I’d like to thank my mum for teaching me everything I know about calmness. Realistically, growing up as the eldest in a house of six children should have been anything but chilled. At any given moment, at least three of us were performing in some sort of school play. Every morning, 12 shoes and 12 socks had to be matched to 12 corresponding feet. Every night, making dinner was more like catering for a medium-sized dinner party – even when we were having a simple supper of fish fingers, there was always one child who was flirting with vegetarianism and suddenly very fussy about doing it properly. My dad worked full-time and had a lengthy commute, so Mum was at home with us all for most of the day. Thinking about it as an adult, this set-up must have been slightly more stressful than working as a hostage negotiator or organising the Met Ball. Yet, my mum was always a force of calmness.
She’s still the most practical, pragmatic person I know and that pragmatism seems to be borne out of a simple, but brilliant, theory: you can only do one thing at a time and, if you try to do more, you’re probably not doing it properly.
Mum is the one who told me that life isn’t a race. It’s OK to be calm, to be curious and to slow down sometimes
This lesson is the greatest gift that Mum has ever given me. Instead of telling me that I could have it all, she showed me that I could have whatever I wanted, but it was best to try not to have it all at once.
Looking back, I realise this was radical. Personally, I believe that the pervading idea that women are “good at multitasking” is holding women back – we’ve just been tricked into doing hundreds of extra chores as a way to prove that we’re incredibly efficient. But Mum’s “one thing at a time” policy means she’s brilliant at being in the moment. Even though she probably wouldn’t use the expression, she’s the most present person I know.
As a child, the best thing about Mum’s attitude was that when I came to her for advice or support, I knew I had her full attention, and my sisters and I never worried about being left out, because she’d always make time for each of us.
Recently, I spoke to a friend about how much I used to enjoy the annual school-poster competition. I never won, but Mum would always ask me loads of questions about my ideas and make sure I had plenty of space to put my thoughts into practice. My friend told me that she’d won a similar competition at her school a few times, but her parents obsessively project-managed the whole operation, carrying on after she’d gone to bed. My friend could hear them swearing at each other over spilled glue and remembers it as a stressful, miserable time. I’m so grateful for my mum’s approach. By being so relaxed, she taught me that enjoying and appreciating the process is every bit as important as the end result.
Exams came and went, and she rarely nagged me about revision – it meant so much to know that she trusted me to get on with it. That said, I couldn’t leave the house during my GCSEs without her chasing me, brandishing a bottle of Rescue Remedy. The night before I found out my final degree results, I rang her in tears, convinced I was going to fail, having wasted three years and thousands of pounds. “It really, really doesn’t matter,” she said. “We know you’ve tried your hardest and we love you.” (I didn’t fail – but, thanks to her, I did get some sleep that night.) When relationships didn’t work out and I came home brokenhearted, she never nagged me about sorting out my life or her future grandchildren. She simply told me that I had unlimited time and it was always better to be alone than to rush into something with the wrong person. Then she’d tell me about all the people she knew who didn’t meet their big love until they were in their forties, fifties or sixties.
Ultimately, I wish I could be more like Mum. I’m an anxious forward-planner and I’m prone to panic. I’ve grown up believing that I must push myself and do my best. But Mum is the one who told me that life isn’t a race. It’s OK to be calm, to be curious and to slow down sometimes.
When I’ve felt the most cheerful and peaceful, it’s because I’ve been practising everything she’s taught me. Calmness is a rare quality but, if you can learn how to relax, you can learn how to think before you act and make the world a more peaceful place. I’d like to thank her by practising what she’s taught me. I’d love it if my mum could live in a world where everyone was as relaxed as she is.