I’m aiming for ordinary, and that should be ok

A few months ago, for International Women’s Day, there was a wave of women in London changing their LinkedIn profile name to Dave. This led to a group of my colleagues and I chatting about why these women had done it – that there are more men called Dave on the board of the UK FTSE top 100 companies than there are women called anything in the same position. It was interesting to me because it became an easy thing to support, a quick sound bite to throw yourself behind, to prove you were a bit feminist.

What was even more interesting to me was that nowhere in this conversation between feminists (both male and female) was what I felt was one of the core problems – many women don’t want to do these jobs. It is of course not ideal that there isn’t gender balance on the boards of these companies. It’s been shown plenty of times that boards with women in run more successful companies, as if research was ever needed to show that a balance of thinking and working styles would be a better way forward. The idea that we just need to raise awareness of the problem to encourage more boards to hire or promote more women is overly simplistic thinking.

When I voiced my this opinion of mine, people looked at me strangely. Perhaps a bit like I might have been a ghost of 50s housewife. Someone even tensely asked if I was making the mistaken assumption that all women wanted children. But I’m happy to repeat my opinion for clarity: I don’t believe women want to do these jobs. And I also believe that if they did want to do these jobs, they would be in them given that they have the intelligence, drive and motivation to hold their own on the way up the ladder.

The real issue we should be talking about is why women don’t want these jobs and why they don’t feel they want to be part of the boardroom culture especially once they become mothers.

For me, it’s not hard to understand. As an emotional person, as someone who strives for balance and as a mother, I know that this type of work would be too difficult for me. Trying to force myself into the FTSE 100, master of the universe mould, would be the equivalent of pressing self destruct and I know I felt that way even before I had the daughter I actually want to spend time with.

It occurs to me now, that it reveals so much about our society that these are the jobs that are held up as the pinnacle of success – a pretty paternalistic and materialist badge of honour.

I was raised to be good feminist teenager by a mother who worked her way through the 80s, being told that she could have it all and that she was lucky to be able to work, but who secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wanted to be at home with us. I was raised on microwave dinners and can clearly remember how exciting it was to be picked up by either parent from school, it was so rare an occurrence. I went on to study science, to push myself to do well at maths, to take physics at university and to scorn fellow female school mates who decided to take art, english and french, subconsciously deriding them as letting the side down, as giving in to the gender stereotypes, all the while wishing I could have taken art too.

This type of behaviour went on for the next ten years: me pushing myself harder and harder to stand out, to be different, to claim my due and to make sure I never faded into the background. I wanted to be a wonder woman, to break the stereotypes – until I got closer to the top and saw what that world was really like.

After 5 or so years of working all hours under the sun, being the only woman in every meeting, being mentored by our CEO and feeling it was a compliment to be called ‘one of the boys’, something finally clicked. My work was making me tired and miserable; trying to behave like a man and live up to their standards was making me anxious. I developed a hyper competitive personality to help me cope, but the reality of always looking over my shoulder and wondering what would happen if everyone realised I wasn’t the same as the boys was not at all worth it.

Could I have been on the board of my old company? Maybe. Would the personal sacrifice needed to be on that board have been worth it?

Categorically no.

So I used my maternity leave as a chance to step back and step away. I stayed on maternity leave for way longer than was deemed sensible. Tellingly, my job was given away to a woman who didn’t have kids, who didn’t plan to have kids and when I went through the motions of trying to negotiate a return to work on family friendly terms, my request to work only 3 days a week was turned down immediately. Why? “Because then everyone else will want to work part time too”.

When I was on this maternity leave, people asked me what I would do next. They assumed there was no way I would extend my time away from the grindstone without a secret plan brewing. Did I have a big business idea ready to unleash on the world? Had I written a book? Was I the next big #mamaboss? No, I wasn’t. I was at home, breastfeeding as long as I could, waking up through the night then catching up on my sleep and plastering on concealer, teaching my daughter to eat well, reading books a million times over and hanging out at the park, pockets full of tissues and snacks, rocking a mum bun.

