The Gas Light

Gaslighting has become a bit of a millenial buzz word, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

I think a lot of people don’t really understand what it means, what it looks like, why it matters, why it’s so hard to deal with, how it relates to wider abuse – or even if it’s actually happening to them or someone they know.

And it’s not just about personal relationships, it’s bigger. It’s about politics, women’s rights, #metoo, and more…

And sometimes when something is big and complicated and hard and I’ve been trying to sort it out in my head for a long time it comes out as a poem.

And that’s not always a good thing, because they can be harder for people to connect with, but if you’ve ever wondered what gaslighting sounds like or feels like then maybe this will help.

Thanks to all the women on this page, and in personal messages, who have shared their stories with me. You’ve certainly helped me.

xx

The Gas Light

when it’s lit, you don’t notice
a fire sitting under a potted frog
did you forget again? silly

it doesn’t illuminate, it obscures
sucking up light and clarity
consuming your spark and turning it dark against you –
but that didn’t happen, I never said that
the gas starts invisible, odourless but poisonous
a mist of missed marks, misunderstandings, mistakes, failed tests,
that’s okay, I forgive you

the canary sent in ahead is long dead
and a colour you second guess yourself used to be yellow
but now can’t be sure if you saw it at all,
because you’re being over sensitive

and maybe the red of the red flags is just menstrual,
are you on your period or something?
you’re overwrought, did you take your pills?
you need to chill

because up is down and down is up
and black and white come in stripes of static
and logic defies gravity but you are always wrong, somehow,
and everybody thinks you’ve lost the plot
I cannot deal with you when you get like this
it’s not normal

beginnings and middles and ends and causes and effects get muddled,
and you’re falling
down the gap between words and actions and stories and evidence,
befuddled,
and at the bottom of the trap are spikes
you’re talking crap, I’m the one being reasonable
you’re behaving like a fucking terrorist

because beneath the gaslight smoke are mirrors –
no, you’re controlling, YOU abuse ME
look you’re gaslighting me, now, can’t you see that?

and you can’t see so you close your eyes to clear them
but it’s the only peace you’re allowed
and you’re so tired maybe you should just keep them shut,
like your mouth,
you’re being paranoid you need to get a grip
are you thick? don’t be ridiculous

and as the gas light turns up things just get dimmer, diminished,
no one else would put up with you
you’d be nothing without me – less –
and maybe, maybe nothingness would feel like relief

and it scales all around you blocking escape
I grabbed her by the pussy but that’s not assault it’s your fault I’m like this
and 350 million lies on a bus means nothing don’t fuss,
look at me I’m a good guy, I’m trying here, it’s you

and what do you do if everywhere bare-faced truth isn’t true
and alternative facts before your eyes are/aren’t presented as lies
and in the eyes of the beholder, bolder is realer than real
and swagger sways, pays well, and steals actuality
and whatever you feel is a betrayal, a pale imitation of you
that will always lose but you’re the one that’s confused
an unreliable witness unfit to think your own thoughts
your mind undermined
tricked by a ruse in a rose that you chose
you made me do this
why are you like this?
what’s wrong with you?
what the fuck is wrong with you NOW?

and the cycle of create, stipulate, manipulate, capitulate, abate and wait
for it all so start again, starts again –
flaring in the black the gas-light is back
throwing shadows into the future long and low
no one’s going to believe you, I argue better
you’re a psycho

and you will host ghosts inside
because you can’t hide from the fact that secretly you will always believe –
even if you’ve managed to retrieve something of yourself from the fog –
you will still ask, was it me? is it me? is it me?
maybe I am the mad dog, after all?
pass

and in your heart of hearts there will always crawl doubt,
lit by him
fuelled by gas.

The scribble trap

I didn’t think I’d ever be here. Right now.

I’ve been so focused on moving house, and getting the Small Small started at school, I didn’t really think about afterwards.

And here I am, staring down at the rest of my life from a precipice because I literally never envisaged a point beyond this one, and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a void.

I’ve been so stressed for so long and getting through and getting by that I literally can’t come to a dead halt.

And I’m worried that’s what’s going to tip me over…

Anxiety, you see, isn’t a straight line. Stress doesn’t have a neat beginning, middle and end. It’s more like one of those mad squiggle scribble drawings kids do, when you then colour in the spaces.

Red for rage. Green for fear. Blue for despair. Yellow for madness. Don’t let the colours touch, because if you do, doom…

The bit that SHOULD be the scribbliest bit is the bit when it’s happening, whatever the IT is that is the stress epicentre or focus of your anxiety.

But it’s not. It’s afterwards.

When you can’t come down or calm down. When your body is still in fight or flight at high alert but with nothing left to tackle or run from but ghosts, and too much in the tank to stop, and all for too long so it’s starting to take a physical effect on your sleep, and breathing, and hearing, and vision, and concentration, and weird aches and pains and blank patches as everything shuts down because it can’t keep going like that, but you can’t remember what normal operation looks or feels like anymore.

And you’re on the other side in theory but there’s nowhere to go, and nowhere to put it all.

You have to go from ‘Oh God, what NOW?’ To just, ‘….what now?’

And the unplanned nothingness is as vast and scary as all the vast and scary things real and imaginary you’ve been fighting and everything inside of you is still coiled but the enemy has changed, and might be inside of you too.

The thing with those scribble pictures is that no child has EVER FINISHED ONE. Have you ever noticed that? They are always discarded half done, and amongst the mountains of artistic offerings slipped furtively into the recycling by beleaguered parents.

I think if you’ve been living with that sort of mad-scribble anxiety or stress it doesn’t get finished, or unscrambled. You don’t get to follow a straight line again straight away, possibly ever. I think over time and with age you learn to make the loops bigger and easier to manage and fill in.

