Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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On Boundaries & Being a Minecraft Mum

 

Last year, when I finally got to bed on Christmas Eve I had the sudden realization that we had come to the end of an era. You see, waiting under the tree there was a certain present for our children. The certain present had lots of circuits, a screen and a keyboard. And my husband was going to put Minecraft on it. I just knew that from Christmas Day onwards everything would change…

 

Minecraft books, photo by Marija Smits

I’ve read all these books cover to cover. At least 10 times. (Photo, by Marija Smits.)

 

My husband and I had thought long and hard about this gift. For one thing, it was essential to get the kids off my laptop which was full of work stuff. Also, my eldest daughter was being asked to do more and more computer-based homework. Third… well, Minecraft. Although I knew very little about it I could already see the appeal. As a sandbox game it allows you to be creative and build all sorts, but there are also certain challenges/achievements to complete, as well as the chance to play in multiplayer mode with other people. This was going to blow our minds!

 

Creeper, by Marija Smits

A creeper. Not mind-blowing but he does blow stuff up.

 

Four months down the line I can confirm that the Minecraft era is all that I expected it to be: 1) a lot of fun 2) highly creative 3) an educational experience – it’s been a steep learning curve but now myself and my children pretty much know everything there is to know about Minecraft: mining, crafting, mobs, fighting, farming, building, enchanting, potion-making, the Nether, the End. (There’s even some poetry in it! And a creepypasta in the form of the elusive Herobrine.) YouTubers I knew nothing about in the pre-Minecraft era are now household names: Mr Stampy Cat, iBallisticSquid, AmyLee. Stampy’s ‘hic-hic’ laugh is oft-mimicked.

These first 3 expectations are positive. So far, so good. Yet the fourth is not, for it is this: addictive.

So this is where the ‘boundaries’ bit comes in. It would seem that some people have a pre-disposition to addiction – in that they have a more sensitive reward system in place, and this, most likely coupled with a diminished ‘pause-to-check’ instinct, means that they are more vulnerable to addiction. And perhaps more likely to be risk-takers.

Addiction, as a topic, fascinates me, so it’s no wonder that addiction as a theme reoccurs in my short stories (one of these stories is to be published in a litmag this summer. Yay!). But it only feels like something I can view more dispassionately now, since I feel I have a better sense of my own addictive tendencies. (Though in the past [soft] substance addictions were an issue, my addictions are now internal rather than external. I know that I am only ever a few wobbly and perilously short steps away from OCD thoughts – which in the past have stolen hours, days, weeks, months from my life. And person addiction – aka limerence – is the other.) Also, having lived with a gambler for several years and had friends with alcoholic parents (as well as the requisite uni pals most definitely [and yet not] in control of their own chemical addictions) I feel as though I’ve got a bit of a handle on the issue. And TV programmes, branded with trashy titles such as: Help! I’m addicted to sex! (or food or social media or feet or whatever) actually make for an insightful (and fascinating) watch.

Anyway, back to boundaries. Obviously, computer games can be addictive. And I’ve noticed that my son finds it far more difficult to come away from the screen than my daughter. When it’s time to stop he complains and wheedles for just another 5 minutes. I do my best to always give him at least a 10 minute countdown, but still, it can be hard for him to stop. I can empathise. I have memories of playing Tetris over and over in a darkened room while outside the sun shone, and finding it very hard to detach from the screen. (And apparently, my husband, too, was a keen computer gamer in his youth.)

Still… empathy is good. It helps my son to know that I’m on his side. But also, boundaries are good. However, when I’m setting and enforcing boundaries, I always feel as though I’m being a big bad baddie. (Something that I think many women find tricky – saying ‘no’ and ‘enough’.) But I have to remind myself that boundaries are good. I’m actually a goody for imposing boundaries, because boundaries help us to cultivate personal integrity, and create wholeness, and also, they are necessary for healthy relationships: with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. They make for a healthy society.

Many adults already know what their boundaries are. For some it means zero alcohol. For others it means a certain limit on coffee. For those in a committed relationship it means a blanket ban on ‘friending’ exes or past lovers on Facebook. For children who love screen time it can mean making sure that there are time restrictions in place. (We also don’t have phones or screens in our bedrooms – I’m trying to ensure that bedroom = rest in their minds. I’ve also found that making sure that screens are off at least 2 hours before they go to bed is a big help with their sleep and temperament.)

Anyway, so far, Minecraft has been a positive in our life, but as usual, observing, reflecting and setting (and enforcing) boundaries on a day-to-day basis are paramount for something that has, like so many other apparently innocent things, the potential to become addictive.