So eventually, I went back to work. I did it on my terms and I still try to step back and make sure my work still matches my values as frequently as I can pause for thought. What is clear though it that I’m certainly financially worse off for wanting to spend time with my family. When I was younger and perhaps showed more direct ambition, I earnt more than I do now, nearly twice as much as I do now, and even without the adjustment for part time work, that’s a hefty drop. I sometimes look around and wonder what the younger women at our company, the ones without kids, see when they look at me. Someone who used to be more senior that now isn’t? Someone who couldn’t cut it? Maybe someone who wasn’t good enough to go all the way?

Perhaps they don’t realise that it was my choice to step away. I’m a passionate feminist and this was my choice. I made it freely. True, the very male values of my work environment compounded the decision and probably hastened it. They threw clear light on my very different personality – my unwillingness to be confrontational and competitive, my desire to be community minded, manage my teams well and supportive in every interaction.

But is lack of competition something I should be criticised for? Or not being forceful enough? Dare I say it, not male enough? Maybe many women are not at the top and don’t belong at the top, not because they’re female but because they do not want to be there, with all it entails. Perhaps it doesn’t interest them, doesn’t motivate them or make them happy.

I totally understand the thrill of the chase, the sense of belonging, the idea that if you can make it up the ladder, through the glass ceiling, you’d be a winner. But what good would that kudos, those gold stars, the piles of cash be if you’re missing out on your sleep, your contentment and your kids bedtime routine?

It’s now become really popular to define your work as your mission, to strive to find something meaningful. I guess that if work is going to be your main thing, you would have to. If I was going to spend all my time there and give everything up for it, it would need to contribute to the greater good, it would need to be purposeful.

Is this right though? Is the idea the wrong way round? Should work really be everything to us? Instead, perhaps we should be working on defining ourselves in other ways too.

Hopefully it will become ok to say that work has different meaning and purpose at different points in your life. Perhaps it could also become feminist to understand that how women work shouldn’t be our most visible way of assessing progress.

It’s fair to say that in my 20s, work was my everything. It was my social life, my ambition, my reason to be, my support through break ups, my identity – so much so that I couldn’t wait to get back from the unwelcome breaks that were holidays.

Now in my 30s, it’s become my support network, my steady income, my facilitator, my sense of balance (and also the place I can go to the toilet by myself). What will happen in my 40s?

If I have my way, it will be pretty ordinary. I’ll work at something I enjoy doing, I might work from myself. I’ll hope that people will say nice things about me and that we won’t be short of money. I’ll cook my daughter dinner every night after I’ve picked her up from school and helped her with her homework. We won’t live in a huge house or go on many Instagram worthy holidays but I’ll have enough time to fit in some mediation and yoga and not by getting up at 4.30am, just to carve out some space for myself in my super hectic days.

And you know what? Most of all I’ll hope that my daughter sees this balance and internalises it too. That she will see my freedom in choosing that type of life and won’t feel like she has to strive impossibly hard for impossibly long just to be seen as a worthy and successful part of our society. I want to teach my child that she can have a regular life and that she won’t have to be famous or special to mean anything to me or other people. Her growing up to be ordinary but fulfilled and good at something she likes is more than good enough for me.

So yes, women should be able to be on the board of the top companies of the world, if that’s what they chose. But perhaps the next feminist leap is making sure that all women receive respect for the many different kinds of work they do and are seen as successful, no matter how ordinary their choices may seem.

From woman into mother: the real meaning of baby brain

Now my little girl is approaching three, I’ve finally had the space, time and curiosity to look back and wonder just what has changed for me and what triggered those changes. I’d spotted some really big differences in myself and had never thought deeply about it – I mean who has time? I was busy thinking about my thin hair and wondering why my girl is only eating pear today.

And then a whole load of new writing and podcast content broke through into my media space and finally the penny dropped. The hormonal changes that took place in pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood, have done their intended job. My brain has been rebooted to ensure survival of the species.

Yes, we all know the jokes about baby brains, and if you’re mum, you’re probably aware that your brain doesn’t quite operate the way it used to – although any parent of young kids can testify that a good few years of sleep deprivation can leave you feeling wooly to say the least.

Although recently there has been renewed interest in the changes that motherhood brings in the cultural zeitgeist, mainly triggered by Alexandra Sacks MD when she gave her 2018 TED talk “A new way to think about the transition into motherhood” and brought the term matrescence back into modern awareness.

