Please note, this article was originally written in February 2013, but due to circumstances beyond our control (we’re all a bit slack and forgot about it), it has only been published now).
Recently, I started a new life focussing on my family and a few discrete projects after six years as a parliamentary adviser. The last three years, in particular, involved 75-80 hour weeks and an intense level of immersion in work that makes it hard to ever focus on anything else. Although I’ve always been fascinated by politics and passionate about environmentalism, I never wanted to be the kind of person who lived and worked that way.
I’ve written this ‘top five’ mostly as a way to help myself through the readjustment process to living outside the bubble, but I hope it can also give others the stimulus to re-evaluate their lives.
Say yes to the kids, no to others
“In a minute.” “Not now, sweetie.” “Just wait until I’m off the phone.” “Can’t you see I’m busy?!” “Just be quiet, I can’t hear myself think!”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said those things (and much worse) in the past few years. The constant demands on my time from all sides, and the stress of the job, have made me into a much worse parent than I ever thought I would be. It was that realisation more than anything else which made me quit a job I had always wanted and had hugely enjoyed.
I’m not one of those parents who thinks kids need to have a free rein. Far from it. I want my kids to understand limits. I want to bring up good little post-materialistic non-consumers.
But I also want them to grow up to be generous and kind. And that is modelled behaviour. The more I say no, the more they say no. The more frequently I lose my temper, the more they think it’s ok to chuck a tanty to get your way.
That’s why I’ve made a commitment to myself; every time a work opportunity comes up I’ll ask myself, “Is there a really good reason to do this?”, and every time the kids ask me something I’ll ask, “Is there any reason why not?”.
It’s amazing how much of a habit saying “just a minute” or “not now” can be. It’s taking some practice to change, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to say, “Sure, sweetie, I’ll jump on the trampoline with you now. Why not?”.
Now I’ve never been a particularly good or confident cook, although in my year at home with the kids after my younger daughter was born I did fine. But I’m ashamed to say that in the past few years I’ve allowed myself to become almost completely de-skilled, with my long-suffering partner doing the vast majority of the cooking. Alongside my revelation that I was not the father I wanted to be, it was the recognition of what my hours and stress were doing to my relationship, and the unfair demands I was making on my partner, that triggered my resignation. We always wanted to have an equal relationship. That was not the reality. Cooking is the tip of the iceberg, but we’ll start there.
So now I need to learn how to cook again. Not just eggs, porridge and soups, but proper meals. Time to take out the Moosewood Cookbook and start from the beginning.
Maybe the kids and I will do it together!
Re-learn the Bach solo suites and sonatas
So far, so much the good boy, thinking about others. Well this one’s for me and me alone.
I love my viola and my violin. Over the years we’ve shared so much joy, so many tears, so much sensual passion and physical pain, they’re like old lovers. But I have very rarely had the opportunity to play them in recent years. I think in 2012 I may have played as few as half a dozen times.
Now is my chance to rebuild my technique and revisit some of the greatest music ever written at the same time. I’m pulling out the Bach solo cello suites (transcribed for viola) and solo violin sonatas and partitas and starting from the beginning.
I’ve kept fitter than some in this kind of life by riding to and from work almost every day and maintaining a reasonably consistent yoga practice. But, having now reached un certain age, I need to do more than before to stop the bulge and keep fit.
Since I won’t be riding to work anymore, one of the few drawbacks of working on my own projects from home, I’m going to have to become a lot more self-disciplined about exercise. And also about not raiding the cupboard and spooning Nutella out of the jar.
As someone who’s never been disciplined about fitness, this is in some ways the task I am least confident about. Anybody got any tips?
Be in the moment
As my family members said to me on more than one occasion, “Even when you’re here, you’re not actually here”.
Even when playing a game with the kids or chatting at a bbq, part of my brain was always thinking about the phone call I had just taken, or the one I was expecting, or the one I might not be expecting but would no doubt come in the next few minutes, or the plans I had to make for the next week, or the staff I hadn’t briefed, or what the conversation I’d just had told me about whether our strategy was on the right track.
It’s been a physical effort this week to resist the urge to reach for my iPad the moment I wake up to read the papers (cancelling my Press Reader subscription was both a wrench and a release). I’ve had to hold myself back from immediately texting or emailing people when a politics-related thought occurred to me. I succumbed to the urge to tweet #4corners and #QandA, but have otherwise mostly tried hard to avoid social media, at least for a little while in order to break the addiction.
Truly living in the moment is one of those high goals that is probably not only unattainable but also not necessarily desirable. It’s one of our species’ best features that we have the capacity to think through plans for the future, that we can use our highly developed brains to multi-task. But having lived for some years almost never feeling ‘in the moment’, it’s a practice that I believe is vital to staying sane and maintaining healthy relationships.
Take out the hippy talk. What it boils down to, I think, is that my overriding need is to re-learn how to live a normal life.
Wish me luck.
Pic: CC licensed Flickr user jimmiehomeschoolmom