And maybe you remember, from childhood, that the next blank piece of paper is an opportunity for more prolific artwork, and not just a terrifying abyss.

I hope so, anyway.

In two minds

So my Small Small goes to Big School next week.

Well. Not next week, obviously, when the Big Small goes back. That would be too simple a September Childcare Challenge for the Working Parent!

Instead there is a week’s wait, the dreaded Teacher Home Judgement Visit, and then an interesting series of several hours in and around not including and then including lunch, followed by half days and, in theory only, an ACTUAL start somewhere in mid-September, which may or may not exist as a moment in time. WHO CAN KNOW?

Gird.
Your.
Loins.
(And hoovers for the home visit).

But beyond Mild Exasperation/PANIC, there are a lot of other emotions churning under the surface as we reach what’s a heavy milestone for everyone, first or second time round.

In my case, the Small Small (as the name implies) is also the Last Baby.

And she got big far, far too quickly.

The start of school marks so many ends, so many lasts – and so many of them slipped past without me noticing them. Not really. Not enough.

The last Mummy/Small Small one-on-one day.
The last sling ride.
The last rendition of Row row row your boat (don’t forget to scream).
The last buggy trip.
The last playgroup.
The last pull-ups.
The last time I walk into a room to find her in her pants, half upside down with a leg stuck out at a funny angle, telling me “Mummy, this is one of my nastics”. (She says GYMnastics now).
The last day of nursery.
The last of the delicious, squidgy thighs.
The last of babyhood…

The last of being a Mum to really small Smalls – something that has defined me, changed me, broken me, and MADE me, over again, for 7 years.

And I am gut-wrenchingly empty at the thought of losing that, losing her, losing me, losing us.

I’m also filled with excitement.

I’m excited about what she’ll learn and do and bring home and observe and SAY.
I’m excited to see her grow and thrive and learn and read and write.
I’m excited to receive my first ‘I love you’ note – and my first ‘I hate you’ note.
I’m excited to have more hours to myself.
I’m excited about doing chores SOLO and EFFECTIVELY – without eating into evenings and weekends.
I’m excited about having more energy to be the parent I want to be.
I’m excited about taking time to write, and be, and SHOP AT ALDI.

I’m excited to become – magically and without conscious effort – that Mum who turns up at the school gate in full make-up and Active Leisure Wear, who drops off the perfectly turned out poppets ON TIME, and goes for a jog and possibly an Iced Latte, which I will suddenly like the taste of, as well as being able to actually run without sweating all the make-up off, and as well as suddenly owning actual items of lycra that were manufactured AFTER 2003.

THIS WILL HAPPEN AUTOMATICALLY DAMMIT DON’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME.

I’m excited about the freedom, what I’ll gain;
I’m terrified about what I’ll lose, set adrift.

And this, this mixture of feelings, this double view, this dichotomy, is very much my experience of motherhood.

Too often, I am two.

I am in two minds, I am both at once, I am opposites.
I am desperate for this long, long summer holiday to be over so I can get some routine back, and yet so conscious I only get 17 or 18 of them, if I’m lucky, these summers, and now she’s 7 I’m nearly halfway through with the Big Small and there isn’t anywhere near enough time left. There never will be.

I am desperate to touch them and feel their bodies against mine, and I want to be left alone in my own skin without being mauled, just for a minute.

I am love, so deep I can’t feel the bottom, and I am rage, so huge and ugly and mindless it scares the bejeezus out of me.

I am exhausted to the marrow of my bones, craving sleep all day, and too het up, too wired to drop off, too afraid of the next one.

I am enthralled by my children and SO DAMN BORED of the grinding monotony of parenthood.

I am happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been, and more desperately, hollowingly, harrowingly sad.

I dream of time by myself, my old life, the old me – and I wouldn’t change a thing, never want to leave them for a second, and hate it when Daddy weekends roll round so quickly.

I am all of these all at once, all ways, always, all days.

And it’s not just being in two minds.

There is a general and constant duality to motherhood, with the emphasis on DUEL – an eternal, internal conflict, double-taking, second-guessing, checking and re-checking, umming and ahhing, vacillating, a madness of options and choices and what-ifs and fears, and highs and lows and inconsistencies I can’t separate and won’t be boxed or contained or ordered.

Once, this was not the case.

I had one mind and it was SURE.
I had one feeling, and I knew it was TRUE.

There was black and there was white. Now there is gray and there is haze…

Being BOTH like this makes me feel like I am less, like I am less than I was, like I am nothing.

Nothing whole.
Nothing solid.
Nothing substantial.

Like nothing I do or say or think or feel is right or certain.

And it feels like there is no path forwards, just twisting, concentric, confusing circles of smoke and mirrors.

But I’m trying to remember that both, by mathematical definition (as the Smalls starting school are soon to learn), is actually MORE.

By being and feeling and thinking everything all at once, I am more.

With my double vision and double heart I have more empathy, I can see more angles, find more solutions, create more patterns. Conceive more beauty.

Being both doesn’t make me nothing;
It makes me everything.

(Just possibly not Hyper Groomed Jogging Mum on the School Run).

Motherhood split me in two, twice, literally from the c-sections, and figuratively in so many other ways, so many other times.

And I am only just learning that this didn’t break me. It multiplied me. Like an amoeba – an aMUMba! And that is a type of success, a type of power. A type of immortality…

And as I am both again, in two minds over the Small Small’s school start, I also know I will continue to grow through this new division, and the next.

I CAN be both. It does not make me mad, or less, or stupid, or confused.

I can be EVERYTHING, at once.

I can divide, and conquer.

I am MORE than I was.

And so are you.