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When Poetry Saved The Day

I’m sure that many people are aware of how the UK government’s interference with the education system is failing children. You only have to read this powerful article about the school, work, world problemand this one by my friend Sophie – to see that something is very badly wrong with mainstream education. I have lots of thoughts swirling in my head about this at the moment, however, that will keep for the time being. The issue is vast and complex, and although I believe there are many solutions out of the mess not every one of them will be right (or doable) for every child and every family.

Anyway… this is the background to which my two children are doing their schooling. For a good while my husband and I were aware that our daughter was finding reading a challenge, and worst of all, a chore. Considering our academic background and the fact that books are literally everywhere in this house, our daughter’s dislike of reading was… startling. And of course we felt saddened by the fact that reading – something so vital and rich – was apparently not something for her.

So, we began to take steps. We’d always been supporting her reading at home, and reading to her – which she clearly enjoyed – but we sensed that there was more at play here. We asked for a dyslexia screening test to be carried out because her various teachers’ assurances of yes she’s not as confident a reader as she could be, but she’ll get there were not proving helpful.

The test came and went, and we waited for the results. In the meantime, the school decided to put on a talent contest as part of their Comic Relief fundraising activities. Our daughter wanted to take part because she enjoys performing. But then the worries came… The night before the class auditions she had misgivings about the first act she’d considered doing. So there we were, in the kitchen after dinner, with me filling the dishwasher and listening to her concerns. The other kids would make fun of her. She’d already heard them being negative about someone else’s act. She no longer liked her idea. So I ran through her options: 1) Don’t do the act. (I warned her though that she may regret not taking part.) 2) Make the act the best it could be and perform it with confidence, ignoring the opinions of others. 3) Choose an alternative act, one that really played to her skills, and do that with confidence.

She found number 3) appealing and so we went through things she really enjoyed doing. As she likes acting and performing the thought: a poetry performance! popped into my head. I remembered that a while ago she’d really enjoyed Angela Topping’s poetry book The New Generation. Cue the mad hunt for where the book actually was…

 

Minutes before bathtime I found it and we went through the poems, trying to find just the right one. Well, soon enough we found it and she practised it, and she was just perfect… And the best thing of all? The huge smile on her face as she did something she clearly enjoyed and was good at. Her audience (little brother, me and Dad) rapturously applauding her made her smile that bit wider.

The next day she aced the auditions, and was put through to the grand final. She didn’t quite get a place in the top four acts, but she performed the poem in front of the whole school and, again, spoke up and out with emotion and nuance. Quite a remarkable thing for a sensitive 9 year old to do – and especially one who is finding reading a challenge!

That poem, in many ways, was an emotional lifesaver. And in a time when fronted adverbials, predicates, long division and SATS are throttling children’s creativity, my daughter’s connection to this poem was utterly right and joyful.

So here it is, for you to enjoy. Huge thanks to Angela Topping for allowing me to reproduce it here.

 

Lonely

 

I’ve got no friends,

it’s sad for me.

At playtime they all

leave me behind,

alone in the classroom.

 

They laugh together,

go round for tea.

No one ever, ever

asks me.

 

They play skipping games

I can skip too

but they won’t let me

even turn up.

 

They go round singing

all join hands

if you want to play catch.

No one catches hold of mine.

 

I sadly wait till they

come back inside.

Perhaps now they’ll talk to me.

It’s hard being the teacher.

 

 

ANGELA TOPPING

 

Lastly, I would like to add that just today we had the test results back, and as we suspected, dyslexia is a part of my daughter’s life. So begins a new chapter as we begin to support her reading in the way that is best for her. I’m sure that poetry will play a part. 🙂

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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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New Year’s Resolutions? No thanks. I’ll do ‘Sustainable Positive Habits’ Instead.

 

The years go by... photo by Marija Smits

The years go by… photo by Marija Smits

 

Oh dear, my title has given away all the exciting stuff I was going to explain. Never mind. So yeah… I haven’t really ‘done’ New Year’s Resolutions for a few years now, and that’s mainly because those huge, rather amorphous resolutions like: I’m going to lose weight! Get richer! Become famous! (<– the last being something I’m not very interested in but still you get the drift) are simply that: unquantifiable, vague desires. So instead I’m dismissing the vagaries and set-up-to-fail resolutions and instead keeping going with my (probably not that exciting) but overall, positive habits. These are:

 

  1. Listening to my body more. Part of this involves continuing to go swimming once a week and doing two HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions a week because my body needs and appreciates it. Since September (when I posted my ‘Publisher’s Bum’ post) pretty much without fail I’ve kept up with this routine. So I’m pleased about that. Another part of this listening habit involves me dealing with the RSI in my wrist. To that end I’ve ordered myself an ergonomic mouse and I’ll see how it goes. The final part involves questioning myself more at dinner times, and whether I really really need to eat the kids’ leftovers and finally, continuing to listen to my body when it’s telling me to sleep and rest (and actually acting on that) which I mostly do already.

