This is a longer read, so top up your beverage and settle in…
It was overwhelming, that first week at home.
Before I say more, I am not complaining. I have nothing to complain about. My family and I are healthy and comfortable in our home, with a garden, in a leafy neighbourhood threaded with bike paths we’re still allowed to walk and cycle on, at the time of writing. We have enough. Our children are old enough to entertain themselves, some of the time. We’re not on the verge of losing our livelihood. I don’t suffer from anxiety. I have amazing interactions daily with small groups of friends – my Esbjerg Tribe – on WhatsApp and Facebook. We share what we’re feeding our families, for inspiration…
Our extended families are secure in their homes, with neighbours checking in on them, and we have constant contact thanks to our amazing digital world. My mum even got a new toy…
I can’t complain.
Those of us who are serial expats are well-placed, I think, to process this uncertainty. We live in uncertainty year to year, in a way that becomes normal to us, becomes a currency, a language almost. We forget that most people marvel at the idea that we don’t know where we’ll be living in a few months’ time, that they inwardly think, I could never do that. Most people would never choose it.
Just a few weeks ago, I was cautiously and quietly researching countries where MT was considering throwing his hat in the ring for a new post. I was agreeing to plans knowing that, when the moment of commitment came, I might not be around in Denmark to follow through on them. Once we knew for sure that we were staying, I started leaning back in to my life here, which surprised me, having barely noticed that I had started to lean out. I discovered a new wholeheartedness for the months ahead. Having those months pulled out from under me is sad, but I’ve had to adjust all my expectations before.
That’s the kind of uncertainty I’ve become comfortable with; it’s like a companion. I get uncomfortable with questions about things like where my kids might go to school when we return to the UK. I no longer know how it would feel to book a holiday 18 months in advance.
I’m seeing friends here book hasty unplanned flights home, so that in effect, we won’t see each other again until August, probably, when school starts again after the summer holidays.
I’ve seen that before.
I have a friend whose was getting ready to hunker down in the country where she only just arrived, only to be sent home by their company a few days later in a mandatory repatriation. She had to leave her cat behind.
She’s done that before. More than once.
So this shift in the world, it’s disconcerting, of course. It’s worrying. I’m disappointed to be missing events that have been cancelled, and I’m even grieving some projects that won’t come to fruition the way we imagined them. But the not knowing what’s next…I’m grateful for this mindset that allows me to re-calibrate, reassess, adapt, and let go of what I thought I was ready to invest my time and energy in.
I understand that letting go of a deeply-entrenched routine of small things, of weekly connection, of habits and practices that have been a part of your life for years in a place you know so well that you barely even notice them, to lose the comfort of routines you didn’t even know gave you comfort, and to have to seek that comfort else where, to have to just…stop.
I think that must be much harder.
So I’m not complaining.
To my own amazement, I’m not even complaining about the homeschooling. It’s always been a red-line deal-breaker for me: any country move that would have meant having to homeschool, I would have vetoed. That’s a choice, a control, I would have unhesitatingly exercised.
But now, there’s no choice, and I am one of millions of reluctant homeschoolers. So I’m throwing myself into it, with, if not gusto, at least a willingness to enjoy it, and to take responsibility for maintaining a routine for our family. I’m also grateful for the hard work of our teachers, who’ve poured their energy into providing stimulating activity and are quick with feedback, even though some of them are homeschooling themselves.
(I had to laugh that first Monday morning, after days of frenzied resource-sharing in various Facebook and WhatsApp groups, when we logged on to find a day’s worth of work prepared by the professionals whose job it is to teach our kids! I’m very happy to keep relinquishing some of that responsibility to them, as long as they’re able, and to support them from the kitchen table.)
Nothing to complain about there.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
It took a couple of days for the realisation to slowly come to light. The introvert dream so many of us had been memeing about would not come to pass, not for the homeschooling parents. In fact, it’s the opposite. Although I’m a bit of an ambivert, motivated at times by community building and confident in large groups, ultimately my introvert urges always win out, and I refill my well and recoup my energies alone.
