Voice Training

When I first wrote out this piece yesterday I was scared to post it. It was too serious. Too angry.  As a woman, I have been conditioned to be nice and I did promise my readers some lightheartedness after a year or so of misery-lit. I realised I was scared to be truthful, when the whole point of the post was about telling the truth!  So I’m posting it.  If you decide to keep reading I promise you a laugh at the end.  I chose that joke partly because even though I first saw it 30 years ago, it still makes me chuckle. And also because it sums up how women are trained. We are gifted. But sometimes we don’t use our gifts. Time to start pulling the door open and stepping into the room. So here’s the unfunny stuff first…

I always thought I had a voice because I was loud. It’s only recently I realised that volume just got me noise, not noticed.

But as I write more and more about women’s issues, and stand up for myself in relationships where previously I was loud but unheard, I realise that voice is about standing by your convictions and speaking out when necessary. There was a TED talk last week on speaking up by negotiation expert Adam Galinsky, where he explained that our power determines our range of opportunity to speak up.  “Women have the same needs as men to speak up,” he said, “but they have barriers in doing so.”  He claimed that gender differences were power differences in disguise (as if women needed to be told this!).  The one time that women equal men when it comes to speaking up is when they advocate for others. We are better at doing it for others than ourselves. So as I reach the middle of my life with a genuine feeling of excitement, I am learning to stand up, speak out and lean in.

I recently listened to the fabulous Irish Times Woman’s podcast with the incredible Mona Eltahawy who wrote the book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. I was in the car at the time, and tears were streaming down my face at the power of her words.  As a muslim woman who was arrested and sexually abused while in custody in Egypt, she has grabbed her own power from those who would have controlled it, and uses it to blistering effect.

So I felt a little braver when a piece I had written came out in the Irish Times recently. For those of my readers not familiar with the Irish situation, women are denied the choice here to make decisions affecting their own reproductive rights, and in a tense atmosphere, there is a campaign to revert this. I strongly felt that often the messages are being lost, and the fact that real women, with real complicated lives were not having their stories told. So I decided to tell mine.

Unexpectedly, I got an amazing response. The debate is so divisive in Ireland that I fully expected a tsunami of abuse.  But a lot of people, while offering their support, called me brave. I don’t feel brave. I felt sacred when it came out. Scared.  Writing it in the comfort of my kitchen was one thing. Realising that people who know me, but didn’t know about me, would read it, filled me with slight dread. I expected the trolls to backlash. But they didn’t.  I got overwhelming support. But as I went to bed last night I wondered about the 10 women who had flown that day to the UK because taking charge of their lives here is a criminal act. I thought perhaps they were home again now, having an early night because tomorrow they will put their faces on and keep going. I thought about the women who were lying awake in bed, having kissed their children goodnight, knowing they are flying tomorrow. And tomorrow’s kiss would be a little more intense NOT because those children have been chosen but because life is fucking complicated, and messy and we all make mistakes amid all the ball juggling we do, and the unplanned happens, and one time it is the right time and another time it is absolutely not the right time.   Choice here is not one child over another. Choice is about the power to make the best decisions for you and your family at that time.

It takes two people to have unprotected sex, yet only one to bear the physical repercussions. Why is all the responsibility put on women, and all the power taken away from them?    If there is choice, there can also be greater support such wider, better – far better – sex education, and not just on the mechanics of procreation and contraception but all those issues that impact it – consent, peer pressure, date rape, rape, alcohol abuse, sexual safety, and while we’re at it, sexual pleasure.

I am learning not to be ashamed of my voice, even when it might upset people.  As long as I don’t  hurt people’s feelings, I am ok with that. Plenty of people hurt my feelings when they are misogynist and sexist and trump all over our place as equals, deserving equal pay, equal power, equal respect, equal safety, equal everything. I know of several women who have been raped. Several. I know serval who have been sexually assaulted. Several. I know several women who have been physically hurt by a man stronger than they are. Several. I know plenty of women who have been subjected to casual, cruel, or targeted sexism. Plenty.

