption (sometimes an unattainable goal!). I’d like to feel ready, to know what I am going to work on, and to feel a quiet excitement about spending this time doing something I love.

Often I feel antsy or agitated, because I have half an idea, or I’m doubting myself. I have to make a considerable effort to ignore my negative voice while I’m writing. You know, the one that says “why are you wasting your time on this? You’re not good enough. You should just stop. You’ll never get published. No one will want to read your work.” As hard as it is, I try to switch it off and just let myself write, usually without editing as I go along – that comes later.

Is there anything you already do that gives you that feeling?

Going for a run or doing exercise can help. It tires my body out and regulates my breathing, helping my mind to become a bit clearer. Spending quiet time alone also helps focus my thoughts and ideas, even if I’m not consciously considering them.

What would you do for yourself if you had unlimited time, energy and resources?

I’d go back to uni! I would love to learn and learn until my curious mind is sated. I’d study art history, literature, writing, and all sorts of modules just because they sounded interesting.


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i’m being a corn

She is in constant movement, her body involuntarily marking a song’s beat whenever she hears music. She jumps down from the sofa, pushes her toys to one side and dances, getting lost in the connection between what she hears and her body’s movements.

She uses her whole body when she moves, like I was taught to do at dance camp as a child – but it’s not learned behaviour for her, it’s simply the way she is. Even her facial expressions are exaggerated – eyebrows raised, mouth open, hands to her cheeks.

I love watching her, because she does this not for attention or performance, but because she can’t not. She hasn’t learned self-consciousness yet (I futilely hope she never does); she doesn’t even think about dancing – she just does. She’s a true natural, so much that I sometimes wonder if her dance classes will squash her passion rather than nurture it.

This evening she stomped around the kitchen, her lips like a fish’s, waving her arms at her sides. “Look at me!” she cried, laughing. “Come on, Jake, follow me!”

“Are you being a robot?” asked her dad?

“No!” she replied, as if it were obvious. “I’m being a corn!”

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he doesn’t know what a cow is

We are in the car on the way to visit some friends back in the UK for Christmas. Guy drives, I knit, our three children sit in the back and make observations about the outside world. It has snowed, and as we drive over the hills the landscape increasingly resembles a white-blanketed scene from a Christmas card.

“Look! It’s a horse!” shouts our youngest son, pointing frantically out of the window.

I turn to look, identify the animal, and attempt to hide my smile.

Our eldest son is less diplomatic. “That’s not even a horse! That’s a cow! Isn’t that a cow, Mummy?”

He’s right, it is a cow. But there was a time when my suburban boy wouldn’t have been able to point out a horse in a full stable.

On one memorable trip to feed some horses near a friend’s house, he shouted “Cows!” over and over again, then refused to believe our corrections that these were, actually, the horses we’d come to see. “Horse-cows” was the compromise he eventually agreed to, rather skeptically for a three-year-old.

I lived miles from the nearest village for the first five years of my life, and on the edge of Northumberland for the subsequent 13. I rode horses every week with my mum. How did I end up with children who don’t know the difference between a horse and a cow?

These small reminders that our children are not simply smaller versions of ourselves are not uncommon, but always surprise me. Our sons look very like me; our daughter is the image of my husband, but inside they are wholly, completely themselves.

It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.

But seriously – he doesn’t know what a cow is! I have work to do with this one.

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a family in the waiting room

I’m sitting in a reception area at this huge hospital in. Manchester. My foot taps uncontrollably and I’m taking deep breaths every few minutes. I’m waiting to see a genetic counsellor for a review. I last saw her five years ago. A lot has happened since.

I check the time, again, and look around. A family comes in and sits down behind me. I don’t want to be obvious by turning completely around, but out of the corner of my eye I see that it’s an older couple, each white-haired, with a girl on the edge of adolescence.

My ears prick up when the woman speaks quietly to the girl. She has a Yorkshire accent. I wonder what they’re doing here, get lost for a moment imagining what has brought them to Manchester today.

They’re talking about the result of a ‘pride of Manchester’ award – it’s Emmeline Pankhurst. The girl doesn’t know who this is, so the older woman explains.

The man speaks – he sounds Yorkshire, too. He tells the girl who else was in the running, rattling off the names. His voice is deep and comforting, the epitome of a grandfather. I wonder if they live together, and if so, where are the girl’s parents. Scenarios and stories start to run through my head, and I almost miss the next part of their conversation.

They’re debating the merit of the nominees. They agree on the deserving nature of the winner, who has been selected by public vote. There’s actors; one half of a musical duo; footballers of course – this is Manchester.