She describes that in her practice in the US, she would see mothers assuming that they were suffering from postpartum depression. They had such mixed emotions and reported feeling so unstable, so not like themselves, that there had to be a medical diagnosis that fit their condition. But no Sacks says, it was ‘just’ matrescence.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also introduced the term ‘doula’ to the world) to describe the developmental transition that mothers go through and the similarity to adolescence is no accident – it’s just as whole body as puberty: hormonal, emotional, physical and your brain is permanently changed as a result. You lose control of how you look and how your body is behaving just at a time when your emotional state would make it really helpful for you to be able to appear in public without feeling a wreck.

The really interesting thing is that for adolescents, perhaps because all of us have to go through it, there’s still a lot of social empathy for that difficult time. We understand that your teenage years might not be the best of your life and many people report their 20s being better. We refer to it as a phase, society adjusts it’s expectations and there is good knowledge out there that means that although it’s tough, it’s supported and understood. A slightly cynical part of me wonders that if men had such an extensive second adolescence, we could be sure we would all know about it.

I’ve been reading a scientific paper, published early 2019, by a group of Spanish researchers who mapped the changes to the human brain in pregnancy and beyond. They found and could unequivocally show that pregnancy leads to significant and long lasting reductions in the amount of cerebral grey matter mothers have. They then compared these brain changes to those of girls undergoing adolescence and found them to be essentially the same. The hormones that drive the changes are different (oxytocin, oestrogen, progesterone and prolactin for mums; oestrogen and progesterone for girls) but they drive incredible neuroplasticity, a state under which our brain can undergo massive change driven by the needs of our daily environment. The huge amount of interaction women have with their babies during this state of plasticity sets lasting change in motion: we literally reshape our brain to become better adapted to caring for a little one.

Teenage girls experience the same neuroplasticity, causing the changes to behaviour and perhaps eventually personality, if this pruning and regrowing moves far enough away from the old brain structure.

Interestingly, the average time it took the teenage girls to pass through their adolescence was 24.2 months. For mothers, it was 15.5. This caught my eye. At first glance I thought that teenagers must have it harder, their transition period takes longer and they have this period for hormone driven instability for 8 months more. But then I thought about it a bit more. Maybe the correct way to look at it is that mothers have 8 months less to complete this monumental change. It’s compulsory too: we must complete it in order to come out of our post partum period.

Mothers battle this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, not knowing it would happen, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time than the average period of puberty.

It made me think about the mothers that Sacks described, battling this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, all the while not expecting it themselves, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time. Is it any wonder her mothers reported feeling like they did? That they wondered if they had tipped into depression?

I for one can tell you that I’ve changed. Hugely. The centre of my world has moved as I knew it would, as I knew it should, but other things, unrelated to our daughter have changed too.

I’ve become much more outspoken and I’ve become much more likely to defend my daughter or myself from what I see as injustices. Be it inconsiderate people on public transport (a fair few here in London) to the current politics (let’s not even get started on Brexit) or how women are still unfairly positioned in our society (hello capitalism and patriarchy), I’m quicker to jump in. Perhaps I’m much less tolerant now I have to consider the world she will inherit. Maybe I’m less patient. Maybe I care much less about what people think of me. Perhaps shades of the teenage me have returned.

But it’s other things too. Things I think my pre-pregnancy self might even have mocked.

I can’t cope with violence on TV or in movies, not even a little bit. My music tastes have done a u-turn with the french electro house I used to stay up to 5am to listen to, now firmly off rotation. Folk and indie now are on Spotify as we play.

Now I crave greenery, not the city. I’m much more about a cabin in the woods with a herb and vegetable garden, maybe even an orchard, than a small but cute top floor Camden flat. I dress differently too. A less glossy version of me has come out. Where previously I was all about slick grooming, straight hair and minimal outfits, I’m leaning now towards natural curls, full skirts and sheepskin lined birkenstocks. Honestly, I would have laughed at myself only five years ago.

It’s often felt to me that the force of change was so immense, so all encompassing, so unexpected, that so many aspects of my personality disappeared for a bit. So many of the things that I used to value (hobbies you might say) just ceased to be. I think it’s fair to say that it’s only been recently, perhaps not even after 15.5 months, maybe 28 months, that I’ve been starting to feel anything like myself again. How reassuring to know that I wasn’t gone forever.

