Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Are your kids off to uni? 7 top tips to help you survive and thrive

Courtesy of MoneySpace

(Based on my article that appeared in Juno Magazine)

‘You’ll be sad when Sam leaves,’ everyone warned me four years ago when my younger child’s departure for university loomed.

‘I know. But we’ll be fine,’ I said.

I had a good marriage and a fulfilling job. Sam was hardly there anyway, with his busy social life and travel bug. I would miss him, but I was not going to be one of those women who moon over their lost babies.

My first son, Ben had left two years before. I was determinedly bright and positive then: I knew he was going to be happy. I pitied the tear-stained mothers I saw on campus, but me? I was fine. Then across a crowded hall, I saw a Dad cuddling his daughter. At the sight of his loving gesture, a dam broke, releasing tears I hadn’t known were there.

We spent a couple of hours settling Ben in – peering at other newcomers, wondering if they’d be his friends, and trawling round Asda, pointing out the cheap ranges and the urgent need for broccoli.

When we got up to leave him, he stood in the corner of his room, looking anxious. ‘Are you going?’ he said.

‘We have to,’ I told him. ‘Your new life won’t start until we’ve gone.’

The next day a text arrived. After we left, he had met his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it. They had all been up until three.

At home, we adjusted to putting three plates out instead of four (I made the same amount of food – we just ate it). We missed Ben, but he was studying film – his passion since the age of ten. I couldn’t feel negative about him pursuing his dreams.

After a decent interval, we spent a happy weekend visiting him, enjoying a new, more adult relationship. A routine set in of absence, then lovely visits.

The start of Sam’s first term brought another nervous drive, another Asda shop, another moment of parting. I was ready for the tears this time. On the way home, I retreated deep inside myself as I had after Ben’s birth, adjusting to the shock of motherhood. Now the whole adjustment process was thrown into reverse. Both my babies were gone.

‘You must miss him terribly,’ people said. We did, but we had busy lives, and work, and each other. Eighteen-year-olds, I pointed out, are not all that easy to live with. They crash around at three in the morning and eat all the cheese. The house was quieter now, and tidier. We chattered brightly over the silence.

Having vowed to let Sam find his feet before visiting, we decided to make a date to go and see Ben.  But Ben had a hotel job now. He wasn’t sure when we would be free to see us.

Our coping fa├žade disintegrated. We knew that we loved those weekend visits. We hadn’t realised they were keeping us going.

The house felt deserted – our own company an open wound. I could hardly bear to watch those Gogglebox families sitting down together to watch TV.

If we talked about it, parents with teens at their side joked, ‘Ooh, can we lend you ours?’

‘They come bouncing back,’ others said with a weary air. We stood chest high in a misery that no one understood.  

That’s when the dreams began. I would drop a boy off at university and drive home. In his bedroom, I would find him, a baby still, standing in his cot, arms reaching out for me. If everything was all right, no one had told my unconscious mind.

I wrote this tragic little ditty to express it all:

Boys, you are men,
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university,
You are standing up in your cot,
Still needing me.

For all my denial, I was grieving. I began to accept this instead of fighting it. If tears came on my walk to work, I let them. When memories took hold of me, I allowed them to run their course. That end of the kitchen table was where Ben used to sit when he could still fit under that cupboard. That’s where Sam sat in his highchair, shaking his drink over his head.

I began to fret over what my function was, at work and at home. I had lost a role that had filled my life. We had been a family together for twenty years. Now what was I for?

If this is you, I offer you my heartfelt sympathy, and these few things the experience taught me.

7 tips for coping when they fly the nest

1) Acknowledge the impact when your youngster leaves. It’s all right to be anxious. It’s all right to be sad. You are not just missing your adolescent, but the baby, infant and child they were. You are also missing the parent you were and your place you had in their life. Give yourself time and permission to grieve.

2) Try not to dump your emotion on the departing child. They have the right to spread their wings with barely a look back. This doesn’t mean pretending you don’t miss them. But don’t expect them to fix you – that’s not their job.

3) Schedule in a visits straight away – it will be a beacon to aim for. Once you have seen your offspring again, you will feel so much better. Settle into a new routine in which you see them at intervals. Negotiate those intervals – they’ll be missing you too, but give them space!

4) Be kind to yourself. Book in some treats and new experiences. Behave as though you are relishing your newfound freedom. Eventually your heart will adjust and this might actually be true.

5) Take stock. What was important to you before you had a family? What is important now? Years of catering for others might have prevented you from wondering. This time of flux can help kick-start positive change.

6) Your child’s new life, full of opportunity and excitement, can make you wistful. What if you could start again? When you come out of the cocoon you formed with your family, the world will still be out there. Explore it – you might thrive!

