Week Two. Shielding.

Hello again! How are you?

It’s fair to say week two in isolation hasn’t been as Mary Poppins-esq as week one, but I’ve still learnt a lot and several people have asked for me to carry on writing these posts weekly pointing out, quite rightly, that this helps me too. 

Last week, I’m not ashamed to say, I was manic. I knew I was. I wanted to be everything to everyone – the best mum, ‘I’ll worry so you don’t have to children,’ the best teacher, ‘I was a primary school teacher, I’ve got this,’ the best wife, ‘Darling, it’s ok, you work work work, I’ll take care of everything else, ‘ the best cook, ‘ here have some nutritious goodness I have cooked from a mangle of shit in my freezer,’ the fittest person, ‘I will exercise every day, twice a day, I am an Olympian,’ the best friend, ‘are you okay, no I’m fine, what about you, what do you need?’ And everything else… the list could go on, you get the picture. I knew I was manic, but I didn’t care because I felt good. 

Safe to say it was never going to last. 

And this week, after a phone call from the hospital confirming that the boys were very high risk and we had to stay at home for twelve weeks, I crashed. I wasn’t frustrated. I wasn’t angry. I was terrified. Most of the time I can carry on as normal and to a certain degree forget that my children have a life-threatening rare disease. But it’s at times like this, when to be fair I could really do without any extra stress, that the differences between them and their peers are highlighted, and that they are about to have harsher restrictions put on them.

So, although this week has been harder than the first (still trying to get 18yo home, she’s in Bristol now at her amazing Godmother’s, so she’s getting closer!) I have learnt some things I think it would be handy to share, both for mums of healthy children and for those of not so healthy children, because… in the words of High School Musical… we’re ALL in this together. 

