Reformation, after a fashion

With a giant Roman warthog. I don’t really have a reason.

I have been feeling a little bit of a mess this week, and it started with a freckle.

No, it started because I am waiting for work to appear (hey, anyone want to pay me to write?) and without it end up feeling like I’m on enforced vacation: dithery, and lazy, and undirected. Then I got a new freckle on my nose that was large and dark enough to look like I’d spilled dinner on myself, and one thing led to another until I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking everything I’d ever written had been a hack-job.

I seem to be in a running-errands-buying-crib-sheets-trying-to-bend-over phase this month. The sort of phase where I’m sat in the evening eating a bagful, a giant BAGFUL of crushed ice because it’s all I want, and eating it till I feel sick. Did you even know you can eat crushed ice till it makes you sick? Was that something I needed to discover for the rest of us?

At slow times like this, I realise that there are ideas about myself that I hold on to, that are precious to me, and that it hurts to be without them. Like, for example, I Am A Person Who Thinks and Writes. It is embarrassing to say it, but I feel vulnerable without it. I feel less of a person.

Then I realise that perhaps there are times when I’m stripped of those things so that I can work out how to be myself without them. They don’t have to define me, after all; or not all the time. I am about to go back to a point where the definition of a productive day is getting dressed and making sure everyone is fed. And sometimes not even getting dressed. It was hard, last time, accepting that simplicity. It was difficult to feel valuable when my own markers of value were all beyond me. I had to find other ways of being complete. I think it’s time to practice it again.

Yesterday I folded laundry and watched a documentary about William Tyndale. Now, there was a man in the grip of an idea that wrung his life out, but burned on far beyond him. He was the first man to translate the Bible in English, and he spent most of his life in exile before being betrayed and executed. He is one of my heroes, and the other players in that grand saga of the English Reformation are endlessly fascinating to me: More, Cromwell and Wolsey, and that great hulking King bearing down over all of them.

‘Henry’, I kept saying, ‘Henry, this is wonderful‘. It was wonderful. I was elbow-deep in knickers, getting excited about the Reformation, and it felt like being myself.

Today we skipped out to Oxford for the afternoon – we last ate Chinese food and took stupid photos in the Ashmolean Museum when I was expecting Henry, and we promised ourselves we’d pass on the tradition once he was old enough. We made faces at the Greek and Roman statues, then went upstairs to see the paintings. There was a single, luminous portrait by Edward Burne-Jones that made me catch my breath. ‘Oh, look’, I said, ‘it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s just beautiful’.

‘BOAT!’ said Henry. I think he was looking at the painting next door. But that one was beautiful too. I was hand-in-hand with my sticky toddler, getting ready to head off the squealy protest that was coming when he had to go back into the pushchair and feeling too huge to be allowed out, frankly; yet there were Pre-Raphaelites on the walls, and I could see that they were lovely.

I am still me, regardless. There are all sorts of ways of feeling complete.

Mary Burne-Jones

Mary Burne-Jones. Isn’t she a beauty? 

Photo courtesy Martin Beek, here

What I would like to know is: what ideas about yourself are most important to you? Do they do you good? And what do you do when you don’t have them for a while?

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20 thoughts on “Reformation, after a fashion

  1. It’s celebrating that inner you I imagine most mothers cling to, the bit only you visit, the musings and gentle humour. I know I lock the door carefully when I leave in case the humdrum might invade. I find getting creative deeply satisfying these days be it for a kids party, making something with my hands, coming up with creative solutions and creating a organised home, that one is a constant work in progress. You come across as a very clever lady and I am not surprised you feel the miss of using your brain cells, mine are just happy to have another to rub along with 🙂

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  2. My big idea about myself is that I am functional. Even on days when I feel like crap, the dishes get washed and the rent gets paid and the readings get read. Of course, on days when I feel low, I really have to push myself, because I AM A PERSON WHO FUNCTIONS and it’s painful and not fun, even though I at least have the comfort of knowing that no matter how few of my problems I can sort out, I can clean my fridge and show up to class on time. I’m not sure how good a thing this is, because it does lead me to ignore my feelings for the sake of Getting Things Done, but then the things get done, and that still feels valuable.

