A guilt-free existence: Part 4: Guilt-free food

Between you and me, I don’t mind telling you that am a rather rotund person. Cuddly, maybe. What my doctor cheerfully described as “morbidly obese” a while ago. Not that she seemed to mind, except insofar as it minutely limited my contraceptive choices to the thing I would probably have chosen anyway.

I’ve always been fat, ever since I hit puberty, pretty much. I went on my first diet at the age of 13, which horrifies me a little, looking back. It, like every diet I’ve tried since, didn’t really work. I lost weight, I felt a huge sense of achievement, but diets never end, they just peter out, and when they do, the weight inevitably comes back on, usually with a few pounds more for good measure. So, I lost weight at 13, I lost it again at 22, I lost it again at 28, and then I stopped bothering. For a while I was distracted by all the small children running around my feet – the idea of organising a separate meal-plan for myself was more work than I could face. And during this time, a couple of revelations hit me, and robbed me of any motivation for dieting that I had left.

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One was that I look just like my mother. Nobody ever wants to admit that, but I do. I have her precise body shape, which makes my weight issues genetic, and much harder to fight. She, mind you, does still try to fight it. Me, not so much.

The other was that obesity is not the be all and end all. It is a symptom, not a cause, and that means that diets are really only addressing the symptom. And you cannot live your whole life on a diet – it’s depressing, and hard, and sooner or later it always goes wrong. It is a symptom that is associated with other problems, but if you are basically healthy, then being fat isn’t, by itself, a health problem. There’s certainly evidence to suggest that it’s less of a health problem than significant fluctuations in weight, and every diet I ever did resulted in a fluctuation, not a permanent change.

As a result, I resolved, some years ago, to stop torturing myself about food. I like food. I like bad food. I like food with sugar and butter and cream in it. I like pasta and bread. I like cheesecake. Actually, scratch that – I like cheese, in almost every form it comes in. I had had it with depriving myself, because successfully depriving myself was at best a temporary fix, and failing to deprive myself made me feel terrible.

I was through with feeling guilty about food. People do, after all, need to eat food, and the business of how much, and what it should be was just too nuanced for me to manage it coherently. I gave up.

If I’m going to feel guilty, I decreed, then I will choose to feel guilty about being unhealthy, rather than about being fat. I will just buy better clothes, so that fat doesn’t matter. Because by itself, fat doesn’t matter.

For a couple of years, I ate what I liked (started buying real butter for the first time in my life – and it’s so good!), didn’t put significant amounts of weight on (maybe I’m just designed to be roughly this size? I said it was genetic, didn’t I?), and focussed lots of energy on trying to feel guilty for being unhealthy, instead of feeling guilty for being fat.

That sounds kinda stupid, now.

Because, feeling bad about what you didn’t do, is pretty stupid. Celebrating achievement, that’s where it’s at. I went for a walk – Woman of Valour! I swam – Eshet Chayil!

In the last few months, I have been trying to consciously add exercise to my routine. The first time I got my dusty old Wii Fit out, and tried some jogging on the spot, I lasted about 90 seconds. But do you know what? That’s 90 seconds more than I did the day before. Eshet Chayil!

Now, having worked very hard, not out of guilt, but out of choosing a goal that mattered to me (to be physically fit, and therefore not die of heart failure at 55), there has been something distinctly galling about the fact that I have not lost a single pound. Because, I know I said I don’t care about being fat any more, but guess what? I was totally lying. I would love to suddenly and easily become a size 12, and stay that way. But we both know that it’s not going to happen, and I’m no longer interested in a short-term strategy. I am taking regular exercise for the first time in my whole life, because regular exercise has to be a part of your whole life, if you want to stay healthy. I’m not swearing off cheesecake for a fixed period, hoping to solve a problem. I am changing my routine, my expectations, my default, because I want to be healthy. I am eating cheesecake, because I want to be happy.

People have the audacity to disapprove of what others eat. It’s an extraordinary imposition, but they do it. They see the fat girl, and automatically pass judgement on the cream cake. Actually, they also see the thin girl, and pass judgement on the salad. Maybe she likes salad! Maybe she’s not eating salad because she wants to be even thinner, when you already think she’s too thin to be allowed. Maybe what other people eat is entirely none of your business!