  1. Emotions. Who knew there was such a range? Anger, fear, elation, mania, sadness, joy. I think I have felt them all over the last week and have at times switched from utter despair to complete elation within seconds. (discovering Baywatch is on Prime might have had something to do with this!) Ands what I’ve learnt is that all of these emotions are valid and important to recognise. We’re allowed to feel all of them. We’re allowed to sit and quietly sob for a hour on the sofa as well as dance like crazy in the garden. We’re human and we have not been here before, so there is no way of knowing how we are meant to react. For now I am riding the rollercoaster and going with it. At least I am feeling something. Each emotion serves a purpose, whether it’s telling me to slow down or to speed up. Be kind to yourself and to others no matter how they are reacting. We are all dealing with a lot of shit at the moment, chances are how people are behaving isn’t about you. 
  2. Saying no. Boundaries – we all have them, but sometimes we are just not very good at putting them into action. Last weekend, when I was in full on Mary Poppins/Florence Nightingale/Wonder Woman mode, my in-laws did a call out for food. They are in their eighties, but not vulnerable as such, and had no bread. So I baked them a loaf, cleared out my freezer to give them some chicken breasts and a lasagna and drove down to drop it on their driveway. We stayed in the car and they took the shopping out of the boot (blue surgical gloves on and everything.) We smiled and waved and drove home. Then yesterday I had a text: Jen… we’ve got no milk. And I freaked out. I was worried that they were now reliant on me to fix this and every other food related emergency they might have and that I couldn’t. I had to send a message to my mother in-law saying that I was sorry, but she would have to source her own milk. Then I went on Twitter to ask for support groups in the area and Facebook to find someone to help. In the meantime – she’d taken control of the situation and sorted it all. Bread. Milk. Veg. The lot. Me saying ‘no’ had helped her take control and she is now as a result far less anxious than she was before. As am I. But I still felt so guilty that I couldn’t help, before I realised that in a weird way I did help anyway. Saying no is ok. There are so many different ways we can help people, but we (okay, I) need to learn to help ourselves as well. And sometimes that means saying no if you need to, which brings me on to…
  3. Watch your social media time. And I don’t mean Twitter and Facebook etc like I mentioned last week – I mean Zoom, House Party, FaceTime etc Ironically I’ve been more social over the last week than I have been for a long time and whilst it has been lovely and I am eternally grateful we have the internet and I have awesome friends who want to see my face online and have a chat, I’m exhausted! And it’s no surprise that Coronavirus is all everyone is talking about and that in itself can get very draining, well for me anyway. If you need to, say no to the group chat and then join in the next one. And don’t make the mistake of scheduling three for one evening. But of course (it should go without saying) if you can’t get enough of socializing online then carry on, but at times for me last week it was all a bit much and it also meant I never saw my husband because I was ‘out’ every evening. I know this is going to be the only way I can socialize for the next twelve weeks, but I decided that I don’t need it all in a week. Stay connected yes, but if you need a bit of a breather and some time out then that is okay too. It’s about knowing our own boundaries and tolerances and needs and doing what is right for us. I’ve scheduled in from 3pm – 4pm every day as ‘me time’ where my husband will take no conference calls and be with the boys. And I will upstairs with a book and no phone. 
  4. Look after your eyes. See above point. If you have glasses for reading, wear them! We are all staring at screens or reading etc possibly more than we would normally, so be kind to your eyes and save yourself a headache or three! 
  5. Breathe. Keep doing it. It was important last week and it’s important this week. But I’ve forgotten to take time to breathe this week and have needed regular reminders to chill for five. Breathing is simple. It’s free. It works. Keep doing it. The weather has been so lovely I’ve been heading out in to the garden and breathing in the warmth and vitamin D. 
  6. Learn to let go. Of guilt. Of ‘I should be doing this,’ or of  ‘I ought to be doing that.’ Of trying to be everything to everyone. Of trying to control stuff you can’t control. No you shouldn’t and no you oughtn’t and no you cannot control what is happening outside the four walls of your home at the moment. And sometimes you cannot control what is happening inside them either. It doesn’t mean you are failing or doing something wrong. I promise. 
  7. Alcohol – it can be your friend and your enemy. For me, and there is no judgment here, I’ve discovered that hangovers and the depressive side of drinking doesn’t always help me cope with shit like this. You’d think I’d have learnt that by now, but no. I’m trying really hard not to drink every night. It’s tempting, but I’m one of these people that can’t really stop at one glass, so it’s better for me not to have one at all. On the nights I drank in the last week my sleep was poor and I woke up far more anxious on the mornings after. For me, it wasn’t worth it. 
  8. Exercise really does help. I’m not a doctor so I won’t go into the mechanics of it, but doing some exercise burns off all of the extra adrenaline stress and anxiety causes. The body holds stress just as much as the mind and it really helps to get it out. Shake it off like Taylor. Dance the night away. Do the Wham rap. Swear at Joe Wicks when your legs are burning and he shouts for parents to get off the sofa and join in again. I don’t care how do it, just get moving! (okay I do care, social distancing etc etc!)
  9. Be selfish. And no, I don’t mean stockpile toilet paper or go to a party in the park. I mean know what you need and tell people. Do what is right for you; heck maybe even put yourself first for a change. As long as you are not neglecting or hurting anyone in the process then do whatever it is that you need to do. And in doing so if people are being pissy because they can’t pop round and see you (I have heard this happening) or are annoyed that you’ve cancelled an event or are refusing to go to one, you can quite rightly tell them to fuck off. We have been advised to stay at home for a reason. So do it.
  10.  Start a wish jar. We did this today. ALL of the things we’ve taken for granted or that we miss doing are being written on paper and put in a jar and then we are free again, I’ve set a timer for us, then we will DO THEM ALL. It’s giving us hope and something to look forward to.
  11.  Following on from point number 1 – your child or children’s moods might change this week. Again, this is normal I think. Mine are moodier, more lethargic, less enthusiastic about any sort of directed learning.  I can’t decide if Joe Wicks (brilliant though he is) is a fab way to start the day, or if he’s tiring my children out and depleting them of all their energy resources by 9.30am. My seven year old is finding the change and isolation the hardest. Luckily we had all the stuff needed to make a sensory bottle, which is helping him, but we’ve also made a safe space for him to escape to if he needs some time out. It’s hard not to snap, but for me I find letting him get it out of his system best before I then go in for a hug. I validate his emotions, he is allowed to feel angry and frightened and overwhelmed and everything else, but he’s not allowed to hurt anyone or break anything because he is feeling that way. You know your children, and you’ll know what works for them. Here, at the moment, it’s a sensory bottle and some time alone to let the emotion pass. Then a hug and a chat about it. And an apology if needed. Failing that bribery and corruption all the way, fuck it. As I’ve said, we’ve never been here before; we don’t know the right or wrong ways to handle this. Just survive!
  12.  Remember to take it one day at a time. I became overwhelmed when we were told we had to stay on for twelve weeks. It seemed so long, and that period of time is when all of my children’s birthdays fall. I was sad for all of the things we had to cancel. I couldn’t even begin to think about when this is all over because I was terrified that for us it would never be over. It all became too much and I had to remind myself and listen to everyone who said, one day. Just take it one day at a time. And if that is too much then just one hour at a time. Breakfast. Go outdoors. Lunch. Break it all down to manageable slots. One day at a time is doable and realistic in a time when things can change so drastically in a day. 

