Three things: finding friends

This article was written for a Readwave Challenge: 3 things I learned whilst...


I live in a small village in rural Wiltshire. Villages can be very friendly, but also very cliquey. When I first moved here I worked full time and tended to gravitate towards neighbours who did likewise. We had all moved into new build houses so knew few people in the area. Gradually these new found acquaintances formed friendship groups amongst themselves. I had different interests and desires; friendly though they were, I did not feel that I fitted in.

When my children first started at the village school I struggled to befriend the other mums at the school gate who all seemed to know each other well already. The same groups seemed to serve on the various committees that kept village life ticking over. They had coffee mornings together, looked after each other’s kids and ran the many fundraising events that all were cajoled into supporting. By then I was a stay at home mum and knew that I needed to emerge from my shell. In my quest to find friends I learned the following lessons.

1) Do not rely on first impressions.

That young mum who appears fully made up, perfectly coiffed and dressed in the latest fashion at 8.45am each morning? She is not necessarily a societal victim, but is simply interested in how she looks. Just as I am interested in literature, she is interested in fashion. How she looks matters to her as much as an opinion on an author matters to me. We may not have a lot in common outside of parenting, but she can still be a lovely person and interesting to talk to.

That pierced and tattoo’d lady keeping her head down? She may look a bit scary but her kids are amongst the best cared for in the village. All the kids have a great time when they go to her house because she does not fuss about mud or crumbs or noise, although she will expect plenty of pleases, thank you’s and sharing. She appreciates what really matters, and that is a fine lesson for us all to learn.

That mum who looks just like me and who I was inclined to get to know better? The slightly offhand reactions may or may not be shyness, but after a year of never being invited inside her house, accept that she is not interested in furthering the fragile friendship you have made such an effort to build. One sided relationships are rarely a good idea.

2) Smile at everyone

Once I realised that I was not going to naturally slip into a friendship group I decided to simply make the best of a job I had to do twice a day on every week day. As I walked between house and school I would keep my head up and smile at everyone I passed. A number of people seemed surprised by my eye contact. I did not try to engage in conversation but simply smiled as I walked past.

This resulted in people recognising me outside of school (the smiley lady) and I would be acknowledged at village functions and local clubs. I still didn’t have friends, but it gave me a sense of belonging.

3) Only befriend those you are comfortable with

This was a really difficult lesson to learn. I wanted local, adult friends so did not feel that I could decline invitations to social events when they were proffered. This led to some awkward situations when I would be sitting in a room full of people who knew each other well trying to work out if my acceptance of the invitation had been unexpected.

Many of the ladies were lovely but had radically different views or interests to me. I did not wish to go shopping or discuss the sort of television shows that they watched. I did not wish to go the the races or learn flower arranging. I wanted to talk books, films, politics, and had a habit of speaking my mind. I was often at odds with the general consensus.


Eventually I did manage to slip into a friendship group of lovely young mums with children the same age as mine. I was also invited to join a book group populated by a disparate group of literature lovers. A few of these acquaintances have become loyal, supportive and valued friends. Others I have let go over the years because, although I may struggle with finding friends, I have learned that quality is worth far more to me than quantity.






Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings


I am coping with life as best I can, because that is all any of us can do. And some days are fun and funny, sunshine and roses, smiles and warmth. Other days I struggle to see beyond the clouds, even when I know that they shall pass. Most days I drift, the hours pass by as I try to make them count. I clean, I cook, I am there when required, and I write.

My role is one of support, my lack would be noticed more than my presence. The friends I meet up with for walks, my wider family, they have their own lives to lead. Would they miss me if I was gone? Perhaps there would be moments of sadness, but I am a shadow, appearing briefly before they move on into a different light.

I have yet to experience the loss of a close family member, a death. My mother once called me a cold fish for my lack of feeling and I carry that thought, untested for now. I see grief in others and wonder how I shall cope when the time comes.

I have lived through the passing away of grandparents, aunts and uncles, even a few cousins over the years. I cried for some, but not with the passion I felt at the death of my daughter’s teenage friend. The depth of her family’s loss touched me to the core. I felt that deeply, yet moved on.

I rarely cry over films, getting more upset at animal cruelty than that involving people. Animals trust and love unconditionally, whereas people can be so selfish. Is my lack of feeling selfish and cold? Is it a result of the armour I have built to survive?

I wonder sometimes who would miss me if I were gone. My absence would inconvenience; the jobs that I do must be done and would fall to others, who would likely find them mind numbing too. The one thing that I and I alone give is a mother’s love. Nobody could care for my children as I do.

I wonder if I am as cold and uncaring as some may think. Am I reflecting back my own experience or is it an innate part of me? Have I buried the warmth and love that I once felt so deeply to protect it, or to protect myself? I wonder how I feel; I wonder if I feel.

Do not criticise me for my perceived lack of emotion, if I do not act as you would. Too often I feel almost more than I can bear and struggle to cope. I bury, gloss over, make light of what is happening. I may not see life as you do, but I have not lived your life. And you have not lived mine.