So, I say, let’s reject other people’s disapproval. You get to be as fat or as thin as you are, and you get to eat whatever you fancy. It’s up to you. Feeling bad about what you ate totally sucks. Not least, because nothing makes you want cheesecake like feeling bad about the cheesecake. But you can never really win, that way, because no matter how many days in a row you resisted the cheesecake, the emphasis is always on the day you succumbed. We quite naturally focus on the things we do, not the things we consistently avoid doing. So diets are made of feeling bad for what you did, without much in the way of achievements to celebrate, in day-to-day terms. Weight Watchers will give you a pat on the back when you’ve lost so many pounds, but you have to have resisted a lot of cheesecake on a lot of days to get to that point.

On the other hand, feeling thrilled and delighted by the tiny bit of exercise that you did, is a great thing. It’s a way to celebrate the good. You do something, and you feel proud of it. And more inclined to do it again. It’s a positive cycle of happiness, instead of a negative cycle of sadness.

If you want to be healthier, you could try some exercise. You might like it. You might hate it, but decide it’s important to you. You might decide you’d rather take your chances – it’s totally your choice, and other people don’t get to dictate to you. But do you know what? Feeling good about something you did knocks into a cocked hat feeling bad about something you failed to resist.

 

A guilt-free existence: Part 3, Guilt-free Educating

I alluded, briefly, in the previous post, to the idea that parenting is fraught with guilt. The idea that you could and should be doing something differently arrives pretty much with the baby, and is very hard to shift. My children are educated at home, which gives me a whole new area to feel guilty and inadequate about, though I don’t imagine it makes me as different as all that. Most parents seem to have guilt around whatever choices they’ve made for their children, in all areas, not just education.

My children are currently nearly nine, and just six. When I look at the people that they are, I am (mostly…) very proud. They are intelligent and articulate. They both read at a level well ahead of their age. They understand mathematical concepts, and can manipulate numbers. They know a great deal of history and politics, for their age, and compared with their peers (so far as I can tell), they have a basic geographical understanding of the world. They are creative, imaginative, mostly caring and compassionate, and they are doing pretty well, I think.

However, if, instead of looking at the people they are, and are becoming, I choose to focus on how they actually fill their time, I get much wobblier. They are provided with a wealth of books, their gift toys, craft materials, etc, but largely reject them for the watching of My Little Pony videos and  the playing of Skylanders for Wii, respectively.

We take an autonomous approach – I honestly believe that if learning a particular thing is important for a child, they will work that out, and seek the information for themselves. I don’t have to hit them over the head with a big stick to make them learn to read – the world is full of written words which are interesting to them, and which unlock all kinds of valuable information. Sooner or later, they are bound to want to crack the code, and when they do, motivated by their own priorities rather than mine, it should be pretty easy for them to do. And it does seem to work that way. They know all kinds of things, including how to read – as an approach, it has validated itself in practical application.

So, what am I worried about? They’re happy watching YouTube, I’m happy letting them. Why do I feel so bad about it?

I traced the problem to a long family history of Protestant Work Ethic*. There is a deep-seated belief in me, which goes against everything my rational self thinks that I believe in, that whatever we’re doing, we should probably be working harder at it. And if that’s what you believe about yourself, then you just can’t win.

The pressure of the Protestant Work Ethic seeps in all parts of your life. It basically says that if you’re sitting down, you’re doing it wrong. There is always housework, paperwork, educating to be done. How can you possibly find the time to sit down, when the work is never-ending?

But that’s just it. The work is never-ending. It is always possible to do more, to do it better. But because it is possible does not make it desirable. There is no particular merit in getting ten straight As at GCSE, if your chosen pathway only requires five Cs. If you have other reasons to pursue those extra subjects, those higher grades, then knock yourself out – if you love a subject, and long to learn it inside out, then that’s a much better motivation than any grade-collecting exercise could ever be. But if you are only in it to get the qualifications you need to move forward, then you have wasted a great deal of effort in reaching a far higher standard than is necessary.

So, instead of succumbing to the uneasy sense that no matter how much you have done, you should probably have done a bit more, ask yourself the question: “What am I seeking to achieve? Is what I’m doing achieving that? Is my desire to achieve it great enough to warrant the effort it will require?”

Educationally, I appear to achieving my goals. The children are learning, are happy, are healthy; I am enjoying my role in their education, and am not exhausted by the effort. So what we are currently doing is working for us. And it continues to work for us, even when I sit down to watch Pointless of an afternoon. Even when I know there are things I could be doing. Even when I’m just shrugging my shoulders and choosing not to do them.

