Getting over myself and getting into the right mindset


I’m trying to overcome a fear, a fear of failure.

It is a fear that I’ve quite literally allowed to sabotage any sense of making an effort to excel and I’ve realised that now is the time to deal with it so I can succeed.

This academic year I have committed to study to qualify to become a gemmologist. Gemstones, geology and jewellery have been things that have fascinated me since a child – my magpie self has always been drawn to shiny things from being a small child in every shop of every museum I’d ever been to. It’s an interest I’ve come back to again and again.

I’m serious about this course of study – it has a future attached to it – so naturally I want to do well. I look at the award ceremonies of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain – Gem-A – and see smiling graduate students holding certificates with distinction grades and prizes and I hope one day that could be me.

Now the course has started and I’m finding that the work is much harder than I expected. A distance learning course might be imagined to be somewhat wishy-washy and vague – but this course of study (as my tutor and the materials remind me frequently) needs to be maintained to deadline for the best chance of success.

Now gemmology (people keep looking at me and asking “crystals?” Like it has the wiff of incense about it and therefore presumably not a thing in their view) is very much a science discipline. It draws together strands of chemistry, physics and geology. There are instruments that need mastering and concepts behind how those instruments work that need understanding. This is hard work and, I’ll be very honest, it has left me terrified.

Growing up, I was surrounded by a myth of effortless capability, an intelligence so great that applied study was redundant. My mother, a complex and wickedly intelligent woman, had been a prodigious student as a child, picking up education, toying with it in a louche fashion then going on to gain success. Choosing to do what interested her and succeeding at it with the minimum of effort. She was a very young mother so I was there, growing up and observing throughout her picking up her studies again going to university and then law school.

Even in the face of seeing her studying at home and at the library for hours, somehow I had embedded into my consciousness the idea of not needing to work to be a prodigy meant that there was no point me working. If I couldn’t just do it naturally – what was the point?

At school I wasn’t a committed student – school reports would lament that I had the capacity if only I would put in the effort – but there was always something more interesting to do, something more interesting to daydream about. Studying was something I found very hard to do. The information wasn’t going in so, why bother. I didn’t give it effort and prizes seemed so remote for me I didn’t even give them a thought.

I started a Chemistry degree on leaving school but, my interest was so, so very limited that I had no desire to study. I failed to show up for anything but the basic levels of lectures and lab sessions and when it came to exams this showed. It felt futile as the information just didn’t seem to settle into my brain. So why bother.

I’ve finished paying for that short term, but expensive, foray into disinterest, but the sense of failure still carried with me.

Nevertheless I found careers in which I could manage without a degree, without an area of study that requires hefty application of theoretical knowledge. Practically based jobs where a minimal theoretical groundwork was needed before experiential learning took over.

I’ve done professional examinations and, yes, a lot of the information I’ve absorbed by exposure to the material and taking it in without any real effort. It’s part of what I am accustomed to doing day to day, so of course I carry a passable ability when it comes to exams in the subject, so I’ve passed but have never distinguished myself in academia.

Since I had my eldest daughter, I tried to study for an Open University degree, but found my inability to apply myself hindered me at every turn. I did it because I felt I should. I felt like something was missing – people assumed I had a degree – so to overcome the embarrassing explanations I tried. I came away with a diploma in higher education (using up some of the credits I managed to collect during my earlier failed time at university the first time – not a complete bust hey!) but decided not to complete to degree level as the marks I’d obtained at level three meant that the degree I would’ve been able to obtain limited to a 2:2, I felt like I would just be a failure that had invested more time in a doomed enterprise.

So, that brings us to now and I am at the beginning of a putative career in gemmology – but I have started and the work is HARD. Up to now my academic transcript, in as much or little as it is, has been guided by so many “shoulds” instead of actual desire, so failure has been easy to take on the chin. Right now, however I am at risk of being exposed. This is my passion and what happens if I fail?

Yes, I have excuses. Plenty. I am a mother of four children, three under three. I can chalk this one up to not having enough time, little space in my life to study, blah, blah, blah.


Now is the time for application, to do this thing.

