Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Be Prepared (Part 1): Building Family Resilience

As parents we know that we need to be prepared for many events. We carry nappies, a snack and a change of clothes for our kids when we go out. We take our driving license and a spare tyre when we drive. Us women need to have sanitary items (and a few other essentials: chocolate, lipstick, a pack of tissues, last year's petrol receipts...) stashed in our bags, just in case. So that if and when something comes up we can deal with the situation and carry on with our day, rather than have to cancel our plans and have a cold, wet, hungry crying child for good measure.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Multiple choice madness... a sane response to crazy times

We are living in crazy times. The Irish people want answers. No one in Government seems willing or able to provide them. So, here is your multiple choice way of dealing with the economic crisis. It's about as scientific and reliable as anything else going around at the moment ...

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Mothering Badge of Honour (for a Day Well Done)

We live in a culture where what is valued is rewarded with money, medals, certificates, public acclaim. But for those of us that parent at home, all those badges are notably absent.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Hands up who likes housework?

I am certainly not one, as any one who knows me can attest to. I may have acquired the title of domestic goddess for my baking skills, but not my housekeeping ones. If there were a competition for the messiest house in East Cork I would be a strong competitor. In fact I could represent the county in the All Ireland's. I despair at the mess in my life and am currently on a serious, sorry...fun... OK serious/ fun creation of order in my home life, so that our beautiful new home, The Pink House, is not a pit. So that at any moment, a friend/ delivery man/ plumber/ neighbour's child/ Buddha can call in and I am not mortified by our unholy mess.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This is our moment

This is our moment
This is our perfect moment
The moment which I have read about for years, foretold by New Agers, counter-culturalists and eco-mentalists alike. Is here. Now.  There is a thrill of excitement, a shudder of dread at what might lie ahead, and a sense of discombobulation. 
This is the moment which the rulers of our economic model denied could ever happen. But now the parade is being pissed on from a height. This is the point where the shit hits the fan. The tipping point. Decision time. We have metaphors a plenty, and big, over arching dreams of social justice, a better world, a fairer, more sustainable society.
But what do we do? 
Here, today, on the ground....what do we do? And how do we do it ? Not in our heads, but in actions, right here, right now?And on a national scale. How do we harness the moment, the feeling of the need for change? 
How do we find agreement between 4 million disparate people about the best way forward, when all are convinced that the system is screwed? That voting won't help?
Fintan O Toole in Wednesday's Irish Times had wise words: "Before an election, a civic movement has to create a critical mass around the idea of radical political reform." 
But how can a civic movement 1) form itself in such a short time 2) position itself to rightfully take power? 
This truly is our moment.  This is history in the making. A moment we will tell our children about. Can we rise to it? Can we find a common way forward? What part can I play?

Monday, November 22, 2010


88 years ago all Irish women won the right to vote.

What does a vote mean to you?

Women make up 50 % of the population...
In our last election an equal number of men and women voted...
And yet...
We currently have 22 women TDs in 166 seats, 13 women in the senate out of 60...

How might things have been different if we'd had a female Minister for Finance during the past decade? A female Taoiseach (Prime Minister)? How might things be different?

The time has come for positive change, a re-balancing of power. Now is our opportunity.

This is not a battle of the sexes. Nor a call to arms. The time is ripe to build a new political culture. A sustainable economy. A culture based on community, not business values.

Ireland has a strong modern history of voting in powerful, considered, intelligent, respectful Presidents: we have had 20 solid years of a female premiere. In the last Presidential election 4 of the 5 candidates were female. We recognise the skills which they offer, we allow them to represent us with grace, diplomacy and intelligence on the international stage. So why not in national politics? Now is the time, our opportunity to say, enough of the "boyos". Let us beckon in a new political culture, one which nurtures, rather than destroys our culture.

Of course women alone do not hold the answer. But nor do men. And yet for centuries men have been in sole charge of nation building. During the twentieth century, women began to enter politics. Now it is time for women to raise their voices, not a little but to their full force, to full equality. To speak up for the values they want to see their public representatives embody. To give voice to what have normally been considered "female" values, which many men hold too: nurturing, respect, supporting, prioritising health, family and caring.

This is not a time for finger pointing, BUT, count the number of female bankers, lawyers, property developers, TDs who profited from the shady shenanigans of the past decade. They are very few and far between. We may not be responsible for the mess, but we have many skills to help clear it up and help to transform not only policies but the way politics are done.

What we need is to use our democratic power to the full. Now could be a time of deep unrest. One trade union has already threatened civil unrest. We saw the men crashing through the Gardai outside Leinster House yesterday. The last thing we need now is chest beating and violence. What we need is co-operation, collaboration, inspiration, making peace, building communities, not war mongering and  ego boosting. What we need is a Great Conversation. One which includes us all.

No more party politics. No more braying in the House of Representatives. No more back-handers. We need the committed work of all elected to turn our country, not only around, but inside out. Into a functioning, caring, democratic society, one which celebrates, supports and builds on, rather than exploits or destroys, the wonder of its people; our beautiful, bounteous island home; our stunning, diverse natural habitat; our fertile fields; our creative culture; our long and deep spiritual heritage; our strong families and communities; our young and booming population.

Votes for Women will encourage women to vote.
It will campaign for a positive election.
It will encourage people to vote for women candidates.
It will bring the above issues to regular attention through press releases to the nation media.

All in favour say "aye".

The waves and the shore

I am the shore, the stony shore,
Rocky, hardened by time.
You, my children, the waves
The ever-crashing, bashing, smashing waves.

The infinite ocean of your possibilities leads as far as the eye can see
Sometimes grey and stormy,
Sometimes calm and blue
Ever changing, ever changing.

Sometimes throwing up seaweed, slimy green and brown
Decorating the mothershore in stinky stickiness.
You wear down my edges, weathering my sharp corners,
Rounding me into something more beautiful and enduring.