Clearly, I am doing enough. I don’t need to do more. Indeed, there is every chance that doing more would create problems rather than solutions. If the children feel I am haranguing them about educational activities that they would sooner avoid, then that will have a detrimental effect on our relationship, and maybe even on their general education. Presumably, the mindlessness of the My Little Pony videos allow Daisy space in her brain to absorb and consolidate the things she has learned. Or else their relentless focus on managing social interaction is giving her food for thought. Or there is some other hidden value there that I haven’t spotted. Just because I think they’re appalling television, doesn’t mean that they have no value to her.

The right amount of work and effort is not necessarily the absolute maximum amount of work and effort. There is no logical reason why it should be so.

Now, I am not suggesting that it is generally helpful to put in no effort. Hard work, whilst hard, and, well, worky, is a very good way to get things done – of course it is. But only if it’s the right work. Only if you know and understand what your goal is, and what it will take to get you to it. Only if you’ve evaluated the cost, and concluded that it’s worth it. Anything else you’re filling your day with is essentially busy-work.

You do not have a duty to be busy. Your only duty is to do the things that you have prioritised, according to your own values. Your goals are set by you, and they can be changed by you, too. There is no reason to feel bad about what you’re choosing not to do; the choices are yours to make.

* I’m describing this particular work ethic as Protestant, because in my case, I strongly suspect its root lies in the traditions of Protestant Evangelical Christianity. It goes without saying that the mindset can occur in all manner of religious and non-religious backgrounds!

A guilt-free existence: Part 2, Keeping house, guilt-free

Now, the first thing I should say is that I don’t think I have ever met a mother who didn’t feel guilty. You wake up after your first post-delivery sleep, and the crushing fear that you’re just not doing it well enough is with you from pretty much that moment onwards. So, when I’m talking about being guilt-free in this context, I’m probably only talking about being relatively guilt-free, if I’m honest. At best.

When our first child was born, and I found myself doing the stay-at-home mum thing for the first time, I made one thing very clear to Kevin: I am here to take care of the baby. If, by the time you walk in the door, the baby is alive, more or less clean and more or less fed, then I have done my job. If during the intervening period I have also washed some dishes, then you are having a good day, because that’s a bonus.

Kevin is lovely, and had no particular problem with this approach. The division of domestic labour had been more or less equal before we had Daisy, and there was no obvious reason why it should be less equal once she arrived – she did, after all, increase the workload, not reduce it.

Of course, as she grew up, and became less dependent, and I was hanging out in the house so much more than he was, most of the household jobs did end up falling to me. Not cooking (except for a brief period when I still only had one child, and she was big enough to put in front of CBeebies). And not food shopping, once I got too pregnant with number two to successfully man-handle number one into the trolley seat. But most of the rest of it has been my job for most of the time.

I am not a natural housekeeper. I am not one of these people who never sits down, and who instinctively both sees and is compelled to resolve every item out of place at all times. I’m more of a natural sit-on-the-sofa-reading-Twitter person. At one time I was a strong advocate of the Flylady system, with its heavy emphasis on the idea that I was, in fact, good enough, and it’s very logical breakdown of just what the jobs were that needed to be done. The biggest flaw I found with the Flylady system, was the way the minimum number of jobs to be done was always on the increase. At the beginning, she’d say, “Just shine your sink. That’s all. Make it beautiful, make it something you’re proud of. Don’t worry about the rest of it, it’ll still be there tomorrow.” And I shined my sink, and I felt great. Two months later, I had a weekly plan to adhere to, with a strong sense of failure if I didn’t get all the things done in the one hour that I was supposed to, I had missions to fulfil to clean obscure corners of my bathroom that no-one ever saw, I had a timer to set for fifteen minute bouts of decluttering (and I hate decluttering – it’s hard!), and I had a list of “deep cleaning” jobs that were supposed to come around monthly, but which I never got around to at all. The sense of guilt and failure regularly became overwhelming, with the result that I stopped doing anything, and then, when I couldn’t live with the result any longer, had to start the whole system again from scratch.

I made many attempts to tweak the system so that it worked better for me. It kind of worked, but never for very long. It was like dieting – the effect might be impressive in the short term, but sooner or later, I would find myself right back where I started, plus an extra five pounds or so for good measure.

