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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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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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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The Walnut Hearts

Welcome to the ‘Look At All The Women’ Carnival: Week 1 – ‘The Lovers’

This post was written especially for inclusion in the three-week-long ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of Cathy Bryant’s new book ‘Look At All The Women’. This week our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘The Lovers’ (the first chapter in Cathy’s poetry collection).

 

Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants.

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Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

The Walnut Hearts

 

And this is what I found within

the hard and secret shell:

two walnut hearts, identical

in substance, texture, taste.

 

They were as one, now cleaved in two;

their flesh exposed to air.

They wither, dry; time makes them weak,

their shells begin to crack.

 

And what of us, my lover, friend?

We must expect the same.

We live, we love, we age, we die;

yet still our hearts are twinned.

 

 

MARIJA SMITS

 

 

I’m not a big fan of ‘forever’ and ‘always’ and the idea that there is only one ‘right’ person for each person on this Earth, but when I wrote the above poem I felt it was right to include a line about ‘twinned’ hearts. My husband and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage tomorrow so I can’t help but maybe add a touch of sentimentality to this post! My point is that by being together for 17 years (we were a couple for 7 years before we got married) we kind of are twinned – in the sense that we sometimes seem to read each other’s minds, and that whatever happens in the future, history will twin us. If our children go on to have children, and they go on to have children, we will be in their family tree – our names ‘forever’ beside each other. Separate, but together.

 

What strikes me about wedding anniversaries is how I often think about them in connection to the local news. Local newspapers often carry stories about couples who are celebrating their ruby or diamond wedding anniversary, and it’s a rare chance to congratulate these couples on the longevity of their relationship and to ask them what the secret of their wedded bliss is. Sometimes the answer given is: “Doing things together – having similar interests and hobbies”. Sometimes the answer is: “Laughing together” or perhaps: “Being able to compromise”. Undoubtedly these things are important – and hopefully there as a solid foundation to the relationship right from the start, but surely good communication has to be key to the growth and harmony of a relationship?

 

Becoming parents has certainly changed our relationship. How could it not? In her book What Mothers Do, Naomi Stadlen writes:

A two-person relationship is radically different from one of three people. A two-person relationship has a kind of elegant symmetry, whereas this three-person one is complex. It is not symmetrical. The two parents have a biological relationship with their child, but a consensual relationship with each other… …Additional children increase the complexity, but the change is not as great as the two-into-three change. This doesn’t necessarily drive a ‘wedge’ into the marriage. But it certainly changes it.

 

This change can be challenging, but clear communication can make all the difference. Talking, and really listening to the other person can help such a lot. Some days, for us, it goes like this:

 

After a long day of mothering all I want is a cup of tea and to be able to discuss my day with my husband. After a long day of working at a demanding job all my husband wants is a cup of tea and some quiet time. After a long day full of excitement, and discovery and play, all our children want is to talk to us! We used to snap at each other at the end of the ‘work’ day, which left all of us feeling unhappy. This snapping, though unwelcome, at least allowed us to realise that this time was an ’emotional hotspot’. It took clear communication and a bit of creativity to help us get to a place where ‘daddy home time’ is now no longer so fraught!

 

Family life is busy. Sometimes conversations between my husband and I consist of five minutes of talking about bills before we go to bed. And yet family life is also fluid – we can often snatch moments when our children play together happily to have a hug and to ask each other that all-important question: “How are you?”. “Fine,” I might say. (More often it’s “Tired!”) But the other day it was “Fine. Looking forward to going out for lunch on our anniversary.”

 

Aw 🙂
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Look At All The Women, by Cathy Bryant

Look At All The Women, by Cathy Bryant

Look At All The Women is now available to buy from:

The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) – we can ship books around the world!

and as a paperback from Amazon.co.uk.

It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.

If you’d like to know more about the ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival please find more details about it here:

http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/index.php/books#carnival-2

Please take the time to read and comment on the following fab posts submitted by some wonderful women:

‘Fantasy, love and oddity.’ — Cathy Bryant, guest posting at Mother’s Milk Books, shares two of her favourite poems about lovers from her second collection of poetry, Look At All The Women.

‘The Walnut Hearts’Marija Smits shares some ‘nutty’ poetry about love and reflects on the role good communication has on a harmonious relationship.

Georgie St Clair shares her feelings on why we should indulge our passions as lovers in her lighthearted post — ‘Creative Lovers: Not Tonight Darling’.

‘The Lovers – Or What I Don’t Know About Love’ — Kimberly Jamison posts to her blog The Book Word what she has learnt about love from story books, people watching and her own life and wonders if she actually knows anything at all.

‘Explicit v Implicit’ — Ana Salote at Colouring Outside the Lines considers literature’s role in teaching children about relationships.

Words to live by: “I’m on your side”

Being a mother of two children – one who is 6 years old and one who is 3 years old – means that I spend a lot of my time helping to calm nerves and sort out disputes. It gets tiring (particularly when I’ve only been awake for half an hour and had to ‘referee’ a couple of arguments already!) yet I know that this is normal. Squabbles between siblings is part and parcel of growing up and it’s my role to help ease the situation and find positive outcomes for all.

