I feel most free when… (Happy National Writing Day)

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I feel most free when I’m lying on a beach, in the sun (not too warm), with a book, and a bottle of iced water, turning page after page after page, with no thought for what might be happening around me, because the world I’m in is contained within the font on the paper, and I’m oblivious to all else.

I feel most free when I have no responsibilities, no-one shouting “Mum!”, no-one needing my attention or height or motor skills to do that which they can’t yet do themselves. I feel free when I can be alone with my thoughts, follow a line of argument, question myself “Why?” and “Is that true?” and “But what if…”

I feel most free at a keyboard, typing away, vaguely aware of what must come out, and then being surprised when a better thought types its way onto the screen. I feel most free when I’m using the gifts God’s given me, doing things which flow easily and bring life to me, things which fill my tank. “His cup overfloweth…” and I feel this when I’m in the place I’m meant to be, feeling right, feeling free.

I feel most free when I’m singing and playing and not caring who’s listening or watching, but just wanting to enjoy a beautiful song in its fullness, in a way that’s impossible just by listening or through a YouTube video.

I feel most free when I’m playing with my kids and there’s no agenda, no list of other Stuff to be done (or at least I’ve trained myself to ignore it). I feel most free when I’m listening to their day, their joys, their frustrations, and really feeling like this might be it, this might be what closeness feels like.

I feel most free when I’m lying in a hammock, eyes closed, no cares, no worries, no responsibilities. But then again – would I feel free with no responsibilities? Or would I feel trapped by inertia, inaction, less-than-brilliant situations around me, with no ability or desire to affect change.

I feel most free when I am me. No one else. Me. The me I was made to be. The me I am becoming.

***

Some reflections:

Wow! What a fun challenge. I’ve never done anything like this before, but think I may try and seek out a few more exercises like this. There’s nothing like seven minutes to focus the mind! And who knew I could produce 366 words in that time?! I’ve surprised myself! I did think about the topic briefly earlier on today, but what you’ve just read is largely what came out spontaneously when I timed myself.

I like the line ‘no-one needing my attention or height or motor skills to do that which they can’t yet do themselves’ because there’s a certain wit to it that I usually mull over for longer than I had on this occasion. It’s given me confidence that maybe I can be more spontaneous when I write.

I’m annoyed that I misquoted the Bible! Of course it’s ‘MY cup overfloweth…’ not HIS! But I guess my gut instinct was to communicate that God is filling my cup when I do the things that I was designed to do.

One interpretation of freedom is that it is whatever you don’t have. Note how many of my sentences seem to be about being away from the kids! Some days this seems enviable, and I wish I wasn’t so bogged down with responsibility.

But – and this wasn’t forced – I seem to come to the conclusion that, actually, freedom is doing those things that you were designed to do. There is a certain freedom in living life as you feel you were meant to live it. I like that.

Over to you! When do you feel most free?

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5 valuable work lessons from a nine-year maternity leave

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Last month I shared with you ‘5 valuable work lessons from maternity leave’ from the Jasiri blog (a wonderfully thought-provoking new blog, if you were looking for one to get your teeth into!).

I was nodding along with every single one of Naomi’s points. Yep, that had absolutely been my experience too.

But I was also inspired to respond. I guess you could say I’ve had a rather long ‘maternity leave’ (nearly nine years and counting). If you asked me, of course, I’d say it’s just been a career of a different sort, but if you frame it in the context of ‘leave’ from paid work, then there are definite lessons I’ve learnt which are helping me now I’m starting to return to work. 

The five which I’m about to share don’t discount those that Naomi wrote about – I agree with all of them! – but simply add the perspective of one who’s been out of paid work for quite some time…

1. Use every minute

There are no two ways about it: I am simply more productive now than before I had kids. Nine years of cramming in cooking, laundry, tidying and cleaning to the tiny corners of life left free after four kids have been entertained, fed, bathed, read to, taxi-ed around and fed again have taught me to make the most of every scrap of time I get.

I won’t say I never faff about. I’ve been as guilty of spending 20 minutes scrolling through Harry and Megan pictures as the next person.

But mainly I can’t rely on having time ‘later on’ – whether that’s this evening, tomorrow or next week – because my kids might get ill, or there may be another crisis. So I have to do things now – there’s no putting them off, and the faffing is greatly reduced.

In work terms, it is this heightened productivity that has made me utilise my writing times more effectively. I drop off the kids, open my laptop and crack on, knowing that those five precious hours ahead of me will soon be gone for another week.