When I eventually spotted the pattern, it dawned on me that part way through the Flylady process, a switch was being flipped – probably by me, rather than by Flylady, but it was still being flipped. It went from being about celebrating the fact that I achieved anything, to being focussed on getting the whole list done. And the further into the system I got, the longer the list was, and the less likely I was to get through it. And that made me feel so bad, that I didn’t even start the list any more.

My current housework regime owes a lot to Flylady – she taught me a taxonomy of housework which I’ve found very useful. In short, some things need to happen most days; some things need to happen most weeks; and some things need to happen eventually. I prefer the idea of doing a single load of laundry every day, to having a week’s worth to catch up on all at once. I know that if I go a whole day without washing any dishes, the kitchen will be unusable (our kitchen has precisely four feet of work surface, including the bit under the microwave, so it gets overwhelmed very easily). I know that Other People hoover their floors every other day, but really, it’s a category two job. It would be great if it happened every week, but it doesn’t, and that’s OK.

So instead of lists of things that I feel bad about not doing, I reworked the way I thought about it. The daily jobs remain pretty much daily, though I have them prioritised – I try not to skip laundry or dishes, because my experience has taught me that it’s worse for me if I do. The rest is all about achievement. I did my exercise – go me! I ironed some creased stuff, hurrah! I spent five minutes (not fifteen – it turns out fifteen minutes is too long, and becomes a psychological barrier to doing anything at all) tidying one corner of Daisy’s bedroom – aren’t I fabulous?!

From the weekly list I took the word “weekly” away. It’s not a list of things I must do this week, it’s a rolling list of things that need to be done. As long as I do one thing from that list, I am making progress. If I do more than one, I’m amazing. Sometimes it takes two weeks, or even more, to get back to the beginning, and by then the floor can look pretty desperate for lack of hoovering, but it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll get to it sooner or later. It’s great that I did it today, it’s not significant that I hadn’t previously done it in three weeks. Once the room is dusted, it no longer shows that I left it so long.

Doing it this way does mean that there is never a single moment when the house is “clean”. It might be hoovered, but dusty. It might have clean sheets on the beds, but sticky, unmopped floors. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing. Busting a gut to make the place nice just makes me unfriendly with family members who then have the audacity to live their ordinary life in my nice clean house. Almost every day I do SOMETHING, and every thing I do is reason for celebration.

My good friend @mamamallon lent me a book by Rachel Held Evans, called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I was roughly as sceptical as you currently are, having read the title. Most of it didn’t blow my mind, though the author was rather less alarming, and more ordinary, than I had feared. I gained one important thing from it: the  bit of the bible in Proverbs 31, where it talks about all the amazing things a “Woman of Valour” does, and sets up a seemingly impossible standard for what a decent wife/mother is like, wasn’t designed to be a stick to beat me with. It’s not a check list. It’s a celebration – a love poem, to be recited in honour of a wife/mother, not to make her feel bad, but to make her feel good! It’s there to do exactly what my housework list does – to make a tiny celebration of something getting done. She doesn’t do those things every single day – not all of them, anyway. That she does them at all, though, is worthy of celebration, so the Jews, having a small amount of wisdom in this area, celebrate it. Jewish women, to this day, according to Held Evans, congratulate one another with the Hebrew phrase, “Eshet Chayil” – “Woman of Valour!” You washed the dishes! Woman of Valour! Everyone has clean underwear! Eshet Chayil!

Living a guilt-free life is all about celebrating what you did, not obsessing about what you didn’t do. Because every little thing is, in fact, an achievement, and it’s too easy to underestimate that truth.

A guilt-free existence: Part 1, Guilt-free church

This turns out to be the first part of a two three, erm, multi-part series on guilt. This stuff has been an evolving part of my life philosophy for a while, now, and I thought I’d share. Apologies to the non-religious among you for the first one being focussed on church. Actually, apologies to the rest of you, too.

Over the last three years or so, I’ve been working extra hard on being able to live a guilt-free existence.

Now, if I’m honest, this isn’t a new idea in the psychology of me. I can remember horrifying my university flat-mate, nearly twenty years ago, by declaring that I didn’t ‘do’ guilt, which was both untrue, and in her eyes, morally bankrupt. Presumably, she thought that without guilt, there was no moral compass at all. I disagreed then, and I disagree even more, now. Guilt is a hugely exhausting and damaging emotional driver, and there are much, much more positive ways of making moral choices.

More recently, however, I’ve become aware of just how easily guilt takes over all the rational decision-making functions of a person’s life, and I have been making a small but determined stand against its power in my life, and where I can, in the lives of the people around me.