The man’s tone turns disapproving: he doesn’t think they merit inclusion. The woman argues – they’re all well-known and from Manchester, that’s all that’s required isn’t it?

No, comes the reply. Emmeline Pankhurst contributed to society, she left a legacy. She helped change the world. The others are entertainers, sportspeople, yes, but they haven’t achieved positive change in the same way.

I’m so interested in their discussion that I forget to be nervous. Heck, I forget where I am. I wonder what the girl thinks and who she agrees with. I wonder if she is even listening, or if she’s already heard endless variations of this debate. I’m actively eavesdropping now, anticipating her contribution –

“Mrs Too-ret?”

The doctor is standing in the doorway, smiling expectantly. It takes me only a second to cover my disappointed expression, even less for my nerves to return. I reluctantly leave the family in the waiting room and follow the white coat down the corridor.

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one of those days

We all have those days. This is what I tell myself when I have one of those days.
‘Those days’, when everything seems to be doomed from the start. When you agree to do stuff against your better judgement (which is shouting, ‘go back to to bed, you’re good for nothing today!’).  When you feel defeated, overwhelmed and disempowered by the world. When you want to meet every request with a sigh, or an eyeroll at least. When you think, why even did I get out of bed?
Except you’re a parent, so that’s why you got out of bed. And that’s why you agree to do stuff against that better judgement. And you smile instead of sighing (or eyerolling). And your children thank you and value you the more for it, right?
On ‘those days’, your children are almost certainly having one of those days too. They too feel deflated, overwhelmed and disempowered by the world. They actually do meet every request with a sigh and an eyeroll (or a shout). And they’ve got you in the crosshairs of their frustration.
So, back to me. Today I and all three of my children have had one of ‘those days’. We have shouted, we have cried, we have had many a make-up cuddle. We (eventually, the day literally lasted years and years) got through it. And at the end of ‘those days’, there is wine. And if you’re really lucky, someone to listen, give you a hug and tell you you’re doing a great job.
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mothering without my mother

My mum died of breast cancer when I was 10 years old. Losing a parent so young is the antithesis of the gift that keeps on giving. Every special occasion, every achievement, every milestone in my life is a reminder that she’s not here.

I felt this even more keenly when I was pregnant with my first child. Midwives and sonographers asked me, “Is your mum looking forward to the baby coming?”. Colleagues told me, “You’ll be glad of your mum after the baby is born.” Even the books I read talked about how the bond between a woman and her mother is often strengthened after the latter experiences childbirth.

Here I want to state that I have a father who has done the job of two parents for the past two decades, and a wonderful stepmother. But this is about the absence of my own mother.

She wasn’t there when I wanted to ask if her pregnancy was like mine, if she experienced sickness as badly as I did, if she had the same nerves about becoming a mother, and how she dealt with working while pregnant. I didn’t get to discuss birth choices with her, and she wasn’t waiting anxiously outside as my son arrived in the world (as the baby books assured me she would be).

Afterwards, when motherhood wasn’t quite what I expected, she wasn’t there to listen and empathise and tell me whether she felt the same when I was born. She couldn’t help me navigate my new identity as a mother, and reassure me that I’d come out the other side.

She didn’t see my children’s first steps, celebrate their first birthdays, or hear their first words; she wasn’t there when my eldest started school. She is absent at Christmas and birthdays, and more poignantly she isn’t there for me to cry to when mothering is more than I can bear.

My children will never know her (except through the stories I tell); *I* will never know her as a person and not just as a mother. I won’t tell her how much more I appreciate her influence on me now, or hear from her what I was like as a child. I can’t ask her whether I am doing a good job, or how she did all she did, or why it’s so bloody hard sometimes.

My mother has been dead for more than 20 years, but with every stage of my own mothering journey, I feel her absence more. Mothering without my mother is a difficult journey, but she gave me the roadmap through her mothering of me, and for that I will always be thankful.

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dear eldest, i miss you


It started while I was pregnant. Confined to the house, if not to bed, our just-the-two-of-us world was interrupted out of necessity. I railed against it, did too much, because I wanted to be with you and make the last few months of me-and-you extra special so that’s what you’d remember when the babies came. I missed you and I missed milestones – you were just two and learning at a rate of knots, your vocabulary seeming to double each day. Already then I felt twinges of regret that I had chosen to disrupt your world.

No one tells you the sting that comes from missing your eldest child when you welcome a new baby (or babies) into your family. It’s not something I prepared for or even anticipated. I have watched close friends glow with the excitement of late pregnancy with their second children, I have smiled when they ask “what’s it like having more than one?”, I have answered simply “it’s different.”
“Of course you miss your eldest,” said one very wise and compassionate midwife as I cried when my babies were a week old. “You have spent over two years with him; you know him. You don’t know these babies yet.” That was exactly it – I felt stuck caring for my newborns, knowing that was my most important work at the time, but I longed for my biggest boy, whose every expression I knew as well as my own.
Over the past three years, I’ve missed you more and more. I waved you off to preschool, then ‘big’ school. Each step you take away from me like a jolt to my heart, though my encouraging smile doesn’t falter when you look back. You see, my firstborn, you hold a piece of my soul in your hand in a way your sister and brother never will. You taught me how to be a mother, you walked me through those impossibly difficult early months, you let me go at my own pace, and oh how you rewarded me by growing into a beautiful, bright, resilient boy.
It is perhaps my lot as a parent to stay your constant while you gradually step further and further away. To watch you grow and learn about the world is a privilege; you amaze me every day with your perception and observation. I expect more of you than is fair, because you are so articulate and expressive. I am hard on you, because I want you to be the best you that you can be. I forget you are so little still; I forget you were even littler when you acquired (through no choice of your own) two very demanding younger siblings.
I didn’t know how much I’d miss you, my eldest, I didn’t know how much it would hurt not to be just yours.
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the lost art of following your instinct

When my first baby was born and I realised I was not quite as prepared as I thought, everyone kept telling me to follow my instinct. The problem was, I didn’t feel like I had any instinct. My baby didn’t arrive how I had expected, he wasn’t feeding how I expected, and he didn’t sleep like I expected. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and traumatised. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing, and furthermore I didn’t have an internal voice guiding me, like people seemed to be suggesting I should.

I felt alone at the time, watching other new parents knowing what their babies needed and providing it without fuss. However, five years on, I realise it’s really common feeling among new families, this lack of instinct or natural ‘knowing’ what to do with your baby.

When I had our twins, I had a sort of ‘aha’ moment. From the start of their birth, I knew exactly what we needed to do and what was right. Sometimes I falter, and I get it wrong a lot, but I rarely go looking for advice because I trust my instinct.

So what was missing first time around? I have spent a long time reflecting on this question. One thing I realised is that prior to the last few years, I didn’t trust my instinct in lots of areas of my life – work, friendships, relationships… When making any big decision, I asked everyone in my life what they thought I should do. I never asked myself what I thought I should do. Not only did I not listen to my instinct, I didn’t even give it a chance to voice an opinion.

It wasn’t until I had to make lots of big decisions every day, in order to keep a tiny human alive, that I noticed this absence of instinct. In general, I think it comes from a lack of confidence and self-esteem on my part (something many years of therapy have yet to unpack), but in becoming a mother I blame the overwhelming amount of often-conflicting information we are given.

From my first appointment with the midwife (at about 6 weeks pregnant), I was bombarded with guidance, official recommendations, leaflets, and other sources telling me exactly what I should be doing. Some of it I sought out, like the ‘Babycalming’ book I found in a charity shop, but I would estimate that about 75% trickled in passively, even subliminally.

I can’t remember musing about what kind of parent I wanted to be, or what it would be like to have a newborn. I had lots of expectations based on societal norms depicted in the media: like all other babies, my child would sleep in a Moses basket, he would sit in a bouncy chair or lie on his play gym during the day, he would go to sleep nicely and night and wake up in the morning, and he would enjoy going in its pram for walks.

It’s almost laughable now. He did none of this. Our first week home, he would not sleep anywhere but on one of our chests. We slept in shifts, terrified to put him in our bed (while our bodies screamed out for rest) because the leaflet the midwife gave us said it wasn’t safe. He hated being put down, and I hated hearing him cry when he was away from me, but people said we could spoil him by holding him too much. He slept in 10-minute increments day and night, so I could not sleep when the baby slept like everyone kept telling me to. He did not enjoy being in his pram; he did not care that people said it was where he was supposed to go.

Why didn’t I do what I thought was best? Why didn’t I trust myself to keep my baby safe? Perhaps we would have had a very different start to our relationship if I had listened to my instinct instead of turning to books, healthcare professionals, and websites for guidance. What if someone had taken a moment to ask me what I wanted to do, instead of telling me what I should do?

It got better when I had the twins, because I was confident in my choices. People still offer unsolicited judgement and recommendations, and I have learned to smile politely and change the subject. They are happy, having imparted their wisdom, and I am happy to continue as we are.

But I still wonder how differently our parenting journeys would be if we were encouraged to listen to our inner voices. I still feel sad that I wasn’t.