2. Plan, plan, plan

In order to use every minute productively, especially when you’re fitting in ‘lifemin’ around caring for your kids, you need to have a really good idea of what needs doing and when. When are you going to collect that prescription, buy that present, send off that form?

I’ve learnt to work everything like this into my diary. As ridiculous as it sounds to write ‘pay for school dinners’ or ‘count hot dog rolls for BBQ’ alongside ‘Swimming lesson’ or ‘Toddler group’, if I don’t plan my days and my week like this, I simply forget the things that keep our household running smoothly.

Getting better at planning has been SO useful on my writing days. Each Monday is scheduled with assignments well before I get to it, meaning that I can start work straight away, rather than having to spend half an hour wondering what I should do today.

3. Be audacious

If you don’t ask, you don’t get! Yet in my pre-kids working life, I often lacked the confidence to realise my dreams. The fact that what you’re asking for often benefits the other party is something I’ve learned through my voluntary work since having kids.

I remember the first time I negotiated with a photographer to run a reasonably-priced photo-shoot for families at our toddler group – I felt wonderful! Yet all I’d done was given him a rather lucrative opportunity to make a fair bit of money over a two-hour period – so it worked well for both of us!

This attitude has developed through the other voluntary work I’ve done, not least in my current role as PTA Chair. We’re always asking shops and businesses for things – and we’re not scared to put ourselves out there!

As I’ve recently turned my focus to writing, I’m not scared to approach professionals – writers, bloggers, editors and publishers, to ask for what I need, or offer my work to them. Sure, it’s always going to be nerve-wracking to show your work to another who might be critical, but audaciousness makes you do 100 things in the hope that one of them will pay off.

4. Build good foundations

I am the Queen of Impatience – I like to fit a lot of different things into my life, and I hate it when one of them seems to take forever, robbing me of something else I could be doing.

But parenting has taught me patience, the importance of a long-term view, and how it’s worth taking time over things to get them right.

For want of making my children sound like my ‘projects’ (they aren’t, but they are also kind of my job, so it’s a bit of a blurred boundary), I’ve seen that the hours you spend reading to them, even when they’re crawling away from you, pay off when they’re older and learning to read, and suddenly you realise – WAHEY! They have a vocabulary! They can put letters together because they know what word is expected in that context!

I’ve learnt that biting my tongue and intentionally practising patience when my kids and I cook together (THIS TAKES A LOT OF PRAYER) results in some pretty amazing chef skills eventually. (My 3yo twins can crack eggs like pros!)

This has helped me as I’ve started a new career, particularly when considering my aims. Instead of having a monetary target, I’ve realised I need to spend time building a good foundation: writing to the best of my ability, using social media well, building my audience, connecting with like-minded others. I don’t know where my writing will go in the future, but I do know that it will only go somewhere if the foundations are good and strong.

5. Focus

I’m an ideas person, and always have been. Looking back at my teaching career pre-kids, I was trying to do everything.

On reflection, I should have chosen one thing and done it well. Three years as Head of Music could have made a real difference to one aspect of the school’s musical life. Instead, my legacy was confused and haphazard.

Nowadays, I’m not making the same mistake. My kids have taught me how to focus on them while juggling a lot of other balls – and I’m determined to put this into practice for my work-life too.

As I write, there are many projects I could be getting on with – writing for businesses, charities, magazines, blogs…not to mention The Book. Yes, I’m frustrated that a couple of these opportunities have had to be shelved for the moment, while I concentrate on finishing the book and other urgent projects, but it’s more important to focus on these jobs, rather than to become distracted by all the opportunities, and end up missing them all.

***

A footnote:

I’ve written a few times about being a SAHM – how it doesn’t need to mean intellectual suicide, how it is a valid feminist option, and how we women work just as hard in the home as out of it!

I don’t believe that being a SAHM is always the best option for families, but my words come from a place of frustration towards what I see communicated in the media: that educated women are wasted if they don’t earn money, that SAHMs spend their days watching trashy TV, or that raising kids is not a worthwhile endeavour for someone with brains.

I hope my words offer encouragement to anyone who’s walking this path, or thinking about walking it in the future. It can be a totally awesome thing for you and your family – and, as I’ve shown, develop some amazing skills for the workplace too!

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Can you imagine having no father?

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I can’t imagine how it would feel to have no father.

I can imagine a remote father – detached, preoccupied, no space in his life for children. I can imagine his regret and guilt at having been talked into a family he never really wanted – or, perhaps, the absence of regret and guilt, as time starts to justify the distance that’s grown between him and his kids. I can imagine the loss, the sadness, the shut-down, the self-preservation of the children who long for his time and know they will never get it.

