Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beauty and the Beastlies - Speaking up Against Trolling in the Beauty Vlogosphere

Anyone who sees me un-madeup and flustered on the daily school run may be surprised to learn that I am something of a beauty product enthusiast. Though I don’t bother to slap it on for the benefit of the kids and fellow parents at the school gates, I love make-up and its ability to make a weary mummy feel moderately glamorous for a rare night out, to enhance and show off one’s favourite features (cheekbones and eyes in my case), and purely for the artistic pleasure of creating and experimenting. During my three years at The Body Shop HQ, I learned an awful lot about skincare and make-up, and was lucky enough to work with some of the industry’s leading make-up artists, beauty bloggers and vloggers, not to mention the talented store staff with whom I collaborated to create inspiring beauty video content.


Since departing from that world professionally, I have continued to take an interest from afar. I regularly watch YouTube videos, though very rarely comment and interact. One of the reasons for my silence is that I cannot bear to associate myself with the frankly horrifying level of vitriol that pervades the YouTube comment boxes of beauty vloggers (and no doubt in other areas, too). Many of these young people face a daily onslaught of hateful words, criticising their looks, views, personalities, sexual orientation and anything else the perpetrators can think of to slam. Thankfully there are usually plenty of positive comments to balance out the hate, and most of the vloggers try to focus on these and ignore the haters. But sometimes it goes too far, and they are compelled to speak out. I was terribly saddened to see this recent video from make-up artist Wayne Goss, in response to the highly personal attacks to which he has been subjected online.

   

I’m a big fan of Wayne’s for many reasons, and having seen this video, felt the need to throw some positive vibes his way. He is a brilliant make-up artist, and in my view, the best source of practical, useable make-up tips and hacks on YouTube. Though I really enjoy watching other artists like the Chapmans and Lisa Eldridge creating amazing make-up looks for all occasions on their channels, really what I am after is little everyday tricks to boost my usual regime. As a 40 year old who's been using cosmetics since my teens, I have experimented plenty, and am not about to drastically change the way I do my make-up, but I do appreciate the expert knowledge that allows me to keep improving techniques and adapting to the challenges of a face that is growing older. I love watching Wayne’s videos precisely because he is not a flawless 20-something woman to whom I will inevitably compare myself. I take his advice on face value (no pun intended), and if I were to comment on his (or anyone else’s) videos it would be to ask a follow-up question, leave an appreciative remark, or to add to the conversation in some other productive fashion. When the comment box starts being used as a forum to criticise and attack the individual, we have a problem. 


I cannot understand what makes people think it is OK to abuse others online, when I doubt they would ever dream of doing the same in a real word context. Imagine sitting in the hairdresser’s and saying everything negative that came to mind about the person cutting your hair. You just wouldn’t. Even if you dislike their choice of clothes, or think their laugh is too screechy, you keep it to yourself; it’s called internal dialogue. Of course there is a place for constructive criticism, but there is a big difference between saying you didn’t like the make-up look someone created, and attacking them personally for being too thin. These are human beings with feelings, and such behaviour is directly damaging to their self esteem and mental health. 

Perhaps it’s because so much of the hatred goes unchecked that this toxic culture continues to seep across the web. I admire Wayne, and others like Becky, for having the courage to stand up to the bullies, and I hope that the rest of the beauty industry will do more in future to take a proactive stance against the dark side of this otherwise glitzy world. The Body Shop’s history of ‘activating self-esteem’ makes it the ideal brand to take the lead, so I call to my former colleagues to support the victims of this online abuse. How will you educate the offenders, highlight this culture of hate and help beautify the very culture of the beauty vlogosphere? Because clearly ignoring it is not making it go away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don't Call Me a Stay-at-Home Mum: Reflections on Becoming a Full Time Parent

When I think back to my childhood, I feel lucky to have had constant love and security, and to have grown up in a fun-filled, happy home. On paper it may not have seemed like a perfect lot, and like any family there were ups and downs, but most of my memories are good ones. This is largely to do with the unwavering presence of my mother, who raised us pretty much single-handedly, but was steadfast, nurturing and kind. She chose not to work during our infancy, and so my siblings and I benefitted from a great deal of one-to-one attention. I was taught to read and write before starting school, and was initiated into the complex world of social interaction through the supportive and regular circle of friends with whom we would spend time.

