Ping Pong

On Friday night, I attended a Ping Pong night organised by my work colleagues at London’s Bounce. It’s a really fun night and something that happens a couple of times a year. Everyone is organised into doubles teams and the evening consists of beer, good cheer and banter, as we all live through the highs and lows of winning and losing.

Except I choose not to play.

I like to go along and be part of the social event but I can’t bear team sports or competitive situations. I’m much happier witnessing the progress of others with a glass of wine in my hand, capturing the action on social media.

An interesting thing happens each time I go along to one of these things. I’m routinely asked why I’m not playing, if I wished I was, if I regret my decision, if I feel I’m missing out. Usually the questions come from just one or two people who can’t believe I’ve opted out and are desperate to make me part of the game. Nope, I say, I’m happy with my choice.

I’m childfree-by-choice, as it happens, and my life is often like that Ping Pong night, complete with a continous rolling sidebar of questions from friends and strangers, although they get less frequent as I get older and out of the baby-making zone.

I’ve always known I didn’t want kids, even as a teenager, and although I have always been very clear on the decision, I have regularly ‘checked in’ with myself to make sure my head was still in agreement with my heart. There have been pressure points along the way – I had to have The Conversation with my husband-to-be about it in case he thought I’d change my mind. ‘I never say never,” I said, “but as far as things stand now, I don’t want them, and you need to be sure you want to be with me.” Then came the weddings-and-babies years of my thirties – the peer pressure was huge. “It’s just what you do,” friends said. The more they said that the more I questioned it. I’d never want to ‘just do’ anything that everyone else is doing just for the sake of it.

I loved my friends’ babies but sometimes my enthusiasm for them was taken as a ‘sign’ that I was broody. There was one particular weekend where I was doing that couply thing of staying in a country cottage with a group of friends. One couple brought their adorable baby boy and I bounced him on my knee for pretty much the whole weekend. Looks passed among the group as if to say, “See? Finally she’s joined us.” I hadn’t. I had just met a tiny person that I really liked being with. Looking back at the pictures still makes me smile. He was smily, fat-cheeked and gorgeous.

One by one, my friends had their children. Many of them struggled to conceive and being childfree, they felt able to tell me about their problems. I was so grateful not to have the all-encompassing urge to get pregnant, that I could hear their stories and comfort them as much as I could. It seemed as though they thought it was some sort of failure on their part, that they struggled to admit to each other, but could do so to me. Some friends admitted to me that they didn’t realise they’d had a choice about having children, and that they hadn’t expected the ‘drudgery’ of their post-natal lives. But then they threw themselves into it, happily, and had one or two more children. In for a penny, I suppose…

I did have a couple of wobbles during those years – mainly because having babies was what everyone was doing. My opting out of it was like choosing not to go to university, have a husband, buy a house – like not ticking a box in the tick-box life. But my gut instinct was right and I stuck to it (I ignored it about one of those things, but that’s for another blog post).

There are possible underlying reasons why I don’t want children, such as my parents dying early, that may be partly responsible for my decision. I do feel very strongly about not willingly inflicting that experience on another person, especially as an older parent. But perhaps there is also some truth in the other statement sometimes lobbed at me: “you just haven’t met the right man yet.”  The only time I’ve ever felt anything close to an urge to have a baby, it was because I had fallen deeply in love with a man. I think I must have a low-level ‘water-table’ of maternal hormones that were brought tantalisingly close to the surface during that time, but I’m grateful to my gut instinct, because that man turned out to be a colossal git.

Whenever I get the Sidebar of Questions, including the usual, “but you’d be a great mum!” I always say, “I’d make a great bus conductor, but I’m not here to do that either.” I just know I’m not here to be a mother. Other people are, and they’re great at it. I love seeing my friends raising their beautiful children and I salute them. I have loved accompanying my godson and his mother when he is at football, trampolining lessons or drumming on a kit in a music shop (he’s brilliant at it: I call him “rock-godson”). It does give me joy and thank goodness I do have my friends’  children in my life.

Someone once said to me that freedom was obviously the most important thing to me. At the time it didn’t quite register. “Is it?!” I thought. I was still married at that point, but looking back, I was constantly making bids for freedom. My running times at weekends had got longer and longer as I plunged deeper into the Buckinghamshire countryside, on ever more circuitous routes that would wear me out. I was staying out after work more and more and taking all-day shopping trips on Saturdays. On holidays, I longed to disappear off over the horizon on my own. In retrospect, it was all pretty clear.

