Going Balls To The Wall, Learning How To Fail and Other Life Lessons From Thailand

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I’m going to start this story with another story, which is surely how all the best stories begin.

When I went to Thailand a couple of months ago I had the absolute pleasure of crossing paths with Laura, someone I’d known on Twitter for yonks and yonks. We’d be in Bangkok for 24 hours at the same time and had never managed to meet up in London so we agreed to hang out on the other side of the world. Casual.

Now, Laura’s blog is one of a few that I love. She lays bare her heart and her head in stories of raw, true human emotional experience and emotion. Some of it resonates and ALL of it prompts me to think and for that I adore her words. So I was looking forward to meeting her, sharing the life experiences I know we’d had in common and getting to know each other better.

I’m sure Laura won’t mind that I describe her as a force of nature. She is HERE, she is PROUD, she know what she wants and she ain’t afraid to get it. As soon as I met Laura we got into one of those conversations that is just so intensely interesting that I remember wishing more than once that I had a pen and paper to write down the golden nuggets of truth she was telling me (over pints of £1 Thai beers, natch).

In the last year I’ve had a personal motto, and that is JFDI. Just fucking do it. Because if you want to do something you should – life is too short and uncertain not to. Laura embodies this motto, she goes where her heart takes her, falls in love with abandon, tries new things, puts herself in uncertain situations… because what is life about if not that?

I walked away from my 5 hours with Laura feeling indestructible (and more than a little pissed, it has to be said). I’m so sure of what I want out of life but I have to admit that I’m still a little wobbly on how to get there, but Laura made me focus on what I want: cut the crap, balls to the wall, just fucking do it.

I want to travel, I want to meet new people, I want to write, I want to make people happy with my cooking, I want to be the healthiest I can be, I want to train, I want to work hard, I want security for my family. That’s what I want, and I will always love Laura for giving me the courage to  be proud of that. In the hours I spent with Laura she allowed me to summarise and process the changes I went through experiencing rural N.E. Thailand and converted that into ways I could live my life moving forward.

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On to the story part of my story.

Six weeks ago I was offered a promotion that was so very unexpected. I’d been working freelance as an Account Director at a Marketing agency and they asked me to come on permanently to take on their Head of Marketing role. I was stoked. I’d have a team, lots of great clients, autonomy, fiscal responsibility… it was a huge deal. I basked in the glory of my new job for a while – I’d worked so hard for the last few years, why not? – and got on with the job in hand.

Full-on is not the word. This was the challenge of all challenges. The Marketing team at the agency had gone through many recent personnel changes, there were difficult and time-consuming situations that needed resolving and I was leading projects that I had little experience in. Having worked in digital almost since I designed my first website 15 years ago it was odd to look at physical flyers with print lead times, traditional marketing plans, campaigns that didn’t have websites or Twitter or Facebook at their core. I felt out of my depth which is something I haven’t experienced in years. I was working my arse off, 70 hours a week at one point, but the job was never done. When I worked for myself I was always confident that I’d done the best job possible but working in a business when you’re responsible not only for your own actions but those of a team was hard – I was answerable for everyone’s work, not just my own.

I really loved the job. It was challenging, exciting, all-encompassing. But tough, TOUGH. I started feeling more stressed than I think I ever have, didn’t sleep well, was unconsciously grinding my teeth, developed palpitations. I was rushing around from pillar to post, neglecting my friends and becoming snappy with the children. Our house was a state because I just didn’t have time to clean and one week I ate cucumber for breakfast four days in a row because I hadn’t visited a supermarket in weeks. I was so tired that I became reliant on an afternoon pickup from those tubs of M&S Caramel Crispy Bites (I don’t do coffee). I’d be at work all day, pick up the children, put them to bed then get back to work until bedtime. It was relentless. Enjoyable but relentless.

And so I had one moment last Wednesday at about 11.30pm when I received an email I didn’t really want to receive and I burst into tears. My first thought was, “I really don’t want to do this anymore” and then my second thought was “so don’t do it anymore, idiot”.

Doh.

I’ll admit my pride was a bit hurt at the thought I’d tried really bloody hard at this job and just didn’t have the mental, emotional or physical capacity to see it through but in the end logic won. It would have been easier to keep trucking on with my lovely big reliable salary and impressive job title as I slowly descended into a pool of my own stress-related mentalness but I thought back to my time with Laura and realised this is not what I want. This is not something that makes me want to go balls to the wall. I want to do what I’m good at, be in charge of my own destiny, work in an area I feel real passion and a connection for (that’s you, internet).