The Weeble Plan

The other day I discovered, through a process of rigorous self analysis (not really), that I Am Not A Barbie.
I am a Weeble.
(I’m probably not a Marshall Weeble, but this is all I happen to have in my weeble-repertoire).
I am a Weeble because, much to my surprise, I get back up, again and again, after every knock that leaves me reeling.
And there’s been a good few.
The only problem with the Weeble description is that it seems… involuntary.
A reflex.
The weighted marbles in my base (and I’m reliably informed that I have giant hips) forcing me upright.
But it isn’t.
It’s a choice. (Unlike the hips).

Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t feel like one.
It feels like there is very little choice but to keep going – especially when you’ve got to keep two Smalls going too, for instance. It feels like there are no options.
But there are.
You could throw in the towel, give up, stay in bed, abdicate. It’s an option – you’re just not succumbing to it.
So it IS a choice.
In fact, it’s more than that: it’s a Superpower.
Because if I have ever had any sort of Superpower at all, this – this is it.

It is the power of TRYING.

You see, I am not just forced back up by the inevitability of gravity.
I choose to shake it off, and start again.
Hit refresh.
Do it over.
Turn up again and again determined to make it work –
this time.
This time.

My superhero name, I think, would be Finnegan –
Finnegan Begin Again.
I would wear red, like Marshall, with a big F across my chest.
Every day I would get up ready and raring to try harder and do better.
And that’s exactly what I DO do, on a macro and micro level, in real life, right now. I just don’t wear the costume.
Every bad day when my anxiety has pounded me from the inside out, every day when I’ve got it wrong, in the wrong places or by the wrong amounts, every day I have to deal with more idiocy and control, or domestic disasters, every looooong day of summer with grumpy kids taking all the change out on me, every failure, every knock, every time – I go to bed making up my mind to do it right the next day.

I have been so concerned recently about the dangers of bringing the old crap me into my fresh start. But actually the old me is the Queen of fresh starts – or at least the Superhero.
She is less Girl, Interrupted and more Woman, Continuing. Or at least Weeble Continuing… Rolling back up, trying again.
The thing with Trying, as a Superpower art form, is that you’re not always successful. And rarely the first time. But that’s not the POINT of trying. The point is to show up. And show willing. That’s the (heavily weighted) bottom line. And that’s the BEAUTY of it.
The old me is the new me, every day. Or the potential of her. There isn’t just one fresh start: I can orchestrate a thousand – just through the power of trying.

They say the Lord LOVES a tryer.
They also say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
And I think that has in the past been my Achilles heel. My kryptonite. Finnegan’s flaw…

Even my ex knew I was a trier.
When I told him, during the mechanics of our breakup, that I got up everyday and tried to make us a family and tried to make everyone happy, he told me he’d seen me do that. It’s just that, by then, he wasn’t interested in doing anything but watching.
Sometimes, I’ve had to learn, you can try TOO hard.
Sometimes you can force things, and break them.
Sometimes, you can be fixated, in a rut, grinding through a groundhog day of awfulness because you can’t see any other way, or any other choice but to put your head down and plough through.
And then try it again.

I hit that magic reset button too often.
Instead of learning from my mistakes, I made the same ones.
Instead of spotting patterns that were damaging me, I kept turning the paper over to a blank sheet. I kept starting with me. Starting again. Assuming I just needed to try harder to make it better. Doing it over.
I missed important signs.
Hell, I missed the writing on the wall, drawn by my own hand.
By going back to factory settings I erased too much – eventually even parts of myself.
My Superpower became my downfall.

I suppose that’s the trouble with the whole weebling thing. Sure, it’s kinda handy. But a Weeble doesn’t just go down and up again. It spins around. And when you come back up you’re disorientated, and you don’t know which way you’re facing, or where to turn, or what is true, and constant, and real. It is all too easy to become confused. It is easy to do the same thing, the same way, the next time. And every time after. Because your head is still spinning and your heart is still lurching and you can’t see or don’t know any other way. And you hold on to too little, too hard, for too long, because that’s the way the manufacturers designed you.

Sometimes – not often – you have to STOP trying.
Sometimes, you have to stop flogging a dead horse.
Sometimes, you have to stay down, for a moment, a beat.
Sometimes you need to regroup.
More times than all of those put together, you need to get back up and try something NEW.

So, fellow Weebles. Keep on weebling. Do it with deliberation, with intent.
Don’t let yourself believe it’s just happening to you. You are CHOOSING to get back up, every time, every day.
And it IS a Superpower.
Now you just have to choose what you do when you get there.
And you have to avoid the Tryer’s Trap…

When you begin again, don’t go back to the beginning.
When you reset, don’t rewind.
Iterate.
Learn.
Grow.
Build.
Continue.

Bring your effort and your energy to the front and centre, and let it centre you.
And then go from THERE.
Go forwards.

At least that’s my new Weeble Plan.
And maybe one day I’ll start to enjoy the roll and the ride again, and not just endure it.

Small green shoots

Last time I posted, I posted about the final straw.

I swore I’d try and use it – and the resilience from not buckling under it – to build myself a new nest. From the inside out.

Well I’m now, after all the run-of-the-mill horrendous house-moving, sat-in-a-van-waiting-to-exchange-and-for-money-to-come-through-shizzle, IN my new nest. The actual physical one. And this picture was taken in my new and perfect little patch of garden.

It is the opposite of the final straw – it is in fact a first green shoot.

And it shows (through entirely accidental timing) the dawning light as I step out from the long jagged shadows of my old life.

Into the new one.

I know lots of people who stay. In their old marital home. For lots of reasons – mostly school catchment and kid stability… Or lack of any damn choice, obviously. They invest in fairy lights and cushions to banish the shadows and change their shape. Their colour. I’ve seen it work.

But I didn’t realise how much the old echoes still rang in my ears, how much the grey and dull and dim of my relationship, it’s physical brick and mortar borders, still clouded my view of everything, including myself.

Moving has been a whirlwind, but it’s blown away the echoes and the clouds in a way so physical it’s literally left me swaying on my feet.

