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It took me about three years, but I found the little peace I’d been looking for. As corny as it sounds, Marie Kondo helped kickstart major changes in my life a few years ago. I decluttered my home, spent one year without shopping for anything non-essential, and then worked on unravelling my mental, inner mess.

It was a lot of hard work. And last December, when I turned 40, I remember feeling truly contented. That all was right in my world. For now, anyway!

But it wasn’t always like that. I left Kuala Lumpur for London in December 2012 to be with my British husband, and it was super wonderful and super tough at the same time.

In a span of 3 years, I moved to a new country, got married, trained for a new profession (teaching), and then gave birth to my first son. Two years later, I had my second child, also a son.

The Upheaval of Motherhood

Mothers out there will know what having a baby does to you. It changes all you knew. It makes you rethink your identity, your goals, your relationships, your everything. The combination of all these big changes in my life left me feeling rootless, fragile and confused. Like Woody Allen movies on steroids.

I was doubting my choices, my friendships, my own self-worth, but at the time, I had no idea what was actually wrong. How could I feel so messed up when I was so privileged and blessed with such good things in my life?

Just what did I want in life? Wasn’t this it?

In 2016 I knew my second baby was on the way, and I knew something had to change. I couldn’t keep feeling like the ground under my feet was so wobbly.

While it was important, Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy wasn’t actually the main trigger that started me on this route. I watched a documentary called The True Cost in 2016 – an eye-opener about the harms of fast fashion and consumerism. I felt so affected that it stayed with me for weeks. And then I read Marie Kondo’s book, and everything just made sense. Everything clicked.

This was it:  I would declutter everything, and then hopefully not add back to the clutter.

The KonMari philosophy

Decluttering with a toddler around was tough, but we tried to make it a little fun for him.

To brutally summarise the KonMari method, Kondo says to declutter successfully, you have to tidy up in an order and in specific categories, take everything out in that category (such as clothes), and then only keep things which ‘spark joy’ in your life. I know most people will find the clothes folding method most helpful. Others will note that the ‘spark joy’ philosophy can also be used in other aspects of your life – from relationships to jobs and so on.

But I also really appreciated the following three points from Kondo’s method.

One was that you should be able to see things clearly and easily.

Two is that everything should have a place in your home.

Three, work on your ‘sentimental’ category – personal letters, photographs, mementos – last. It’s the hardest, so you do that right at the end.

These ideas were highly interesting to me. I would ultimately apply these when I was sorting out the mental mess in my head, after the home had been physically decluttered.

One.

To know what was wrong, I need to slowly and brutally reflect and see everything for what everything was. There’s a reason why that initial mountain of all your clothes needs to be right there scaring you – you need to see all that crap for what it is.

Two.

To avoid further ‘cluttering’, I needed to know which people and goals I wanted in my life – I needed to be assured of their place in my space.

Three.

And then finally, when I was surer of what the actual challenges, goals and priorities were in my life, I worked on the hardest – my relationships.

Knowing the What, Why, Who, Where, When and How

My wardrobe in 2017 after the KonMari process – lighter, clearer, better.

Honestly, decluttering the home may have been tedious, but my husband and I found it rather fun in the end. And that was the easy part. Once your home is all sorted out, then what?

For those who may want to do more than just declutter your home, here were the rough steps I took in 2016, 2017 and 2018:

1.   Made time (definitely more than just a day) to write down every hope, goal, fear in my head. Think about what made me truly happy, what were my main triggers for stress and anxiety, what made me boil, what brought me calm. My weaknesses, my strengths, my failures, my successes. Everything.  Like that awful mountain of clothes.

2.   Write down what I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 40. (One example of the things on my list: ‘Say sorry to everyone I need to say sorry to, and really mean it. Perhaps even be generous and say sorry to those who may not really deserve it.’)  Obviously, one can do this for any age milestone.

3.   Write down the descriptor of your dreams. An example: A mother who speaks 4 languages, owns a pastry shop and teaches calligraphy in her spare time?  What would you write if you could be and do anything? What do you need to do to make all this happen?

4.   List down names. The names of all the people you really love, should make extra time and effort for, and who you would like to be in your life forever. This was all-important to me. Modern life is tough on our calendars and brains. Set reminders for occasions, times for touching base, and quality experiences you want shared.

5.   Think about the wardrobe you want in the long term. Draw or take photos of the clothes you have, and what else you want or need. Think about this carefully and let this be the guide for the shopping that you do.

6.   Draw a mind map or two, trying to link and make sense of it all.

An example of a mind map by S.Genovese from learningfundamentals.com.au

When you have what I would call my master mind map and the relevant notes, then here comes the easy part – taking action. I say it is easy because starting something is easy. Maintaining it and ensuring you are disciplined, however, is the hard part.

My ‘actions’ were basically not to shop for a year, buying only essentials that were not about any sort of pleasure or desire. And so I bought no new clothes, accessories, shoes or makeup for 12 months. Okay, I did falter – in a mad moment of weakness, I bought nail polish, right near the end of my year.