 

  1. Listening to my family more. My youngest still needs me and though my oldest child, my soon-to-be ten-year-old daughter, doesn’t ‘need’ me in the same way as she used to, they (and my husband) want to share and spend time with me and I want to do the same with them. So this habit mainly involves being fierce about protecting family time and reminding myself to listen to their cues.

 

  1. Listening to the voice of the ‘stern but fair headmistress’ in my head more often (just one of the many voices of the Wild Woman). Thankfully my inner critic isn’t too shouty anymore but I really do need to be more respectful of the headmistress. She’s the one who tells me to stop being such a magpie about shiny new creative ideas and FINISH THE CURRENT WORK. She also tells me to get off Facebook and knuckle down to the to-do list. The stroppy (and yet creative) part of me thinks she’s a party-pooper, but deep down I have great respect for her. Because it is only by finishing things that I can truly grow as a writer and artist.

 

  1. Listening to the hands of time more often. Okay, so this seems like a pretty gloomy habit. But there is only so much time to go around. It’s one of the most precious resources any human has. So learning how to make best use of it is worthwhile.

 

  1. Listening to quiet more often. This simply sometimes involves exiting cyberspace and leaving behind the noise of the internet with all its attention-grabbing headlines, tricksy ads, outraged voices, and shouty ‘me, me, me’s that make my head spin, and then tuning into my own voice. (The whispers of the Wild Woman perhaps…?) What is it trying to say? What am I thinking? How am I feeling? Better still, going for a walk in a wood where the trees grow so thickly that you can hear the sound of silence… or along the side of a lake so mirror-like it is as though the Lady of the Lake may well emerge from the waters… ah well, for me, those are some of the best experiences in the world.

 

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

 

So on that rather quiet note I will leave you to your own listening. I wish you all the best for 2017. Thank you, loyal readers (all 11 of you + my wonderful husband!) for continuing to drop by to read my reflections.

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Publisher’s Bum and other Western World Woes

 

Publisher's Bum, by Marija Smits

Publisher’s Bum, by Marija Smits (painted with coffee and watercolours)

 

A Confession

First, let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been a bit dishonest. I could have titled this post ‘Publisher’s RSI’ or ‘Writer’s Wrist’ or ‘Why Exercise Is Good For You So You Should Do It’ but those titles weren’t as arresting (read: potentially titillating). Apologies to those who really don’t want to read about exercise…

Anyway, but yes, it’s true. I have ‘Publisher’s Bum’ as well as ‘Writer’s Wrist’ (i.e. RSI in my wrist) because I spend far too much time on the computer for my publishing work: writing emails, filling in Excel spreadsheets, typesetting, cover designing, writing blurbs, managing the website etc. etc. and I really must get myself a proper mouse thingy because this glide pad on the laptop is really knackering my wrist.

I digress. The point is that I do a lot of sitting around and not enough exercise. In September 2015 my youngest started school, so back then I thought to myself: ‘Aha! I will now be like one of those “proper” freelancers/portfolio living folks and do what I want in my free time. I will schedule some exercise time into my week.’

Of course it didn’t happen because I had a lot of publishing work to do, and you know, there’s less of an activation barrier to continuing to sit at the computer doing work than there is to actually getting off my bum and doing some exercise.

 

Mothering As Exercise

Now, at the start of September 2015 this wasn’t an issue, but gradually, it became an issue. Because there is a shift from the early days/years of motherhood where calories are being burnt up simply by breastfeeding and babywearing and running around after a young child to, let’s say, a more sedentary phase of motherhood when the children are older. In the early years there’s no time for “formal” exercise because baby and toddler and pre-schooler care IS exercise. But then they get older and those calories aren’t being used up to make vast quantities of breastmilk or child weightlifting or running down the road after a toddler/pre-schooler who has discovered that actually, they can go pretty fast on a balance bike. Hmm.