Plus, come on. I’m a single mother of a 3 and 4 year old, it’s hardly realistic to be working 70 hours a week now, is it?

So this is me stepping outside the box, apologising for following my head and not my heart, for choosing money and security over what I truly love. I feel like I’m back in control of my own destiny and making that decision on my own feels really wonderful.

And I share this story because I want to say thank-you. Thank-you to Laura who puts her own self out there to help other people see they can do it (and you can read her own personal story about why it’s OK to quit here). Thank-you to the Universe for the series of events that led me to feel empowered enough to make this decision (that’s the biggest fucking hippie sentence I’ve ever written, right there). Thank-you to my mum who has held my own personal fort down and looked after my children while I’ve been living the stressed-out corporate dream. Thank-you to my friends who haven’t forgotten about me while I’ve drifted off into this period of craziness.

I also share this because I think it’s important to realise we don’t have to do what others expect us to do. We can take the road less travelled and discover that path is much happier. As Laura says, go balls to the wall… it’s a great way to take steps towards finding your happiness.

Internet, I am back. And by god have I missed you.

What Feminism Means To Me

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What is a Feminist?

This morning I tweeted about International Woman’s Day and said simply that I have never been happier to be a girl.

And it is true… this is why.

Pre-separation I didn’t really think much about the concept of the Feminist. I’m ashamed to say that for me at that time it brought to mind men-hating bra-burning women with radical political views and clothes made from hemp.

Back then I was a woman who definitely enjoyed being one, but not for the right reasons. I enjoyed having an interest in clothes and make-up and having doors opened for me, I believed that you had it pretty good if you were supported by a wealthier partner and didn’t really see myself as a strong or powerful person, woman or not. A Feminist to me was someone I would never identify with: a bolshy, potentially offensive and masculine woman. The opposite to myself.

So what is a Feminist?

I had lived with a strong male presence in the same household my whole life – my Dad has always worked very hard and was the breadwinner in my family and then I moved in with my ex-husband at the age of 18, who always earned more than me. As many of us do I associated earning with power and easily fell into my role of the wife: cook, housekeeper and general caretaker. It never crossed my mind that it would possible for me to push forward in my career and achieve that same status or higher; I assumed that as the woman I would be the one to have a baby or two and stay at home to care for them. And this was a life plan I was happy with.

One of the hardest things about my divorce was the deviation of my life from this plan. All of a sudden I was be expected to think ‘like a man’: lead a household, make all the decisions, earn all the money. It was a situation I’d neither pictured or wanted myself to be in and it was terrifying.

On the contrary for me this divorce journey has been hugely positive. I have learned that I am strong, I am capable… that I am a Feminist. Just because I am a woman does not mean I have to fall in with a set of outdated values dictated to me by society. I am not a man-hater but a woman-lover and my gender will not hold me back from being who I want to be.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her famous essay, We Should All Be Feminists (the first feminist text I ever purchased and very highly recommended, see an excerpt here):
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important… marriage can be a good thing. It can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?

Valid point

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A Feminist is not a woman who hates men. She is not a woman who believes in crushing men, in being all-powerful. To me a Feminist is a woman who has the power to embrace her femininity yet make strong and informed choices about her own working, family and personal life, to know she is able to decide whether she wants to go out to work or raise children, or to work and then raise children and then work again… it’s her decision. The right for a woman to choose to live her life in a way that suits herself and her family best and feel strong and empowered while she’s at it – for me that is Feminism.

Since my split I have a wonderful new appreciation for other woman, the likes of which I hadn’t had before. I was always a guys girl, feeling uncomfortable in the company of women I didn’t know or women who seemed to be by my judgement overly feminine. I was worried of being judged by other women (ironic…), of the bitchiness that I know can be so prevalent in larger groups of women (sadly still true). Give me a group of men over a group of women any day and I would have been happy.

But now I thrive off other women. I enjoy the energy of women, especially that of mothers who, having gone through the inhumane sleep deprivation, hospital stays, teething, disastrous nappy changes and heart expanding love know that our gender can do anything. That is the most important lesson that motherhood has taught me – that our potential as women, each and every one of us, is absolutely limitless. I believe in the sisterhood, that by and large we are here for each other. I feel I belong here and I support my fellow women in our journey in motherhood and life.