I hope that all makes sense. This week feels more muddled, and my mental health has certainly been all over the pace, rather like this blog post I suspect. 

Hang in there everyone!

And as the famous quote goes… 

If you’re going through hell, keep going! 

Some self-isolation tips!

Seeing as we’re a little ahead of the game and are week into being at home, just the four of us (I tried to persuade the 18yo to come back from uni, but she’s on a nursery placement and is needed. I’m not happy about it.) I thought it would be helpful for me to write a blogpost about what I’ve learnt this week. Plus it gives me something to do!  I’ve learnt about what helps me stay sane, and what helps my family. I thought that as many of you might be about to embark on self isolation and social distancing – and for how long who knows – that it might be helpful for me to share some of those things… (caveat: we’re all different and in different situations, I know that. This is just what has helped me, a mum of three, two with a serious lung disease and immune issues, and my over active brain that likes to always err on the side of extreme catastrophisation.)

  • Deep breathing is your friend. Sounds simple doesn’t is? Just breathe. But it is something we easily forget when we are feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Deeply breathe into the diaphragm – in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, repeat (there are other variations for this online, but this one works for me.) This helps the part of your fight or flight system reset itself and tell your brain you are not in immediate danger. You can do this anywhere, anytime. Standing, sitting, lying. Whilst you’re making a cup of tea or are on the loo. Lower your shoulders and breathe deeply. Close your eyes if it helps. Do it now.
  • Try and keep to a routine. It’s very tempting to want to stay in your pyjamas all day because you can, but if you usually got up at 7am and had a shower then do the same. If you used to run to and from work go for a run around the block before you start work and when you finish. Have a proper lunch break. Finish work at the same time you would normally. Keeping a routine helps us keep some level of normality in our lives. One of my children would happily stay in his pjs all day, and maybe I don’t make him get dressed for the whole day, but at least for part of it!
  • Get outside. I cannot repeat this enough. Do some deep breathing outside = even better. Social distancing still applies here, but you can go for a walk or a run or a bike ride and steer well clear of anyone else. If you have a garden get in it. If you don’t, open a window and lean out and feel the sun (if it’s out!) on your face. My eleven year old and I are starting couch to 5K today. Do whatever you can manage, but try and get outside at least once a day, even if it’s just to sit.
  • Restrict access to the news. It is very easy to go down a rabbit hole of doom and need to check every update, every breaking development, but it is not healthy. And a lot of what is happening is out of our control, which can be extremely anxiety inducing. Limit your access to news to maybe once a day. I’ve deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone as well as the news apps and it has been life changing. No, I am not in denial, I am just confident that if I need to know something, I’ll find it out.
  • Donate and do good where you can. I’m supporting the local food bank, as well as a local hospital’s staff in their ICU department by donating much needed toiletries. I’ve ordered goods from friends who run their own businesses and have championed fellow authors etc online. It helps me feel like I am doing something to help even though I am stuck at home. And that I’m not powerless.
  • Be kind to each other. We’re all a bit overwhelmed by this and not sure how to behave. I’ve learnt to have a bit more tolerant this week for my husband who has been working 24/7, upstairs in our bedroom on the phone, to keep his job. When we first went into isolation I resented that I was the one home educating, and cooking, and doing all the boys’ physio and medicine etc etc whilst still working myself. But he’s also playing a vital role in keeping us safe, and if that means he can’t help out practically then so be it.
  • Take the pressure off. We are not all teachers. We do not need to recreate school at home. Our children (I’m talking primary level here as that’s how old mine are, I appreciate it’s different for secondary school aged children) do not need to have daily algebra lessons or spend hours learning about fronted sodding adverbials. Bake. Do some gardening. Create. Watch films together. Go for walks. Play board games. Give them screen time. Whatever. Yes, try keeping to a routine and yes, if they want to learn something more formal then go for it, but don’t set expectations for homeschooling that no one is going to meet. If you want some inspiration I’m posting on Instagram (jenfaulknerwriter) what we’re doing most days. I’m very lucky to have been a primary school teacher for fifteen years, but that doesn’t mean I find this homeschooling malarkey easy. I’m just being guided by my children and am trying to find ways of teaching them through what they are interested in. If you would find a blog post of homeschooling ideas helpful then please comment below.
  • Have virtual get-togethers. Grab a drink, get some snacks, heck put your make up on and a fancy outfit and then FaceTime, or Whatsapp, or Zoom and get together. Social contact is so important and I miss my friends. And it’s the same for my children – my eleven year old is currently enjoying a group FaceTime with his peers who are also off school at the moment. They’re talking nonsense, but it is so lovely to hear them laugh and see each other’s faces!
  • Take time out for yourself. If you can (I know not everyone can) but have a bath, read a book, go for a walk, out some headphones on and dance to your favourite tunes. I crave time on my own and if I don’t have it I can easily feel overwhelmed. Yesterday I went into another room and read a book for half an hour and it was enough. Today I’m on my own writing this. Tomorrow maybe I’ll walk the dog.
  • Keep a gratitude diary. I’ve been doing this religiously since this shitty virus came into circulation. And I have got a lot more to be grateful for than I realised. It’s helping put things into perspective and is taking the momentous fear away. I am so lucky in so many ways and instead of spiralling into fear and anxiety (which over the past week, I have done many a time let me tell you) I now sit back and say what is good about this situation that I have no power over and find the positives. There are always some, I promise.
  • Have a look at all the positives that are happening around the world in response to this. See how people are pulling together. Search the internet as it is full of wonderful people offering support for free. Free yoga, crafts, films, plays, lessons and so much more. And then look at Venice, where dolphins and swans are coming back as pollution there has lessened. Marvel at how the air over China is cleaner than it has been in decades. Mother Nature is benefitting from this hugely.