But I can’t imagine no father at all.

I can imagine an absent father – living in a different town now, perhaps with a new wife, new life, new kids – remembering birthdays (or not), sharing a week together every summer, occasional weekends. I can imagine the awkwardness for a child struggling to fit into a different family every now-and-then, having to adapt behaviours and routines for different sets of parents.

But I can’t imagine no father at all.

I can imagine a neglectful father – leaving everything to Mum, putting his own needs first, not noticing the children who require his help to regulate their emotions, because he can’t yet regulate his own. I can imagine the children who grow up thinking this is what family life is like: Mum raises the family, Dad does what he likes.

But I can’t imagine no father at all.

I can imagine an abusive father – letting his anger control him, free-flowing with the insults, the lies, the manipulation, the fists. I can imagine – although it pains me to write it – a father who cannot control his lust, who does the unthinkable, who abuses the trust of those who have no one else to rely on.

But I can’t imagine no father at all.

No father? Obviously, at some point, there must have been.

But was that a father? Or was that a few drops of bodily fluid, moving from one body to another? Two lucky sperm which made it, which kick-started two new lives, unbeknownst to the person who ejected them from their being?

And now, somewhere, that person walks free, unaware of the lives he has created. He may pass them in the street – or he may be living on the other side of the world – and we will never know. Was he old or young? Tall or short? Does he have other kids? A wife?

I can’t imagine – because the possibilities are infinite.

What was his ethnicity? Was he unemployed, or was he a CEO? Was it a romantic liaison, or a one-night stand? Did he pay?

Okay, so maybe I am imagining. But imagination usually starts with reality – and here, there is no reality to know of. No clues, no evidence, no memories and no one to ask. With endless possibilities of what this sperm-donor may have been like, I’ll likely never guess the real him.

And the kids – how will they respond? Not just knowing little, but knowing nothing. Future Fathers’ Days, when they’re old enough to understand. “Best dad” cards taking on a new meaning. Adolescence, and wondering whether emerging character traits come from him. DNA tests when they meet their future partners.

There wasn’t really a father. What might have turned into one was actually just a couple of seeds, fertilising a couple of eggs.

But God likes seeds. Faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. Seeds planted in good soil will produce a healthy crop.

And a seed from a man can fertilise an egg, creating a life which God dreamed up many millennia before it happened.

You see, there is a Father after all. A Father who was intentional and loving from the start. A Father who wanted these children to be born into his world, to take their place in family life, to come into relationship with Him.

Yes, it matters that there is no earthly father. But no, it’s not the end of the story.

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Brilliant books, BBQs, and a post that went (my version of) viral! (What I’m into – May 2018)

Books

After a couple of heavy-going titles this year, May was a good month for books.

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Our book club read The Light between Oceans which was fabulous. Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife Izzy are the only inhabitants of a tiny island many miles off the west coast of Australia. When a boat containing a baby and a dead man gets washed up on shore, the couple is left with an agonising decision.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I’ll stop there, but needless to say the story’s main ethical dilemma, interwoven with a complex web of loss and love, death and life, made for an absolutely stonking read.

I also read Spark, the second in Alice Broadway’s brilliant trilogy (I read the first book, Ink, last year). I wish I’d made time to re-read Ink before reading Spark, as the books are set in an innovative fantasy world, and I just couldn’t remember all the details from last year. But, as the plot came back to me, I found this book gripping – maybe not as much as the first, but I think the middle book in a trilogy is always going to be harder work, without the novelty of the first and the conclusion of the second.

However, I really loved the space there was to explore all kinds of questions about what constitutes ‘truth’, how the same event can be portrayed differently by different groups of people, how hard it is to shake off what you were brought up with, and so on. I can’t wait for book three!

Food

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We had a pretty awesome barbecue over the first bank holiday weekend with lovely family. (At risk of sounding Very British – hasn’t the weather been lovely? And it’s not even June. Well, it is now – but it wasn’t in May. When the weather was fab. Did I mention this?)

Also, the kids wanted to bake bread, but we didn’t have a whole lot of time to be doing with the rising and the proving, so we cheated and made soda bread (which is actually just as nice as normal bread, but don’t tell).

Our book club met at Bistro Guy for pizza. I know I go on about this place, but it really is something. If you’re local and haven’t tried it, you really must.

The kids made some fruit sparkler skewers – very simple really, taken from The Artful Year – which I totally love as a guide to process-oriented art (as opposed to “let’s all make exactly the same thing out of exactly the same materials”-type art).

Music

Seems an age away now, but we enjoyed Eurovision. Actually, I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the word – what is the correct adjective here?