Guilt-free church

Probably the starting point for this line of reasoning, was the decision to join a small group of friends in starting a new church. We define ourselves both as a church (mostly – some people baulk at the word itself) and as a community group, determined to do what we can to make a real difference to the local area in which we find ourselves. Over the three years we’ve been meeting, that has meant a wide variety of projects, both one-offs, and on-going, from street-sweeping to debt advice, from youth work to food banks, some things involving all of us, some only one or two.

It very quickly became apparent that if we, as a group, were so focussed on Getting Things Done, we had a lot of potential to put a great deal of pressure, both on ourselves, and on each other. So, at a very early stage, we had important conversations, where we explicitly outlined our expectation that everyone’s contribution would be different; that some people had enough energy and enthusiasm for three of us, while others would burn out in weeks if they tried to match the pace. We stated, and promised for the future, that the people in our group were valued for who they were, not for what they delivered, and that every contribution was fantastic, however small, and however outpaced it may be by other people.

That mattered hugely, to me. I am not a pacey person. I have spent nearly 9 years as a stay-at-home mum, and during that time, my pace has dropped to that of a snail. We rarely do more than one thing in a day – if we have a thing in the calendar, then that day is full, as far as we’re concerned. Among my friends are people who do more by the time I’ve finished breakfast, than I’m likely to achieve all day. And you know what? That’s OK. I can choose to live life more slowly, take time to smell the flowers, work less hard, live on less money, and ultimately, know that I’m better off for it. I’m a happier, healthier person as a result. This is the pace that suits me, because we’re all different. It would be just as bad for some of my friends to live my life, as it would be for me to live theirs.

Guilt-free church is a great thing. I’ve knocked around a fair few churches in my life, and they have all, to a greater or lesser degree, functioned on the basic premise that if what we are doing is supposed to be to the glory of God, then to not do it isn’t an option. In my middle thirties, I started to see just how much this contradicted the things those same churches had (mostly) been trying to teach me about God.

The bible is all about God’s grace. It’s all about how he loves me and accepts me for who I really am, irrespective of what I do or don’t do. But then, churches are too often full of busy-work and guilt, and people run ragged by the belief that if they don’t do it, no-one will, and if no-one does it, God will be sad.

My old dad used to say, if you’re afraid God will stop loving you if you stop working, try it and see what happens. My old dad is not always right about things, but on this one he had it spot on. God’s love is unconditional. You don’t have to earn it.

So, why do anything at all, then? Why volunteer for anything?

Because I want to. In my church, I only do the things I want to do. The things that just don’t seem to be playing to my strengths, the things that are so far out of my comfort zone as to make me feel stressed, the things that threaten to take up so much of my time that they are destined to send me into some kind of stress-related illness – I don’t have to do those things. Nobody expects me to, and if I’m asked, and I choose to say no, that’s fine. If I’ve been doing it, and choose to stop, that’s fine. I am motivated, not by guilt, or fear, or duty (another dirty word in my book), but by my own desire to do what I can – but not more than I can.

Now, I prefer not to let people down. So, I tend to be a little cagey about agreeing to things, on the grounds that when I’m committed, I’m really committed. I try not to duck out of things at the last minute, and create problems for other people. But do you know what? If I was a thoroughly unreliable person, who only turned up a third the time that I promised to, I’m pretty sure my church group would quietly reorganise themselves around an assumption of my unreliability, be delighted when I came and helped, and hold no expectations about me for the rest of the time (if you’re reading this, guys, I don’t plan to go down this route!).

It’s all about a shift in focus. Instead of perpetually feeling bad about the things I don’t do (and no matter how hard you work, there’s always something you haven’t done), I am interested in celebrating the things I do. Church isn’t a stick to beat me with, it’s an opportunity to enrich myself and other people by pitching in. I benefit from that as much as anyone else, but my criteria are largely made up of the questions, “Will this activity help me? Will it help someone else? Do I have the time, energy and skills to do this? Do I want to, or is this probably more up someone else’s street?” And it’s OK to leave it to someone else, and it’s OK if the thing doesn’t get done, because none of us are suited to it. That’s a thing that wasn’t getting done before we came along, and can continue to not be done, if there’s no-one to do it.

Churches change and shift as they grow and progress. Guilt-free church is a very important value to me, and one I shall be defending carefully in ours.