7) Relish those moments when they need you again. The phone call about toothache, or their bike being nicked. Of course they still need you – they always will! Try not to sound pleased, though. Just sympathetic, understanding and confident that they’ll cope.

As for you, you will survive, and I hope you will thrive!

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Stop procrastinating now – or soon

Soonish, anyway. At least put it on your To Do list.

Writers are world-class at putting off writing. I can’t focus on it unless every scrap of freelance work is done. And the house is clean, and I’ve made chutney.

Lately I have had a partner in procrastination – my just-graduated son. We returned home from a family holiday. I had a pile of urgent work to do, so writing was out of the question. He had an online TEFL course to finish by producing a lesson plan and an essay.

I met my work deadlines, so for a very rare moment, all I needed to do was write. I had just been on the annual holiday that inspired my new novel The Year of the Ghost. What better time to press on?

And yet I put it off. I made a very good show of being busy – there was the holiday washing to do, windfall apples to preserve, decorating to get started.

My son was more transparent. He’d stay in bed until midday, then say he was keen to get going. ‘Me too,’ I’d say, ‘I’m going to get down to some writing.’ He would potter around until mid-afternoon, by which time he’d be starving. Shopping for food, preparing and devouring it would take up another few hours. He was lucky if he got started by the evening, and then not much progress was made.

It was so sloppily obvious, his student-style procrastination. And yet I wasn’t writing either.

What was stopping us? The Year of the Ghost is at an exciting point – the plot and sub-plots hurtling towards a crisis, long-kept secrets about to burst into the open.

My son’s life, too, is at a tipping point. Once he gets the TEFL qualification, he is going to get a job so he can finish saving up to go and teach in Vietnam. It has been his dream for ages, and it’s finally about to happen.

Was it precisely because our prospects are so profoundly wished for and worked for, that we were  putting off achieving them? Is it scary to reach out at last for what you’ve longed for, like leaving the ground and flying?

I gave up my career to finish my first novel, Unspeakable Things, then battled with the worst procrastination I’ve ever been mired in. I’d wanted to publish a novel my entire life, but I let terrifying self-doubt paralyse me.

I got through it in the end. Unspeakable Things burst upon the literary scene, only twenty-three years in the making. And I had watched my son agonise over the bete noir of his dissertation, but eventually he had ground it out (and got a First for it).

Now we were both slouching round the house putting off the inevitable. I knew it had to stop when I took to the bathroom with a tube of hair remover. ‘Apparently I can’t write with hairy legs!’ I called. We both knew the game was up.

I opened up my document of changes to be made to The Year of the Ghost and went through the novel applying them. I have almost finished rewriting a whole character, among other important improvements. Goodness knows, eventually I'll actually go on with the story. 

As he sat down at his laptop, my son grunted and groaned as though literally pushing through a barrier. Soon, though, there was no distracting him. He wanted feedback from his father when the two of us were in evening mode, nodding off in front of the TV. He battled on, got the work done, submitted it in the middle of the night and found out within hours that he had passed the course. He’s doing an intensive peer-teaching course this weekend to improve his chances of employment. In other words, he’s flying.

Try these 8 strategies to break through procrastination:

1 Work out what you really want to achieve. It could be as profound as ‘end career, finish novel’ or as basic as ‘write thank you letters’ or ‘clean out the cupboards’. 

2 Divide it into smaller, achievable tasks.

3 If you find yourself procrastinating, think through what’s really stopping you from reaching your goal. Once you catch yourself putting obstacles in your own way, it’s easier to push past them.

4 Commit yourself to spending 25 minutes on a task, then plan a break. You’re afraid getting down to it will be horrible. It probably won't be, and even if it is, we can put up with horrible for only 25 minutes, right?

5 Think past the task which is daunting you to the way you’ll feel when it is done.

6 Cut yourself off from distractions – facebook, Instagram, Reddit – you know who you are!!

7 Leave off the task at a good point – don’t leave yourself with a difficulty to solve when you restart. If it’s an essay, stop for a break when you have a clear idea of what you’re going to write next.

8 Plan a reward for when you’ve finished. This stuff is HARD – you deserve it! 

Some people are genetically inclined to procrastinate, and if you suffer from OCD or any kind of attention deficit disorder, it can be a particular problem. Give yourself huge credit when you push through it to achieve your goals. You are a legend!

In a sense, we’re always putting something off. When I’m working, I feel I should be writing. If I have time for writing, I worry I don’t have enough work. When I finally got down to working on the second novel, I felt guilty for putting off marketing the first. I should be writing this blog, booking talks, going round the bookshops to see how Unspeakable Things is doing.

Let’s give ourselves a break! Let's do one thing at a time and do it well. There will always be other things competing for our attention. We have to be at peace with putting them aside.

The hairy legs, the marketing, the other stuff can wait.