Running for a train

I turned thirty-six running for a train.

I’d left an emotional night out which included a fantastic Letters Live performance and a reunion with a school friend I hadn’t seen since school. Eighteen years of bright, intense newness and unutterably comfortable familiarity; finding out things about each other in the context of feeling a connectedness that meant the conversation couldn’t run dry.

The clock struck midnight as I bolted from the Bakerloo to the Metropolitan line at Baker Street, heading for the last train out in my direction. It felt so right to be alone, doing a simple grown up thing, as I eased over the line of my mid-thirties. This decade in which I can finally have said to have worked some stuff out about myself – in which I was already a wife but became a mother, a home-owner, a manager, an aunt for the second time, a resident of somewhere other than London for the first time. I’ve given up sugar and taken up drawing. I’ve started wearing red lipstick and stopped caring how it looks.

I’ve always been a quick learner but a slow bloomer. It took the better part of thirty…something years to walk with a spring in my step; growing up as a fat kid you generally want anything but to take up space (that’s the problem, you take up too goddamn much space, ffs), but at some point you hope to learn that you have as much right to that space as anyone else. Even after I reduced myself in size quite considerably, however, I still couldn’t quite get my head around it; words, journalling, blogging were the only spaces in which I gave myself a little elbow room, and even then I generally preferred to stay below the parapet as much as possible (read this, please, but only if you don’t know me and there are not too many of you).

On my wedding day, aged twenty-eight, being stared at was made bearable only by the love of my husband-to-be, some extraordinary hair and makeup help, a lot of very beautiful satin and, crucially, corsetry. I deflected compliments, and shared wedding photos weeks later still wishing there were a hundred things I could change about my stance, my expression, my body… my face. I’m not going to pretend that my thirties have fixed everything about this. I definitely have wobbly moments, daily. I change outfits that don’t look right at the last minute. I don’t post the first selfie.But with every year that I add, I lose an ounce of capacity to give a shit.

In the last couple of years I’ve been able, for the first time, to enjoy dressing as something more than an emo statement (teens) or a way of blending into the background (twenties). I’m now neither two fingers up nor window dressing. I’m able to express sentiments I hadn’t given myself permission to feel before. Having a child undoubtedly had an impact – when your mum, a family friend, the midwife, her trainee student midwife and your husband have watched another entire person, albeit in miniature, emerge from an intimate area of your anatomy, you cannot help but dispense with a certain amount of self-consciousness. I am now beginning to square with actually courting a certain amount of attention; obviously that comes with massive caveats, but leaving the house with gold superhero leggings on I did have an inkling that people might talk to my knees more. To me it was more important to express some fun and experience myself being – as I saw it – brave than it was to worry about what other people would think or say. But it took the cumulative experience of three decades of being me to make that possible. Such a tiny, insignificant thing – a thing that only a gallon of privilege would allow to be an issue – but for me a small but noticeable marker that I have changed.

Recently, my daughter has developed a certain amount of shyness and self-consciousness. Online safety training at school has led to a blanket ban on sharing images without her express prior approval in case “someone shares it and laughs at” her (to be honest, if she’s nailed that understanding at five, then I’m considerably less worried about what she might get up to at fifteen). I’m not going to try to talk her out of it, in part because I’ve learned the hard way that this is actually impossible – you cannot be reasoned into a certain way of relating to the world. But now I can pin just a little of my personal progress on her – give myself the motivation to keep acknowledging the shuffling steps forward – because now I’m also an example for someone. Another thing my thirties have given me.

When I turned thirty, I didn’t really stop to think about it. I was pregnant, tired and hungry. I knew I’d ticked some boxes I’d vaguely hoped to do so by then, but I was too busy feeding a sudden, desperate addiction to cheese and tomato toasties and trying to work out how to extract a distinct individual from my nether regions to consider it all much. Plus, to a certain extent, I expected to have changed. Twenty is only just not-a-teenager. Thirty is a grown-up. If I hadn’t made any progress, then there was definitely a problem. But the growth I’ve unexpectedly packed into just six years since then hit me with unexpected force on an almost empty train, juddering out to the Home Counties, on a freezing cold March night I’d spent with someone who was my best mate when I was six.

Thirty years later, instead of running around the playground, I’m running for a train – tipsy, content in my own company, wearing bright pink lipstick and a form-fitting mustard yellow dress, darting towards forty with only hope tugging at my hand.

My word of the year for 2016

Every year, I read a plethora of posts that say “I don’t do New Year’s resolutions” and then go on to list New Year’s resolutions. Hell, I’ve probably written one before.

I think the problem is that the format of the resolution sounds like putting pressure on oneself – “this year I will lose arbitrary amount of weight as if each lb taken away signifies 1lb of added happiness”. There’s a negativity about it, a beating of the self with the pointy stick of “why haven’t you done this already”. It’s a checklist, rather than a spur for growth.

The thing is,  the changing of the calendar is as good a time as any to get your thoughts in order. No, you don’t have to do a damn thing just because it’s January 1st. Neither does it make it any less of a resolution if you make it on June 17th. But emotionally, I think it is easier to allow yourself to be carried on the tide of hope that inevitably wells up at this time of year. The days begin to lengthen again, we spend weeks correcting ourselves every time we write down the date, and it just seems to be a serendipitous moment to do a bit more brain training.

This is why I like to set myself a theme, rather than specific goals. For one, some goals can be forced but some depend on the right opportunity presenting itself, and the resolution is more about the groundwork – being ready to seize that moment – than about the moment itself. For the last few years I’ve sought to develop mindsets, rather than attain specific rungs on my mental ladder. So for each year, I’ve assigned a word, and let that word be the theme that guides me, and that I can come back to when I feel stuck.

In 2013, I was feeling a little scared and set in my ways. So I chose Decisiveness, and I changed jobs and took a new career path which has helped me learn a lot. In 2014, Creativity ruled the roost; I started to share more of my writing and drawing online, and I found that each time you do it the walls do come down a little more and it becomes easier. In 2015, the year of Asking, I applied for and received funding for an art course, negotiated some things at work I would usually find difficult and, crucially, learned when I could ask, but also when I didn’t need to anymore.

And these things are cumulative. I shared more stories, and more art and came up with better creative ideas in the year after I made Creativity my guiding principle, because I’d exercised the muscle and it was working more smoothly. My decision-making has been better this year than the last two; it will continue to improve, I’m sure. I speak up more now than I did at the beginning of the year. So, the time has come to choose the word that I think will pick up these three strands and continue to pull them along, while giving me new challenges.

That word?

Value.

I frequently underestimate mine and, frankly, I’m not sure I always see it in other people as much as I could or should. It could be my own financial value, or it could be the emotional or practical value provided by another, but more than that I think it’s understanding that – even if you can’t itemise it – everyone has value, just by virtue of being here. It’s really seeing that, and living it, and getting it. I feel like the best thing I could teach my daughter is to be kind, and at the root of kindness is appreciation. I’ll find it a lot easier to teach her that if I truly have a grip on it myself. As things are in the world now, compassion is desperately needed and not always easy to come by. But it has to start with recognising the value of each person, and really, truly, knowing one’s own.

And hey, it sounds pretty Agent Carter, right?

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