Not ‘alone with my family’ alone. Completely alone.
Or at least, ‘quietly in different parts of the house for a couple of hours’ alone.
Instead, I am in the constant company of people with whom I have to use my voice all day long. And that’s the thing: it’s not the having to be available, the giving up of time I might have hoped to spend on other things, the always having to decide what happens next…none of those things are the most exhausting.
It’s the giving over of my voice. I’m don’t think people realise this – not even parents themselves perhaps. What is draining about non-stop, constant-contact parenting – I remember it now, from the toddler years – is the hard, hard work you have to do every day with your voice.
It’s in constant employment, in constant use. Giving instructions, explaining methods, guiding through examples. Sit down, time to concentrate, put that down, pick that up, here’s why you’re doing this, here’s why you need to work quietly because yes you have to explain why working quietly is important. Here’s where you click for that. What do you mean it’s not working. Hang on I’ll help you in a minute. Yes I know I said hang on just a minute. No the answer’s not obvious but just take some time to think. Look in the dictionary. Yes, it is in the dictionary. All the words are. Is it finished? You should be finished. Concentrate. Check your answers. Alright. Tidy up now. Time for lunch. Alright. Time to work. Alright. Time for a break.
You’re saying all this in a reasonable voice, in a voice of patience, of knowing that it’s perfectly reasonable to be asked any of it. There’s exertion required as you moderate and modulate your voice, keep it calm, use it to coax understanding, talk at the level of a seven year old. If you crack, and shout, there’s physical strain in the muscles.
(Actually, I was never one for baby talk. Even as I engage in all of this, I’ve found that gentle sarcasm is a nice pressure release valve. I’ve warned them there may be more of this. Yes, that’s all correct. Well done. And… you’ve put so much effort into it as well! That beautiful neat colouring that you spent so much time on! I’m so proud! When he clearly scribbled in the fraction picture as quickly as possible for accuracy. We laughed.)
I was a teacher for years, in classrooms full of demanding children, where my voice was required to guide and constrain and inform maybe 20 or more at a time. Here, now, I have just two demanding students, and why is it more draining? When I was one of those professionals, the ones with all the responsibility, I had big classes and demands on my voice, yes, but I also had free periods, non-contact time alone in my classroom.
I also did not have my students clamouring around me when the bell went, looking for snacks or asking what was for lunch.
I did not go home and have to explain to my students why I would rather they not use the sofa as soft play.
(I also had, over the years, students who were basically adults, and with whom I could discuss the themes of Shakespeare’s late comedies with a voice that required no moderation. Those were the days.)
But I’m not complaining. It is what it is. It’s where my attention is needed. Physically and uncompromisingly.
But these last few days have crystallised what I already knew to be true, that what drains an introvert is all voice and noise.
There is physical noise: the noise of two energetic boys, whether playing together, arguing, or repeating their call on me until they know they have my full attention in order to explain in detail the extent of the power of a fully-evolved Rhyhorn.
All the other noise comes from the 14 square inches of electronics constantly by my side. Since I usually keep the phone on silent, I’m not talking about dings.
It’s the noise of news, which actually, after the first few days I zoned out. MT is quite enough of a newshound for our household (a reason why we were more prepared than many – I’ll take his pessimism more seriously in the future).
It’s also the noise of community, and it’s welcome, and it’s important. We’re all reaching for the connection we need. Surely there would be no better time in history than now, for having to stay physically away from one another; this time when #distantsocialising is replacing #socialdistancing as the hashtag of choice, and we all have the tools to make it happen; this time when hashtags are a thing.