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The struggle between family and working life is still real and I don’t know how to conquer this. I doubt if any of us will ever discover the answer. I start a new job tomorrow as an Account Director for a Marketing Agency close to home and though I have managed to negotiate less than full time hours I know the juggle will still be difficult. I have the yearning that my children are so young and they need me – the days are long but the years are short – but then I also have the instinct to push push pusht to get ahead, smashing that glass ceiling, working as hard as I can on behalf of me, my family, women of the world and Sheryl Sandberg to show just how good girls are.

want to be out to work, I want to be showing my children by example that they can achieve absolutely anything if they work hard enough and I want to feel proud that I myself worked as hard as I possibly could, every single day.

And I can do that, in lipstick and heels if I want to, because I am a Feminist. It might never be easy but it is real.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Divorce: What I’ve Learned

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Two years down the line and my divorce is final. It happened last week, the week after I was made redundant and on my last day in the London office. It was a big day for life changes, that Thursday – divorce and redundancy – totes emosh, as the kids say.

Or actually not so totes emosh, really. I’ve known this has been coming for a long time and the only way I can describe how I felt upon being divorced is… weird. It was a totally unceremonious experience; I filled the final form out at home, signed it and drove it to the court on the way to work where it was stamped and put in a pile of other paperwork. Nobody congratulated me, offered me a coffee or asked me to marry them because I now legally can. As this happened so long after our break-up I didn’t really feel sadness, just a sense of finality, I guess.

I did use it as an excuse to have a pizza and wine lunch with one of my favourite soon-to-be-ex work colleagues, though. Every cloud.

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FYI: Pizza Pilgrims on Carnaby Street – disappointing and slightly soggy. Sad times. 

It has had me thinking about the divorce though, and what it has meant to us all. Someone asked me recently if I felt like I tried hard enough in my marriage and that led to more thinking. I can say with my hand on my heart that yes, I did try very hard to make it work. I think in any situation like this when there are children involved you do your very best to do the right thing by them, which mostly is to have two happy parents in love. And it’s because of this that I spent a long time feeling guilty and like I had failed by choosing divorce.

But it took the final stages of my divorce to realised I haven’t failed, not at all. Choosing to get divorced was instead the bravest thing I have ever done.

The Brave Divorce

I ‘had it all’ by many standards: a big house, a husband with his own business, two beautiful children, a car, money in the bank, a David Lloyd membership. But I was very unhappy – we both were, really – and rather than stay together because it was safe and the marriage was easy and familiar we both mutually decided to walk away. Him to London to throw himself into creating a successful business and me to I’m-not-quite-sure-what yet. Children and work, work and children.

I can’t even tell you how terrifying that was. I hadn’t been on my own since I was 18, had never lived alone or had to deal with things like bills, Council Tax and insurance. It might sound a but silly but I was really scared of that independence, managing my budgets, knowing who to pay and when. Looking back I can’t believe that I lacked confidence in what would turn out to be one of my favourite household tasks.

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Divorce doesn’t have to be sad. We worked through most of our issues before splitting up and then got the anger/sadness out of the way in the first six months. I’d say we’re friends now, though he might disagree, being on the receiving end of phonecalls that consist of “OMG IF YOU DON’T STOP FEEDING OUR CHILDREN SO MANY SWEETS THEIR TEETH WILL GET PULLED OUT” (basically, if you aren’t a fan of overreactions then don’t marry me or let me watch Junk Food kids). Looking back it’s incredible to see how different we both are independently compared with how we were as a couple; I know I feel like a much nicer person, less selfish and more hardworking. I am happy, content. And I say that after a night of broken sleep that culminated in me getting toddler poo on my leg (don’t ask).

The worst thing about the divorce has been the paperwork. Reams of it. And all in centuries-old legal speak… colour me confused. I managed the process without a lawyer, having already worked out finances and chidcare arrangements amicably with the ex and it’s been fine. It must have saved us thousands so we only ended up paying the court fees. Told you I was good at finances!

It feels like a door has firmly closed now and I’m excited about that. Rightly or wrongly I still very much believe in marriage and think it can be a wonderful thing. Divorce has been an experience, one I don’t want to repeat, but I don’t regret anything. It brought me Elfie and Hux, after all. But if I could give myself advice ten years ago it would be this: perhaps don’t believe you know everything there is to know about life and love when you get engaged at 19, eh?