Yes, freedom is incredibly important to me. I long to have a Jack Russell in my life, but it would curb my freedom and would be unfair on the animal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the same would apply to a baby. It would completely unfair on both of us if I had one. Am I being selfish? I’m sure someone will tell me I am. I will admit openly that I do not want to live my life through someone else’s – the things I’ve achieved have come relatively late in life and they’ve been hard won. If being selfish is making a decision that improves my life and avoids a disappointing one for another human being, then I’m happy to live with that.

And I do.

Because I can.

 

——————-

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/CamillaLong/article1453705.ece

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Epiphany

It happened on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, three weeks ago.

I’d been to the same hotel twice before (I love it, mainly because it’s mostly Turks, it’s childfree, and it has a cute little water-taxi to take you in to town) but right before those holidays, I’d worked hard to get my ‘bikini body’. I’d gone into a near-panic if my weight, a few weeks before each holiday, wasn’t at the target I’d set myself and arranged to immediately go on some food group-avoiding diet plan to get there. I’d then congratulate myself on hitting the target and feel ready to hit the beach.

But this time I’d done the exact opposite.

Believe me, it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I even wear a bikini in public. Throughout my teens and twenties I had dreadful body-image problems, so much so that I’ve never learned to swim. The pool was a scary place where I felt completely exposed. It stemmed from having a curvy-hipped (otherwise known as pear-shaped but I’m rebranding it) body and wanting to be a ballet dancer. My ballet teacher made comments about my bottom half being a ‘problem’ for ballet and so the dysmorphia was born. I would look in the mirror and see terrible things, when in fact, I have the supposed ideal hip-waist ratio of 0.7. But I thought I looked hideous, and only began to think I looked ‘alright’ in my late twenties. I remember the day when I wore a short(ish) skirt with thick black tights IN PUBLIC for the first time. I cried with shame at the bus stop (I did!), but strangely, nothing happened. No one screamed in horror, apart from me, inwardly. My friends encouraged me to stop wearing huge clothes to hide myself, and the new me was born.

Or was she?

In my thirties, I started doing the fad-diet thing. I began running and did the Atkins diet, closely followed by Dukan, and pretty much didn’t eat complex carbs for a decade. Yes, I lost loads of weight, yes, I gained new-found energy and confidence, but I still didn’t feel bikini-great. Not until a game-changing moment in Bermuda.

I was with my ex-husband, and I asked him to take a picture of me in my bikini on the beach, just standing there, no special angles, no flattering pose. I remember saying, ‘I look quite nice’ when I saw the picture. I saw a very pale, but shapely figure standing a bit awkwardly, wearing an unattractive baseball cap. But I liked what I saw. I began to quite like my body.

After that you couldn’t get me out of bikinis, but before each holiday I was determined to control my weight so my curvy hips didn’t look too curvy and my stomach stayed flat. Until this year, that is. In the spring, I had tried the Fast Diet and it just succeeded in making me feel miserable and making me look older. I was heartily sick of cutting out major food groups and yearned for a normal relationship with food where I wasn’t starving myself one day and bingeing the next. I suddenly thought – why don’t I just do that? Stop all The Nonsense and see what happens.

I did it. Weirdly, I had no pre-holiday weight panic this time. I tried beach wear on before I packed just to check I didn’t look like a bean bag. Nope. I looked like a nice curvy woman in beach wear.

And then I saw the Turkish ladies on the beach. Many shapes and sizes surrounded me on loungers but they were mostly curvy. And they looked happy, with ice creams in their hands and adoring partners rubbing sun-tan cream into their ‘wobbly’ bodies. I learned about the Turkish love of the ‘kalça’ – everything between the waist and thigh area – from a guy who clearly liked mine. There were a couple of Dutch and Belgian women there – they were clearly where I had been in terms of the Dieting Decade and looked older and strained next to the Turks. And, well, next to me, really.

Since I’ve stopped The Nonsense, I’ve slept better, looked younger and felt happier. And much sexier. It’s like the gloom has lifted and all is clear. None of us need to do this to ourselves. Women I consider to be incredible in their personal and professional lives have admitted to me that they’re following some kind of mega-control diet like I was, like not eating in the daytime, or restricting their daily calorie intake to near-starvation levels. Why are we doing this??!! I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my insomnia disappeared completely when I stopped restricting certain foods. I was sleepless for the whole of the Dieting Decade and probably not functioning as well as I could in my daily life.

When I stand in front of the mirror now I see someone different to the person standing there twenty years ago, but she was probably there back then. I just couldn’t see her. When I see a self-conscious curvy young woman on the street I want to go up to her and tell her she looks lovely, or at least I hope someone is telling her that. If I see an older, hollowed-out woman on the Tube I want to say ‘stop controlling it all – let it go, you’ll feel stronger.’ But it’s so much easier said than done, shedding that urge to control our bodies. After all, it’s taken me about twenty-five years to get there.