I’m a term in and have manged every assignment, sometimes by the skin of my teeth, but I’m putting the time in. Snatched moments are having to do, but I am doing it. I’m producing notes, notes of notes, finding extra reading. Doing, for the first time in my life, the extra reading. Picking up extra lectures instead of just skirting through the bare minimum.

I know how privileged I have been to be able to keep failing, but now I’m appreciating that and I’m stopping, now.

I need to succeed. So I’m willing to work hard for it. Finally.


Meditations on Mother

This piece was first published on my original Quiet Radicals blog in 2016.

On my fifth Mother’s day as a mother I’m now in the mid-point of both being and having. It is a happy and fortunate position to be in as I know of there being many women in the world who are both mothers and daughters but with neither child nor mother to mark the day with. My thoughts are with anyone in this circumstance and I hope that if this is you that you celebrate as always being a parent – some things can never be removed – and you are a celebration to be had just as you. I grieve with you and praise you.


Maman – by Louise Bourgeois – outside the Guggenheim Bilbao

This year looking for a mother’s day card has been somewhat difficult – the cards in the shops laud the apotheosis of motherhood – “The one who is the very heart of home and family”, “your tender care”, “always there to give a hug” and “the wonderful ways you’ve made life special for the family”. This hasn’t really been my experience of my mother so it seemed false to present these as the ideal mother’s day card.

As I grew up my mother was not as other mothers were back then. Most of the mum’s in my junior school were mothers who worked jobs for pin money and kept house to a pristine level. Their children were the ones with the best clothes, the perfect home-cooked meals and time to have friends over.

Our house was a back to front house in the sense that it was my step-father (who is the only father I have ever known and am grateful for) who had to learn how to cook as my mother, around giving birth to two daughters after me, rose up from being “just” a teenage mother and took on college studies, followed by university studies and Law School, juggling jobs and attempting to ignore health conditions which would render her exhausted and often laid up in bed in the times reserved for family. My mother’s input into my life as a child largely consisted of educational sessions where I would revel in my mother’s attention as she chose to use the time to encourage me into reading, writing and knowledge. I would sit by her with an illustrated book of British history and savour the rare time together. This time became rarer and rarer.

Holiday times would largely be spent with my grandmother, which was an education of its own, as she would encourage imagination with creative activities – making dolls houses out of fruit boxes and dolls out of pegs – alongside long walks in the surrounding bleak countryside, with its scrub land and backdrops of mining landscapes. My grandmother had an uneasy relationship with my mother, her eldest daughter, but her relationship with us was so very close. Even in the trying times – such as when she issued me with my own harmonica and then angrily withdrew it hours later due to the annoying tones I managed to scratch out of it – we would find joy together (most memorably in the times spent around the turntable when Grandma would dig out her favourite 45s and LPs and we would attempt to co-ordinate, as a tangled troupe, the choreography for Little Eva’s Locomotion. I treasure these times because, just three days before my 14th birthday, I lost my beloved Grandma to cancer.

Throughout my teenage years it felt like my mother was largely absent – she would be working until late most weekdays then on weekends she would give her best effort to participate – ambitiously tackling walking routes with us which were far beyond her levels of energy. Summer holidays would mean travelling to the homes of family and friends who lived in interesting places and the family trying our best to enjoy life on a limited budget. This would result in unusual options – such as the warmly remembered trip to the York Crematorium open day – where I learned in truly seasonal summer fashion that bones don’t necessarily disintegrate in the cremation chamber and that the cremains have to be processed through a washing machine-like apparatus to produce the gritty ashes you receive in the brown plastic pot urns.

I digress… When I was around 16 years old my mother left home – she went to live in another town to follow a job during the week – again returning exhausted some weekends, whilst others we would come to visit her. After I left school I began the process of tearing myself out of the family – a necessary process we all have to go through to establish ourselves and I don’t remember being more distant from her than at this time when I was absorbed in myself and my own life with slight returns to the family fold at Christmas time – where I would be met with questions over my life choices, nitpicking over my plans for future advancement and sighs of disappointment when I didn’t push myself far enough.

In this account of the mother-daughter relationship – that seen through my eyes – I neglected to even deign to understand what my mother was going through experiencing and much less wishing for herself or even us. It was only really in becoming a mother that I was really able to start seeing my mother’s life through her eyes.