 

The Redundant Life

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My job, my lovely lovely job in the brilliantly wonderful ad agency has gone.

It has moved down to London without me, like a 23 year old bright eyed graduate leaving home with stars in her eyes. Along with the rest of my lovely lovely team’s jobs, it’s migrated down the M1 to the big city for bigger and better things.

Obviously I, the mum of two children who are well and truly happily based 40 miles north of London, have not moved with my job. Remember when I left my previous job in London to spend more time with those children? Yep. I had to say goodbye once again.

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In a not-so poetic metaphor: redundancy is rubbish. This is the first time it’s happened to me and it’s been well and truly awful. Seven of us in total have been left without jobs in the department move and in truth it’s been a very sad situation. I loved my job, enjoyed going to work very much, saw my colleagues as friends and confidantes and to have that taken away quite swiftly was a bit shocking. As one of my work buddies put it (though she brilliantly illustrated this through the medium of unicorns so it was obviously heaps better) you go through the different stages of redundancy; you’re gutted, then angry, then you accept the news, return to being sad, and then move on to being mind-numbingly drunk.

Only I missed out on the drunk part because I had a stinking cold. WHY ME, WORLD?!

My team left a week ago and I had my final day in the London office last Thursday, having agreed to work from home to help manage the new staff bed-in for a couple more weeks. But it’s difficult, it’s hard. I miss my work friends, I don’t have a job to go to when this one ends and I’ve never been in this situation before. I am a fan of routine, I like knowing where I’m working, when I’m working, where I’ll be in six months (as much as I can, anyway). Not knowing makes me nervous. Not earning makes me nervous. Kids need shoes and all that.

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I have, however, enjoyed being a bit more present in the children’s lives. Being able to dawdle on the school run and chat with the other mums rather than scoot straight off to the office has been lovely. Taking Hux to pre-school (I was always at work for the 9.15 start) is amazing. Not having to plan my free time down to the second is pretty cool. I have freedom for the first time in a long time.

It’s a shame you can’t use freedom to buy your groceries, eh?!

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I know I will be OK, I always am. I work hard and I will find work again, whether it’s freelance or in a new agency, I have faith that a combination of my career history, work ethic and the universe will make sure the next step is a good one. Until then, here’s to that freedom.

And if anyone needs a freelance digital guru you know where to look (here! here! here!).

How To Have It All

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For the longest time I believed that ‘having it all’ revolved around ‘what the outside world thinks you have’. I thought it meant how big your house was, how new your car was, what your husband did, how well behaved your kids were, what clothes you wore.

And it wasn’t until I found myself at actual rock-bottom, as a single parent with no reliable income and zero husbands, that I realised how wrong I was. Having it all is absolutely nothing to do with what you have and is absolutely everything to do with who you are.

Here’s the thing as I see it: we have an insane amount of outside influences in our lives. Blogs, media, friends, co-workers. And it’s so easy to look at all these influences attaining society’s idea of success and think, well, this is what it means to be have it all, isn’t it? And so we strive for these things that we see as measures of success and happiness with little or no knowledge of whether or not it’s going to make us happy.

We go from thinking we have to have THE CAREER (check) to THE KIDS (check) to THE HOUSE (check) to THE CAR AND THE CLOTHES AND THE HANDBAGS AND THE RESTAURANTS… and it’s exhausting. Keeping up with the Joneses becomes a full-time job and actually, who says that having all that stuff will really make you happy?

I used to be one of those people. I was so desperate for the world to see that I was living out someone else’s idea of perfection that I totally lost my way. I didn’t understand how I wasn’t happy when, to an outsider looking in, I had everything you could ever want. The big house (cripplingly expensive), the lovely children (ok, they really are lovely), the car, the opportunity to be a stay at home mum, the nights in fancy restaurants, the nice handbags. For a while I really did have it all, except I didn’t.

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Where I went wrong is that I didn’t understand that my version of ‘having it all’ might be different to the media’s, to what is generally accepted as being a life that you strive for. Even though I woke up on Monday morning with a whole week of nothing but being a mum ahead of me – a situation so many women dream of – I was drowning. There was nothing more daunting to me than working out how on earth I could fill five days with toddler groups, coffees, nap times and educational play (still not sure what this entails). As much as I wanted to be I just couldn’t make myself one of those (incredible, admirable) women who was a happy full-time mum.

To them I say: wow. Being a full-time mum, it really is the hardest job in the world.