There’s no shortage of opportunities to connect and share. Where are you now? What’s the situation where you are now? Today, this afternoon, this hour, this minute? We want to be here for you! Share how we can help you! Share your resources! Here’s a definitive list of homeschool resources. Share your homeschooling tips. How are you organising your space? Your day? What is your homeworking setup? Here’s a definitive list of homeworking resources. What would you add to it? Here’s my daily update. Tell me yours! Be positive! It’s okay not to be positive. How are you spending ALL THAT TIME? What are you crafting? What are you learning? What are you reorganising? What are you binge-watching? What are you reading? Here are all the online courses you could be doing. Here are all the TV shows you haven’t seen yet. How do you stock your pantry? What are you cooking? What are you baking? You must be baking! We’re all baking! Here’s what I’m baking! How’s your baking going? Share your baking!
It’s all lovely, honestly it is. We get to connect and share as much as we need, and we’re all digging in to what is truly essential, finding pleasure in slow living. But it goes without saying, I’m sure, that ALL THAT TIME is not a phrase that resonates with homeschooling parents, and it’s overwhelming to decide where to direct our limited attention.
In among all that, every hour I was changing my mind about where my own voice should be directed. I should be sharing updates, like everyone else. I should be giving people positive moments. I should be digging through it for cultural insights. I should be sharing everything. I should be sharing only this or that. I should be staying on brand. I should be throwing the brand out the window. I should be authentic. I should be vulnerable. I should be stoic. I should be heard. I should be quiet, I shouldn’t add to the noise.
Beyond the social media, there was more noise from my own, very noisy Should Monster: I should be blogging. I should carry on regardless with the blog. I should change the blog completely. The blog should be a journal. I should be working on the book. I should be hitting my Hella Words every day. I should be improving my Danish. I should probably be trying harder to earn money. I should prepare for the worst. I should forget it all and surrender myself to being ‘Mummy’.
Meanwhile some of the shiny new objects I’d been holding at bay were seeming shinier, more apt to this time. New shiny new objects twinkled in the noise.
It was all so much clutter, the kind that overwhelms so much you can’t choose one thing. When your attention is spread that thinly, there’s no decision to make but to spread it thinner, to just scroll on for a few more minutes, and find yourself absorbing ever more of the noise.
It feels like a confession, a guilty admission, to say that I’m not much of a journaller, but I do know that ‘journalling it out’ can unravel the knots, clear the clutter. I needed a reboot, a reset, to drown out the noise, and to rethink the goals I had set at the start of 2020, to find the focus that would fit with this new reality.
It seems that the phrase ‘shiny new objects’ released something. My journalling became a life-changing magical tidying up of my mind.
I KonMari’d my mind.
It went like this:
I gathered all my ongoing projects, dust-gathering projects, and shiny new objects together. (The category? Work and learning. Nothing domestic – that happens anyway, no decision-making required there. Not my crafty hobbies either, which happen in front of Netflix, or when I want to, and can, give myself a complete break from everthing. This is the category of work I want to do, that requires personal commitment and decision-making to make it happen, along with work with external deadlines.)
In keeping with the objects metaphor, I turned my ongoing work into ‘objects I’m carrying’; suddenly, I could see how heavy it could become. My dust-gathering projects are sitting ‘on the shelf’.
I highlighted the ones that spark joy. (I mentally hovered that exact phrase over each of them.) The results were surprising, actually.
With that information spread out before me, I knew I had to rethink how much of it to fit back into my life.
Since I heard Graham Allcott interviewed on the Expat Happy Hour podcast with Sundae Bean, I’ve had his book The Productivity Ninja on my to-be-read list. So I haven’t read it yet, but his central idea that addressing productivity isn’t a question of time management, but of attention management, has stayed with me.
Right now, when we seemingly have all this time, but so many demands on our attention, that seems more pertinent than ever. I assessed my gathering of mental clutter, along with the joy-sparking insights, according to how they would fit into these two categories:
1. Things I can get done with limited attention
2. Things I want to do when I have focused attention
During homeschooling hours, I have, in theory, short bursts of time during which my attention is flimsy. So far, those moments have seen me reaching for the phone, for a mindless scroll, rather than make any decision about doing something for myself.