Not an island

A simple opinion knocked me for six this weekend when, after a busy day, my fifteen year old son informed me that I do not manage my time well; and his Dad promptly agreed with him. I am still trying to gather the scattered thoughts that this has generated. They are churning around inside me, refusing to be tied down in any meaningful way.

I tried to talk it through with them at the time. I remained calm and rational, but the result was not positive. My husband gleefully warned his son that women are bundles of hormones to be treated with caution. This made me want to lash out at him, an act that would only have served to reinforce his point.

I wonder if this is how toddlers feel when they throw a tantrum. The small world that they inhabit does something that they feel is grossly unfair and they do not know how to deal with it. They scream and kick and cry because they know of no other way to handle what is going on inside their heads.

It can be hard to find the words to adequately convey the multitude of emotions that conspire to overwhelm when a flippant or critical remark hits a nerve. I do not fully understand why I was so hurt by what was said. I have been judged by my son’s standards and found wanting before, yet been able to shake it off. Timing is crucial.

I found it hard when my children started judging me. For so many years they looked up to me for love and guidance, believing the answers that I gave to the many questions that they asked. As they grew older they came to realise that there are people in the world who do not hold the same point of view, that their parents may not always be right. As they learned to think for themselves, to question what they had been told, they started to pass judgement.

Teenagers can come across as abrupt, appearing to believe that the opinions they have formed are always correct, and those who disagree are wrong. Some adults of my acquaintance have never grown out of this stage, but most gain life experience and recognise that few issues are black and whit; they understand the varying shades of grey. This is a lesson that I try to pass on to my children, that they need to listen and try to empathise even if they do not agree.

Perhaps I have expected too much empathy. What is important to me, how I choose to spend my time, appears incomprehensible to my son; and also, it would now seem, to my husband.

I felt angry that I was not being granted the autonomy to decide for myself how I would spend each day. Of course, there are tasks that I must complete; as housewife and mother I have certain responsibilities. Beyond this though I had assumed that I was free to choose for myself.

Perhaps the real hurt came because what I had been doing revolved around my writing. I had believed that they realised how important this activity has become for me, and accepted that it is a time consuming process. They do not need to share my passion for it to be valid.

I spent much of Sunday off line, working hard in the garden in an attempt to drive the demons out of my head through sheer exhaustion. It did not succeed, although at least I now have a tidier garden.

As time passes the issue fades into the background, superceded by other, more pertinent matters. What is left is my disappointment that I do not have the support that I had taken for granted. This hurts, that in their eyes my personal enjoyment and satisfaction are not justification enough.

A part of me wants to ignore what they think but I cannot deny that their perception of me matters. It is hard to be considered foolish by those we love.

I suspect that they would prefer me to spend less time writing and more time doing the things that they see as worthwhile. Changing my behaviour to please others in this way goes against so much of what I encourage my children to do, to be themselves.

I have a busy week ahead so time management will matter. Do I compromise, capitulate; or do I ignore their views? I wish to live peacefully with them, but also with myself.


Trying to keep moving forward

I feel as if I am fighting myself. On the one side there is the part of me that is feeling totally wiped out. My very bones ache and I so want to just curl up somewhere warm and rest. On the other side is the part of me that firmly believes that a lot of health issues are down to attitude. If I can keep myself going with a positive frame of mind then I will be just fine. I am tired but it is no big deal and I will recover.

I am guessing that my symptoms stem from my daughter’s all night party at the weekend. I have plenty of friends around my age who can regularly party the night away, feel weary the next day but, after a day or two of rest, go about their normal lives without fuss. I hate fuss but it seems that I do not cope well with such excitement.

If I were to mention the way I feel to any family members then I know that I would not get any empathy. I am the one who can lie around all day remember. Husband has work, kids have school and homework, all get a lot less sleep than me due to my unique habit in this house of going to bed early. If I ever dare complain about feeling tired it is speedily pointed out to me how easy my life is compared to theirs.

I take all of this on board and end up berating myself. I still feel exhausted but guilty for doing so. It takes me a long time to recover from a weekend such as the one we have just enjoyed, and I did enjoy it.

I am guessing that this all stems from underlying issues in my life that never really go away. When I was in my twenties I was diagnosed with ME. I was fortunate in that I was not as seriously affected as many, but it did change the way I could live my life. I had to be aware that when I started to feel run down I needed to take action before it got out of hand leaving me bed ridden. This happened quite a few times and was hard to manage, especially as I lived alone.

The doctor who treated me was sympathetic at a time when many thought the illness was imagined. He offered to put me on medication but also pointed me at research suggesting that well controlled diet, exercise and lifestyle choices could be more effective in offering relief. I am so grateful for his advice. Since that time I have been managing my well being by ensuring that I do not allow myself to get over tired, that I sleep and eat well, and stay moderately active.

The flaw in this thinking is how I coped when I had kids. Giving birth to three children in three and a half years meant that I went for at least five years without a decent nights sleep. And I got through because I had no other choice. I then went through a lot more years when I was socialising regularly with other mums; late nights, lots of wine, fun parties. And I coped.