I have three daughters and after I explained to them that yes, a man like Trump actually did become President, I knew I had a harder hike up that mountain that I’m climbing to keep them brave, help them know their own voice and to use it, guide them to trust themselves even in the midst of gender pay gaps and sexism, and believe sometimes against the evidence, that they are valued and valuable.

But I will advocate for them, and I will also speak out for myself. My voice is no longer as loud as it once was, but it is much stronger.

OK… now I promised you a laugh… oh this still makes me smile..


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Trumping Frumping

orgasmSo I spent Saturday in London. Not shopping (that was Friday, results to be worn at the Irish Book Awards tonight). Not sightseeing (that was Friday too, at the Charles Dickens Museum where I got to see his worn leather desk; mind blowing). Not socialising (yep, that was Friday too, dinner with a fabulous writing pal). No, I spent a Saturday in London at a conference discovering, among other things, how to perfect my orgasm. Who knew at 46, I still had so much to learn?

So that was actually just part of the day, albeit one that left a lasting impressing. The conference – Magnificence in Mid-Life, was run by the wonderful The Mutton Club, and included all kinds of topics from Colour analysis, to eating your way through the hormonal minefield of menopause, to jumping around with parkour. What was most interesting though (apart from discovering that two well-placed drops of Arousal Oil will have you smiling all day) was that the room was filled with women trying to find a place for ourselves in a society that places us in the wrong box. We don’t see ourselves in the stereotypes that the media and tradition would like us to be.  We don’t see ourselves represented properly – and if we do, a misogynist backlash puts us firmly back in our place.  In the week that Trump’s success at the polls showed that society does not care that women are graded, degraded, bullied, and thought less worthy, it was both unsettling and comforting to see a gathering of women not content to be put in their place, but to instead search for meaning, search for pleasure, search for fulfilment, search for a place on the stage.  Like the term ‘teenagers’ was invented in the 50’s to describe this previously unidentified group of children, so perhaps we will soon see a new name for women approaching, in or after menopause who see no need for pause on their sexuality, their beauty, their balls and their ambitions. We are rebels with a cause – to be who we are, and not who we are expected to be.

Trumping misogyny (and racism, and homophobia) is the goal for liberals in the US for the next four years, but trumping frumping (and invisibility and recognition) is the goal for women over 40 everywhere.  While we all laughed at some of the devices being bandied about to help us perfect that orgasm, it was clear there were women there who were not at ease with the idea that their needs need attention.  “Use it or loose it” was the mantra of the session.  With or without a partner. With or without toys.  But taking the time to find your sexual mojo, find it, explore it, enjoy it. But that advice relates to every part of our lives; our intellect, our creativity, our love, our ambitions, our fitness and health, our libido, our boundaries, our limitations, our mental health, our passions, our potential. Use it or loose it.  Trump that.


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Talking yourself in off the window ledge.

keep-calmIt can be very windy up there, clinging on by your fingertips, the gusts pulling you every which way.   I have learned to talk myself down from the metaphorical window ledge over the years and it’s becoming an interesting new trend, the idea of how we can talk ourselves in or out of things, talk ourselves happy or heartbroken. (I’m not talking here about talking ourselves into another slice of brownie here. That’s impossible).

I used to be a Drama Queen.   Can you believe it? Before Life started playing emotional volleyball with me, I actually used to go seeking drama!  Now I just pin myself to the wall and hope I don’t get seen when the swirling skirts of Life’s Drama Queen swooshes past me.

In my 20’s and 30’s I sought out life, making small things into dramas just to get that feeling that something was happening (even though plenty was). Then in my 40’s when lots of stuff REALLY happened, I did the opposite. When real drama hit, I went calm.  I went controlled. I went….. the opposite of Drama Queen. 

I realised that in times of real crisis, there is no time for drama.  You’re too busy fighting or flighting, or eating your way though a small cavern of dark salted chocolate. 

The power of our own mind, is far more damaging than any crisis we might face.  No matter what goes on around us, the only thing that matters is how deal with it.

I wrote an article recently about women who have literally talked themselves celibate, despite having partners who fancy them.  I know women who talk themselves out of things all the time because they’re not sure other people will think it will look good, or be ok.  My mum was terrified of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ – the worst crime a middle-aged woman could commit – and would talk herself out of perfectly flattering and fitted clothes because she believed she had reached that age where women become de-sexualised, and should fade into the background of society (while remaining at the foreground of the family).