I feel free.

The old stuff can’t touch me here. HE can’t touch me here. I can’t be hurt in the same way. It is a step change, a step forwards.

But…

Freedom is a bit scary, too. Because it has its own pressures.

And I do feel pressure.

Partly that’s because I’ve been under so much stress for so long I’m finding it hard to come down and slow down and stop living at a hundred miles an hour fuelled by pure adrenaline and copious nutella, and a pathological fear of my own bank account. I can’t sit and stop and relax into it.

And I want to.

Because I LOVE this house.

I love that I’ve literally filled it with colour and that the old crap brown sofa has been replaced by a bright blue one, and with yellow and red and green bits all at once (not all on the sofa). Yes, there are fairy lights. And cushions. And upstairs a duvet cover so girly my boyfriend feels his testosterone levels drop at the bedroom threshold (he gets over this).

I love that it’s small. That all the downsizing and tip trips mean me and the Smalls fit it perfectly, and it us, and everything has its place, or will do when I finally get some wardrobes, and that the first thing the distressingly middle-class Big Small tells people who ask about her new home is that “it’s VERY small”. I love that we can see and hear our neighbours (which is also shocking to her), and walk to a park and a shop and a cafe, and that it feels MANAGEABLE. It feels like I’m on holiday. It feels perfect.

I love that it’s not the old place, with it’s gas leaks, and asbestos, and woodlice, and space – detached physically and metaphorically – and too much quiet, it’s tweeting twatting boiler, and memories, and huge ridiculous mortgage that no one should pay out on a house every month ARE YOU MAD???

I even love that I haven’t yet got blinds in the velux above my bed, so I can’t sleep, but who the FORK needs sleep anyway when you’ve got all this to take in, and I can watch the clouds roll past and feel small and blessed – yes even with the row of threatening pigeon bums lined up directly over it (and my flowery duvet) at 5am.

I love that it has given me the things I always wanted, and couldn’t have when we were chasing bigger and better and more and STATUS, and that every choice I have made from the choice to ask him to leave has been about redefining MY values, and that what I get now is what I begged him to prioritise – less stress, more time, more quality, less rat race, less strive, less STRIFE, more LIFE.

My life.

But that’s where most of the pressure I’m feeling comes from. Because this is my new start. And I have to get it RIGHT.

I have to start LIVING my values, not just planning for them, imagining them. I have to now actually create the family and the environment I want, and be the MUM I want, and the ME I want when I’m not in a mould and on a path and living a life that didn’t suit me and eroded me and I couldn’t breathe in, and when I’m not fighting my way out of that and coping and managing and juggling and organising and packing and working and FORGETTING to breathe.

This isn’t just about new green shoots. It’s about new leaves. Turning them over. Keeping them turned.

And while right now I feel like the physical change of moving has boosted the emotional change I’ve been working on for the last 20 months and longer – there is still part of me that is afraid.

I’m afraid I’ll still be the person that doesn’t turn ON the fairy lights because it might waste the batteries. Or the one who will never be able to sit, or stop, or settle, because she’s mostly momentum, and without that she’ll collapse, and maybe there isn’t anything else underneath worth a damn anyway. Or the one that is always so on the edge of her tether the anxiety turns to anger on a tuppence, who shouts, who is broken by straws, big and small. Who doesn’t let the kids make mess or go outside again or stay up late because the hassle is too much and she just wants to sit, and lie, and work up the energy to face the next day. The one who focuses on surviving not living. The one who leaps at every shriek convinced it’s a disaster. The one who can’t sleep because her mind is running on wheels. The one who overplans, forgets to enjoy any of it, and who lives a life of thwarted expectations. The one who can’t bring herself to get up off the sofa – even now that it’s blue – and go to bed – now a whole extra floor up – because it means the next day and doing it all, all over again. The one who squanders or sabotages opportunities because she is afraid. The one who is always, always afraid. The one that doesn’t look out of the window. The one who lets pigeon bums stop her opening it. The one that doesn’t live up to her potential.

This new house, this new life, this new freedom – is a gift. It is also a responsibility.

The fact is I don’t do well under pressure. Which is why every choice I’ve made to get here is about having LESS of it. And why now I’m here I feel MORE pressure to make the most of that. A Catch-22…

So.

This is it.

And I’m going to do the only thing I can do to start getting in right – I’m going to start small. As I mean to go on.

Because all of this, ALL OF IT, has been about going smaller, and slower, and simpler.

So today, I’m going to remember to breathe. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

I’m going to stop.
I’m going to see what happens when I stop. Who I am when I’m not stressed, and rushing, and worrying.
I’m going to turn on the damn fairy lights.
I’m going to open the velux.
I’m going to leave the unpacking and the nesting and the DIY.
Hell, I’m going to LEAVE THE WASHING UP.
BUGGER the routine. We’re not even going to brush teeth if we don’t feel like it, and we’re certainly not wearing shoes.
I’m going to enjoy my children.
I’m going to enjoy ME.
I’m NOT going to have a plan.
I’m not going to achieve ANYTHING.
I am going to let happy come to me.
I am going to go outside.
I’m going to watch the clouds.
I’m going to paint a picture.
I’m going to GROW, upwards, towards the sun, if it ever decides to shine again, like a new, green shoot.
I’m going to turn my face up to it, and bask, and APPRECIATE.

Although, as you can see from this picture, I AM probably going to have to mow the bloody lawn first…

The Final Straw

Hi. I’m Mumonthenetheredge, and this – this is the Final Straw.

It was the final straw when my boiler started tweeting.

Turns out a baby bird fell from a nest in the soffits down the cavity wall behind it. Me and the emergency gas engineer could see it’s little beak and open mouth – a brick’s distance away through a gap by the pipe – but we couldn’t get to it. We had to block up the hole and I had to wait for it to die. It took longer for it’s mother to stop calling for it.