Me in the 70s, in my happy place.
From this experience, I can personally vouch for the advantages of having a full time parent, although I am by no means against the idea of working mums. It is such a thorny issue, and one that I have recently wrangled with myself, as I started my own journey into parenthood. On the one hand, I wanted my kids to have the same advantages that I had, but what about my career, my needs? I had worked solidly for 15 years before my children came along, and I couldn’t imagine giving up all that I had achieved to become a housewife. I had planned to take my full year of adoption leave and then return to work when my youngest child started school (which fortunately coincided with the end of my leave).

But adoptive parenthood is far from straightforward, and as it turned out when the time came, the summer-born little one was not quite ready for school. We were thankfully able to defer him for a year, after applying to the local authority for permission (for more on this subject, visit http://summerbornchildren.org), then I was faced with the choice of what to do about work. I really loved my job and was truly torn, but I knew in my heart that the right thing to do was to give my son a little more of me. I had already missed three years of his childhood, and our first year together had flown by in a blur of emotions and adjustment. Now I had really started to get to know him, I wanted to build on this intimacy and trust. So I took a deep breath and gave myself over to motherhood, 100%.
Our family, as depicted in Lego by my seven year old daughter.
I can understand why many women need or want to return to work after having a baby. Parenting is tiring and confusing, and you pine for an environment in which you feel confident and valued. You miss the mental stimulation and adult company. Not to mention the salary. But when it comes to making that choice about whether to go back, I do believe most of us know instinctively what is best for our child, in our individual situations. There is a balance to be had between one’s own well-being and the needs of the child. And for those babies lucky enough to be born into a safe, loving home, with strong attachments to their parents, there may be no long term detriment to having some time apart from the mother. I think women should be able to choose the path that works best for their family, and to feel it is a valid choice, without being judged either way.

Leaving behind a lucrative and rewarding career to be a full-time parent may seem like a huge sacrifice, but I see this time less as a career break, more as a new venture that will ultimately enrich my arsenal of life and work skills. Certainly, bringing up my two special and complicated little people is no less challenging or stimulating than marketing books or beauty products, and I embrace the new skills and knowledge that I’m acquiring along the way. I’m learning more than ever before about negotiation, persuasion, time management, planning and teaching, and I’m changing as a person with every new parenting experience. Far from distancing me from vocational aspirations, it is opening my eyes to new possibilities and future career paths I may not have otherwise considered. I do miss bantering with colleagues, but I'm making new friends through the children, building lasting connections with others who are in the same proverbial parenting boat.

So why do I still feel awkward and like I have to justify myself when people ask me what I do for a living? Maybe it’s because of the labels associated with being a full time parent. There needs to be a better description for this life choice than ‘Stay At Home Mum’, because that makes it sound so boring and restrictive, and doesn’t come close to encapsulating all that full-time parenting entails. For me it’s also technically inaccurate because if I can possibly help it, I’m rarely At Home with the kids. We prefer to be running free in the woods, paddling in rock pools, climbing trees or scooting down the seafront. So how should I describe myself these days? Free-range mum? Progressive parent? Adventurer in Chief? Seriously though, you wouldn’t write ‘Sitting At A Desk Person’ on your CV, so why shouldn’t full time parents have a title that better defines their role? Perhaps it’s because parenting is in fact more than one role – it’s like running an entire company. A really weird and hectic company with tiny, shrill little customers.

Surely I can put 'Expert train track and marble run constructor' on my CV?
And this is partly why I don’t feel intimidated about returning to the workforce at some point down the road - because I’m keeping my brain ticking over by doing what is arguably the most significant and varied job in the world. As was ever the case back in the office, I want to do my best and make a success of this role. I take the job seriously, and as I only have another ten months at home with my boy before he starts school, I need to make every second count. Yes, there is monotony and repetition (do I really have to run the washing machine again?), not to mention the snot, tears, mess and angst, but there is also magic, wonder, adventure and love. And that’s not something that you get in the office every day.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Saying Goodbye to My Thirties

In a few days’ time, as summer officially turns to autumn, I will be reaching That milestone birthday. The one that sounds more ancient than it really is, and always seems to prompt people to ask "how are you feeling about it?" as the date looms. I have pondered this question over the past few months and conclude that it’s not so much the prospect of turning 40 by which I am daunted, but rather the leaving behind of my thirties. Compared with the carefree twenties, being a 30-something brought with it the demands and rewards of responsibility, the deepening and refining of friendships, and new perspectives on life born out of reflection and experience. It was growing up; a most eventful, significant and life-changing 10 years.