Two new books have come out recently on this idea of how we think drives how we behave, and if we can change the way we think about something, we can change the way we succeed with something.

The first is called Designing Your Life which explores how you can change what’s not working in your life by turning ideas on their head.   More biased towards your working life, they explain how we have two kinds of thoughts in life: “blockers” and “enablers”.   (I would add to this that these labels also refer to people in our lives too – get rid of (or learn to block) the blockers and surround yourself with enablers!)

When we’re being dysfunctional, we get stuck on the blockers – “My house is stuffed to the gills with crap and looks like its been ransacked by a gang of very untidy burglars and therefore I can get NOTHING done”. We can learn to talk ourselves down from that and use enablers to push ourselves to action – “Right, make a list and tackle one room at a time.”

It’s all about reframing the problem (rather than coming up with answers.)  When I ran the marathon two years ago I never believed I could do it. I would look at the map of the 26 mile course and wilt. Then someone gave me a spreadsheet of training runs, and told me to only look at one week at a time. Three miles. I could do that. Then five miles. Then six miles. Before I knew it, I was on the week that said 18 miles and when that happened the course map suddenly looked possibly, just maybe, do-able.

Reframing the problem – and in life, reframing the story – helps you see it in a way that perhaps you might just manage.  See yourself as a forty-something year old frump and you will be a forty-year old frump.   See yourself as a women ready to unleash herself into the second half of her life, and you suddenly can emerge wearing leopard skin boots and laugh at those ridiculous articles with headlines such as ‘Women over 50 shouldn’t wear jeans!’    Reframe that picture right away – women over 50 should wear whatever the fuck they want.  With frilly knickers on to if they so desire.

The second book out is a lighter approach but with the same sort of idea – it’s all in your own mind: the power to self-elevate or self-destruct.   In his new book Happy, Derren Brown (the magician) explores the idea that every day of our lives we tell ourselves the story of what happened to us.  What he teaches is that we can change that narrative.   The events won’t change but only how we react to them.

Last year, all I could see was loss. My marriage ended (about as dramatically as it can get), and I had to face a whole new life and situation.   This year, all I can see is opportunity.

Thank goodness my Drama Queen years are over.   I have taken her portrait down and reframed that picture.

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Future Pefect

Being a mid-aged woman is a bit like being a nerd of the classroom – you do all the work, know you are smart, but no-one really takes you seriously.

Recently I’ve been coming round to the fact that as a single woman again, I am actually able to look at men and think about flirting with them.   This is a very strange concept after being married for so long.  Not bad strange has to be said, catatonically scary but good strange.

The worrying thing is that I eye up a lovely young man and then remember with a shock that I am in fact a 46-year old women with 3 small children, and the image I had of running to the nearest hotel skids to a noisy halt when I realise that I’m carrying 3 M&S bags full of wine and woolly tights, and am late for the school pick up.  So the young man that I eye up (because he was what I was eyeing up when I was last single) would most probably not be eyeing me up.  At least not while I’m holding a bag of woolly tights.

So right now I’m a little pissed off with ‘youth’.   And VERY pissed off with middle age.   Why do all the cliches have to be right?  (I guess this is what makes them a cliche…how I yearn for the loneliness of uniqueness).

As ‘youth’ we hear about the madly menopausal medley of issues that befall our already sagging shoulders once the candles have been blown out on our fortieth birthdays, the hangover beginning before we even finish drinking.

Our eyesight will diminish, our chin hairs will multiply. It’s harder to lose weight and even harder to stay the same weight.  Why should youth get the ‘get out of jail free’ card on drinking and eating what we want? 

It’s bloody NOW we need to be able to sink a bottle of wine after a long day looking after multiple people and multiple projects and not risk being so grimly groggy the next day we look our age and feel ten years older. 