After that year, my purchasing habits changed significantly. I became a more mindful consumer and user of things, still very much governed by what I experienced in 2017. I think long and hard about what I want to buy, sometimes for months before getting something. When I go into a shop, it’s usually because I am going in specifically to buy something I have probably touched (and salivated over) about 3 or 4 times.  It is still hard, but I love this continuing reflection and struggle in my life.

Relationships

Turning 40 with best friends (and a clearer head) meant the world.

The ‘action’ that affected me most, however, was what I did with my relationships. Sometimes the idea of a friendship is more tantalising than what that friendship actually is. I took a long hard look at who really went out of their way for me, who clearly and unmistakably wanted me to be in their lives. If there was reciprocity, ease and warmth, I would go all in. Where there felt like forced effort, one-sidedness, dishonesty or even a slight dissonance, I would fall back.

When you try to adhere strictly to these principles, you will be amazed by how easily some things will prove themselves to you. I found that my close friendships grew deeper. Promising friendships grew easily. There was less anxiety about relationships causing me doubt, stress or heartache. Going all in was more than just a WhatsApp message once every month. I’d consciously make sure close friends knew I wanted to be involved in their lives.

People may think all this focus on relationships is a whole bunch of self-help malarkey. But I found that once I had this area clear and rock solid in my life, things just came together.

Why should it be a surprise really? Relationships and friendships form the pillars of our lives. They are crucial for our mental health.

The result was that I managed to work, play and focus on my children during quite a tough year without falling apart. Dare I say it – I even flourished a teeny little bit, despite the madness.

Principles for Life

Our house is still often a complete mess, but it is the right kind of mess we are happy to have.

Today, my house is not as tidy as when it was first KonMari-ed, that’s for sure. I don’t call my kids little tornadoes for nothing. We have quite a few drawers of ‘miscellaneous’ junk again.

But we know what to do. We still know how to fold. We still love her main principles.

As for me personally, I definitely feel less messed-up as a mum, as a woman, and a person. I feel more confident about my choices. A happier me meant a happier family too. Everything is an ongoing process and may descend into chaos and angst again. Who knows? But I have decluttered for now, and l have learned some great lessons for life.

We are here again – the dawn of a brand new year. If you are anything like me, the recent year-end period has been a jolly but chaotic time. A season filled with multiple gatherings with loved ones, maybe a little holiday break away, a mad rush of Christmas shopping and an ambitious to-do list before the year ends.

What does that leave us with when it comes to goals and resolutions for the year ahead? Here are some ideas for you parents out there, and anyone who would like to start the year as best as possible.

 

Try something different – start your new goals in February

If you think about it, is the end of the year really a good time to pause and reflect? With such a heady mix of celebrations and merriment, I prefer the time when things have died down, and we are left with some semblance of peace and quiet. For me, January is the best time for reflection and preparation. I set a No-Shopping Goal last year, but it only began on February 1st, 2017. It was the best thing I did, because I used the whole month of January to truly think about what I wanted to achieve, and to prepare myself mentally for the task ahead. With no rush and fanfare, goals-setting becomes a relaxed, reflective and deliberate affair. Think about the month of January as an administrative, preparatory month, and you may find that you are more than ready to start afresh for 2018.

 

Talk to the main person or persons in your life about setting a mutual goal

It could be your husband, wife, partner. It could your best friend, sibling, parents. Sometimes goals-setting is not just about you, it is about creating the best possible environment in your life, and that involves the main people in your life. If it’s to do with physical fitness, mental health or even leisure and travel, this could be something meaningful and fun to do with a loved one.

Every end of the year, I sit down with my husband for chats to reflect on the year past, and what we would like to accomplish together for the year ahead. Recently, we decided our mutual goal is to be more mindful of the time we have with our children. If we are with them, devices or gadgets should not be around. We know this is going to be a tough one to implement, so we have tried to put it in as simple a way as possible – we are going to treat our mobile phone use like smoking. If we need to use our phones, we will treat it as needing to go somewhere else (or outside) to ‘have a smoke’. This rule of thought works for us because we are ex-smokers, but it helps to discuss realistic and uncomplicated ways for you to help each other achieve this goal.

 

Think of realistic goals, and go easy on yourself

It is worth it to treat yourself with care and consideration when it comes to goal setting for the year. You may find it is easier to achieve your goals if you have a sense of humour about it all. My husband set a certain target of kilometres to run last year, but he did not achieve this – mainly because we had a newborn and he was very busy as a hands-on dad. “Oh well, I’ll recycle that for this new year!” he said.

When I faltered at my No-Shopping Goal by buying some nail polish a few months ago, some friends thought I would give up on the goal completely. But it helps to just laugh at yourself, note the failure, and continue persevering on your path. Beating yourself up about little setbacks along the way makes goal-setting unrealistic and unsustainable.