Despite the inevitable intoxication, I can remember my 30th birthday celebrations quite distinctly. The theme was School Daze – and guests could dress as school pupils, teachers, or a childhood hero. Ant and I went as Han Solo and Princess Leia (the white nightie version, not chain mail bikini). I will never forget the image of Matty using all his strength (and a fair amount of talc) trying to help Ant on with his riding boots before the party started. They were so snug that they then had to be cut off again at the end of the night.



Since then, we have dressed up as ninjas, Sybil and Basil Fawlty, Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, Karen Carpenter and Frank Zappa (Dead Celebrities), Pagan deities, Disco Pirates, An evil magician and his zombie assistant, Yin and Yang, Village Eccentrics, the French Resistance, Alpine stereotypes, half of ABBA and Olympic Curlers. Will my love of fancy dress endure into my 40s? That remains to be seen.

What I do know is that already life is changing, and as I wave goodbye to my thirties, I can’t help but reflect back on the circumstances, people and events that defined them.

Home

Let’s start at the place where I have woken up most days for the last ten years – home. I was almost 30 when we bought our first flat, up on the hill above Kemp Town in Brighton. Four happy years there, and we made the move over here to Eastbourne, into our little house in Old Town. Goodbye IKEA flat pack (well, almost), hello second-hand G-Plan.



For most of my thirties, home has been a place to be myself and indulge in those things that make me feel more like me - music, food, sleep, friends, and of course, the significant other with whom I share these walls and all that is within. Inside my two thirty-something homes I taught myself to play guitar, learned to be a good cook, drank a swimming pool’s worth of red wine, threw more than a few decadent parties, set the world to rights with Ant and various house-guests, slept through the majority of Saturday and Sunday mornings, and had countless cups of tea in bed. Sure, some of these traditions will continue, but 40-something Home will definitely have a different list of pursuits at the end of it.

Family


Ant and I lost the last of our collective grandparents during our thirties – putting us one step higher up the family hierarchy and a leap further away from childhood. This sense of being propelled into maturity was further fuelled by several weddings of younger siblings and cousins. By the end of my 40s, the children born out of these marriages will be teenagers, some adults. It’s a daunting prospect. The first of my nephews was born at the end of my twenties, then the rest came along in the last few years, giving me the wonderful experience of being an auntie. This is something that really influenced those years, as together, Ant and I relished the joys of caring for and entertaining these special boys, before deciding to become parents ourselves.



Reconnecting with family after my independent twenties was an important factor in many of the major decisions made over the past ten years. We came back to Eastbourne mainly to be close to family, and to ask for their support in our journey into parenthood. The last three years of my thirties has been taken up with the business of adoption – an involved process that resulted in us becoming Mum and Dad to two remarkable siblings. Their presence in this past year has felt like a seal closing the end of one era and a door opening up to a new one. That this has coincided with moving into a new decade of my life seems fitting and poignant. I will be spending the next ten years raising them and this will inevitably affect how the next phase of my life unfolds.

Work


At the start of my thirties, I was working for John Wiley, commuting daily from Brighton to Chichester, to market business and finance books. Soon after, my commute got shorter and the books fluffier, when I joined GMC Publications in Lewes, where I was to learn all one might need to know about the specialist worlds of knitting, stitching and woodworking. There I stayed contentedly for two years, until the opportunity came up to join a start-up social media agency, also in Lewes. This roller coaster adventure has its highs and lows, and unfortunately did not end too happily, but it certainly developed my resilience – a quality that has come in very handy since having kids.