WHY IS THIS EVEN A THING???

It’s the sort of special Thing that seems like it only really happens to me. Oh, and it also cost me £100 call-out fee for the priveledge.

It was the last straw when Catonthenetheredge finally found her inner hunter – and bought me my first present. I’ve since had a two dead mice, a decapitated sparrow, and a real LIVE blackbird who could NOT be persuaded I was trying to help it.

I mean really, God, HAVE THE BIRDS OF NETHER EDGE NOT SUFFERED ENOUGH???

It was the final straw when, although on board with the lesson that one must always say thank you for presents even if you don’t really like them, both Smalls now refuse to go downstairs by themselves in case they get given a bird.

(I have not told them about the one rotting in the wall. They don’t need to know this is a thing. Hell, I don’t need to know this is a thing).

It was the final straw scraping the underside of car on the curb in the world’s most spectacular parallel park fail. That’s going to cost. And the gas engineer got this month’s contingency budget…

It was the final straw spilling cream under the massive fridge freezer at the end of a long, long day. Milk may not be worth crying over, turns out cream defo is.

It was the final straw to get the letter from the tax man to say I owed them a *SHED* load of money because essentially I’m stupid and can’t adult. Or at least add. Which it turns out is the first two very important letters of adulting – and you DO need to learn it at school after all. (You were right Mr Donnolly!)

It was the final straw to carefully make all the beds – the superking twice as it’s impossible to tell which way round the stupid duvet goes – and then shut Catonthenetheredge (practising hunter concealment techniques) in the room overnight. Where she used the bed as a litter tray. And weed through the pillow. And duvet. And mattress.

Ever tried to get a soiled superking duvet cleaned? Don’t.

It was the final straw trying to shift stuff online (including the superking bed) that won’t fit into the new house, and having an idiot turning up for the six foot trampoline with a tiny Ford Fiesta and an over abundance of optimism.

It was the final straw being trolled by some OTHER eejit because another item I was selling went to someone he reckoned was further down the list from him – and he continued to kick off despite the fact I no longer owned the item in question. Because I needed a LIFE LESSON.

It was the final straw when the cottage pie exploded all over the oven I just got cleaned.

It was the final straw doing the 824th tip trip.

It’s genuinely taken me A YEAR of every-other-weekends to collate and cull 20 years worth of stuff. So now I know how long it takes to undo a lifetime, and frankly I think I’d rather know about the decomposing bird carcass behind the boiler…

It was the final straw putting all the things into boxes all by myself. There have been a lot of lonely moments in the last 20 months. This has been one of the loneliest. (On the other hand, I have also learned you should pack your music system last, because doing it in silence makes it even worse. Another life lesson!)

It was the final straw to find the toy boxes unpacked. Thanks kids.

It was the final straw when in contrast, my ex cheerily told the kids on speakerphone how my ex in-laws were at his new place helping them upack and putting up curtains. Because they did that for me three times. And I don’t have family in Sheffield. And I don’t get that this time. And sometimes it’s hard to be reminded of it.

It was the final straw when, upon being offered first dibs on the trampoline, he told me about his and ***Jessica’s*** plans for their new garden. Because I needed to know that.

It was the final straw to be screamed at by Big Small for daring to forget her school bags one day, ruining her life, and then to be further berated by Small Small for having to return with them 20 minutes later. Why did you do that Mummy? You’re a bad Mummy.

(The ingratitude and lack of empathy sometimes really is breathtaking, isn’t it? And no matter how many straws you’re not allowed to howl at them about all the things you do and go through for them).

It was the final straw to start weeing blood and having to go to and fro with urine samples for the right antibiotics, which then weren’t in stock at any local chemist.

Also, WHY DO THEY MAKE SMALL POTS SO SMALL THESE DAYS? These are not circumstances where I feel particularly like practising the aim of my urethra!!!!

It was the final straw to find both sets of solicitors believing the other one owes them information, and sitting merrily in their offices doing nothing and refusing to talk to each other.

It was the final straw to find a last minute covenant saying I couldn’t work from home from my new home, when I WORK FROM HOME FOR A LIVING.

(I know this is traditionally SUPPOSED to be one of the most stressful times of your life, but I can’t help thinking our archaic legal system and the ego of individual legal folks ISN’T BLOODY HELPING).

It was the final straw to be told my ex and **Jessica** have decided it’s now time for her to start attending school events.

It was the final straw seeing my Dad for the first time in months, suffering the side effects of chemo, looking older and iller than I’ve ever seen him.

It was the final straw hearing my Mum talk about what she’d do when he was gone.

It was the final straw watching Titanic for the first time ever, and thinking about what love ought to look like.

(I held out until bloody Celene started up at the end. Emotionally manipulative COWBAG).

And then every work email, every phone call, every text, every mishap, every chore, every DAY really starts to feel like the final straw – the one that broke the camel’s back.

As a child, I used to think that’s why camels had humps. That the straw had created the indent in between the two… And actually – that’s sort of how I feel. Like my back is bowing in the middle under hundreds of pressures little and big.

(Or that could just be the water infection reaching my kidneys – who can really tell?)

The thing is, that whatever flavour of brown stuff hits the fan – in big splats or tiny nuggets – it turns out I am not, after all, anything like a Barbie doll.

I’m a Weeble.

Because every time I get knocked – and there have been A LOT of knocks in recent times, going way beyond my current list of straws – I get back up again.

I reel, and I roll, and I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself popping back up, rocking to find my balance, going dizzily through the motions, steadying, readying to take the next hit.

And get back up after that one, too.

My superpower isn’t flying or invisibility or super strength – it’s better than that.

It’s endurance.

Increasingly, it’s resilience.