Sometimes the storm winds sing so loud I cannot hear my own thoughts,
You pound so insistently I cannot feel my own body
I am storm tossed, wind blown, wave washed, all at sea.

But the tide turns, the waves retreat to play on other shores,
I am still here, and all I can hear is the echo of your roar
Haunting my ears, filling the spaces between my thoughts.

Broken into smaller pebbles, here I lie.
And wait for you,
The tide will turn and back you come to the mothersoul
Seashell souls held close to my stony breast.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mothers meeting - women's sacred circles

Welcome to the circle. Come in with your chatter, take off your coat. Find a place, slip off your shoes, wriggle your toes and tuck them under you. The candle on the centre table is lit. Its golden light softens the tired faces grouped around it. The brass singing bowl is sounded, its rich resonance dissipating into silence, leading us into the realm of stillness. We join hands and breathe together. In and out. This invisible trace leads us into ourselves. Conscious breath fills the room, sanctifying this simple lounge. Our separateness diminishes as a new energy enters the room tangibly changing the atmosphere: it is richer, heavier, more sombre. We settle deeper into stillness.

This is where we meet, on the first Sunday of every month. Although many of us meet at playgroup or for tea during the month, this is different. This is our space. Our sacred space in which we find ourselves once more. We start, like always, by speaking to the very simple question: “how are you really now?” In the stillness a small voice, which has been swamped by the busyness of daily mothering begins to emerge, haltingly, but with strength. How am I? How wonderful to be asked. Terrifying but wonderful. Can I speak to it, bring myself to this question with honesty? This is not a place for being “fine”. No one here is interested in “fine”. Here I can be confused, elated, barely scraping through. Here it is OK to inhabit a place of paradox or of not knowing. I start to speak, uncertain of where my words are headed. I surrender myself to them. Then, as I grab the thread more clearly I open my eyes and sweep them slowly around the room. Women who have become dear friends sit, their eyes focused and loving on me, as I unfold my soul before them. Not for approval, just to be witnessed, this tapestry of my life. The floor is mine, I cannot be interrupted. And it is such a wonderful feeling. Not to stop mid-sentence again and again to answer a child’s question or grab a cup of juice from being spilt or pre-empt a sibling slap. Just space to be me. Wonderful.

And though mothering takes up so much of me, teaches me so much, satisfies me, there is also so much of me that is nothing to do with my kids, which has no expression in play dough or picture books or cooking dinner. The part of me from pre-kids, which inhabits dreams and books and philosophy. The part of me which even my husband does not really know and which I only get glimpses of. This gets a chance to creep out from under the stone of daily life and emerge blinking into the sunlight of awareness, to be witnessed by this circle of women. And then when another stands to speak I get to practice what I am so weak at in daily life, yet need for my parenting: deep, non-judgemental, open-hearted listening. This is where I learn skills which I take back home to my family.

Women’s circles are as old as women themselves. At many times in history they have been outlawed, suspicious. At times they have held the names of quilting bees or sewing groups. We are not a great group of stitchers. Instead each month a different leader chooses a topic which stimulates our minds and titillates us: Creativity, Home, Books, Community, Spirituality… But this is not a discussion group either, though the final discussions can be juicy. Instead we speak from our deepest selves in the spirit of council sharing, a custom borrowed from Native American elders, and familiar to me from Quaker meetings. Waiting for the spirit to move us, then allowing it to meander us through the topic. As we hear our voices speaking we discover what we truly feel and believe. Often it surprises the speaker herself. The listeners’ heads nod in agreement, eyes well with tears of compassion. We sit in a circle and, as women, often we talk in circles. Women’s circles seem to be coming back, spreading like ripples through communities, sustaining the women who belong to them, their goodness spilling out into the families beyond.

We drift out into the hallway, asking after our children’s playmates, organising to meet up for coffee and playtime. We swap forgotten socks and disappear off into the night in time to fix supper for the family, or maybe, just perhaps, a little too late and so to be fed! I float into the house, transformed from the empty husk of a woman who left just a few hours before. I scoop up my children, delighting in their faces. “Mummy’s back” I announce, and I am. I really am.

The women’s group that I started in East Cork began in February 2008 and meets once a month, with a different leader, venue and topic each time.

This was the first of my Dreaming aloud columns, published in JUNO magazine, Spring 2009. An adapted version is also in the 2011 Earth Pathways Diary)

Metta meditation of loving kindness

Thank you for the support and interest in our circle of Deep Compassion. I know of two other circles and many individuals who will be joining us. I have already started receiving cards which I am compiling to give to the mother in mourning. (Please see my previous post for more information)

Yesterday I baked a rosemary remembrance cake with love, which we will eat after the circle. Rosemary has a history of being used for funerals, and to clear the mind. (For the recipe see Nigella Lawson's Feast)

We will be practicing a Metta meditation at the women's circle.  This is a Buddhist way of developing loving kindness and deep compassion. First we start with ourselves, which is often deeply challenging, before opening it out to those we love, those we do not know, those for whom we have challenging feelings, and then all beings.

I first practised this in Japan, in the mountains near Kyoto, on a ten day, silent Vipassana meditation retreat. We also did it at our wedding ceremony. It is a very powerful, yet simple meditation, to be recited aloud or in your head. I found this version which was composed after another tragic incident, and thought it appropriate.

A Metta Meditation
For the tragedy in NYC, DC & PA of September 11, 2001

May I be well, safe and peaceful.
May I be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May I find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May I cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May I live in peace and harmony with all beings.

May our families and friends be well, safe and peaceful.
May they be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May they find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May they cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May they live in peace and harmony with all beings.

May all other persons in our lives be well, safe and peaceful.
May they be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May they find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May they cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May they live in peace and harmony with all beings.

May all the victims of this tragedy and their families be well, safe and peaceful.
May they be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May they find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May they cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May they live in peace and harmony with all beings.

May those responsible for this tragedy and their families be well, safe and peaceful.
May they be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May they find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May they cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May they live in peace and harmony with all beings.