I’m so interested in these changes, that I plan to keep following this type of work and thinking. How much more fascinating insight into this previously unstudied area is there still to uncover?

I’ve now started to wonder whether the variance in how women manage their matrescence and how they then adjust to their brain changes factors into the choice to have a second child, the if as well as the when. It feels as if you need to come back to a sense of self and find a new sense of normal before you can consider making another change, before you can consider another shift.

Now, looking back on it, it doesn’t surprise me that this concept, this phenomenon isn’t widely known. Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

How crazy is it that we don’t give women the chance to understand how momentus this time of matrescence could be for them and how they could embrace this rebirth? I too felt like I was losing myself and losing the plot. If someone had told me the best parts of me would resurface and that it might be a two year period of change that would rival my teenage years, I might have been able to trust the process. I hope that I could have been less controlling, that I could have gone with the flow – although knowing the old me, I might still have tried to manage it.

One interesting question: who will I be if we go for two or three? :-)

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Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

Reference: Carmona, S., Martínez‐García, M., Paternina‐Die, M., Barba‐Müller, E., Wierenga, L., Alemán‐Gómez, Y., Pretus, C., Marcos‐Vidal, L., Beumala, L., Cortizo, R., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García‐García, D., Soliva, J., Tobeña, A., Peper, J., Crone, E., Ballesteros, A., Vilarroya, O., Desco, M. and Hoekzema, E. (2019). ‘Pregnancy and adolescence entail similar neuroanatomical adaptations: A comparative analysis of cerebral morphometric changes’. Human Brain Mapping, [online] 40(7), pp.2143-2152. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hbm.24513 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2019].

Mamas, we need to reclaim self care

The current boom in wellness is one that suits me. I can now buy the foods I need to manage my allergies and people get it when I tell them I try to manage my health in non medical ways. I’m definitely perceived as less of an odd bird for doing so now than I was 5 years ago. What I do find difficult though is the hyper commercialisation of the wellness industry. Sure, I shouldn’t be critical of the trends that are making my life easier but to me, the materialism and new sense of pressure (on women especially) to feel well by increasing their consumption of wellness products is not quite in the original spirit of looking after yourself.

The instagrammers that have a blow dry before they arrange their perfect breakfast on the table to do 10 takes of a photo that will eventually be edited before being posted to me totally misses the point. It also brings the issues of affordability and exclusivity to the fore, based on how much spare money and time you have to follow their example. To compare your own health and life to this representation, to what the members of the wellness community put out there on behalf of brands especially is far from ideal – because let’s be clear: for many the aim is to raise their profile to make money.

For mamas, the message is obvious and rarely subtle. You need to make space for yourself to practice self care. Eat gluten free and have less sugar – you’ll feel better! Mediate in front of these crystals when your kids nap! Buy these amazing leggings for yoga – you deserve them! You should do all these things, it’s self care.

This all sits very uneasily with me, because for me, wellness is defined differently. Let me explain.

For me wellness is an intimate knowledge of yourself and what makes you well, totally unrelated to anything a company can advertise to you. It’s honouring your body and mind with the time and respect that allows you to know what works best for you. It’s having the confidence and knowledge to be clear about what your boundaries are and not pushing yourself too hard. It’s about understanding that you are the guardian of your own health.

One thing that strikes me, when I think about it like this, is that I’ve had this before. I haven’t always been able to pay this level of attention but someone else has: my own mama. I also think the parallel is spot on because caring in this way, with this level of depth is something that can only be learned by practice. Your own mother will have been the first person to set the example of how it should be done.

I’m the first to confess that I used to look after my children in a much more caring way than I looked after myself. I know that gingerbread before bed will mean she won’t sleep; I keep her gluten intake low as she gets a bloated tummy if I don’t; I brush her hair so it doesn’t get dreadlocks. I had this intimate knowledge of her that far surpassed what I used to know about myself and what I would allow myself time for. I would give more attention to her than I would to myself.

I know that many mothers would say this is appropriate, that it’s not only part of the job description, it also happens because of the direct to lack of time in a day. How can you spend what you don’t even have on yourself? I also hear the flip side – that it’s your duty to do it, because time for yourself will make you a better mother.