Most of all I want to say to any woman who is worrying about what she’ll look like on the beach, put your bikini on and get someone you trust to take a picture of you in it. Look at it. Objectively. Look how womanly you are, whether you’re apple-, pear- or pomegranate-shaped, stick-thin, fleshy or somewhere in the middle. Most guys I know can’t understand why we put ourselves through all the pain of constant body control. They like our fleshy, curvy bits (or whatever bits take their fancy) and don’t really get why we don’t. They stand by while we put ourselves through the self-imposed regime, watching us go crazy whilst they tuck into a bacon sandwich.

Ooh now that’s a thought. And I’m going to have white bread too.

Lisa

Some articles you might like to read:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/i-wore-a-bikini-and-nothing-happened_b_5546206.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/30/unspeakable-things-laurie-penny-book-extract

http://sploid.gizmodo.com/what-if-classic-paintings-were-photoshopped-like-todays-1578775305

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/Magazine/article1452100.ece

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/11/wilderness-festival-body-image-lucy-mangan-poorna-bell_n_5666366.html

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/14/women-body-image-anxiety-improve-body-confidence?CMP=fb_gu

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/08/feel-guilty-but-hate-my-body-feminist-confesses

Consciously Uncoupling

Last week I downloaded the Timehop app and it showed me what had happened in my life across all social media, for the last four years on this day. July 13 2010 – I booked my first holiday alone, in Thailand. It would turn out to be a momentous move. I and my then husband had agreed to split in May that year – I had initiated the split. We were sharing the same house, in separate rooms and I longed for freedom and to start leading my own life. I called Trailfinders and said ‘where can you take me?’ and they suggested 10 days in Phuket at a lovely resort. I booked it before I could think about it too much.

That was the first of six holidays I’ve been on, on my own. I am now a seasoned solo traveller, used to pacing my days to my own rhythm, not having to think about anyone else’s likes, dislikes, lack of energy or enthusiasm. I can see everything I want to see, when I want to, for as long as I want to. It’s gloriously liberating. Even a day out now, with friends, reminds me how much I end up compromising my own desires to fit in with theirs, and how much I long for that holiday space alone.

But it didn’t start like that.

Those first few days in Phuket, I was wretched. I seemed to be surrounded by happy couples, mooning over each other. Everywhere. That first night, I sobbed into my beautiful dinner and it heralded three days of the same pattern: bawling my eyes out throughout the night, dragging my piglet-eyed self to breakfast the next morning (thank god for shades) and recovering throughout the day on a sun-lounger at the end of a jetty with no one else on it.

My hotel view in Phuket, featuring my daily ‘recovery jetty’.

I had travelled far away from home deliberately, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hop back on a plane if I couldn’t stand it any more. It worked. A combination of supportive texts from friends urging me to get out of the hotel and explore (and one particularly good one who reviewed the hotel’s website and suggested a few trips and beauty treatments for me) made me do it. I sat at the hotel bar at Happy Hour, dressed nicely with a little makeup to hide the piglet eyes. I needed a couple of margheritas to give me the courage to leave the hotel and go into Patong – the ‘Brighton’ of Thailand.

I laughed when I tentatively stepped into a tuk-tuk only to find it took me about two minutes to get into town – I resolved to walk next time. Then I hit on a course of action that never fails to work abroad – find an Irish or Aussie pub and go sit at the bar with a drink. There was live music playing and I sat there, no one staring (except a British couple, which I’ve found is always the case), smiling into my Thai beer as I swung my legs on the bar stool. No one spoke to me that night but they did when I came back the next night, this time dressed in a more relaxed style in shorts and a vest. A crowd of Aussies took me under their wing. They couldn’t believe I was on my own and to be honest, neither could I. I was 43 and all my friends were holidaying with their partners.

Well my partner for that holiday was Dougie. Aussie, Thai boxer, black-haired, hot-as-hell Dougie. Riding around on the back of his hired motorbike, I felt a sense of that freedom that I envy guys for – when you see gangs of them, shirts off, riding around Thai islands without a care in the world. (Do you ever see gangs of girls doing that?) I still envy those guys. The world is made for them and they rejoice in it.

The world is seemingly not made for a forty-something woman who decides to leave her marriage (to a really nice guy), not to have children and go it alone. This blog is going to look at some of the unexpected things I’ve encountered since I’ve gone solo (they’re pretty much all unexpected), from men my age assuming I want to trap them into coupledom, to women buying me congratulatory drinks at the bar; from dining alone to finding myself sandwiched between two Thai women on a tiny bike on New Year’s Day. There’s a story to tell, and I want to share mine.

Because I can.

Speedboat trip to Phi Phi – finally free

Lisa