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    • Ah yes, competence – a hugely potent idea 🙂 For me, too, though I’m happy to dabble in incompetence every now and again if it’s something Tim’s good at instead. (A slippery slope, this: one of the biggest balancing acts I find in marriage is not getting into the habit of leaving everything to the other person.)

      The problem I encounter with the competence thing is that on days where I really crash and burn, it feels like abject failure. Does it for you? I need to be better at accepting that sometimes just getting to the end of the day is enough. And also accepting that bad days are ok, and your feelings are valid too.

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  3. Bex says:

    Most important ideas I have about myself are that my time is valuable and I try not to waste it on pointless things. That doesn’t mean I don’t have downtime – taking time out to not do much isn’t pointless, you need breaks. I watch plenty of tv, read books, play games etc etc. I just mean I try not to waste time on things that are ultimately meaningless. So what that the kitchen floor hasn’t been mopped for a month? (I have kids who are old enough to know not to eat stuff that’s ground into the ktichen floor…) Who cares that some trivial piece of admin that no one will ever need wasn’t done? And I’d rather spend time out with the family than time inside cleaning up after them.
    Another thing I value about myself (without trying to sound obnoxious!) is that I’m educated and I love learning. This continues for a life time, not just when you’re in formal education. When I wasn’t at work and was at home with my littlies I enjoyed learning about new things. I took up crochet and found things that interested me. I couldn’t spend too much time on it, especially when you have toddlers who love to unravel wool, but it was enough to feel like I was still doing something with my brain. There’s no excuse to stop learning these days when everything we want to know is just on the other end of a google search.

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    • I love this! I am so often guilty of frittering time. I always worked best on deadlines and once I lost them I struggled to provide my own. Still working on this two years later! But what a great central idea: that your time is valuable and you need to use it on important things. Constructive, rather than destructive.

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  4. Sarah says:

    Wow. I think I am about to experience this feeling. I didn’t realize it until I read this though. I think it will be good for me to have had this warning that it is coming so I can brace myself. So much of my identity is the “Stay at home mom” part of me, but the youngest two (twins) of my five children will start school in August. I will still be their mom, but I will be home alone too many hours in the day. It has been almost 14 years since I have not been home all day with little people. I’m sad and excited. Sad for the change and the ending of a phase in my life, but I am excited about the new adventure, for all of us, too. Still, I know on that first day of school there will be a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach. I will tell myself that I am feeling that way for my boys, but I will know that is more for me than it is for them. Thank you for helping me get ready. I need to get reacquainted with the other parts of me, that make me feel like me.

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    • I love, love, LOVE hearing from women on the other end of the spectrum – where you’ve done years of mothering and it’s become a huge part of your identity. The change after so long must be intimidating! Interesting that being a mother, too, is something that evolves into different things over time, giving other parts of you a chance to come to the fore again.

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  5. Louisa says:

    I’m grateful to read your thoughts and for your question because as I lay feeding my daughter, who seemed to be doing this all night, I had a moment to ‘myself’. As much as you can be whilst actually physically being attached to someone. I suddenly realised that maybe it had been too long since I’d even stopped to think deeply about ‘me’ and how motherhood had changed me. Who was I before and what had I lost?

    For me it is travelling and painting. These are my passions that I can lose myself in and feel free. I had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that my passion had gone. Will I end up a tired, make up-less mum that doesn’t have time to care about herself, with no passion? I saw my painting on the wall and thought that part of me had gone. However in a deeper panic stricken search for something, anything to be my old self whilst I watched my son laughing at Postman Pat it hit me that my passions were still hidden beneath motherhood but they were still there. The creative part of me had evolved into designing a nursery or choosing photo frames for our lounge wall to put my family photos in. My skills of actually painting were at the moment impossible yet my passion for colour and form were still being used.

    And for travel. Although I haven’t been eating unknown foods in the humid, vistas of South East Asia I have been exploring new places I’d never been to before. The Dorset countryside is so beautiful in its own way that I still got the buzz whilst breathing in the new experiences.

    Suddenly I’m satisfied. I can be a mummy and find my passions entwined into my family life.