For me though, this quickly has become that commercial message we’re so used to hearing. Money spent on wellness products are worth it because they will make you healthier and happier. The subconscious implication is that you’re a better person if you can do those things.

I’ve had to learn to reject this in my own life and not feel bad about myself for meeting the community standards. Of course I don’t have time to spend on a yoga mat each day (in my new clothes). Of course I don’t have time for that matcha tea ritual that will give me loads more energy (with all my new tea accessories). I might have time for apply some essential oils to my wrists instead of relaxing in a bath (ok, so I might choose some of your essential oil products). I choose to reject the guidance and influence.

To me it was adding a whole load of pressure to the situation. Financial, because all these new purchases add up to a lot. Physical, because there is time pressure in your day forces you to choose what you do. You could do some yoga but that might then prevent you from doing other things that could also look after your wellbeing – like connecting to your present, cooking a healthy meal, sleeping, sitting down for a bit.

For me, the type of wellness that we need as mothers is something we can create for ourselves and is certainly something we should be passing on to our kids – especially our daughters, these future mothers.

I used to get up at 5.55am, head to the park to run 10k, shower with lovely calming products, get ready so my hair looked great, be at my desk by 8.30am ready to work and then choose the healthiest fast food I could find because I had no time to shop or prepare food for myself as I was busy fulfilling the standard I had set for myself. Wellness and work. I wanted to do it all.

Now, through my mother’s eyes, I can see this was too much for me. If someone had prescribed this regime for my daughter, I would try to stop her from doing it. I’d ask her why she felt she needed to push herself so hard. Sadly though, I had no alternative way of operating, no-one had outlined a different path for me. I couldn’t see that a gentler option might have better overall for my holistic health. I didn’t need to spend on running gear or top quality, trendy new health foods to be well – I could have done so much of this for myself.

Now I can look back and see that fundamental compassion for myself was lacking, somehow, and this attitude had been passed on, from someone. How was it, that I hadn’t learnt that self compassion was what was required? Why was I willing to put myself through all of that without one hint of worry that I was pushing myself too hard or potentially even causing more harm than good, even though I technically could be proud of my fitness and healthy eating.

For me it comes down to values that are passed from mother to child. Children are so impressionable, it’s easy to see how they will interpret how their mother cares for them and herself then draw a sense of worth from it. It’s obvious that this will affect their self esteem and then how this will have a knock on effect to how they then learn to look after themselves as a grown up.

How would you know how to look after yourself in an appropriate way if you were never told it was worth doing? Or if you never had anyone to lead by example?

 

During my twenties and early thirties, I spent some time in therapy. There were lots of reasons for it and I can see so many benefits to my having been there. I paid for it myself so we were able to continue until both my therapist and I felt I was ready to leave.

Our main goal: for me to be able to mother and care for myself appropriately, so I no longer needed my therapist’s emotional support to make it through the day to day. Our secondary goal: understand how I could best mother my daughter to help me from subconsciously setting up the less than useful patterns I had been following myself.

When I finally left, when we both agreed I was ready, she reminded me that now I could look after myself. We had in effect taught me how to be my own parents. I could mother myself in the way that I needed. I could be my own father when that type of role was required. Both my parents are still alive, close by and we’re in touch. What I hadn’t internalised ye though, was a crucial part of growing up in a healthy way – how I could know myself well enough to make the right decisions, to be respectful of myself and keep myself well in body and spirit.

To me, this knowledge, this intimate level of care, is the true definition of wellness. The best part is that we can all strive for it and, as parents, we can decide to pass this ability on. Instead of looking externally for ways to keep yourself well and then trying to shift our day around to accommodate these material things, focusing on yourself and what you need to do for your mind and body to feel well is something we can all achieve. It takes care, attention, self respect, awareness and love – things that all parents know a lot about.

We unequivocally give this to our children, but as they grow up and need us less, this special understanding, this way of staying well ebbs away. Instead of handing the baton over to them, leading by example and making sure they understand the importance of learning to do this for themselves, this idea of self care evaporates only to be replaced by external concepts that fill the gaps and pose a solution for what we crave: the intimate love and empathy of a mother. Anyone can learn how to mother themselves and this, for an overstretched, overtired mother is great news.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash