The Things I’m Glad My Mother Told Me
I never got round to writing either of my daughters a baby journal, celebrating their first smile, steps or words. As a full-time, working mother, I am lucky to rarely feel “the guilt,” but oddly, not having found the time to fill in those books has always niggled. I have no hope of trying to remember it all, and possibly, to make amends, I decided that far more useful than recording a six month old’s milestones would be to give each child a book of life maxims: tales from their mother’s lessons learned the hard way.
While my own mother has been able to impart first hand her natty Chinese pearls of wisdom, meted out at regular intervals – apparently earrings really do finish off your face – I sadly never knew my father. He died in a car crash when I was 15 months and my sister was a newborn, barely 36 hours old. He had just returned from visiting my mother and sister in hospital. It was a cruel twist of fate for a couple that had spent many years trying to conceive and who had finally been blessed with two children. The enormity of his death didn’t really register until I had my own children, but I’ve often wondered what he thought: what would he have told me to do, believe in, forget about, learn from.
And so, a year ago, I decided to start a sort of love letter to my girls. Actually, it’s a Smythson book that, so far, sits in my bedside drawer as yet untouched. But when I do get around to writing in it, this is what I will say:
1) A strong sense of self
The one thing that will make you happiest in life –more than bagging Benedict Cumberbatch, a double first from Oxbridge or being allowed to do a supermarket sweep in Celine – is having a really good sense of self. Get one of these my girls and you will fly. No-one is in charge of your happiness except you, whatever life curve balls are hurled your way.
2) People are everything
Life is about people not stuff: no one lay on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time working, shopping or cleaning whereas plenty die wishing they’d spend more time with the people they love. In the end, all that matters in life is that you have truly loved.
3) Not many things are ever that bad
The things you worry about are almost never the things that happen. And if something does go tits up, frame it with this thought: in five years time, will this really matter? Learn to be resilient.
4) Just Do it!
Which leads me neatly onto my next point. That Nike slogan which, when you stop and really think about it is so incredibly powerful. How many years of my life have I procrastinated and wasted? Often the things we dread doing are never a fraction as hard as we imagined. Because really, you don’t know what you are capable of until you have tried it. Equally motivating on a sluggish day are: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” And, “What if I fall? “Oh but darling, what if you fly?”
5) A lot of the time it pays to lean back
Anathema perhaps to our selfie/selfish/self-promoting society but haven’t you noticed that people who retain a degree of elusiveness, who hang back confidently are the ones who always come up top. Not for them the over-sharing, the emotional neediness or the “Cooey, I’m here!! Can you see me? “ whiff of desperation that human nature can smell a mile off.
6) Learn to read people aka emotional intelligence
There should be compulsory A-levels on this topic. It’s the single most useful skill that will help you thrive in life and the work place. And way more important than any career service at school or university will impress on you. It sounds such an obvious, simple thing to be able to do but it isn’t. It’s that ability to work out how you fit into a situation and be sensitive as to how you are perceived. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you are gauche, arrogant and wind people up.
7) Your career
“Find a job you like and you will never work a day in your life”, goes an old Chinese proverb. Also, it’s okay if school wasn’t great. I’m much better at “life” than I was at school. And don’t waste time putting yourself down; your journey up the ladder is as much about your hard work and talent as it is about how you perceive and present yourself to others. Learn how to appear self-assured – fake it if needs be, even if you are quaking inside. Confidence is an aura that thankfully can be learnt with time and practice. And frankly, most people are too busy to notice anything other than what you present to them.
8) Going back to work
I love you both very much, but boy can looking after small babies be incredibly isolating not to mention really bloody boring. I feel more fulfilled working, and I am a much better, happier mother because of it. The variety also allows me to be entirely in the moment when I’m at home or at work.
9) And how to survive it
There was no manual for adapting to the workplace as a first time mum. I could write reams on this topic but I found the following the most useful. A) Work smarter, not harder. B) Don’t be afraid to say “no” – people will respect you not resent you. I always said “yes” for fear of missing out or because I was scared that I would look unwilling, with the result that I took on more than I could manage. Actually, if you say “no”, you appear in demand and people will come to you first. “Let’s try busy Carolyn first” they will say, rather than “dependable Carolyn who is always available.” C) Cut yourself some slack.
10) When trying for a baby
……and it’s not happening, acupuncture really works.
11) Your life partner
It goes without saying that the right life partner (especially if you want children) is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Find someone who is sure enough of themselves to allow you to be the woman you want to be.
12) Fashion advice
What have I learnt after fourteen years as a fashion editor?
Buy less, buy better: even when you’re a teenager and you have no budget.
13) The Four things I would tell my 17 year old self
A) Live in the present.
B) It’s never worth saving things for best: enjoy the things you love everyday.
C) Be nice.
D) Whatever doesn’t kill you, really does makes you stronger.