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    • Oh, I can identify with this so much. And how brilliant that you were able to see where you’re still fitting in your passions, but in different ways. So important to keep up the bits of yourself you had before, and use them.

      I think one of the loveliest things we get to do as mothers is pass on our loves and enthusiasms to our children. It’s one of the things that make us exactly right for the children we get. 🙂

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  6. Well, this sounds like a crisis. Is it one? I can say I’ll be there in a few. I have never known how staying at home without going for an official job would be. I’m scared as hell. But I know at this point of time that is the best i can do. Right now the most important idea I have about myself is that I am earning and contributing to the household, while making sure that most of my days are not wasted. Next to that comes the idea that I have to be useful, one way or the other. I can’t just sit around expecting someone else takes care of things. I have to be in the thick of things. And quite soon I expect to be. I don’t think this will change even if i’m not on a job anymore. But another important thing is I am not easily convinced that all i can do is look after a household without help. I believe I can do more. Only I have to figure out what that ‘more’ is.
    Writing is something I’ve been doing all the time, for many years. Only if someone would pay me to do that. 🙂

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    • It’s definitely a huge learning curve, going from full-time work to stay-at-homing. Especially with a tiny baby. I have similar attachments to earning/contributing and being useful, which I think stems from the years when Tim was studying and I earned the wage! But there are different ways of being ‘useful’, and I had to accept that what I was doing at home was just as important as working had been.

      Good luck figuring it out in a way that works for you. It has to be an individual thing, I think. Just give yourself time to get used to a tiny baby, first – they are a whirlwind!

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  7. Let’s see…I’m a person who reads, a person who plays music, and a person who enjoys being active. Not that I don’t have my lazy moments, but I suppose I have to tie that last one in with being someone who doesn’t like to be told I can’t do something. I hated the long period when I was pregnant with Ethan, as well as the long time afterwards when I couldn’t go running. At least, though, before he popped out, I had swimming and weight lifting to keep me occupied. I go a bit stir crazy without a physical outlet of some kind, whether it’s running or hiking or playing through old etudes or upholstering a bench: finding some way to move helps me get some mental calm. And yes, you move A LOT as the mother of a toddler, but my movement is my ‘me’ time: a chance to unplug from all of my other relationships and just focus on me.

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    • Mmm yes, physical movement is an interesting one – exercise is an alone-time thing, for one, and a release, for another. Both of which I think are important. Pregnancy must be frustrating in that sense!

      For me I find pregnancy challenges two of my ideas about myself, one of which is easily my most destructive: I Am A Person Who Is Busy and I Am A Person Who Is Skinny. It’s very good for me to be forced to let go of both.

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      • I liked pregnancy for the release of the I Am Someone Who Should Be Skinny expectation. I could embrace all of the bump hanging-out-ness in the world. My problem was the postpardum: I Am A Person With A Flabby Tummy and Sausage Fingers. But then, I got a good drive to exercise and become: I Am A Person With The Determination To Look How I Choose, which was much nicer than before because somehow you manage to get a pass on any unmet expectations in the weight department once you’ve grown and birthed another human being and any achievement is made that much sweeter by people’s increased kudos…my own kudos to myself included. 🙂

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  8. natalie hacking says:

    oh how i love the victorians; victorian humanities was my senior seminar when i studied at the BYU center in london all those years ago. sadly when we were there in oxford last september, that burne-jones must have been safely tucked away in storage. what a shame, as it is gorgeous.
    to answer your question, art is my love and i feel more myself amid my mamahood when i am reminding my children that it is what i loved and studied and continue to love and study just not within the pretty walls of an art museum every day. i feel proud that my children know what “art museum behavior” is, that they can identify art movements by examples and that we have mini mama art camp during summer breaks. in this way, i feel like i’m finding a compromise between what i used to spend my days doing and what i find myself doing now. i love both but they must be convinced to dwell together in harmony. compromise, after all, is how we mamas survive the every day.
    incidentally, i shared this entry with my sister (also an amazingly talented writer like yourself, trying to get her first book published amid mamahood) — i feel positive you two would be good friends.

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