Thankfully the next career venture, and the one which would see me out of my thirties, has been an altogether more uplifting, fun and enriching experience. For three years (the last of which on adoption leave), I have been leading the social media strategy for The Body Shop’s UK operation. It is a brand for which I have had great affection since childhood, and I relished the opportunity to help bring its products and values (back) into the public eye. One of the highlights of my time at The Body Shop was a trip to India to visit one of its Community Fair Trade suppliers, Teddy Exports.


Although I recently decided not to return to work after my leave, I have a feeling that my journey with The Body Shop is not over for good. But for now, when people ask me “so what do you do?” (a question I loathe, by the way), I will tell them “I am doing the most challenging job of my life, raising two children.” This is a big change for me, after more than a decade of nose-to-the-grindstone 9-5 office life. I honestly don’t know what my forties will bring, career wise, beyond the next year or so, but I know that it will never be quite the same again.

Travel


In my thirties I graduated from camping holidays in a two man tent (think Nuts in May) and occasional cheap package deals in the sun, to a six berth motorhome and carefully planned independent trips all over the world. I visited Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, the USA (Texas, California, Washington and New York), Malaysia, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and India, not to mention many wonderful breaks here in the UK.











I sang Leonard Cohen songs on the rooftops of Harlem, dabbled my toes in two oceans at the same time and watched the famous Skagen sunset, made a 700 mile round trip just to see Camille live, nursed a terrible hangover in the middle of a Mariachi festival in San Francisco, and drove through majestic scenery in the land of classical heroes – to name but a few memorable travelling moments. Although my yearnings to see the world are no less potent, I accept that holidays in my 40s are destined to be somewhat different in nature, with two young children in tow. Goodbye crazy adventures… for now.

Friends

In my teens and twenties, socialising tended to revolve around messy nights out with fleeting acquaintances. It was a time to experiment in many ways. Since then I have learned to love the intimate dinner party, and nursing a pint of real ale while shooting the breeze at my local. The Big Nights Out have been fewer, but more memorable.




In between homemaking, working, looking after nephews and travelling, I was lucky enough to forge many special friendships during my thirties. I won't name them all here, in case I miss someone out and they're offended, but while I am in this reflective mood, I want to extend my thanks and love to those wonderful friends, old and new, who have been there for me in my thirties, and who influenced, entertained and supported me. It is because of these friendships and the love of my family that I can embrace my 40s with confidence and swagger.

So is turning 40 a big deal? No, not really. But being thirty-something was. And I will surely miss it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Love Is The Question: Adoption and Matters of the Heart

Ten months ago, two small strangers moved into my home. Last week they became, permanently and legally, my children. Our journey, which began with a spark of chemistry at an adoption activity day just over a year ago, has been challenging, eye-opening; a complete revelation. In between the confusing emotional muddle of the first few months of parenthood, I will always remember distinctly the day They arrived to live with us, after a period of introductions in the foster home. These unfamiliar little people were suddenly my responsibility – reliant on me to feed, clothe, protect, entertain and comfort them. After 20 years of freedom as an independent, unchained adult, it was a shock. Although I’d planned for and pondered about their arrival for almost as many months before, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of becoming an instant mother to these fully formed and highly mobile creatures, with all their hopes, fears, foibles and baggage.



Adoption is not something one takes on lightly. As soon as the formal journey begins, one enters an often-frustrating application process of form-filling and hoop-jumping, designed to actively weed out less resilient adopters. There is certainly no sugar-coating around the possible emotional and behavioural challenges associated with children from troubled backgrounds (which most children waiting for adoption inevitably are), and you are expected by the Powers That Be to demonstrate your preparedness for the near and long-term, in order to be accepted as an adopter. While the candid scenarios presented by social services were not enough to deter me from going ahead with adoption, the process was eye-opening, and did prompt me to acquire as much knowledge and understanding as I could around the most common issues. I wanted to feel ready to embrace whatever adoptive parenthood may throw at me, and I knew that having some proven strategies and techniques up my sleeve – even if I were never to need them - would give me more confidence than relying instinct alone.