The straws don’t break me – even when I expect them to.

Instead, I am learning to take them and use them to build a new nest. A place of safety and nurture that starts inside MYSELF. One that will grow on the outside to create our new home, should we ever (please God) get into it. (Which we should, as we have now sacrificed enough birds).

It’s the nest on my inside that cushions each fall, and that provides ballast for the storms. It’s what means that when I wobble, I don’t stay down.

I’ll just have to be super-sure not to put it in the soffits above anyone’s boiler…

I hide that from myself

I thought life would be yellow, but it’s basically the colour of mud –
the flood of universal brown you get when rainbows smudge,
when you’ve overworked your palette and mixed all the colours up.
But I hide that from myself.

I am not the change I wanted to see in the world – the world changed me
rearranged me in ways I didn’t expect and sometimes don’t like.
Right and wrong give way too often to grey exhaustion and ease.
But I hide that from myself.

Creating life came at a price,
twice what I expected to pay, in a translucent currency of wrinkles and worry and waste –
of all the bits of myself left or lost on the way. Bits I never said goodbye to.
But I hide that from myself.

On the other side of love came fear and pain, the same ugly,
nameless things that in the dark wheedle their way into your brain like pink worms.
They bore new paths for bad thoughts.
But I hide that from myself.

They say hate consumes you, but for me it was love, eating me up,
shoving out everything. And to shaw up the shell in the void grew things I never knew I could do,
some of them black.
But I hide those from myself.

There is more struggle and fighting and
frightening in Family than I understood. I know I’m happy but only with my head –
and the quicksilver smile too deep inside doesn’t always reach my eyes.
But I hide that from myself.

There are so many things I could have
should have done or been better I can’t count them. But they add up anyway,
into a thousand purple flagellations on the cusp of consciousness, floating heavy.
But I hide them from myself.

There are days when I am not real and can’t
feel enough, when I watch numb from outside and follow disconnected a beat behind.
I am the blood redshift doggedly stalking the stars, out of phase.
But I hide that from myself.

It hurts to look, but it also hurts to hide, in the end. The effort in
pretending, in singing La la la as my own background theme with fingers stuffed in ears,
drags me down by the lobes.

Deliberately not seeing, not probing, staying dim, carefully ignoring the peripheral
pushing in, refusing to admit the bits my mind shies to touch
costs much, too.

Because blinkers come with a harness –
tarnished, and I hold my own reins like a cruel and unforgiving master
white at the knuckles and mouth.

But I hide that from myself.

The Golden Years

I thought family life would be different.

I thought it would be like the Facebook photos, all smiles and poses and filters.

I thought it would be like the movies, satisfying story arcs and happily ever afters.

I thought it would be like my memories, golden-syrup coated, sweet and yellow.

I thought it would be family dinners round the dining table, and hilarious board games, and tickle fights, and long weekend walks in the country, and camping, and sunshine, and hide and seek, and baking, and sprinklers in the garden, and chatting, and laughter, and perfect.

I thought it would be…
Easier.
Rosier.
Prettier.
Funnier.

I thought there would be more summer.

I thought I would be better at it.

Instead, there is shouting, and rain, and she said and she hit me and she hit me first, and crying, and attitude, and slamming, and stomping, and constant injuries and arguments and forms and logistics, and not being able to please anyone, and I’m cold and I want to get out, and I don’t want to play, and she’s not coming to my party, and I hate you you’re the worst mummy EVER.

My worst moments are still when everyone is crying at once and I can’t help them and there are no good choices and no options and there is no one to help and I’m not enough and they KNOW.

It is overwhelming, and ordinary, and monotonous, and thankless, and hard in so many new, unusual and depressingly usual ways.

I didn’t know.

I didn’t know tiredness like this existed. Or boredom.

I didn’t know conflict, internal or external.

I didn’t know I had this capacity for anger.

I didn’t know the weight of doubt and indecision and responsibility.

I didn’t know fear.

I didn’t know loneliness.

I didn’t know frustration.

I didn’t know love could have all these debilitating side effects. I didn’t know myself, or what I was capable of…

But that cuts both ways.

I didn’t know, either, that my heart could fly.

I didn’t know my whole body could live love, that it would leak from from my breasts as milk, tingle in my palms as touch-in-waiting, pour from my eyes, change how I hear – the tiniest noise through the loudest exhaustion – change my borders, how I occupy space and my place in the world – and how I see it.

I didn’t know peace.

I didn’t know how to breathe, because I didn’t know what it was like to stop breathing.

I didn’t know that dancing in the living room and being a horsey, or doing all the voices for the toys could be so BRILLIANT.

I didn’t know that through the tiresome, monotonous bits, the screaming and bickering bits, the ugly and emptying bits, there would be bubbles of indescribable reprieve, bursting in unprecedented pops of joy.

I didn’t know happiness, like this, existed.

There IS beauty, in ordinary. In everyday. In reality. However messy or ugly it can be.

You just have to look for it. To wait for it. To notice.

You have to celebrate the moments when they arrive, and make space for them when you can – even when they’re not part of your schedule or routine. Even when you’re on a deadline to get out of the house. Even when they don’t look like you thought they would.

The road to my own personal hell isn’t paved with good intentions – it’s paved with expectations. Grey slabs with hard edges.

But I am trying not to walk that path.

I’m trying to let myself wander off onto the grass…

Letting go of my expectations is good practice. Because so much of this is parenting lark is about letting go. You are not the parent you thought. They are not the child you thought. Life is not the story you told in your head. You are worse and better and they are worse and better and life is worse and better. You have to let go of your expectations just like you have to let go of them, bit by bit, day by day, as you realise they are not yours and you can’t control any of it anyway.

Real life is untidy, and gross, and loud, and imperfect, and relentless, and it doesn’t care about aesthetics, or scripts, or plans, or YOU.