But still… I’m EATING like I’m that younger-than-now mother. I’m hoovering up the kids’ leftovers like I’m going to single-handedly rid the world of all the problems associated with the imbalance in global food supply. (Actually, I know in part why I’m doing this, it’s a) because I’m greedy and b) it’s because of history i.e. my parents indoctrinating me with the idea that as others don’t have enough I must finish what is on my plate. Also, it’s rude to your hosts to not finish off food.)

So, yeah the wobbly bits of me bother me somewhat (actually, I have affection for the wobbly bits, they are actually quite endearing and very humanizing. If I ever find that I’m taking myself too seriously I simply have to look down at my belly and squoosh it into a funny shape). BUT, the wobbly bits are stopping me from fitting into some of my favourite clothes AND, most importantly, they are indicative of the fact that I’m not as fit and healthy as I used to be.

 

The Psychology Bit

So, after almost a year of having exercise at the bottom of my list of priorities, I am finally making the psychological progress necessary to make it rise up the list of priorities.

First, I reminded myself that my good health is as important to my family as is the good health of my children, my husband and other family members. So it’s okay for me to spend time on keeping myself fit and healthy. Also, exercise actually makes me work more efficiently (as well as helping me to have a healthier mind – freer of anxiety, OCD etc.) so it’s important to build some formal exercise into my week. Also, reflecting on our eating habits as a family has been useful – I know that we lapse too easily into processed food because it’s quick to prepare.

Second, I have had a good think about what kind of exercise suits me best. I am hypermobile and have to be aware of tendons that can get overstretched and damaged (just because they can easily bend in all sorts of random directions!) so something like running, which impacts on my right knee badly isn’t going to happen (although years ago, pre-children, I enjoyed running). And by the way, I’ve probably got a post brewing about hypermobility, hormones and motherhood, but that’ll have to wait for a bit.

Third, I am now wise enough (or is that mature/experienced enough?) to know that I cannot radically change the natural build of my body. I can tone my muscles but I sure as hell can’t do anything about my bone structure. I am what I am, and that’s okay. (Although, of course, the fashion and beauty industry would like to tell us otherwise. But hey, that’s neoliberalism for you. There’s always a product that you can buy to change yourself, right?!)

Lastly, I know that at heart I’m lazy. Give me a book and a full fridge and a day off and I’ll happily lay in bed all day simply reading and eating, reading and eating. Okay, so what with having kids the whole “day off” thing isn’t going to happen, but still… my point is that inertia to exercise is very real. The way that I eliminate/reduce inertia is by making the exercise another habit. For example: I write most days. It’s not that difficult to find a 15 or 30 minute slot per day, if (health-permitting, of course) you really want to. Once writing every day (or every other day) becomes a habit, it’s a difficult habit to break. Same with handwashing after going to the toilet. It’s done automatically. So three times a week I do some kind of formal exercise (I tend to favour a bit of weightlifting and high intensity interval workout, a la Joe Wicks), a little bit of skipping, wild dancing, as well as swimming. And most days I walk somewhere. Something else that can help with motivation is having a friend, or partner, giving a gentle nudge or some words of encouragement so that you just get on and do it. Oh, and the Paralympics ALWAYS motivates me. If those brilliant individuals can overcome the challenges in their lives to excel in various sports, then really, who am I to moan?

My local swimming pool, image by Marija Smits

My local swimming pool, image by Marija Smits

 

Exercise as Creative Endeavour

So that’s it, I guess. An exercise routine is for life, not just for Christmas. And like most creative activities, e.g. drawing and writing, it doesn’t require a lot of money to get started. (A massive bonus for me as I really can’t afford gym fees or anything like that.) Rather like any other endeavour (such as writing) that is important to our lives, exercise has to become a habit and something that we can fairly easily commit to, BUT without giving ourselves hugely unrealistic expectations (such as I WILL get published by one of the Big Five and get a six figure advance; I WILL have a body like a supermodel) because when/if we don’t attain those goals it is very easy to beat ourselves up about this so-called failure and not re-start the process. Physical activity is, in a way, analogous to the creative process. As long as one finds some form of activity that is enjoyable then it feels good to do it and the “habit” more easily becomes ingrained. Exercise, like creativity, is mainly about the process; regular physical exertion is the crafting of our own bodies through the growth of muscle tissue, blood capillaries, lung capacity and the reduction of other tissues e.g. fat tissue. And it’s also a brilliant excuse for listening to plenty of up-tempo music. Ricky Martin anyone?!

 

 

Lastly, if you’d like to recommend/share your own exercise tips (or what exercise works best for you) or healthy food recipes, or just some groovy music, I’m all ears… 🙂

And thanks again to Maddy at Writing Bubble for providing the necessary spur to write this post!

 

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