It’s bloody NOW we need to be able to consume our body weight in chocolate and relax on the sofa instead of having to do pilates to keep our organs vaguely in place. As a teenager and 20 something I wasted hours of my life eating crap and watching crap and spending whole Saturday’s on the sofa.  But I should have been active and agile and healthy, so that NOW I can lie on a sofa and watch back to back Poldark and eat Doritos and wine for dinner.

doritosBut chatting with a pal recently, she asked me would I go back and do it all again? Would I go back to the before single (rather than the current singe), and I pondered over my Pinot and thought, actually, no.   I would only go back to that body and booty with my current brains and balls.   I love the fact that self-consciousness went out with candles on one of those 40’s birthday, and sense and sass came in with the reading glasses.  I might have to do more planks than parties, but I wouldn’t swap it for youth or money.   I’m also sticking with the Doritos and wine. 

My eyesight might be blurred but my wits are sharp.   The nerds always come away from the end of the movie smiling.   

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What doesn’t kill you….

There is that old phrase that is bandied about every so often – What Doesn’t Kill You Makes you Stronger.

I guess it means that if you survive the hard times, you’ll sometimes come out of it a bit better off.   What a load of crap.  What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger. It might also just not make you dead, but bloody and bleeding all the same.

I went divinsharkg once in the beautiful waters off Thailand. I swam around a coral column and came face to grin with a shark.  Somehow I kept my head before he took it, and did what we were trained to do, sank lower than the shark and waited for it to go away before using up an hour’s worth of oxygen in 3 minutes getting to the surface and screaming to be pulled into the boat.  This experience did not kill me and it did not make me stronger. It made me wet myself (we all do it in wet suits so don’t judge) and have a life long fear of swimming in the sea.

I’m entering the murky waters of mid-age, newly single and waiting to see what sharks might be lurking around the corner. I don’t think a disastrous marriage made me stronger.  It just gave me a life-long fear of being married. 

I’ve been on a few dates in this new shark infested waters.  I’m learning to swim and to keep breathing and trying not to rush to get back on the boat the minute I get uncomfortable. I’m not the age I was when I last dated. I’m not even in the same century!   My cleavage, which used to be my best feature, is still plunging, it just needs a little more scaffolding to not plunge to my knees during dinner.   It might be harder to see the twinkle in my eye for the ‘life lines’ (wrinkles) around them.  And I can’t read the menu without holding it out so far it’s in his lap, or I rummage for my glasses and let go of any attempts to show that all my bits are still in complete working order.

It’s still a shock to me when I realise that I’m sitting with a middle aged man. I still think of myself as, you know, not middle aged, somewhere just between young and not as young.  I eye up beautiful young men in the street and then realise they’re not in my dating range. Like the shark, I just have to drop my eyes until they pass by.

So back to the stupid saying. Do you have to go through fear, and loss and grief to be stronger?  I don’t think so. Can love, and success and happiness not make you stronger too? 

When I look at the last 10 years or so – by most people’s standards, an embarrassingly lengthy litany of ‘character-building’ crapness – four miscarriages, post-natal depression, difficult marriage, mum’s stroke and consequent care, marriage break-up, mum’s death – to name just the head line acts, I realise that they are not the things that made me stronger.   They’re the things that nearly fucking ate me whole like the shark might have done.

The things that have made me stronger during, and alongside some pretty death-of-the-spirit defying experiences are not the things that could have killed me. But the things that helped me survive.

It has been my three amazing girls, their births, their smells, their life and love, growing every day is like binge-watching a boxset that never ends.  Sure, the domestic drudgery of picking up knickers or the lack of sleep because they are still NOT SLEEPING ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE NIGHT EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE NO LONGER BABIES might kill me but it is their laughter, their humanity, their sheer aliveness that keeps me alive when all around me I duck and dive to avoid the boulders of hurt being hurtled at me.

It has been my writing career – the creativity that burns in me and drives me forward every day with hope and ambition is like being plugged in and recharged. Sure, the pressure of client deadlines, or above said domestic drudgery that prevents me writing when I want to might kill that spirit at times, but it is the thrill of the thoughts, the wonders of the words that I read and write that keeps my heart beating.  Exciting news (will be revealed shortly) about a new writing project that makes me want to dance.

It has been the love and friendship of family and friends, not the hostility of selfish people that have made me stronger.  It has been the random texts of support, not the ones of abuse that give me strength.  It is the loving touch of a friend, the smile of support not the lonely evenings that give me strength.