May all beings be well, safe and peaceful.
May they be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ill will.
May they find forgiveness for the inevitable harms we bring to one another.
May they cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
May they live in peace and harmony with all beings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Women's Circle of Deep Compassion

What can I do?

That was my first question. A good friend approached me almost immediately she heard the news - you're tapped into a large mother's network in the area, what can we do?

I felt blank. Empty. In complete shock. Helpless in the face of a tragedy so large, so local, so raw. We all did.

Yesterday my blog page had 240 visitors. Writing it was scary - would people find it tasteless, me writing about such a raw subject? But it seemed to touch a chord with many. And it moved me on in my own process of grief.

I have been asking local mums who are church goers "what are the arrangements". I attend church things in support of the local community here, at sad times, but I am not a church attendee.

But I do lead womens circles. And it is women who are needing to share their feelings of sadness, shock, and deep compassion. Both women in the local community, and those who live further afield but have connections to the area, either geographical, familial or simply soul connections.

So a plan has developed (thanks to a night of not much sleep due to a hot, cross, teething baby).

Tomorrow morning will be a Women's Time of Deep Compassion. 

At 11 am, tomorrow, Friday 19th November, I would like to invite you to add your focused awareness, love and compassion. Take a moment to remember Una, her beautiful daughters, her family and friends, and her husband, and his family and friends. Widening your circle of love and deep compassion for them all.

Please attend my house if you can and would like to (RSVP please). Or gather a circle of women together at your own. Or take a moment whilst sitting with friends having a coffee.  Or at your Jamie Oliver Party (I don't want to steal your attendees Bree!) or just by yourself. Spread the word to as many other women friends as you think would be interested.

1) Light a candle if you can
2) Take a moment to breathe deeply and mindfully
3) Sit in awareness/ prayer/meditation for a few minutes
4) Perhaps take time to make the gifts (see below) together, or share those you have made already and brought
5) On extinguishing the candles, each person sends a wish/ hope/prayer for Una, if possible speaking it aloud.
6) It is always nice to open and close a women's circle by holding hands and closing eyes, perhaps singing together, but only if you feel comfortable doing this!

And a gift...

A friend at her motherblessing was given a beautiful handmade book, where each of us contributed a page. I would like to do a variation partly on this, and partly on a conventional communally signed card. A pack of mother-blessed, "angel"/ "inspiration" cards for her to keep with her journal, or on her mantle piece, or handbag.

If each person who wishes could make a "postcard": 6" x 4" (standard photo size), just single (not a folded card). On one side might be a photograph, drawing, collage, piece of mounted sewing, a quotation, message, symbol, a word, a prayer, a poem - a gift of hope/love/peace from your heart to hers. Something to light her darkness and add a new, brighter thought or image into her days.

On the other side please put your name at least, and perhaps your contact details or where you live, so that if ever she feels herself alone in this world she can phone, text, call in, drive past your house, look at a map and know that someone out there cares and that she is not alone.

Please mail me these cards (to arrive for the end of next week - email me for address), or scan them in and email them and I will print them off and put them onto card.

I will compile the cards in a beautiful folder/ envelope and get them to her next week.

So 11 am PROMPT tomorrow, Friday 19th November. Start arriving from 10.45, we will be finished by 11.30. I am not intending for it to last more than half an hour, as I know people will have to disappear to collect children and do nap time.

Please do bring any prayers/ poems/ reflections etc that you might want to share at this time.

And do bring cake etc if wanted. We will of course have tea and cake afterwards for those who do not need to race off.

I look forward to welcoming as many of you as possible to the Pink House tomorrow - please do RSVP by text/email.

Practical note:  I am planning it for a Friday as then a lot of mothers have children in school or playschool. I feel it is appropriate for babies to be there. Toddlers too (if they can have a favourite toy/ book/ food to keep them quiet for a little that would be great.) I would be concerned about older children asking questions that mothers may be wanting to avoid, but they are welcome to play upstairs.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The grieving mother soul

For Una, and all who grieve,

I send you a prayer with every breath. I cannot begin to comprehend your pain, the scale of your loss.

The storm winds of the mother soul howled around this house last night, and every other house in the area, the tears of God raining down upon us as we battened down our hatches and sent continual prayers that you are finding peace and comfort somehow. We are counting and recounting our own blessings with every prayer. Wishing we could transfer them to you.

Words cannot begin to express the sense of deep, deep sadness that every mother and father in our community feels at this moment. We hold our own, dear children closely to us, as though we can immunize them and ourselves from suffering and pain through our tiny, repeated act of love, wishing, wishing that this would bring your children back to you.

We wake to a blue sky, the rays of sunshine promising hope. But the mood is dark and sombre. The usual school gate chatter is gone. Even the playground is eerily quiet. We are united in your pain: we are all one.

We want to talk but talking changes nothing. Nor does the news. It is like scratching an itch, it momentarily makes things feel better, and then worse. The facts are not what we want. We seek to find a way through the shock, the senselessness, the destructive possibilities of the human spirit. The knife edge of normality which we unknowingly walk along every day and which disaster can shatter in an instant. As I feed our chickens and empty our bins, I wish you the soothing tedium of mundanity.

The mother soul is grieving for one of its own. Know that we are united around you, though you cannot see us or may not know us. We hold the space for you, for you to be as you need, in this moment. We open our Madonna's cloaks, fall into their soft folds, let us hold you and croon you a lullaby to soothe you into sleep and the momentary forgetfulness that it will bring, let us wail together, let us wash you clean of your pain in our tears, let us feed you and hold you as you cry and scream and rage and then lie silent.

I pray that you might find life after death. Someday, somehow.