It can also be wonderful. But seldom for the cameras.

Facebook, you see, isn’t real.

The movies aren’t real.

What IS real, though, are those memories I have of my childhood – my story of real, anyway.

And I suppose that’s what I have to cling to. I have to think that when my kids look back they will see what I see from my own past.

I have to hope that they forget when I shouted or cried, that they forget it wasn’t all pretty and perfect. That their story ends up golden, too.

If that’s what I’ve taken into adulthood, maybe that’s what they’ll take – the moments. The unexpected, surprising, popping bubbles of syrup.

And maybe it’s those that, in the end, stick harder and longer than all of the rest of it.

It may not be at all what I thought it would be. But I hope it will be what they remember.

xxx

The Sandwich Generation

Last week, I turned 40.

I’m not where I thought I would be. Life isn’t what I thought it would be…

I am not exactly ‘Living The Dream’.

Most days, I still wake up with a miscellaneous doom nightmare sliding out of my grasp as I rise to consciousness. There is a lurch of panic when I don’t know what’s real – where am I? who’s life is this? what’s wrong? am I fighting or running?

It’s the same flavor in my mouth as new motherhood – waking up with the ‘where’s the baby?’ panic. It never really left – and it’s shaped my 30s.

This ill-fitting, disorientating time of life isn’t unique to me.

I’ve seen several friends this week (as a side effect of turning 40) and do you know what? NOBODY is living the damn dream.

I mean, not everyone is having the random anxiety nightmares, but there’s not many having what I’d call a rip-roaring whale of a FREAKING GOOD TIME.

In fact, in a recent research report, it was found that women are statistically happier without children, and without a spouse. Largely because they don’t get stuck in what’s called the ‘Sandwich Generation’…

So many of the women I’ve spoken to recently are sandwiched, you see, between small children and older, increasingly infirm parents – with extra fillings of sleep deprivation, grinding monotony, stagnating relationships, disconnected friendships, endless life admin, our own health and aging woes, and the knowledge we’ve probably got about as far as we’re going in our careers, and we haven’t set the world alight, or changed it, or made it better, and most days we can’t save the fishfingers from burning let alone anything bigger, and we’ve not achieved what we wanted or been to the places, or done the things, or got the postcards and t-shirts, and our backs hurt when we wake up, and we’re too tired to do much about any of it…

and none of it is what we thought.

We were sold a vision of life, and family, and work, and love, and personal fulfillment, that just hasn’t come into being. And that’s disappointing, and frustrating, and confusing.

Oh, we’re supposed to treasuring the moments and loving our children to distraction and doing date nights and keeping the magic alive, and going for promotions, and the years are short and we should be grateful for what we’ve got, and others would kill to be where we are, and we’ve got roofs and food and no real problems etc and stuff – but the truth, the TRUTH (and nothing but the truth) – is that it’s quite often hard, and boring, and exhausting, and overwhelming, and a bit…

rubbish.

Hence the report.

It’s little wonder then, that this is also the era of the Midlife Crisis, lived through by every generation when it hits the Sandwich-Season.

For there are a lot of cries to iss…

It occurs to me though, that the Midlife Crisis is not really equal opportunity, is it? Because the sandwich is more likely to trap women – themselves more likely to be the primary carers for both children and elderly parents.

For men, the Midlife Crisis tends to look like a sudden interest in fitness, questionable facial hair experimentation, possibly escalating to teeth whitening, skinny jeans, a two-seater sports car, new friendship groups, a series of interesting sports blazers, a girlfriend 15 years your junior… and a divorce.*

(*Likenesses to persons of my actual acquaintance are entirely coincidental.)

They get to deconstruct their sandwich, slip out from between the slices, and create a new meal – possibly on an open artisan bread base with millennial avocado, smashed underneath a runny poached egg. There’s probably chilli oil involved.

OK so women can and do go bat-sheet CRAZEE and get up and walk out of their current sandwich into a whole new menu. But due to the same biological, social, economic and cultural facts of life that make them the prime primary carers – it’s much less often. And it’s much more frowned upon.

Mostly we get to make do with the sandwich we’ve been given, usually made with the kids’ 50/50 sliced loaf that’s past its best and probably only fit for toast with the only uber-mild cheddar they’ll bloody well eat – that’s been at the back of fridge and needs the green furry bits cutting off.

For a lot of women the classic Midlife Crisis options look more like splurging on new non-Boots-own-brand makeup that didn’t expire in the 90s, a drastic and often ill-advised haircut, a moon-cup, possibly escalating to the teeth whitening, flamenco classes, rieke, crystal healing/insert-spirituality-replacement-here, and one HELL of a Mum’s Night Out.

For me personally, so far it’s looking like my first ever pair of contact lenses, a trip to get my tarot cards read, a leopard print jumpsuit, a daring new rug, and possibly a tattoo that I’ll talk about for ages and never actually GET because I’m a wuss…

ROCK, and Midlife Crisis ROLL. (Or breadcake).

The thing is, I’ve realised I quite like a plain cheese sandwich, you know.

I don’t actually want to get out from between these slices. Not really. I don’t want to bin it all and start from scratch. I actually feel like I’ve got the right ingredients in my life to make a delicious bread-based lunchtime snack – they just weren’t fitting together properly before, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Maybe it’s because the sandwich snuck up on me. It wasn’t what I thought I ordered, or wanted to eat.

Maybe it was because my sandwich partner wanted to go to a different restaurant – for the artisan bread. (I think that’s what they’re calling it these days).

Maybe because I thought I SHOULD want something fancy and flashy and exotic. But now I know now it’ll probably set off my IBS and give me indigestion, and it’s overpriced and really only for special occasions.

Maybe the sandwich just takes getting used to before you can feel any sort of appetite or appreciation for it.

Maybe I you just need to OWN your own slices, man.