It is being loved that makes you strong, not being unloved.

It is the memory of what you had with someone that makes you strong, not the loss of them.  My mum’s love is all around me because it was so strong.

It is the days you get a helping hand that make you strong, not the days you feel alone.

cartoonAs I venture forth into the murky mid-ages, there will no doubt be plenty of shark encounters and ‘character-building’ crapness. But I will only stay strong because of the good things that happen. 

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Six years ago today was one of the happiest days of my life.  If there was a film made of my life in the subsequent years, I think today 6 years ago would be the opening scene.

I woke up full of expectation and excitement. I rubbed my big belly (baby inside thank you, not wine and pizza induced). My two little rascals jumped into bed beside me, and then my lovely mum popped her head round the door, her hair scattered in sleep, her make-up free face made up with a smile of love.  I was surrounded by my favourite people.

Then mum and I went to the hospital and she sat with me in the waiting room, and we laughed and we rubbed my belly.  My last fought-for baby would be emerging from there today, and we basked in the glory of that utter miracle.  To while away the time, mum patiently painted my nails. Ah sure, a bit of glamour was always a must, even when you’re about to have your belly sliced open!  But of course, as soon as she had finished, the nurse walked over with a bottle of nail varnish remover and a cotton pad. No painted nails while you’re getting your belly sliced open.

We laughed, and she promised to redo them after Ruby was born. And she did. It was one of the first things she did when I was safely in my ward room, my beautiful new daughter asleep in the cot beside me.  She painted my nails, and kissed my face, and loved me. Six years ago was the last time I felt that love. Her stroke 3 days later robbed us both of the next five years of her mothering me, and after she died in my arms earlier this year, the very first thing I did was paint her nails and kiss her face.  I had been doing it for the previous five and this was my last time.

Six years ago I was still married, although I was unhappy and confused and it would be another 4 and a half years before I found out why. That my husband should never have married a woman.   I look at the photos of this day six years ago, with me and my husband, my mum, my baby… and the only survivor of that is the incredible child who is now a force that rocks my world so hard, the ground shakes.  The last six years have been the worst of my life – I’ve been felled by grief, depression, exhaustion, pain, loss. But all the way through the spirit of this child has shown me over and over that even when life is at it’s toughest, it is also magnificent.  To watch her become who she is has been an extraordinary privilege, and I have a front row seat for the best ride I can imagine – the rest of her life.   Everyone who knows her, sees the special spark in her that will bring everyone she loves along on a shooting star adventure.

The thing about getting older, is you have more to remember. Memories become friends that keep you company as you stride out to make more, and keep going. Six years ago today was a day that will stand out from the multiple humdrum days that don’t.  My beautiful baby girl was born.  And my beautiful mum was alive and well and I felt waves of love for and from them both this day.   My mum is gone, the happy family picture is gone, but my baby girl is six and magnificent and while I am only 6 years older, I’m a life-time wiser.


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Letter to me

In a previous blog post I wrote about the prospect of my older self writing to me. What would I want my 60 year old self to say to me about the next 14 years and how I should be living them?  

So here is that letter from the future me to the now me..

Dear me,

Having a hard week?  Well, no better woman to deal with that. You’re a gold medalist in hard weeks.  You can get through it no problems.  Have faith in yourself. You also have a gold medal in great weeks, so remember that.  It’s tough because you’re tired and overwhelmed and adapting to being a single parent, so take 10 minutes to be nice to yourself.

swing chairI’m sitting here in my garden swing seat having a lovely glass of chilled wine.  I like take a few minutes for myself at the end of every day… I know you can’t imagine having that just yet, but I promise you, the girls are going to grow up and you will get more time for you. In fact they are already growing up and I know you are in that funny place where you’ve had 10 intensive years of babies and young kids and you are desperate to get some life back, yet are also horrified that they are growing older (yes, you will be the mother of a tween next month)… but they are growing up and they will and they are going to be as glorious as you imagine. Know your evenings in the swing seat are coming and try and enjoy the 3 hour bedtime routine. Advice though:   You have to cut down the 3 hour bedtime routine! You can get a bit harder on them.  They know how to play you, so set the rules and make them play by them. Don’t let them take every minute from you. I know they’ve had a rough ride, their world has been turned upside down, but you are building a new world for them.  Have faith you are doing ok, and make sure they know the boundaries of that world.