 

Don’t be afraid to use tools to help you out

Plenty has been said about the good or bad of social media use. But it can serve you well when it comes to goals-setting. Whether it is detailing your efforts in a blog, or detailing updates once in a while on Facebook or Instagram, friends’ suggestions or encouragement about your goals can really keep you on the straight and narrow. Obviously, some updates are more annoying than others, so don’t be surprised if you turn a person or two off by posting about your fitness exploits every day! If you’re afraid of sounding like a major #humblebragger, perhaps you could keep your updates private or limited. Or discipline yourself by writing only on a particular day, weekly or monthly. Personally, I find that people are kinder and more encouraging when they know your goals are about something meaningful and worthwhile, and not just about benefiting yourself. So if your goals are #sexybod2018 or #moremoney2018, don’t be surprised if people ignore you or laugh – unless that was your intention to begin with!

 

Remember to include relationships in your goals

It is easy to always fall back on the usual goals – lose weight, get fitter, read more and the like. It is far more interesting to try other kinds of goals for the year. Do you want to be a better friend to someone? Want to try and make a difference in a stranger’s life? Would you like to write to your godchildren more? Or perhaps be kinder to a person you always seem to nag or scold?

Make the goal, keep this one secret, keep it sweet. And reflect on how the relationship has changed through the year. It’s easy to slip into self-absorption and consumerism in this day and age. A goal like this can serve to remind you about what is truly important in life.

 

 

From the makchic team and I, Happy New Year! May 2018 be a wonderful and meaningful year for all of us and our families. Good luck and have fun with those goals!

Laych  x

Book Review April Main

I found a recent Makchic article written by my friend, Michelle Lim-Chua on “Why My Husband Comes Before My Baby” insightful and inspiring.  It reminded me of how easy it was to lose sight of being husband and wife when you become Mummy and Daddy with chores and responsibilities.

Interestingly, putting your partner before your offspring or prioritising couple time over family time can come across as a radical viewpoint but it may be rational thinking after all, as pointed out by Andrew G. Marshall, well known marital therapist and author who also contributes to Guardian, The Times and Daily Mail.

I’m not usually a big fan of the self-help genre but I really enjoyed Marshall’s latest book – I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How to Childproof Your Marriage.  If you have recently had a baby, this book will give you a sense of the road ahead and how to avoid the pitfalls. It also remains relevant if you have older children, as it will help you diagnose where problems may have started and address the root causes.

Marshall found that despite many of his clients doing everything in their power for their children to be happy, confident and successful (the best schools, extensive extracurricular activities and all the latest gadgets), they eventually exhausted first their marriages and then themselves. He decided to write this book to address much of the misery he encounters amongst the patients at his own practice; to help them protect their marriages and avoid turning their children into future therapy clients.

Marshall starts off by asking couples to take stock of and rank their individual priorities. Usually, men find that they come after the children, housework (especially when their wife won’t come to bed because she’s wiping down the kitchen worktops), her job and maybe even the dog.  Women frequently discover that they come after their husband’s work, the children (because he’s happy to play with them when he comes home), and sometimes rank lower than his football team.

Sound familiar?

If it does, Marshall can help stop your relationship cracks from turning into chasms.  He can offer you lots of practical advice and tips that will help you talk and listen to each other as well as find mutually acceptable solutions. He boils everything down to 10 golden rules that he shares at the end.

In modern parenting, the established wisdom is that you should prioritise the needs of your children above all else.  However, Marshall argues that couples who tirelessly put their children first aren’t only sacrificing each other’s needs and desires, but also increasing the chance of marital breakdown and creating unhappy, insecure kids.

Hence, he advocates two revolutionary ideas. The first is that you should put your children second as children are just passing through while marriage should be forever. He adds that prioritising your partner isn’t only good for your marriage but is also good for your children. He provides many practical tips on how you can put your partner first in your day-today behavior. For example, there’s ‘Guarding comings and goings’ e.g. if your partner is already home when you return, go immediately to where he or she is to greet and kiss him or her first, even if she is busy or preoccupied (rather than settling down for a drink in front of the TV or cuddling your kids). He also advises parents to put a lock on their bedroom door, as it will make children think twice before demanding attention and help them realise that even parents need a private space.

His second idea relates to being just a “good enough” parent, which simply means looking out for your children but not micromanaging them. Being a “good enough” parent is not generally a popular idea with today’s parents who always want the best for their children. These concepts will help you keep your sanity, accept that every parent makes mistakes and also stop you from competing with other parents “in some kind of arms race” over whose child reached which milestones first.

Marshall questions whether, due to our smaller families, we’re today creating a generation of ‘red-carpet kids’ that aren’t resilient and self-reliant. Making your children the centre of your universe and providing them with a pivotal role in the family can actually very easily unbalance and stress them. When children are the main focus in the family, it’s also easy to overlook your marital problems. He illustrates how parents can roll up this ‘red carpet’ and introduce new rules to redress the balance, if needed. Marshall encourages us to use ‘descriptive praise’ i.e. describing the good behaviour and making the feedback as detailed as possible (thereby encouraging your children to repeat the desired behaviour) rather than just giving empty compliments like ‘What a clever boy’.

As Marshall says, children are wonderful and give your life shape and meaning. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get carried away, put your children first and run yourself ragged trying to be perfect parents. Ultimately, as Michelle pointed out in her piece, we need to keep in mind that our children need parents who not only love them, but also love each other.

Li-Hsian recently left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role.

Image credit: Pan Macmillan Australia