With love, deepest love, dear Una and all your family.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A LOVE LETTER: in celebration of mamas:

I am lucky to know a lot of lovely mamas who are full time mamas, and also work at things that they love, to support their families financially and nourish their souls. Far from the 'having it all mums' of the 80s and 90s, these mamas are striving to find the balance, to make it work for them, loving their children, sharing care amongst loving friends and relatives. They are re-negotiating the split between working mother and stay-at-home mum in their own unique ways, according to their own unique circumstances. Some are partnered, some are single. All are making sacrifices, big sacrifices: financial, emotional and creative for the good of their families. Their families are their priority, the reason that they must earn, or must stay home the majority of the time. But in the moments in between, late into the night, at weekends, they work at things that make their spirits sing, for love, for money, for sanity... 

I am lucky to count amongst them:
An Avon lady and card maker
Two teachers, theatre producers and performers
A couple of writers
An editor
A childbirth educator
Many crafty mamas of all stripes and spots
An illustrator
An artist
A nutritionist
A chef
A couple of home educating teachers
And lots, lots more besides who work as all sorts of wonderful, interesting or often mundane things...

They also give their time to friends, bake cakes, make welcoming homes, support causes close to their hearts, serve up wholesome meals, organise wonderful parties for adults and children. As well as mothering with integrity and dedication day after day after day after day.

All hail to you my dear friends, and to those of you I have never met. You wise women, you gentle loving souls. To you who have chosen to quietly put your dreams to one side, on go-slow, not completely or forever, just enough to serve those that you love as they need you.

And to you all, who have answered the invitation of your burgeoning creativity, which has developed and bloomed, as you have your bodies, through your childbearing and mothering. Your fertility blossoming in both mind and body. You are taking risks to bring forth what lies within you, to express what is most beautiful, precious, sacred, important to you. Birthing your creative babies out into the often cold, hard world.

I honour your acceptance of the changing nature of your bodies and surrender to your lives, which are almost unrecognisable from the freedoms you once knew.

I honour your doubts, your risks, and your challenges. I honour your feelings of barely keeping hold of sanity. I honour the fact that often you would sell your own soul for another six hours to every day, an extra pair of hands, five minutes peace...

I wish that I could give you all the money you needed, guarantee the safety and happiness of your children, a wonderful lover in your beds, and a warm meal on your table, and a house fairy to tidy up the mess. But I can't - you do all that magic by yourselves.

And I do too...

Here's to us!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mother tongue - a positive vocabulary of mothering

We live in an articulate society, continually questioning ourselves and each other. It is not fair to leave a new mother with a horrific collection of words to condemn her – and almost nothing in the way of praise for when she is doing something well. A whole vocabulary is missing.” 
What Mothers Do (especially when it looks like nothing) Naomi Stadlen

So here are some of the words I have added to my mothering vocabulary:

A mama - I am most definitely a mama: any female through the act of giving birth or adoption becomes a mother. Mummy is my mother, and it has the connotations for me of poshness and childishness. I am not a mom (american) or mam (Irish),  or mum (standard English) All of them are short, curt sounding and conventional. There is no roundness, warmness to those words.

No, I am a mama - soft to cuddle, with big snuggly milk giving boobs and rounded baby carrying hips, honed to soft perfection by our nearly daily family cookie baking and eating. I am a hippy mama, with floaty skirts, to skim over those big hips. I am a sling wearing, sore-knee kissing, jumping on the trampoline together, Arnica prescribing, walking in the woods, roast chicken serving, lullaby singing, candle lighting, playgroup starting, nature table tending, crafty crafty mama. 

Mama can be a verb too. Come round my house, any day or night and you will find me mama-ing my little brood. Sometimes with joy and laughter and songs, making playdough and dancing to folk music in the sitting room. And sometimes shouting and screaming and crying and despairing over toddler tantrums, maternal exhaustion from a night waking baby and my need to run away to the other side of the world, now!

An inherent part of mama-ing is Snuggle-time- a warm, cuddly, lovely time to sink your nose into your child's hair, and give them your warmest most golden sustaining mama-energy, and suck up their sweetness and wish you could bottle it. "Mama snuggle me up" pleads my two year old when she is feeling sad or tired. Snuggle time with all my children started with the warm reciprocated joy of liquid love: breastfeeding. As they have got older and weaned, it continues to be a golden time for us.

Breathing is another key mama skill. I find breathing gets me out of a lot of hairy situations. Sometimes breathing is all I can do to stop my mama head from spinning off in sheer frustration. And sometimes I think sod breathing I need to shout! And then I feel very, very guilty.

So peace-making is another key mama skill. Making peace with myself for failing myself and my children. Making peace with my children for being a horrible shouty, cranky mama. Making peace between my children when they are tormenting each other. This mama skill is why I think there should be more mamas in "big" power, out in the world.

Soothing is a variation on snuggle time, but is needed for scared, hurt, shocked children. I picture my Madonna's cloak, and imagine it wrapped around my little one and I as I rock, cradle and stroke them wherever we may be: shopping centre, birthday party, bus or home.

Strewing is another key skill for wanna-be home educators, and hands on parents. It is the act of scattering carefully thought out ideas, objects, games, books in your child's path, and then jumping out of the way to let them pick it up and take an interest in it, to ask questions in their own time, rather than foisting a "learning experience" on them.

Day Surfing is the act of filling a day with no money, and no plans, seeing where you wash up: head into town, start at the library, then onto the pet shop, watch the road construction team working, a run in the park, listening to a busker. day surfing is a much larger challenge at home, where it can often be white knuckle survival.

I am sure I will add to this. But what are your words for positive acts of mothering? Add to our communal vocabulary, and honour the often challenging, sometimes rewarding, but crucially important act of mothering. I invite you to share you contributions in the comments box below.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


An alternative to the work and parenting dilemma 
1500 WORD ARTICLE- published in JUNO

The future is not inevitable. We can influence it, if we know what we want it to be…We can and should be in charge of our own destinies in a time of change.” 
Charles Handy, 1989

The road to parenthood is often littered with tough decisions, compromises and abandoned dreams. One common stumbling block is the eternal tug of war between paid work and parenting. It is a clash of well-made intentions and hard realities, with few alternatives offered by our working culture. Evolving a life where we can balance our children’s needs for breastfeeding, love and plenty of hands-on parenting, with our own adult needs for recognition and engagement with the outside world, whilst meeting our financial needs, is a quandary that many families can face.