Now I’ve always hated this idea that somehow parenthood fundamentally elevates you. It’s a journey through doors that not everyone needs to open, which brings the same feelings, highs and lows, as any other creative process. If any other creation involved such concentrated work into each single piece I think the attachment would be equal.  I think however that every lived experience brings you closer to others that have been through the same journey as you and it is in this that I was able to understand my mother.

We both move outside the conventional paradigm of what it is to be a mother. For people of our back ground and our means there has been a very defined path for motherhood in both generations. For my mother the pinnacle of motherhood was probably best embodied by the Lynda Bellingham Bisto adverts. For my generation there has become the weird morphing of what it means to be a woman – we remain equals to our male peers until the point at which we procreate – then all bets are off and it’s the return to the icon of the domestic ideal of perfect house, perfect meals and perfect part time worker, deferring careers until our children are a little older.

My mother was already unconventional by virtue of being a teenage mum. But she has never aimed to be a meals-on-the-table mum or to keep a perfect house, which was fortunate as cooking was not her forte. She held onto her ambitions, pursued them and came to the top of her career which launched her, as one colleague put it, “into the ranks of the great and the good”.

This did not stop her from catching the early morning train, hours after arriving back into the country after trips abroad for work, to arrive in time to meet my daughter seconds after her birth, after I had texted to say I had gone into labour.

After a year of maternity leave, having been reassured at work that: “You’ll feel different after the baby is here”, I retained my need to progress, my feelings of ambition and my desires for my own success, which to me sat neatly by my child’s success and as an embryonic template as to what I would want for my own child. And that template, although I had not thought about it to that point, was very much built around my mother’s own road map to success. My mother’s legacy was that education and effort were the key to success and, perhaps, the key to successfully raising strong women was by providing your child with the basics – the desire to learn and a role model blazing the trail – not pandering to their needs. She has taught me that to be a woman is to strike out on my own path, to work hard and to be focused.  She would not accept second best for herself, much less for me. I will not now accept second best for myself, much less my daughter.

So, to truly reflect my relationship with my mother the card would have to read:

To my Mother on mother’s day – thank you for being strong, for not bending to convention. I’m grateful for you being intelligent, fierce and uncompromising. I see your love in your integrity, your support, which has been ever present through all life’s struggles, and in your expectation that I will do more and be more. I’m proud of you and love you x

On Mother’s Day: An Apology

I just wanted to say I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I smiled and stayed silent when you said I make it look easy. I’m sorry I lied and said: “You just get on with it don’t you.” I couldn’t say how I’d sacrificed desperately needed sleep to pump breastmilk, dashed around vacuuming for your arrival and ran to the shop for cake, just to not look like a slug of a mother.

I’m sorry I made it look like I bounced back without a care, I put on my heels and make up to try to seem as much as I did before. I couldn’t tell you I had to do it to determine where they ended and I began, again. I wasn’t sure, but definition seemed to start with reverting to the material that marked me out before, as if unchanged.

I couldn’t find it in myself to tell you how hard it all was, from the pain and trauma of giving birth, the demoralising process of establishing feeding, the completeness of how you must give yourself over, in entirety, to the support of another human being.

I couldn’t tell you about the times the crying seems to go on for so long that, for sheer safety’s sake, you need to just put the baby gently in bed, walk out of the room, close the door and allow yourself to dissolve into tears on the floor. I couldn’t tell you there was no turning back.

I couldn’t because, good god, there are so many who will. They’ll tell you about the hours spent in labour, their horrific delivery, their sleepless nights, their soul destroying nightmare experiences.

I couldn’t, because I couldn’t steal your hopeful anticipation from yourself. I couldn’t because uou deserved the time of feeling that it would be beautiful, that it would be natural, that it would be bliss.

So I am sorry. So, so sorry.

So what should I tell you?

I should tell you it will get better. I should tell you all those moments you hoped for will come, as blissful as you ever dreamed, as long as you become so, so much kinder to yourself. I should tell you I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve forgiven myself.

I must tell you that you should too, let the wonder and exhaustion and time overwhelm you, before it passes by.