Monday, February 22, 2016

A problem shared is a problem doubled

You may think the average man suffers more stress because he bottles up his feelings, while his lady friend processes and diminishes her angst in conversation.

I read an article recently that questioned this (shameface: I can't remember where!) It suggested that, while the above may be true sometimes, women can also aggravate and heighten anxiety by talking about their worries or even potential worries all the time. No distract-yourself, beer-drinking, football talk for us, thanks!

Which brought to mind one anxiety that, despite my best evasive strategies, keeps hurling itself at me.

If you're a mum, you simply cannot avoid getting drawn into finger-nail-extracting conversations about schools.

When the twins were one, and we'd just moved back to Britain, a complete stranger (female) approached me in Tesco. Within a few sentences of small talk she had told me I had to get them into one of two primary schools in Sheffield or they were done for. Seriously. In a city of 550,000. I nearly smacked her.

Since then, I have been asked about the schools in our new Sheffield suburb so many times I almost wrote out answers on notecards so I didn't have to say anything any more. Recently, I tried to ask a mum who takes her son to our closest primary a simple question about catchment boundaries. She assumed I was worried about results and launched into a great exposition on league tables. Get me out of here!!!!!!!

Quite honestly, this is one of many areas of chit chat that make me long to be a man and withdraw to my cave. As long as the closest school to my house will keep my children safe, burden them minimally with tests or results and think a bit about who they are as individuals, I'm happy.

But I'm forced to get unhappy. By my fellow mothers. All the time. So I worry more than I would naturally incline to about the whole thing and chew my cheeks off with irritation at the people who should be my partners in crime. And I haven't even started on my moral and political issues with our individualistic and competitive approach to education.


Anyone for a pint?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Til Death us do Part

At 37, I find few of my friends are getting together, getting married, buying houses and having babies. But some of them are getting divorced. Or going through experiences that could lead them there.

It's upsetting. In addition to lots of thinking and talking with my friends, I've been rereading the Church of England wedding vows .

Here are a few thoughts my conversations and reading have provoked:
1) Marriage is a community affair.....
During a wedding, everybody vows to "support and uphold" the couple. The public nature of the marriage is emphasised, as is the gravity of taking any action that threatens it.

A genuine community will make an effort to support couples; create space for honest, vulnerable conversation about marriage. How often do we share with others anything of our joys and struggles as a couple? Or dare to let friends know we are concerned about or proud of their marriages? It's harder to do this when we live at a distance - but still possible, either by keeping in touch or forming new support networks or both.

And this "marriage threatening action" isn't just about affairs. How often do we gleefully seek out, nourish and sustain another couple's story of conflict, for example?

2) ... but for the married individual, everything (including anticipated and realised offspring) must play second fiddle to Mr or Mrs.

Again, let's get over the obession with sex. Yes, 'forsaking all others' means not sleeping around. But often infidelity ends a long road of heartache.

Confide in your spouse, not your best, newest or oldest friend. Let go that great career, social opportunity or perfectly contented baby if it makes you forget the wellbeing of your partner or compromises the amount of time you have to be intimate with them. Defend and admire one another in public, even when there is opportunity to appear the 'better half' by attacking, mocking or letting them stand alone. Resolve the conflicts that parenting exhaustion bring into your relationship.

3) Marriage is not intuitive.

Why would anyone bother with vows that came naturally? We repeat these words in such solemn fashion because most of us will find it difficult to be faithful, to love in times of poverty or sickness, to share our souls and our bodies.

You can learn to be more and better married every day but for the majority, it's a job of work.

4) The churches have a lot to offer from their understanding of the sanctity of marriage: sadly, they often emphasise the wrong stuff.

For a church community, and any genuine community, marriage is sacred. (That is not to say a divorced or separated person is to be looked down upon - absolutely not. We have all fallen short if a couple we know and love is 'put asunder'.) In most cases, we refuse to accept its over until the fat lady sings. We fight tooth and nail to preserve it, where possible.

It isn't sacred because it's heterosexual. Or because you didn't have sex with someone else (or even your spouse to be) before you entered into it. Or because you got married in church. Or because you never had an affair or broke your vows.

A marriage is sacred because it is good - Godly - for people. For both parties in the marriage and for everybody else it touches, perhaps especially those on their own. A marriage that functions well builds up the wider community. And a marriage that breaks, be that officially or secretly, causes great hurt beyond its partners.

I'm going to do my best to be a good wife and a good friend to every other marriage on my radar. At least until I reach the next stage in life when all my friends are dying off. By then, I might be too depressed to be of any use. Said Eeyore.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Practice makes perfect

Would you rather hear "You're brilliant at ...." or "You work so hard at ...."?

I bet, instinctively, you prefer the former. I do too. Let's be honest, the hard work observation is often a euphemism for 'You're not good at ....". Shame.

Our society has, for the most part, lost its appreciation for practice and long-term effort, favouring the instant gratification gained from a 'natural' talent. We admire overnight pop idols and talent-spotted models, not veteran politicians, social workers, foster carers and relatives.

Practice is for some reason considered the domain of the elite. It is vital for musicians and sportsmen. But it applies to the simplest of things. Everyone can use it to their advantage. If you practice smiling, you feel happier. If you force a yawn, you grow sleepy.

We don't get good at being parents, spouses, friends, honest, caring, disciplined etc by magic, genetics or reading lots of books. We get there by practicing.

Now, Gladwell's rule says it takes approximately 10,000 hours to gain true expertise. Does the new parent despair of raising a well-adjusted child? No. Partly because I think you can inherit the practice done by others - get it in your blood, so to speak. A child treated kindly (by someone - not necessarily their parents)  will usually be kinder. It is likely their benefactors were able to be kind for the same reason.

Our job is to carry on putting in the parenting practice in our time. It will benefit our children for much longer than the 18 years they're under our rooves.

Consider the difference between practice and rehearsal. If you're a musician, practice means going over the difficult bits time and time again, doing scales and exercises (boring!), altering your technique - ideally, with a guide. Rehearsal means running through a performance.

It is interesting to apply this idea to our relationships and character development. If you are trying to build a deep bond with someone or to change yourself for the better, you constantly need to consider your behaviour, spot the bits you don't do well and strive to improve - ideally, again, with a guide. Hammering out the same old reactions and conversations time and time again, in the hope they'll work eventually, is at best frustrating and at worst destructive.

Finally, I notice two extremes in relation to the 'practice makes perfect' mantra. Some people, more typically men, will adopt it wholeheartedly. They believe they can get to the top. They idolise excellence and the progress they can make, stamping on all kinds of little people along the way. Others, more typically women, will happily rehearse the same old ditties but do not have the confidence or bravery to practice sacrificially, in the belief they can improve and become excellent.

The way we practice is not for our benefit alone but for the benefit of the communities in which we live. We should not fear becoming excellent. Neither should we forget that our excellence is not for us - but rather for the world in which we live.