As a society, we are improving in our provision of parental leave; maternity allowance and child care options. But we are still putting the economic role of parents in the workforce before the very real needs of children for parental carers. There is a great pressure in our culture right now, both socially and financially, for both parents to hold full time paid careers outside the home. Something has to give and it is usually our energy and sanity as we get busier and more money rich but time poor. As house prices and child care costs rise, and our material expectations increase, it can feel as though there are fewer choices open to us.

This article is about creating alternatives to the either/or boundary so commonly laid down in our culture between the career women and stay-at-home mums. Making your own way requires some redefinitions: of our roles and titles, of financial needs and wants, of concepts of work, of success and achievement, of possible jobs and of how daily life can look. It requires a greater degree of self reliance, adaptability and the courage to live out your values and take risks. There is no blueprint, no how-to manual; we each must find our own way that works best for our families and us. This is challenge enough for two parent families and twice as much so for lone parents who have already had to learn to be creative and flexible in their roles. My hope is to inspire you towards a way of living which complements, not compromises, you and your family’s ever-changing needs, allowing you and your loved ones flexibility, togetherness, autonomy and creativity in your lives.

Decisions, decisions
Before having a child, I used to know clearly which side of the fence I would be: the divide clearly laid down in our culture between the career women and stay-at-home mums. My own mother was a stay-at-home mum: she had a hundred interests but her role did not include paid work. And I thought that I would be the same. I was outraged when asked, whilst I was still pregnant, when I would restart work. I was committed to being a stay-at-home mum, with all that it entailed. This was my baby and I didn’t want to pay someone else to bring it up for me so I could have a career.

And yet, when the time came, I felt very clearly that I wanted to be able to contribute something financially to our family in addition to being my son’s main caretaker. I had no interest in being a career woman, but I also did not want to be confined to the domestic sphere. I had a strong desire to continue to contribute to society in a broader sense and continue finding avenues for expressing my creativity as I always had done. My devotion to caring for my son was absolute, and yet I was not prepared to put being me on hold for ten years or more, neither was I willing to try “having it all” as has been so popularised recently. And so we have evolved a new way of living and working, making and finding our own work from lots of part time jobs and self-employment, whilst parenting in partnership. Practically speaking this has meant me taking the majority of the child-care and my husband the majority of the earning for most of the first year, and into the second year the pendulum has started to swing the other way. However, at times when I have had a glut of work he has the flexibility to shift into stay-at-home father role. Generally I work outside the home one-and-a-half days a week and he cares for our son just as I do when he works. We both also take on work that we can do from home in the evenings. Many people envy us, and say that we’re lucky to spend so much time at home with our son and not “go to work” at full time jobs like they “have to”. But this is all about choices, we have chosen not to have careers in organisations which organise our lives for us, we have chosen not to have a big mortgage which stretches us to breaking point. We have chosen to put one of us being home with our son first, and with those priorities in place, our need to earn our living falls in around that. We have chosen to think creatively about our working lives. As I see it you can hand over your time or money for security or live more self sufficiently, taking responsibility for this yourself.

Charles Handy, an influential and visionary business writer (author of The Age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoat amongst other books), talks of new ways of working, which will become more commonplace as our economy moves away from providing nine to five jobs for organisations. He talks of your portfolio of work, a far broader definition of work than we currently hold. There are five categories; the paid work consists of wage work (money paid for time given) and fee work (money paid for results delivered, e.g. professional freelance or artistic work). There are three “free work” categories, which are just as important but undervalued in our society and therefore omitted from peoples’ current portfolios: Homework encompassing caring, family responsibilities and domestic work, gift or voluntary work and study/ hobby work:
“If, rather than think of life as work and leisure, we think of it as a portfolio of activities - some of which we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause - that way, we do not have to look for the occupation that miraculously combines job satisfaction, financial reward and pleasant friends all in one package. As with any portfolio we get different returns from different parts and if one fails the whole is not ruined.”
In this model our lives and our work are not seen as two distinct and separate things but rather intertwined and each allotted equal significance in maintaining our lives as individuals and society. Rather than having your ‘job’ to which you go to for eight hours a day, your portfolio of work may consist of both paid and unpaid work, maybe in many different roles or capacities over the week or year and certainly over a lifetime. Work can be a far broader, more diverse and fulfilling prospect than we might imagine!

We have found that this approach has worked well for us. We are certainly not rich in financial terms, but neither are we poor in any sense. We have a far wider range of experiences, locations, activities, co-workers and roles on a weekly basis than if we were going to work every day at the same job or only staying home doing childcare. We are in charge of our time to a far greater degree, and so more flexible. We feel in control of our own lives: they are full and satisfying. For paid work we mark exam papers, edit and proof read, teach yoga, creative writing and drama, do hours in a shop and office when needed, sell bio-mass boilers, tutor secondary school kids and make Christmas wreaths for sale. Our other time is spent parenting, gardening, volunteering at La Leche League and on a local arts festival committee and on hobbies and learning. There is never a dull moment! We are rich in time some days and over-worked on others. There is always seasonal work, always times when someone or other needs an extra hand. Living and working this way doesn’t give you the company car, the fast track promotion or the pension policy- but it gives you priceless things such as time – to care for your child yourself, to breastfeed in an extended manner, to build or renovate you own house, to integrate yourself far more into your community and the seasons, and crucially, to develop a sense of trust and surrender to the world. Working in this way makes you more realistic about your abilities and skills and far broader in categorising yourself. It also means you have to learn to name your price and to label your worth, which is often a real challenge. Rather than the never-ending fear of ‘what if’, you face it day after day and learn to live with constantly being open to opportunities and trusting that where one door closes another opens. 