If MT becomes available to take over some homeschooling, I might get an hour, and my desk, back for myself, which is time when I can focus my attention. I can certainly claim some of those hours on the weekend, when I used to feel guilty about working because it’s supposed to be family time. There’s plenty of that to go around just now! So I can plan for focussed attention on the weekend, even if I can’t always guarantee it.
A clear-eyed breakdown of it all is reassuring – there is still time, and I can devote my attention to work. But there is undoubtedly less time, and less attention, so I can’t do everything I wanted to do before.
The next step (as all Marie Kondo fans know) was to find my containers. I will say first that none of my mind’s ‘stuff’ is fully purged at this point. I focussed on what sparks joy now, which leaves room for what will spark joy again, at a different time, when attention is differently available, and when other projects are finished (one day I’ll finish something…) The stuff that will receive none of my attention for the forseeable future is not tied up in a bin bag by the door, but is stashed on a high shelf, where I won’t look at it until the time is right.
There are three other metaphorical containers.
The first is my pocket: these are the tasks I can reach for in moments of limited attention, and make small bursts of progress with. I have loads of content drafted on the blog that is waiting to be edited and formatted. I have pages I want to add to my freelancing website before I start to fully promote it (I definitely should be moving towards earning money). I can open an app for a five-minute Danish lesson. I can pull writing prompts from a jar and just write for ten minutes – I can share these with the kids too.
Some extra preparation is needed to make all this easy to reach for, mind you. I need to make sure both our ipads are fully charged every morning (so much device and screen time involved in homeschooling!) so that I get to keep my laptop in front of me. I need to gather all the playful writing resources and prompts I have in one place, so that I can reach for them easily. I need to train myself not to reach for the phone and scroll, as a supposedly easy escape from whatever else I’m thinking about.
The second container is just on my desk. Those are the tasks that can get my full attention when it’s available. If I have a deadline coming up, I’ll get that done. If not, I’ll follow the action plan for my memoir.
The final container is a box on my desk. Those are projects that are still important to me at the moment, but can wait, while I work on refocussing my attention. They’re closed away in a box, which can be opened and looked at again in a couple of weeks.
In the process I am purging some of the ‘Shoulds’ I started the year with – I suppose they are what is in those bin bags by the door.
I should only include exclusive content in my newsletter. I should send a newsletter every month and it should include a chapter of my memoir. (Subscribers know that wasn’t happening anyway!) I should follow a blog schedule, with a weekly post and rotating content themes. I should plan my Instagram strategy every week, with a daily on-brand post. I should follow my Hella Words target of 500 words, 5 days a week, totalling 130k words in 2020. I am still counting and recording my words though, and the beauty of the low target is that it just might happen anyway. I should maintain my platform. I should read all the writing manuals and creativity self-help books. I should be pitching to expat websites and travel magazines.
I should be spending less time on social media.
Yep, that last one stays. Previously I had successfully cut my interaction with Facebook down to a minimum. (Comment or message me if you want to know a great tip for limiting Facebook on your desktop!) But back in mid-March I put the app back on my phone, because so many of the updates I was looking at were in Danish, and translating is easier from the app. It’s gone now.
But I’m going to give myself a few days away from it all completely, and delete all the other apps, as soon as I’ve shared this post, so that I can practise my attention management with fewer distractions. It’s just for a few days, because I do love Instagram, after all. (Speaking of which, May on the Move 2020 is still on the cards, while I mull over what it will look like this year. If you took part last year, I’d love to hear from you with any feedback or ideas.)
In the meantime, make sure you’re following the blog, and even better, subscribe for those emails. Everyone who joins my journey does get the exclusive essay which is my love/hate letter to Venice. The Venetians may be enjoying having their empty city to themselves for a while, but I wrote about how to find quiet, empty moments, even when the city is crowded.
Tl;dr: I was overwhelmed, I journalled, now I’m focussed.
Bigger picture: Other people are properly vulnerable and have no room in their lives for this kind of
wanky indulgent introspection. Support refugees and human rights. Wash your hands, keep your distance, look after each other.