We’ve had a lot more Karine Polwart in the car, and DesertDad has been making me listen to this Hans Theesink album – reasonably palatable Blues (to a non-Blues fan) – since he saw him live at the start of the month.

Stage and screen

I went with some friends to see The Play that goes Wrong after rave reviews from various members of my family. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – it’s basically non-stop slapstick, and there were a few moments when my attention wandered – but there are also several genius comedy moments, which are executed brilliantly. There are still loads of places left on the tour, so if it’s coming near you, I highly recommend it.

The hubs and I have also been watching House of Cards (the British version from the early 90s). Totally absorbing, even for a non-politics person like me. The central character, Francis Urquhart, becomes more and more twisted in his relentless drive to become PM, and it does make for compelling viewing. We’ve just started the second series and I’m hooked!

And a friend invited me to watch The Holiday which is totally my kind of feel-good rom-com, with all the essential ingredients (crappy ex-boyfriends, wonderful British-American banter, and Jude Law). Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz take part in a holiday house swap, to get as far away as possible from their complicated romantic lives. Kate ends up in L.A., Cameron in Surrey. Romance (obvs) ensues. Much recommended!

Articles

Everyone has a role. So what’s mine? is a powerful, tear-jerking article by foster-carer Julie on behalf of Home for Good, outlining how we can support vulnerable children, even if we don’t do the actual adopting/fostering ourselves.

I loved these responses to Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal Wedding sermon: 9 Assorted Thoughts on That Wedding Sermon and 4 reasons people didn’t like the Royal Wedding sermon – and why they’re wrong.

And I resonated with 5 Valuable Work Lessons from Maternity Leave – so much so, in fact, that you’ll be spotting my own response to this in the next couple of weeks.

On the blog

I wrote about the challenges of parenting in The Day of Demands, the challenges of marriage (not least royal marriage) in Dysfunctional Families? There’s hope in marriage! and the challenges of adoption in my review of The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.

I was thrilled to interview new author Joanna May Chee on How to Chase your Dreams (and why so many of us don’t), and wrote a little blog about money, based on my first few months’ experience attempting to build a freelance writing career.

I waxed lyrical about this amazing Herbs & Essential Oils bundle (flash sale ends this Monday, 4th June so be quick if you want it!).

AND…I was slightly flabbergasted to find that my thoughts on Should children be allowed to run around in church? quickly became the second most-read blog post on Desertmum…EVER! (And I’ve been blogging six years, so this is quite an achievement!)

It clearly struck a chord with some, and I’ve enjoyed the various debates on Facebook, ranging from “No, they absolutely shouldn’t” to “We need to re-think how we do church so that no one has to stay in their seats at all”. Loved it!

(Although, had I known how much attention it would receive, I might have worked on it for a bit longer. I mean, it’s kind of like going out in jeans and a top, then realising everyone else is in a dress and, if you’d have known, you’d have smartened up a bit.)

Elsewhere

On Home for Good, I wrote Preparing Birth Children for an Adopted Sibling, which does what it says on the tin, while my ACW blog this month was titled What Led you to Writing?

Also, I started organising everything I’ve ever written about adoption in one easy-to-navigate Pinterest board: Adoption Encouragement and Honesty. Not everything is up there yet, but I hope you’ll agree it looks much more enticing than a plain old list.

Do have a look! And please follow/share with others who would be encouraged to find this free online resource library.

Other

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* We spent a beautifully sunny day enjoying Fountain’s Abbey. What a place! We just love it here. Oh, and we used the opportunity of being en famille plus one to attempt a family photo – no fewer than 18 times. The result? I think we got one where 5/6 of us look OK.

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* I got me some NEW HAIR! (And then I washed it, and it pretty much went back to normal.)

* THE ROYAL WEDDING!!! Wasn’t it immense?! I’d quite forgotten how fun these are, and felt kind of sad that there won’t be another important one for a long time.

* I put up a hanging basket ALL BY MYSELF.

* And we had a glorious couple of days away sans kiddoes – the first time this has happened in over four years! I planned it as a surprise for the hubs – he’s pretty dozy, so it wasn’t difficult to pull the wool over his eyes. But it worked – he’d had no idea, and was pleasantly happy at the thought of no responsibility for two days. Look at us, looking all happy and carefree and like we haven’t cleared up a puddle of wee in 24 hours! (In case you’re wondering where we stayed – it was Gladstone’s Library – a residential library! How cool is that?)

Linking up, as always, with the lovely Leigh Kramer’s ‘What I’m into’ blog posts. Do check them out – you may discover a fantastic new blogger!

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