My guiding mantra and starting point on this journey is Theodore Roosevelt’s wise words: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” My yardstick for success is based on the words attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

Get creative
Take a big sheet of paper and brainstorm what the good life looks like for you. Try to steer clear of infinite money and desert islands! Maybe it is being able to pick up your kids from school, being self-employed, working with horses, cooking professionally, growing your own organic vegetables, being less reliant on the car, using your creativity to earn money.

Redefine the concept of a job
Keep your old job but go part time, job share, flexi time or temp. Take advantage of technology to make the place of your work more adaptable and e-commute. Revive cottage industry and work from home. Choose your business and co-workers and work with or for partner or friends. Or go out on your own and be self-employed. Or go with the seasons and temp or do contract work. Or combine lots of bit part job roles.

Create paid work
Really take into account ALL of your skills, not just qualifications when thinking how you might create paid work in your portfolio.
What skills do you enjoy using most? What activities use these? (See Bolles, What Color is Your Parachute?) What work is there a need for in your community or region? Can you provide this? What are you good at? What do you do already that you could turn into a profession? What was your dream job before you started to compromise? What paid work could you do from home which complements or is an extension of stay-home parenting? What hobbies or interests could you turn into earning potential by teaching to others or selling the product of your hobby?

Reassess your markers of success
Are they monetary, to do with career prestige, or are they more in line with sustainable happiness? Money cannot replace time with your partner, time in nature, your babies’ smiles and seeing first steps. What really makes you rich? What has value for it? List all the things other than money that work provides you: self-esteem, using your creativity, spending time with like minded people, challenge… make sure that between your various types of work you meet all of these needs.

Off-load unnecessary expenses

Downsize, barter skills or products with friends and neighbours, reuse, recycle, share, start a LETS economy in your community or an unofficial skills swap. By doing this we swap babysitting time, baby stuff, clothes, handy-manning, professional services, garden produce and preserves between our support network. We share lifts, grocery shopping, club memberships and various media amongst our friends. Our society is pitched towards private ownership, but it has large financial costs and excess material clutter. Maybe you don’t need to own but can share, borrow or rent your house, holiday house, book, laptop…

The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future by Charles Handy, Random House Business Books, £8.99

The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, Random House Business Books, £8.99

What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Guide for Job-Hunters and Career Changers by Richard Bolles, Ten Speed Press, £12.99

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Watch out, rocks ahead!"

The jolt in our civilisation is much on my mind at the moment. Watching the Trillion Pound debt programme and reading Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Environmental and Economic Collapse, I am trying to arm myself with the facts. The scale of the figures involved in our current economic situation are mind-boggling.  The problem is that they are almost inconceivable to this little, well-educated human mind.  The FEASTA publication suggests we ask ourselves three questions: what can I do, what can our community do and what is out of my hands?

And that has been my approach thus far. We are moving our money out of banks, investing in real, useful things: insulation for our house, bicycles, a water butt, books for knowledge, a full bulk-bought store cupboard, education for ourselves. We are borrowing our mortgage from family and paying back to the banks what is theirs so that we are not caught up in their mess. We are keeping open minds about our "work" and earning potential, diversifying our revenue-streams, so that we are not reliant on one source of income. We are trying to make ourselves as self-sufficient  as we can, simultaneously rooting ourselves in our community - supporting local business, individuals and services. We are building up community capital, investing time in friendship, skill exchanges, swaps of unwanted products: clothes, books etc amongst firneds and our freecycle community. I have been a big fan of Rob Hopkin's Transition Towns Movement and we are guided by its principles and actions. I consider us to be a Transition family, more of which another time...

I am not trying to get apocalyptic, but at the same time, major, major changes are happening around us, especially in Ireland and the UK which are changing the way we will live and work and our financial standing for generations to come. Gone are the big cosy pensions, the two foreign holidays a year, the jobs for life, the free University education, free old-age care, mortgage relief for the unemployed. We are being expected more and more to provide for ourselves and our families: we must anticipate our needs, to be response-able.

The image I have chosen for this post is symbolic: each family can try to be an island, to prepare themselves to withstand the stormy seas, but still we are reliant on the mainland for many of our survival needs. Also we that understand a little about the challenges which coming can be like lighthouses to others, showing the way through the dark seas, "Watch out, rocks ahead!"

The Chinese character for crisis is danger plus opportunity. And this is where we are. Some days we are hopeful, the world is full of new promise and exciting changes, the next it is like staring into the abyss,  as we assess and await the unknowable. I feel like a consummate Girl Guide and am working hard to "be prepared".

And you... how are you and your family responding to the changing economic climate? Is it all alarmist hype? Are you hoping it'll all blow over? Or are you making changes and preparations for a different way of life?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Creating climate change from within

A 1700 word article

Looking at the enormous upheavals in our financial system over the past two years, I feel a certain lack of shock. Whilst our leaders scrabble for solutions to this unanticipated crisis, prophets of all stripes have foreseen this coming: the crash of stock markets, the depletion of resources, food shortages, wide-spread armed conflict, environmental degradation and cataclysmic weather conditions have been foretold for millenia. The book of Revelations, Nostradamus, the Maitreya adherents on one hand. Schumacher in the 70s was writing clearly that peak oil was a reality. Indeed the ancient Maya had the date 2012 down as the end of this cycle of world civilisation. And so, here we are…

We have become so used to hearing stock phrases such as 'climate change', 'the financial crash' and 'energy crisis' bandied around that they have become a short hand. We do not think about either the terms or their implications – by taking us back to how we talk and think about what is facing us I hope to reframe these ideas, to give insight into what they might mean for us as a society.

Marilyn Ferguson, author of the best-sellling book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, says: “Whenever we name things, we structure consciousness. As we look at the great social transformation underway, we will see again and again that naming awakens new perspectives.”