So forget going back to the drawing board for your Midlife Crisis. I’m 40, and I’m going back to the bread board.

And I’m making a plain bloody cheese sandwich.

It may be ordinary.
It may not be what I thought I would be eating.
But it is also sustaining, and filling.

Ordinary can be delicious too… with the right condiments.

Maybe I’ll jazz it up a bit with honey. Or ham. Or mustard. Or all four. (Try it). Maybe with a goddam avocado dip. It’s MY cheese sandwich, after all…

It is a thing of culinary beauty, surprising versatility, and enduring popularity.

And I’ve decided to enjoy it.

Old sofas, fresh starts, and pussycats

I hate my sofa.

I hate it because it’s brown.

I wanted neutral, but neutral is kind of impractical with small children and animals, a propensity towards spillage and questionable housekeeping skills, and brown seemed just like neutral PLUS. Only now I just have a massive muddy Thing in my living room, precisely the colour that all other colours go when they give up both hope and integrity.

I hate it because it’s the same ubiquitous brown Dfs sofa that everyone has. And I don’t like to think I’m like everyone else, nobody does, but I’m afraid that I am, and so is everyone else.

I hate it because it’s seen FAR better days, and one of the old decrepit cats weed on it, A LOT, and it cost a fortune to clean it, 3 times, and the velvety channels are all flattened down and thinned out and don’t feel nice anymore, and if I’m honest when one of the children has been sitting on one of the cushions and made it warm, you can still smell cat wee out of the corner of your nose.

I hate it because it’s uncomfortable and I’m small and it’s big and I can’t put my feet on the ground, and I’m old and curling in the corner angled towards the telly puts my back out, and also pushes the seat cushion out, and it constantly needs pushing back in which involves climbing off the sofa and HEAVING, which I hate, and if I don’t do this the kids jump off the edge – but it’s not really an edge it’s just cushion with nothing underneath it – so they fall and cry.

I hate it because it’s a symbol of my old life. We bought it in preparation for the Small Small, so we could all sit in one place and be a Family, and we never were, and he knew, and it turns out sofas can’t make families or fix relationships.

I hate it because when he moved out he set himself up with shiny new things nicer than the stuff we had when we were together, and without the cat wee and connotations, and then told me what a noble hero he was to let me have everything while he walked away with nothing, but nothing feels to me rather like a fresh start, and that’s something pretty big, though maybe not as big as the ubiquitous smelly brown sofa.

I hate it because the kids love jumping round the corner bit, and it’s so huge and brown it’s become a giant rock in their lives, anchoring them, and with all the changes and the moving houses when I float the idea that it might not fit in our new, smaller living room, there are tears, and there is no point crying over brown sofas, and it’s the least I can do for them in terms of basic continuity, so I will have to keep it if I can, and have nothing in my living room but the ubiquitous smelly brown sofa because there will be no space for anything else, possibly even people.

But most of all I hate it because I get stuck in it.

The children are in bed and I’ve done the jobs, and sorted the Stuff, and all I want is to sit down for five minutes to not think and not do, but it’s never as relaxing or comfortable as I want or expect, despite daily experience, and suddenly it’s 10 o’clock, and I know I need to turn off the lights and lock the doors and go upstairs, but the thought of having to do those things and then having to brush my teeth and wash my face and check on the children and take my pills and put my pyjamas on is suddenly so BIG – bigger even than the sofa – that I am stuck in it and I cannot move and it won’t let me go.

Sometimes I try and cheat it, and do my teeth and face and pjs before I come back downstairs, so it’s not all waiting at the end and the sofa will have less pull and power over me, but this doesn’t always help, and I still get stuck.

And as I sit in it’s faded, lumpy, cloying embrace, I think that I could just stay here, and there is really nothing to move for, and who would care if I just sat here all night, and really, what’s the damn point anyway?

And then the cat walks in.

A new, continent cat.

A cat exactly the same shade as the sofa – and with the same capricious temperament. She is grumpy, and vicious, frequently attacks me and the children, and is only made palatable to them because I do her voice as a Russian spy, and excuse her assaults as ‘training’ them and ‘hardening them up’ to be future spies, and the only reason I put up with her is that she helps me beat the sofa.

She comes and sits on my lap, purrs like a tractor, and then bites me, and repeats until I get up, when – plurping insistently – she physically leads me from the sofa to the kitchen with all the air of a vengeful and self-absorbed Lassie, where she prances invitingly around the bowls of cat food.

She is what gets me off the sofa, and I do not know what I’d do without her.

Often I find that I am jealous of her sense of purpose. She always knows where she’s going, what she’s doing, has ultimate confidence in her plans, and abandons herself to them – even her attack and napping plans – with uncompromising zest. The Sofa Trap is not a thing for a cat. They don’t get stuck. And if they do they pretend it was all part of their grand scheme, they were doing the fireman a freaking FAVOUR, don’t you know, and they basically just OWN it.

I don’t own anything. (Apart from a ubiquitous smelly brown sofa, obviously).

Now the good news is, the cat will be coming along to the new house with the sofa.

The bad news is, that it might not be the sofa that’s the problem…

You see, it occurs to me that maybe the sofa ISN’T an albatross around my neck, holding me down. Maybe I am.

I’ve pinned a lot on MY fresh start, my move. And I suppose what I’m really saying is that I’m afraid bringing along the old, smelly, sticky (literally and figuratively) sofa will contaminate it.

But I am even more afraid of bringing the same old me along.

The one that gets stuck.
The one who can’t even decide to get up and go to bed.
The one that has to borrow purpose from a punitive pussycat.
The one who mucked up the old life in the first place.
The one I don’t know if I can trust to get it right this time around.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not the sofa I hate at all.

But then I remember it’s uncomfortable and ugly and smelly, so maybe it is.