During this quest for pre-adoption enlightenment, I found that there is plenty of valuable, practical advice to be had - from both professionals and parents with hands-on experience - on the subject of adoptive parenthood and its particular trials, and I was encouraged by this; soaking up as much knowledge as possible. But in between these self-help binges, I worried; was I over-complicating things? Should I be relying instead on maternal instinct and the reparative powers of Love? Some would say so (and did). But with almost a year of adoptive parenthood now under my belt, I feel justified in saying that, no, Love is not enough. Adoption is no fairy tale, and Love does not automatically spring forth from some sparkling well with a wave of the proverbial magic wand. Had I trusted in Love alone as a panacea in troubled times, I fear I would have found myself drowning in confusion and despair over the past few life-changing months. As wonderful and powerful and desirable as it may be, the hard truth is that Love can be tantalisingly elusive, unpredictable and strange.

I know I am not the only adoptive (or otherwise) parent who would admit that the pursuit of Love can be heart-breakingly mysterious and frustratingly nebulous in the early days of parenthood. Adoptive parents especially may find themselves baffled and disheartened by their unspent desire to love a child who does not know how to be loved. While a new born baby is an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with love, adopted children may never have experienced it, or be too afraid to accept it. My son had just 50 words when he came to us, and 'Love' was not one of them. In the first few weeks he added 'cuddle' and 'kiss' to his limited vocabulary, then one afternoon, while I was handing him a drink in the kitchen, he quite casually uttered the L word for the first time, as if testing out its relevance. But for me, to hear “My love mummy” was sustenance and salvation. I knew then that love could grow between us, even if its significance was still less than palpable to all parties.

What I have learned is that before love can blossom in either direction, there are more important jobs that must be done – wounds of the past to be healed, bridges of trust to be built. The most encouraging counsel I’ve received over the past few months has been from good friends who were brave enough to confess that they, too, struggled in the first few months of parenthood, and did not experience the expected thunderbolt of love with their new child. They described how it grew slowly and in unexpected ways through the humdrum routines and rituals of daily life. This candour gave me the strength to ride out the dominant early emotions of fear, grief, loss, anxiety and doubt - to name but a few - and to feel encouraged by those exquisite moments when a shimmering glimpse of Love would flutter up, precious and fragile and begging to be caught. But however much one has desired and pursued It, surrendering to Love is a daunting prospect, and for me, the scariest part of becoming a parent.



“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” 
Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge.

In almost 40 years on this planet, I have loved and been loved constantly. I know what Love is and how it feels when it goes away. Even though Love has sometimes hurt me, I trust that it will endure. My children have not had the same experience, and it would be naive to expect Love to keep us together - for now at least. But here we are, a little family growing together, getting used to each other and getting through the day. Love is all around, but we do not rely on it to sustain us. Instead, we have had to take a more pragmatic and practical approach. More than anything, I have needed...

Patience. Just having the inner strength to wait for each little attachment milestone to happen - without judging and berating oneself in frustration at the seemingly endless time it takes – has been crucial in maintaining self-confidence and sanity in the early days. Then there’s the daily patience needed to support and nurture two hurt, grieving children with their baffling behaviours; to remain calm in the face of raw, irrational, impenetrable anger. And a longer term kind of patience that involves reassuring each other that life as we knew it has not completely disappeared for good.

Resilience. My inner well being and the flourishing of the children has required all of us to be tough. I have found that my resilience to the daily trials is strongest when I have plenty of adult company and support, and I try not to let a day pass without seeing another grown up who can reinforce my mental health and sense of self.

Resourcefulness. Finally, I’ve needed to be incredibly resourceful in order to maintain any kind of equilibrium in our family. Certainly, much of this comes from instinct, from my own upbringing and other life experiences – but I do regularly draw on what I have read and been told about adoption, attachment, child psychology and parenting. Don’t knock it.

Love is important in adoption, and of course in any kind of parenthood. The love of my partner, family and friends has cushioned and consoled me through the most challenging days of my life so far. And now the promise of love blossoming between me and my children propels us into the terrifying and exhilarating next phase of our 'official' life together. But if you are embarking on adoption, or considering offering advice to someone who is, please, do not mistake the role of Love and expect it to solve all of your problems. Call me a cynic, but through my own experience, I now firmly believe that Love is the goal, not the solution.