Semantics can be about hair splitting. But this is not intended as cleverness for cleverness’ sake. When words become so habitual we become immune to their power. They become ciphers, and their inherent meaning becomes lost. Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements talks of how we dream our world into being. Each of us has our own dream of reality. The language and images which we both dream in, and use to describe these dreams of reality, if unconscious, mean that the dream is being shaped unconsciously, which we therefore have little control over. By bringing these words and images into the light of our consciousness, and bear witness to them, we become conscious of consciousness, mind becomes aware of itself. “Recognition – literally ‘knowing again’ – occurs when the analytical brain, with its power to name and classify, admits the wisdom of its other half [the right side of the brain] into full awareness.” The Aquarian Conspiracy.

This is the crux of the paradigm shift needed to truly address the issues facing ourselves and our world. For though there are large physical shifts happening in terms of the physical climate of our planet, they are, if we hold that we are responsible for climate change, as a direct result of our actions, which in turn are a direct result of our thoughts. What we think and what we say is the first change which then informs our action. In Buddhist terms one cannot have right action without right thought and right speech: all are interlinked. We cannot fix these issues with words – but our words give an insight into how we are seeing and why we are acting as we are.

'Climate change' and 'the energy crisis' are not just ecological problems 'out there' in the world at large but are both physical manifestations and also metaphors for our individual selves: as above, so below. As the Romantic poets and philosophers noted, the microcosm is always a reflection of the world at large, the macrocosm – two reflective pools, each referring back to the other. We are living in a cultural climate change also, not one purely based on our carbon emissions, but on something far deeper: our inner environment. Many of us are realising that we cannot continue to live as we have been, we need to change our cultural climate, and fast. We have been burning the candle at both ends, racing endlessly from one appointment to the next, always on the go, squandering our own energies as well as the oil and coal which fuel our buzzing lives. Not just the banks but we ourselves have been living beyond our means, borrowing to fund our excessive lifestyles.

As a culture we have become accustomed to always looking outwards. We point the finger, like Michelangelo’s Adam, out at God, or indeed our fellow human beings, rather than looking inwards for answers. It has been the ultimate myth, perpetuated by rulers and religions throughout history: we are powerless, the power and responsibility lies without, as does our salvation. We cannot solve the current problems facing us whilst still coming from a place of fear. For too long we have lived in a fear based culture: that is what has got us where we are. The perception that we are fighting an enemy is so ingrained and so our leaders look for precedents and guidance in our recent history, but find none. The old rules do not and cannot hold. We are trying to apply a materialist paradigm to solve a non-material dilemma: money, depletion of energy and unseen gases are all far more abstract than human combatants which we have fought for so long, or geographical territories which we have sought to conquer. And so our means and resources, indeed our whole approach must necessarily be different.

It might seem strange to refer to money as 'abstract' but the current crash is purely about these abstractions, the plummeting down of numbers on screens, the investments in unknown debts, speculation of potential gains. We cannot be pressurised, forced or guilt-tripped by tax, policy or rhetoric into the fundamental changes which are needed for truly sustainable living.

For too long the environmental message has just been another mental idea 'out there' taken up by a few, not an embodied philosophy for the majority. This is currently personified in the chattering media-induced frenzy to find someone to scapegoat for the financial crisis. Now is the time to hush that chattering voice within and without and find the still small voice of calm, to be able to identify the root of the problem: the depletion of our own inner resources, our own energy reserves, and create a climate of change from within. We do not have to fight or combat climate change when we approach it from within. This is not a war on anything. Instead we need to make fundamental adjustments to our assumptions and our modes of living, to make peace with ourselves and our environment.

This is a time of crisis we are told. But panic will not help the crashing financial markets. Only fearless action will. The Chinese ideogram for crisis means both danger and possibility. We must be aware of both as we consider the way forward. Those who were at home, embedded in the old system, whose values were those of material riches and wealth, are faced with a fear of the future which has no comparison in historical times. There is a great stripping away underway which is immensely painful for our large institutions and all of those who are reliant on them for their livings.

This is a time of the death of the culture as we have known it, but the of birth of a new culture, one of greater sustainability, meaning one which we can sustain and which can sustain us. As a culture we have tended to approach both birth and death with fear and trepidation, seeking to numb ourselves and deny the enormous learning of the spirit as it passes through these challenges.

During the early stages of transformation there is dissonance “sharp conflict between new beliefs and old patterns. Like the troubled society struggling to remake itself with old tools and structures, the individual tries at first to improve the situation rather than change it, to reform rather than transform” (The Aquarian Conspiracy). Coming from a culture dominated by money as the central force, there seems to be a belief within current political solutions that the more money that is spent on climate change, the more power we will have, that indeed, climate change can be ‘solved’ by buying and selling units of carbon on the global markets. But all the money in the world, every last cent could not buy climate change without the will of people everywhere.

There are, as Marilyn Ferguson succinctly discusses, potentially four types of change we as a society and as individuals can make. Change by exception which says we are right except for one or two anomalies, which we allow as they do not break the rule completely. This is the habitual reaction of most people, most of the time, it is least threatening for the status quo and for our own sense of rightness, and the identity of the ego which is tied up with that. Incremental change occurs bit by bit and the individual is not aware of having change, they are a passive recipient of change, this, I would argue, is how we have emerged into the full blown capitalist, consumer driven state which we find ourselves inhabiting now. Then there is pendulum change where black becomes white, the hawk becomes a dove, this change fails to integrate the old or discriminate the new, it is an unstable state, rejecting its prior experience and is essentially a going from one kind of half knowing to another. All of these explicitly avoid full transformation. Transformative, or paradigm change refines and integrates, it is not a simple linear effect, but a sudden shift of pattern.