I cannot help but harbour a niggling doubt that the supposed illness was all in my head. I feel guilty because I wonder if my family are right, if I am making the sort of fuss that I despise.

I do seem to need more sleep than most. I feel better when I am taking regular exercise and eating sensibly. None of this is indicative of illness though, it is common sense that a well treated body will function more effectively. I do not know if the extreme tiredness that I feel is typical of someone my age or a recurrence of my former malaise.

I will not be seeking medical advice about this because there is still no cure for chronic fatigue. If that is what this is then I already know how to treat it. Yet still it feels like a first world problem, it feels like a selfish desire for sympathy that I do not deserve.

I guess I will return to my carefully managed diet and exercise, meditation and sleep. Even if I am not properly ill this treatment would be beneficial for anyone.

I wish that I did not feel so pathetic that I am looking to justify feeling unwell when others cope fine with far greater challenges. I wonder why I feel so uncomfortable with being kind to myself.


The pursuit of beauty

I have been following a number of discussions on the various social media to which I subscribe about the latest Dove advertisement. It has got me thinking about society’s attitude to beauty. There are the obvious stereotypes of the women who seem to spend their lives trying to maintain a youthful visage at whatever cost. There are also those who enjoy looking their best but do it for themselves rather than in an attempt to become what they perceive to be pleasing to others. Can wishing to be outwardly beautiful make one less admirable to others?

I have a lovely friend who works on a beauty counter for an expensive, French cosmetics company. I was once out with her and a group of mutual friends who were discussing skin moisturisers. She was shocked that one of the group did not moisturise her face every day (I kept very quiet during the discussion). This was, apparently, very important if premature ageing was to be avoided. I was intrigued. Surely we all age at the same rate? I was under the impression that skin condition depended more on what we consumed and how well we slept than on what we slathered over our epidermis. I concede that my friend does look younger than me but then she is younger than me by quite a few years. This is as it should be.

Another friend told me that she no longer enjoyed going shopping with her teenage daughter as it made her feel old. Whereas my friend would struggle to find a single item of clothing that made her feel good, her daughter could throw on any old thing and look fabulous. This time it was my turn to be shocked. I find exactly the same thing with my teenage daughter but derive great pleasure from this. I love having such a beautiful, intelligent and sassy daughter. I only wish that she could see herself through my eyes and realise her worth. Teenagers can be so hard on themselves in so many ways.

A little over a year ago I managed to lose a significant amount of weight and was delighted with the way that this made me both look and feel. I no longer felt the need to dress to hide the lumps and bumps and had so much more energy. I also discovered that being thinner did not make me beautiful; it just made it easier for me to buy clothes that I liked. I felt better about myself being normal sized rather than overweight, but I was still me and that was okay. The extra energy was a bigger bonus than the smaller size.

I am very lazy when it comes to outward appearance. My good looking friends tend to be well groomed, well dressed and carefully presented. I spend far too much of my time in trackies and t shirts with my hair tied up and out of the way. Make up is a rarity and, I admit it, although I swim in that skin drying, chlorinated water several times a week, I moisturise only when I remember. I have a very bad memory and should probably look twice my actual age. Perhaps I do, but I have more important things to concern myself with.

It is not that I do not care at all about how I look but more that it is not high up on my list of priorities. I worry more about what people think of what I say or do, of how I am perceived as a person, than about how I am viewed as an object. I would prefer to be commended on my erudite remarks than on my choice of costume and how it hangs on my body. Sadly, I have yet to enjoy any such acclaim.

How we present ourselves to the world can matter in certain situations; first impressions made at a job interview make preparing for an occasion such as this a nerve wracking experience; it would be impolite to go to an upmarket wedding dressed in beachwear. However, a great many companies make a great deal of money by feeding insecurities and emphasising the importance of always being perfectly presented. Those who believe this message then struggle to achieve an often unobtainable goal, condemning themselves to a life of unfulfilled longing for an ideal that should be of no significant consequence. Those who are beautiful people within will shine through the masses of marketers mannequins whatever they look like outwardly.

I am reluctant to condemn those who strive to change the way they look. I who strive to improve my knowledge and understanding am also trying to change myself; in trying to authenticate my thinking by discussing my views with others I am looking for validation; is this so very different to looking for admiration of bodily presentation?

There are many good people in the world who are not deep thinkers; indeed some of the most questioning people that I know are also amongst the most selfish. Striving to attain a look that is considered beautiful does not make one an airhead any more than a great knowledge of books and current affairs makes one sensible.

We may reprehend the companies who encourage a popular view of beauty being a path to wealth, happiness and fulfilment, but I will not reprehend the individuals who choose to strive for a particular look for their own satisfaction. We may admonish those who try to force others to follow their line of thinking, but not those who argue a cause with cogency and compassion.

Let us accept the differences in priority that exist and strive for self improvement without condemnation. My lack of care in my appearance is nothing to be proud of because it betrays laziness. That is as much a character trait to be suppressed as any attempts at aesthetic improvement made purely to conform to another’s ideal.