All I can say is that over the past seven days there have been ups and downs. Moments of sheer ‘holy fuck I can’t do this for weeks how will I cope what if my mum gets it and I can’t go and help her or my daughter what if we run out of food or i have to start wiping my bum with a flannel’ etc but now, I actually, honestly feel very calm and very positive. I’m lucky I love having my children here with me, and I’m getting to know them more, understand them more. I don’t have to worry that they might catch a bug at school or become overtired or unwell. And tomorrow night my husband and I are going on a date to a fancy restaurant (the kitchen) and then to the cinema (the lounge.) and I am looking forward to it as much s I would be if we were going out for real. My attitude has changed in response to my circumstances. This time at home has made me feel better, not worse. Maybe it’s because I am taking the time to look after myself more. I am eating better as I have more time to cook. I am exercising more as I have more time to get out. Plus my house is getting cleaner and less cluttered by the day as I have time to get on top of all the stupid little jobs that have me nagging at me for months. We’ve slowed down and it was just what we needed.

It is going to be okay. Take it one day at a time, one hour at a time if you need to. No ‘what ifs,’ just facts about the here and now. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

This too shall undoubtedly pass.

Change

Change: an act or process through which something becomes different.

I’ve just left my seven year old crying at the school gates. He’s not good with change, even ones he is used to and has done many times before. And neither am I, even though over the years I’ve been forced to deal with many different changes in my life. Some chosen. Others not. September, for example, is always a tricky month for me and I wonder if it stems from forty-two years of September being a period of huge change in my life. 

            You start school in September. Start college, university, always new beginning after new beginning. I left home in September. Found out I was expecting my first child in September. The body remembers what the mind forgets. Feelings I experienced during each and every one of those Septembers haunt me now, whether I’m starting a new venture or not. Sleepless nights filled with anxiety and self doubt, body aches, butterflies, a feeling of uncertainty. September is the one month of the year where I become full of nostalgia and can reach the exact feelings I felt as a teenager. 

            And then this September my teenager, my beautiful, confident and wonderful eighteen year old, left for university. More change. Except, just like it was during the September I found out I was carrying her, I felt like I was facing it alone. None of my peers have children leaving for university. They all have children the same age as my younger two sons, and they don’t even want to think about their children leaving home as it’s too painful and a long way off. But, and yes it’s a hideous cliché, it’s never as far off as you think. Blink and that’s it. Childhood done. Gone. And my god you just have to pray that they’ve listened and they’ve learnt and they can actually function in the world without you. 

            I’ve always been the kind of parent who believes our role is to bring our children up to be independent confident human beings who can survive in the world without us. When my children started nursery I was straight out the door. When they started school I was the first parent to leave them in the classroom. I didn’t cry. This was the order of things, they would go, be confident, survive without me at every stage. And it was the same that very first day for my daughter at university. I was the first parent to leave, on her terms I might add, she asked me to go. But for the first time ever I wasn’t happy to do so. My husband drove the car home because I thought I’d be an emotional wreck. Turns out he spent the entire journey bawling like a baby, whilst I sat emotionless comforting him. (I’m not good at reaching out or being vulnerable, it is not a good quality at times.)

            The next few weeks were tough. People asked me how I was, but no one really got it. Oh she’s only an hour away, they’d say. But they didn’t understand that she might as well be in Outer Mongolia for all the time I was going to see her. Oh you must be so proud she’s so confident and enjoying herself, they’d say. But they didn’t understand that I felt as though my heart had been ripped out and left there with her. Or I spoke to women whose children left a long time ago, and were enjoying all of their child-free time. Oh I love it when they go back, she said. I can do whatever I want now. And so I sucked everything up and didn’t voice how I felt anymore. I didn’t need reassurance it turns out, I just needed someone who felt the same to understand. 

And then I bumped into a mum of an old friend of my daughter’s from primary school, who’s daughter had also just gone to university. And she asked me how I was, and as she did she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said she felt bereft. That she was walking the dog constantly because the house was too unbearably quiet. That she didn’t know what to do with herself. That she felt as though something had died. 

And that was it. Nail on the head. It was grief. I was grieving. Grieving for the relationship I had with my daughter and how it had changed the day she left. Of course I’m still her mum and am there when she needs me, but not in the same way. Not like when she’d fall over as a toddler and reach out her arms for comfort. Or when she’d had a tough time as school and needed some reassurance. We’d never been apart for more than a week before she left. I missed tripping over her shoes in the hallway. I missed telling her to be quiet because her younger brothers were trying to go to sleep. I missed hearing about her day. Sitting on the sofa with her watching a box set together. Cuddling her. Cooking for her. Mothering her.

I often wonder (I like to find a reason for things) as to why her going away hit me harder than I’d expected, and I’ve reached two conclusions. The first has to do with our relationship. When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter her father wasn’t pleased about it and I knew I would be going it alone right from the start. For five years it was just the two of us, until I met my husband. We were close. She is great company and knows me better than anyone.  The fact that other people now know her better than I do hurts a little. As well as the fact that she’d rather be with them than me, even though I totally understand, I was the same. 

Which brings me to the second thing. My relationship with my mum, which wasn’t quite the same. We weren’t as close when I was a teenager (thankfully we are now, my daughter giving us common ground) but when I left for university it was different. I was very close to my dad, who passed away when I was twenty-two. He was the one who phoned every Thursday to see how I was, who came to pick me up when I had glandular fever, who’d write me letters and slip me a tenner with strict instructions that it not be spent on cheap white wine. My daughter going away brings a lot of that back and I am stuck reminiscing about a time of change that wasn’t always very pleasant with some difficult memories I haven’t quite dealt with, but maybe that’s for another blog post.

Change is a big thing for lots of people. Some embrace it, some shy away from it, and some, like me, struggle to adjust. And children are often the source of major change in our lives. 

My daughter has been home for the Christmas holidays for two weeks now, and with her brought more differences for us both to get used to. She likes to stay up Face-timing her friends until 3am. I like to sleep from 9pm. She’s fighting hard to prove how independent she is by driving all over the country to see her university friends. Cooking for herself. Applying for jobs for next term. Not asking for any money. She’s changed. She’s thriving. She is living her best life. And maybe if she hadn’t left for university we might have started to grate on each other a little bit more. It had already started, niggles here, lack of understanding there. Maybe we needed some time apart to find out who we both are independent of each other, before coming back again and forming a new bond. A different type of mother daughter relationship. One where we are both adults capable of looking after ourselves and each other. 

Someone I know recently said to me, ‘wait until they get married, then you really do lose them forever.’

But we won’t think about that change yet. 

I’m still adjusting to this one. 

What does ‘being in the middle’ mean to you?

A few weeks ago I was asked what being in the middle meant, and I replied, ‘mundane.’ If you’re in the middle you’re either winning nor losing. The middle is neither success or failure. Neither happy or sad. Being in the middle is nothing, right?

I went to a one to one Pilates class this week as I’ve been struggling with my core and pain in my left hip that I’m seeing a physiotherapist for. During the hour I learnt more about my personality than my body, although I did also find out that, unsurprisingly after three children, I don’t have much of an actual strong or stable core. My instructor said she could clearly see that I don’t do things by halves. She asked me if I’m an all or nothing kind of girl and I didn’t realise until I had to answer that question that I undoubtedly am. First, she asked me to move my knee in and out as I was lying on my back, and instead of taking it slowly I moved my knee far too much and far too fast. Again, I didn’t wait in the middle to analyse stuff and see how I was doing and what I was feeling. The move was completed with gusto and efficiency. In. out. Done.

And when I got to thinking I realised that this pretty much sums up how I live my life. I go from zero to immediate fight or flight behaviour. I am in a constant state of flux, never stopping in the middle to just, dare I say it, ‘be.’ And it’s the same with my writing, I love the early creative bursts where the story is unfolding and I’m discovering new things about my characters and their motivations. And then when it’s done I want it published and I want it published now. I want it to be good enough already. I don’t mind admitting that I struggle with that middle part, the editing, the slow and steady unpicking of what’s going on, the close observations and discoveries. I’m too impatient. The end goal, the success, is always what I’m chasing. I’m not sure why the middle part of everything fills me with such dread. It’s not that scary. Editing can be enlightening. It can perfect an almost perfect sentence, or chapter, or story arc. It’s what makes the whole thing so much better.

Yet every time I get feedback and know I have to do the inevitable next edit and start another draft I have a couple of days of frustration. I’m annoyed that I’m still not at that desirable end goal. And then I start thinking and mulling the feedback over and something magical happens. Every single time I somehow find a new enthusiasm for my work-in-progress and I have new ideas and I get stuck in. Every single time I say, ‘this is the last draft, if it’s not good enough now I give up,’ but I never do. And why? Because I can’t. Because I’m not at the end yet and like it or not I have to endure the tortuous middle part if I ever want to get there.

And so I’m sat here somewhere between lunch and dinner, writing this blog post and I’m thinking about what I can do to help me enjoy ‘the middle’ more. Because the middle is important, especially in a novel or short story. The middle is where stuff happens, good and bad. (Think Gone Girl.) It’s where decisions are made, secrets are revealed, characters fall apart, a twist is revealed. It’s where the pace can ramp up or slow down. It’s where the action happens. It’s where you can be pulled away from being all or nothing and where you’re so invested in it you have to see it through.

Being a writer isn’t just about writing. In the early days it’s also about learning what kind of writer you are. I met with the lovely Emily Koch recently whilst in the middle of submitting my novel to my editor and waiting for her feedback. She had some wonderful words of wisdom, as she always does, and told me to remember how much I love writing. Because whether I succeed or not, whether I am published or not, whether I win awards or not, I write because I love writing. Because – like so many other writers – I can’t not write.  I don’t just write for success and notoriety, I write because it would be impossible for me not to.

And maybe this current middle bit where I’m waiting for a response isn’t so bad after all. At least it’s not another rejection, right?

Words, words everywhere…

My youngest son wears hearing aids, he’s not profoundly deaf, but his condition makes it hard for him to hear. And I find it very frustrating when he gets disciplined at school for ‘not listening.’ What the teacher needs to say is that he hasn’t followed the instruction given, not that he didn’t hear it in the first place. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in my eyes and one where words aren’t being used as effectively as they could.

Being a writer I’m often very careful with the words I chose to put on the page and the order in which I write them down. I’ve never been a writer who has trouble with having a novel that is too long, it’s always been the other way around, but that doesn’t mean I’m always concise and effective with what I write, and I’m not always so careful with the words that come out of my mouth, however, nor the ones with which I use to talk to myself. You know, the ones that say you’re not good enough, or that you’ve probably offended someone without meaning to, in fact, you definitely have.

Recently I have had many conversations about effective use of language. I went on a mental health training day where a midwife told us that they are no longer allowed to call their hospital department a ‘delivery suite,’ for they are not delivering pizza. It now has to be called a ‘birthing suite.’ And then I spoke to a friend who knew someone whose daughter developed an eating disorder in her teens. As a child the girl had been tall for her age and everyone had always commented on how ‘big’ she was. She took this to mean fat. I’ve also spoken to many teachers who know not to say a child is naughty, but what they are doing is naughty.

If we thought about it too much we’d never speak again for fear of damaging our children or unintentionally upsetting someone, but where we can I’m beginning to think what we say and how we say it is more important than we think. We need to be mindful of our words when speaking to others or ourselves, or when writing a novel or article, and even when tweeting and blogging. For these are all places where meaning can easily be ambiguous if words are not chosen carefully. They can do more damage than the author ever intended, I should know, I’ve been that author.

Over the last few months I’ve been very focused on using effective language – I’ve been editing my first novel and I’ve been having therapy, mainly for OCD, and anxiety linked to my sons’ medical conditions. Both of these things have been primarily focused on the words I use and how they can be misinterpreted, or aren’t clear enough, or are downright unhelpful. I’ve learnt to cut sentences that start with…

But what if….’

‘I shouldn’t…’

‘I ought to…’

Nothing good has ever come from me thinking things beginning with those words. They lead me to catastrophise and feel guilty. They make me more fearful. They offer no comfort, only criticism. And in noticing these words and making subtle changes I am learning to cope with situations better, although some better than others, it’s taking time. It works in writing too. Changing the negative into a positive can make a sentence more powerful. Instead of describing a character by showing how they’d never behave I now write about what they do. There’s always a more powerful verb than don’t, shouldn’t or can’t. I saw a TED talk recently about how different languages have their own nuances, and how negative the English language can be without us even thinking. For example, have you ever heard someone say that they broke their leg? It’s the way we speak, the way it’s been for a long time, putting blame on ourselves. In other languages if you said, ‘I’ve broken my leg,’ then the listener would think you took a hammer to yourself and did it on purpose. Generally when you break a bone it’s an accident. You didn’t break it, it broke. You didn’t spill the milk, it spilt. It was an accident. Blame need not be apportioned.