What must happen and dare I say, is quietly taking root now is an inner revolution, a spontaneous paradigm change: one of embodied wisdom and transformation. Not changing our minds but a true change of heart and a new language with which to dream a new vision of a new world. Language must come from our knowing and our knowing is informed by our language. We are our environment, we are a small part of it, and it is a large part of us, we cannot separate ourselves from it: this is the paradigm shift which must occur, requiring us to embody environmentalism and the fundamental changes which are happening. We are being called to respect our environment in a totally new way: re-spect, to look again and see with our inner vision, and from this place we might transform ourselves and our world, living lighter on the earth, in ourselves and with each other.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Giving from the heart

Despondent after another identi-kit party at an anonymous warehouse, sorry, play-centre, where the hostess gathered the vast gifts, no doubt mainly plastic and cardboard packaging, full of overpriced plastic toys, made by badly paid Chinese workers, I despaired. I didn't know the child, didn't know what she would like and yet the obligation to give, to be seen to be generous, was there. I had settled for a cute embroidered notebook, handmade by an Indian women's cooperative, and sold at a local shop and some suitable wooden non-toxic crayons – given in a re-usable gift bag. I have a suspicion that the daughter may have flung them aside in disgust and the mother probably felt like the trade off between money paid for my son's entry to the party and the size of gift did not tally.

But what to do? I do not buy big plastic gifts for my own children, and I baulk at the packaging on most "mainstream" toys.  So I'm not going to start giving them at the 20 or so birthday parties of strangers' children from school, which my son is lucky enough to be invited to a year for three key reasons:  1) We don't have the money 2) Its not our thing-: ecologically, socially, or values-wise and 3) I strongly believe that kids just don't need that amount of toys they have, it is just an accumulation of waste and early training into consumerism.

So what to do?

And then it hit me - give to kids who do need something. I recalled friends telling me of children in India, Africa and Nepal hounding them, wherever they went, for a biro or a pencil. And here at home, my son has been given his third pack of cheap pencils in a month, in the party bag he received. 

So next party I am going to give a sports kit - to children in Africa, and the birthday child will receive a card informing them of this and a picture - this way children who really need something to play with will get it and the birthday child will have a gentle education into the world beyond their own...

Sponsoring an animal starts at £40 a year one off payment: helping to save the habitat of an elephant, panda, otter, dolphin, dormouse... It's pricey, so maybe give it to the class and then give a card to each child with a copy of the certificate? WWF and many others do animal adoption. As do local zoos and safaris, where the child could visit "their" animal.

You can give a flock of chicks for €13 (OXFAM) or a duck for £12 (practical presents.co.uk) to families in need.

And then the wonderful  http://www.oxfamirelandunwrapped.com

You can give a sports kit FOR €9 or school books FOR €15.

Or 3 bags of seeds for €7 and then give a bag of seeds to the birthday child themselves as a way of connecting them to the child, and to nature and get them into growing things themselves.

Or give handmade, fair trade, co-operative made goods...
Or something educational, or start a passion for craft...

Tell me
How do you solve the gift dilemma, where you hardly know the person but a gift is expected?
To what extent do the gifts you give reflect your values?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


We had a book swap night last night here at the Pink House. A great way to recycle no longer wanted books, and pick up great new reads for free, and talk books with friends - what more can a girl want? The heady smell of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves from the mulled apple juice warmed our bodies as we shared stories of our lives and the books that made us who we are. It was really nourishing to spend time talking about the power of stories, words and ideas with good friends.

What eight books have been most influential or treasured in your life? Which books built you? Which author's complete works would you take with you to a desert island if you could only choose one? And what would be your "bible"?

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Tonight is Bonfire Night in England, the fireworks are whizzing and popping to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. But here in rural Ireland all is deathly silent (which makes me feel a little sad and nostalgic for the Bonfire Nights of my youth). Silent, that is, except for the whizzing and popping inside my head: the fires of my mind are burning brightly. I'm bursting with stuff I want to write... a poem, two short fillers and at least three long feature articles are spinning round my head, to say nothing of the book idea...or two!

Fuelled by MSG from tonight's Chinese takeaway, sugar from this afternoon's kiddies birthday party, the joy that the weekend is here, the energy I'm getting from having a clean-ish, clear-ish (for us) house - thank you me - the joy of having the new copy of JUNO in my hands, the knowledge that the kids are in bed, the need to shout out about new ideas, wrongs to be put right... I am here, I am ready to write and write till the small hours and beyond! And would, except for my multiple times a night waking baby who makes me feel like an extra from The Night of the Living Dead.

Oh how I love to write. I make no grand claims for my style, or my originality, and few for my grammar, but oh to put fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, and blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, how wonderful, to read and research, and dream, and rant, and share and just be me on a page, to get my brain in gear again after a day of wiping bottoms, making sandwiches - cut just so, or else - reading stories galore and taxiing everyone here and there, suddenly I get to come fully alive and flyyyyyyyyyyyy, like free-wheeling down a hill on a bike, freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

But then of course there's the editing and the crafting, and the researching statistics and getting quotes from "the experts" to back up my rant, and then crafting hard-selling emails to editors who don't know me and couldn't care less about my current passion - this week colouring in, last week fish oils, the one before home birth and female masturbation. And then the wait and wait and wait - did they get it, do they want it, will they pay, how much, when?

But oh how I love to write. My husband is dreaming of what our life might have been had we not had three kids in our twenties, where we might have ended up, what we might be doing. He is envious of a friend teaching out in China right now. I feel I've been there (well, Japan in our case) and done that. I don't need to be anywhere else in the world, doing anything else, most of the time, but I would like a little shed in the garden, a writing shed, just me, my laptop, bookcase and silence, except for the gentle clucking of our hens. But that is still a couple of years down the road.

And so I desperately try not to wish away my time with our precious (needy and noisy) little children, who have given me this opportunity to be at home, to start out on my writing career gently and who provide most of my writing material. Our compromise is that Patrick is going down to four days a week so that I can take one day of breadwinning writing, and our children have the best (well in their eyes, the second best - he has no boobs!) childminder in the world, and I get to spread my writing wings a little further. For now there is no shed, just our shared office, though my desk is currently blocked off by an oversized telescope on loan from a friend. So here I am, curled up in an armchair. And I am writing. And it is wonderful! 


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