It wasn’t until now that I realised the meaning of ‘having it all’. Yet there’s never been a time in my life when so many outsiders looking in have said to me, hey Alice, I don’t know how you do it.

But you know how I do it? I do it because this is my having it all. It turns out that my version of having it all is getting up in the morning and spending a couple of hours with my children (we had chocolate pancakes this morning!) before taking them to places I know they will be educated, well-looked after and loved. My having it all is spending 9 hours a day running a team, working my business mind, accomplishing professional goals. My having it all is earning good money so I can build my little family a really great life and maybe get my hair or nails done once in a while and feeling happy that I’ve worked to deserve it. My having it all is coming home after a busy day to cuddles with my two little people on the sofa and eating the weekend’s leftovers for supper, knowing I’ve given my all to the day.

I don’t have a husband to support me, a huge big house or a no-pressure open-ended maternity leave. But THAT’S OK, because all those things didn’t make me happy, anyway. Looking back I can say that now, though life has never been so challenging, I really do have it all. And it is such a relief to have finally discovered what that means.

 

 

A Catch-Up Mind Dump. You’re Welcome.

The thing about sharing your life a couple of times a week through your computer is that if something happens and you’re unable to do it for a while it just becomes harder and harder to get back on to it. Your list of ‘things I want to tell that bunch of virtual strangers’ becomes almost insurmountable as you try to prioritise exactly which recent life event you want to broadcast first. Cos I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for the next update… ;)

You can blame my radio silence on EE for thoroughly ballsing up the transfer of my broadband service to them (four and a half weeks I’ve been without my lifeline, FOUR AND A HALF WEEKS), my new job for being amazing but for making me so tired I have no words left in my head come 7pm and the children for being children and demanding things like food and attention from me, the little life suckers.

Shall we do a quick life update so I can pick up where I left off? Yes, let’s.

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So the work is great, and even though I’m doing five days a week I’m no more tired/stressed/mental than when I was working four. I don’t miss the commute into London but still get to go in to the big city a couple of times a week so it’s all-round perfect, really. The environment of the ad agency is just wonderful – full of creative and inspirational people – and I genuinely look forward to going to work every day. I get to drop the kids off at school and there’s nothing like knowing I’m only down the road from them. Oh, and FREE BREAKFAST. I basically have it all. Along with a new addiction to coffee.

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Elfie is loving school, loving it. Every day (usually when I’m tottering up the driveway to her classroom clutching book bags and water bottles 5 mins late as per) I feel thankful for choosing such a wonderful place for her to learn. She’s becoming a very opinionated assertive little thing (definite future CEO) and I’d say Reception Year is doing a great job of bringing out the best in her.

Hux is Hux and is adorable. He’s a little monkey, obsessed with his Woody toy and any time he has an item of new clothing (“MUMMY BUY NEW JUMPER FROM THE SHOP!! NEW DINOSAUR PANTS!!” repeat ad infinitum). In a nutshell they are the perfect children, the odd tantrum in Waitrose excluded (thanks Hux, that was well embarrassing).

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It’s most definitely not summer anymore. I’m pretty crushed about that. I’ve been putting the colder weather to good use though and have been to IKEA twice. And I bought a Christmas present!! In October!!

I was dating someone and then I wasn’t. Joined Tinder for 24 hours for the self-esteem boost and got thoroughly depressed at the state of people on Tinder. Swore off relationships for a while to focus on work and writing but as you may have noticed I haven’t been writing, so make of that what you will… ;) I tell you what though, whoever said that the best things happen when you aren’t looking for them was absolutely right.

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This winter I really want to get more done, you know? Better myself a little – do things I’m proud of. Cook more, read more, drink less, work hard, save up, enjoy my friends, laugh a lot. 2012 was tough, 2013 was better, 2014 has been a vast improvement and I’m SO. EXCITED for what’s in store; everyone in my house is happy and we all have so much to look forward to. I’ve been feeling like I should do something to mark it, like get a tattoo, but because I’m terrified of tattoos I’ll probably just buy a new pair of shoes and write about it. LIVING THE DREAM.

Let’s not leave it so long next time, eh? I have so much I want to write about – becoming a feminist (yeah, I think that happened…), getting back into the workplace as a mum, these great new mugs I bought, my new utility cupboard, solo parenting 2 years in, my new role models (Sheryl Sandberg! Bryony Gordon! Lena Dunham! Girl Power!). Oh what did I say? Yeah, living the dream.