I’ve also been more observant about how I am spoken to, and how I react to words that come at me. If I assume they’re going to be hurtful then of course they generally are, whereas if I choose to look behind the words themselves and think about the place they are coming from, then that usually changes my perception of them. I’m learning to let go of the words that say more about the person saying them than they do about me. It can all be so subjective, a bit like fiction you could say. Best to not leave anything open to misinterpretation in my opinion, but then that can cause issues to. Some people really don’t like hearing the truth.

But overall I’m learning, in both my editing and my life, to focus only on the important stuff. The meaningful bits. When editing I need to get my point across as quickly and clearly as possible, removing as many unnecessary words as I can. And therapy is proving that I need to do the same with my internal voice. Basically I need to cut out the crap and just…Get. To. The. Point.

And quicker!

Writing and prams in hallways.

There’s been a lot of talk recently on social media and in newspaper articles about prams in hallways and whether in order to be an effective writer you need time away from your children and familial responsibilities, think Doris Lessing. And then there’s the ongoing gender pay gap debate, talk of glass ceilings and the fact that having a baby quite often fucks your career up. It’s all age old stuff.

But, age old or not, it affects women today, and after seeing an interesting thread/discussion on Twitter about writing and motherhood earlier it got me thinking. Mainly about me and my writing and whether having those three prams in the hallway over the last seventeen years have stopped me succeeding in my chosen careers. And whether those children have been a hindrance to my creativity, or whether they have enhanced it.

Before I became a writer, in the formal sense for I’ve always been a writer, I was once a primary school teacher. And I was once promoted on to the senior leadership team whilst on maternity leave. I was also once humiliated during a senior leadership training day, where the boss (male) held his hand up to my face after I’d challenged him on something, and then told the course facilitator that I’d just come back from maternity leave and didn’t know what I was talking about. I did. During this time, whilst I was working part-time as a teacher, I wrote a blog, and some short stories. Sometimes I scribbled away in the middle of a night full of insomnia, and sometimes at my desk when I should’ve been doing paperwork when I wasn’t teaching. My children didn’t stop me then, heck no, they gave me stuff to write about.

Several horrible months later, when I had the pram of my third child in the hallway, I embarked on my writing career. And whilst currently I’m not affected by the gender pay gap as such, I am the one who works from home, the one who is always the first port of call when one of my children has a hospital appointment or is unwell or has a parents evening at school. My husband is usually home to put the children to bed, but he never has to compromise on his job. It always comes first. Always. He’s off snowboarding in a couple of weeks, for an entire week. When I asked him if I could go away for the same amount of time the answer was a resounding no. He wouldn’t be able to get the required time off work. And yes, I am ever so slightly annoyed by this. I don’t want to go away anywhere exotic, but a few days away to write uninterrupted would be blissful. I always manage to write, but when I am able to immerse myself in my novel for more than a few hours at a time it can be a game changer.

When I started taking writing seriously and started an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University is was a dark time. My middle child was seriously unwell and admitted to hospital for three weeks for many, many investigations. But I didn’t take any time off. I didn’t defer any of my assignments. I wrote. Again I wrote in the middle of the night whilst he was having his cannula changed, or during the day when the wonderful hospital physiotherapists came and pummeled his lungs. Then, when he was in theatre for over six hours having his permanently damaged lung removed I didn’t stop writing. It gave me something else to focus on and think about during one of the scariest few hours of my life.

That’s the amazing thing about writing; you can do it anywhere and at anytime. But that’s also the annoying thing about writing; you can never use it as an excuse for not coming home or for not attending your child’s Harvest festival. People think it’s a fluid and adaptable thing that you can pick and drop at will. But it is not. You have to work bloody hard to ensure that writing does not sit silently at the bottom of the importance pile (by the way, I am not saying that writing is more important than any child; just thought I’d better point that out.) You have to want to do it. It has to be an itch that you cannot bear to not scratch. Pram in the hallway or not.

And sometimes it’s hard to get someone to take writing seriously, especially when you’re not a published writer. They don’t get the process. How it takes months, maybe years to even get a first draft of a novel to a point where you can actually send it out to publishers. I am pretty sure my colleagues from my last primary school think I’ve failed as a writer because in the four years since I’ve left I’ve had nothing published. It doesn’t mean I’m not working my ass of every day. It doesn’t mean I’m not getting closer to that all important goal.