I’d like to tell you that there won’t be any more hard weeks. Sorry, but life ain’t like that and over the next 14 years you will have plenty of shit weeks.  But that’s life. You’ll have plenty of great weeks too. Plenty.  Because you are that kind of person. You always make the good things happen. Keep doing that.

I’d like to tell you that your face will stay the same if you just keep buying that expensive cream that has been tested (with an * only for the small print to tell you *on 3 women).  But I hate to tell you – all the damage is already done.  All those years of exotic travel, all those days with your face turned to the sun with your mum, all that holiday reading without factor 50…. no matter what you do now, you’re fucked. Better to buy a decent cream and exfoliate properly and either buy a good concealer or learn to love the natural contouring that age spots give you.

I’d like to tell you that you’ll loose that half stone and firm up those thighs so you can find a smidgen of a thigh gap (yes, *sigh*, its still a thing). So I will. But girl, you’re not 20 anymore.  You don’t get as thin as a wine bottle neck, by necking a bottle of wine.  You need to make an effort. Get back out there running, start your pilates (yes, osteoperosis is a real juggernaut coming your way – so start taking the fish oils now while you’re at it), stop eating quite so much chocolate and avoid the bread counter in the supermarket.  Two years ago you ran a marathon. You’re not going to run another one but you are going to do a few half-marathons and keep fit and healthy. So get your running gear on NOW and start again.  Nowhere on a bag of Dorritos does it say ‘Goes well with a thigh gap  (By the way, many women are just genetically built not to have a thigh gap so try and attain something a little more worthy please. Try and aim for being fit and fun, and looking the best you can, regardless of a measuring tape.)

I’d like to tell you that you’re hair will eventually find its mojo.  It won’t. You’ve been going grey since your thirties and not in a Silver Foxy sort of way. More of a Dirty Ratty sort of way. So make a decision.  How do you want to age?  With grace or a grimace?  I still dye mine, but I’ve let the colour start to merge with the natural. So give yourself a treat every so often. Cover up the greys because they make you feel better, and try and find a good conditioner. Your hair is going to thin my love, not thicken, so you’ll just have to find a style for thin hair and stop asking for a Jennifer Anniston haircut every time you go to the hairdressers. Friends just celebrated it’s 35th anniversary – you need to move on.  Your hair has (most of it down the plug hole).

I’d like to tell you that you’ll find love. But why take all the surprises out of life? You have love now. Amazing friends, amazing family, beautiful girls, and a whole (half) life ahead of you to live and adventure and love. Here’s my advice as I sit on the swing chair sipping wine with a knowing smile. Be bold. Be sure. Be yourself. You’re going to make some mistakes – but they’re the ones you laugh with over wine and a few good girlfriends. Let go of the baggage of the past, and step out into the sunlight. Have fun!

I’d like to tell you that you are not going to be defined by some out-of-date label that you are now out-of date.  So I will tell you. You are not middle aged. You are mid-aged. Big difference. I’d like to tell you that you are part of a generation of women redefining what that means and I will tell you.  Don’t ever let age be a factor in your decisions about adventure or love or ambition. I’m 60 and still swinging (in my chair). Oh I wish I could tell you all the amazing things that are going to happen for you in the next 14 years – the dreams you’ll achieve, the places you will go, the people you will meet.   But I don’t want to spoil the ride for you.

I’d like to tell you that when you make it to 60, fighting fit and raring to go, I’ll meet you on my swing chair and we can share a glass of chilled wine and watch the sun set, as you put your head on my shoulder and tell me about the shit weeks you will have had, but how we quickly leave them behind and laugh about all the good weeks. I’d love to hear all your stories about how your girls have amazed you and how proud you are of them now as young women. But I won’t be there anymore.  I’ll be 74 by then and hopefully off sipping a cocktail in the Serengeti watching the elephants and gazelle gather at some water hole.

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