 

Arguments, frayed nerves and short tempers (and sometimes long, cold silences) are some very obvious ‘symptoms’ of unhealthy (or poor) communication. And of course things such as stress, tiredness and illness only serve to make a person’s communication skills even worse. As part of my training to become a breastfeeding counsellor I learnt a lot about the importance of clear communication – the value of listening, really listening, and how to respond to a person who is asking you for help. The excellent book People Skills (by Robert Bolton) taught me a lot about the many, every day ‘roadblocks’ to clear communication which many, many humans can’t help but use. They are things such as:

 

Logic (avoiding the other’s concerns)

Person 1: “I’m so upset about getting my writing rejected.”

Person 2: “Don’t be upset – it happens to all writers.”

 

Advice (sending solutions)

Person 1:  “I got locked out and now I’m stuck outside my own home!”

Person 2:  “What you need to do is keep a spare set of keys on you all the time.”

 

Criticizing

Person 1:  “I’m soooo tired.”

Person 2:  “Well, if you hadn’t stayed up late, writing your blog, you wouldn’t be feeling awful today.”

 

Right now I kind of want to punch person 2, although person 2 may well be a loved one who, at heart, only wants the best for me.

 

There are so many ways to easily improve communication – listening being the main one – for what, after all, is Person 1 really trying to say in all these scenarios? And what would they appreciate Person 2 saying to them? (I’ll leave you to figure out the interesting back stories…!).

 

Of course we can’t instantly become great communicators, or know exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. But if we keep listening and keep asking ourselves what it must feel like to be in that other person’s shoes (aka empathizing) it would definitely improve matters. My children (like many other adults) don’t know all this communication-skills jargon so I make it nice and simple for them. ‘I’m on your side’ I tell them. And they look at me with hope. They realize that I want to listen, and that I want to help them figure out a happy solution.

 

"I'm on your side" by Marija Smits

“I’m on your side” by Marija Smits

 

When either I or my husband find ourselves down, let’s say, an argumentative path, we do our best to stop and remember: ‘I’m on your side.’

 

That’s all it takes. ‘I’m on your side.’

 

 

p.s. and yes I’m person 1.

 

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Many thanks again to Amanda at writealm for the daily writing prompts (although I only seem to be able to do one a month!).  They are much appreciated :-)

 

The power of descriptive recognition

My husband and I often have discussions about praise. He is wary of it. I don’t tend to be.

I guess the way that people accept praise is very much to do with their own upbringing and how comfortable and confident a person is with their own talents, work and creations. But it is also very much to do with the way the praise is given.

A person just starting out on, say painting, may well be sceptical when told that what they had painted was ‘amazing’. They may perhaps become so worried about their creative attempt, think that the person praising them was mocking them, or trying to obviously (yet badly) cover up the fact that the painting was not particularly skilled. It may cause them to wonder what was ‘amazing’ in the picture and fail to see anything good at all in the painting.

Or perhaps the artist feels really good about being told that their artwork is amazing, and thinks that yes, it was a good first attempt. But the next work they create is only greeted with a ‘yeah, it’s good’. Then they may feel deflated and begin on self-questioning: why wasn’t this one amazing? What’s wrong with it?

With both these scenarios they may well put their brushes away and never pick them up again, which would indeed be a sad thing… (unless of course they are super-confident and determined to keep going whatever because they really love what they’re doing – but more of that perhaps in another post…!).

However, surely the person giving the praise has good intentions at heart. Perhaps they wanted to give the person trying their hand at art a boost, and some encouragement, because they really did like the painting. But saying ‘it’s amazing’ is what is known as ‘evaluative praise’ – it is rarely constructive; it is more likely to cause self-doubt and hypercritical judgement from the person creating the art.

What is more useful is to pick out specific things about the art, say the combination of colours used, the type of brushstrokes, or pencil marks rather than just lumping everything together as ‘amazing’. These comments would be considered as ‘descriptive recognition’ and are more likely to encourage and make the person feel a warm glow inside.

I believe that children, as they grow older, benefit from this type of descriptive recognition too. My daughter used to be really pleased with me saying that her art, craft or scribbles were ‘brilliant’ and ‘amazing’ (you’ll have to forgive my motherly over-generous praise here!) but now she asks me what I specifically like about it, and I pick out certain things and describe how they make me feel, which makes her (and me) grin.

Art and paintbrushes, photo by Marija Smits

Art and paintbrushes, photo by Marija Smits

I recently received some of my own descriptive recognition when my poem ‘The Swing’ took 2nd place in the Swan Ezine annual poetry competition. You can read it here, and also read what the judges had to say about it (at the bottom of the same webpage). I was so pleased to take a place in the competition, and really appreciated the judges concise, but detailed report on the poem, which is a ballad, by the way. And of course it’s good to know that someone took pleasure from my writing! Just hope we get some more summer weather so that going on a swing is once more a pleasant experience (swings in winter, with bitter winds aren’t so pleasant…!).

I totally realize that we don’t always have enough time (or energy) to be creative with our praise, and word things ‘just right’. In the long run it’s probably better to give praise (even evaluative) rather than no praise at all, but still… if a personal touch – some specificity – can be injected into the feedback, then it’ll make it all the richer… 🙂

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This post was inspired by the book People Skills by Robert Bolton, and me gaining 2nd place in the Swan Ezine 2013 poetry competition for ‘The Swing’!

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