And every writer goes about that in different ways, whether they have children or not. Some writers love a retreat. I’m pretty sure I would if I was ever able to a) physically be able to get to one, see previous dig at snowboarding husband, and b) afford it.

There’s no right or wrong about that as far as I’m concerned. Children adapt and I’m a firm believer that the more people they have look after them the more loved they feel/adaptable they become. Childcare shouldn’t all be down to one person and one person alone, it certainly wasn’t when I was a single mum many years ago. But, I do not think you need to leave your children permanently in order to write, and I do think of the stories surrounding Doris Lessing doing so in order to write may not be the whole truth.

But one truth I’m dealing with is this, whilst a pram in the hallway doesn’t mean you can’t achieve, it does mean that you have to adapt your working ways in order to do so. It is not always the enemy of good art, in fact, it can mould art and force it to take an altogether different, but equally creative path, but it is something that needs to be considered. Things are changing, but the world is still, in my experience at least, geared towards the man and his role in the home coming first.

But I will continue to write and be successful and creative in spite of that. I can be a damn good mother and a shit hot writer.

And I am.

The waiting game…

You’ll discover the wonderful irony of this blog post as I get going, procrastination is an ever present curse…

I’m currently sat in the local coffee shop, with two fellow writer friends, writing novel number two, whilst novel number one is with an editor. And, of course, after every word I type I am checking my emails, which is roughly every two seconds. Even though I know in all probability I’m not going to get a response any time soon, because editors are very, very busy people.

And so instead of plodding on with novel two (I will come back to this) I have decided to procrastinate – first by sorting out new social media names and blog links (goodbye @InstinctiveMum and hello @jfaulknerwriter) and second by writing this blog post. It’s the very first one on my shiny new author’s website and focused mostly on writing and not parenting. I am of course mainly writing this post so the next time I am in this situation I have something to read and refer to and get comfort from because, so I am reliably informed, the waiting does not get any easier.

So here are my top seven tips for surviving that hideous in between period – when you’ve done all you can do with your work in progress, and you’ve tweaked and fiddled and edited until you’ve lost all perspective and have sent your manuscript off to an agent or an editor.

Here goes…

  1. Write. Maybe, for example, a blog post. There’s always something you can write about. It’s great procrastination, plus it allows you to find a home for all of the superbly awesome adverbs you’ve not been allowed to write in your novel.

 

  1. Catch up with old friends. Send out numerous texts and await replies. Meet them for coffee, for lunch, for wine, and DO NOT TAKE YOUR PHONE. Or if you do take your phone switch off email notifications. You can put your hand to better use by using it to transfer wine or gin or cake to your mouth.

 

  1. WRITE. (Yes…I know I am repeating number one a little bit here – but it’s important.) Don’t stop writing. Articles, blog posts, short stories, the next novel. Never stop. Busy your mind with new characters and new plots. Do it, do it, do it. I do try however, most of the time, not to faff about anymore or even look at the draft of whatever I’ve been working on and have sent off. I recommend you close the file on your computer and/or put a paper copy in your bottom desk drawer because a) you’re more than likely to discover a gaping plot hole and cringe, and b) you may edit it in a very different direction to how your agent/editor feels it should go and end up creating even more work for yourself.

 

  1. Give the dog an extra walk and…obviously…do not take your phone. Clear out cupboards, have a spring clean, go for a swim, shop, or bake. Do all of the things you’ve put on hold because you’ve been head down and meeting a deadline. Basically keep your hands busy so they don’t keep picking up your phone and checking your emails. How you keep your hands busy is up to you….

 

  1. Observe. Jot down new ideas. Listen to conversations. Go to different places and make notes about them. You never know what will inspire you, plus getting out of the house is by far more enjoyable than stewing in it, unless of course the weather is pants, in which case stay in and have a hot bath. Or do number 6.

 

  1. Read. All writers know how important, and fun, reading is. Read something you wouldn’t normally pick up – you can learn just as much from a novel you don’t like/enjoy as you can from one you can’t put down. And watch films. I like to notice plot twists and when exactly in the movie they happen. (thanks for this tip Emily!) It’s nearly always at the same time. There’s definitely a formula and it’s also interesting to see how plot points and character motivation are set up/revealed in dialogue.

 

  1. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE. I know. I need to take my own advice now, don’t I?!

 

Have you got any more tips? I’m only a week in and quite probably have a few more to go….help me!!!