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on mindy kaling and sexism

Recently, I have been binge-watching The Office and The Mindy Project, alongside reading Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me? This particular essay was prompted by watching The Mindy Project and mass-consuming interviews with Mindy Kaling. She plays the main character and is executive producer of the show, and one of the writers. This isn’t hugely unusual in the world of US TV, especially in sitcoms. Except – oh yes, she is a woman.

Despite her long CV of accomplishments (first writing role for ‘The Office’ in early 20s, becoming producer of ‘The Office’ by 30, Emmy-winning writing, acting, running/writing/starring in her own network TV show, authoring 2 books…) the main themes that come up in interviews I’ve seen are about her being a woman. Yesterday was the last straw for me – I watched an interview from when the show started and she was asked not about her impressive body of work, but “is it funny seeing yourself on billboards? did you get to influence the photo? were you able to look through the designs and sign them off?” To her credit she answered with grace and patience, simply saying “no, I am used to seeing myself like this,” and when questioned further, gestured at the ad and said “I’m pretty happy with how it looks. It turned out really well.”
Kaling’s staff is asked what it’s like working for her – with paragraphs about how cool it is that she is a “girl boss” (because she can’t be put on the same level as boy bosses – or ‘bosses’, as they are commonly known). Kaling herself is consistently asked (often incredulously) where she gets her confidence from, with commentary about how ‘assertive’ (at best) or ‘self-centred’ (at worst) she is. To keep saying these things, after she has been in the TV industry for over 10 years, implies that she has every reason *not* to feel confident. The woman has won an Emmy, had 2 books on the NYT bestseller list, and had 5 seasons of her very own show! Why on earth should she not feel confident?
The continued patronising questions put to Kaling is just another manifestation of the overt sexism that still exists in our society. Would anyone ask Seinfeld if it’s funny being on a billboard, or why he seems so confident? As women, should we not be confident/assertive/proud of our achievements? The implication is that we should be slightly surprised and embarrassed that we have achieved anything at all. That isn’t good enough for me. I want my female friends, relatives, and especially my daughter, to know what they do well and f-ing shout about it from the rooftops.
Kaling deals with this questioning with a grace that I aspire to. I don’t know how, after so much time, she refrains from shouting “STOP ASKING ME THESE F-ING QUESTIONS” – although she does deal with the topic in her books.
Let’s just stop being surprised that some women know their worth, and instead encourage them to celebrate their accomplishments. Let’s stop comparing them to men in their industry (usually finding them lacking). Let’s stop trying to find holes in their confidence – they’re a ‘bitch’ or a terrible boss or self-centred or a maneater – and most important of all, celebrate ourselves and our own accomplishments instead of being embarrassed about them.
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shake it off 

When the babies were only a few weeks old, and I was completely overwhelmed looking after two tiny newborns and a rambunctious toddler, four o’clock was a very hard time. Everyone was tired, wound up, hungry, and I was desperate for my husband to come home from work. I was trying really hard not to fall into the abyss, and the long, dark days of winter didn’t help this feeling.

To deal with it, I made four o’clock ‘Dancing Time’ – when, no matter what we were doing, we’d drop everything and put on some energetic music (sometimes even Just Dance videos on YouTube) and let out our pent-up energy. One of our regular dancing tracks was Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’; the uptempo beat and f-you lyrics the perfect antidote to a stressful, relentless day.  Even the babies loved being jiggled about in the sling and some of Jake’s first giggles were as he watched us fling about our limbs energetically.

The song has continued as a favourite, instantly cutting through our bad moods and grouchiness. It made it onto my first running playlist, and it’s still there 18 months later, pushing me on when I’m lacking energy. Last summer Lucas requested it almost every time we got into the car, and by July could sing along with Taylor through to the end. He insisted that she was singing “shake it, ahh” – not realising that it was her accent and stylised voice that disguised the word. In the end I agreed with him as he got so upset trying to convince me and it seemed a petty thing to argue over. 

‘Shake it Off’ still makes me smile whenever I hear it. Partly because of these precious memories, and because it’s apt for a time when I’ve struggled to let go of negative influences in my life. “Haters gonna hate” – it’s teenspeak that I’m 20 years too old for, but the sentiment is true. The song contains good advice for my children, too. I’d like them to grow up to be resilient, to assume they can achieve anything and everything they want to – to be able to shake off negativity rather than getting drawn into it. 

And if you’re not a fan of Taylor, you can always check out the Beef Seeds’ bluegrass cover of ‘Shake it Off’ instead – it’s worth a listen! 

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