The year of her spirit

Published: December 30, 2012

Hiba Masood is a stay at home mom to two kids and Express Tribune’s Drama Mama columnist.

Could a few simple life changes make this homemaker happier? She resolves to find out!

“I need a sip!” I announced to my husband one day in November. He held out his mug of tea obligingly, but I waved it away. “Not a sip. An S.I.P.” Hums tried to smile encouragingly but I detected a faint hint of panic on his face. After all, I have been periodically launching into Self Improvement Programs as long as he has known me and he knows all too well what an angst-ridden process it has the potential of becoming.

My sister and I came up with our first SIPs in our early teens – earnest lists of lofty ambitions that we referred to as we embarked on our journey to betterment. A few days ago, my sister dug up an old SIP from about 14 years ago, and we fondly looked over our aims, “Drink more water” announced the Physical Health section (yes, we sectioned our lists); “Pray on time” the spiritual section decreed; “Read Great Expectations (unabridged)” intoned one entry in the Mind/Spirit section.

Like my SIPs, all resolutions for betterment, especially of the New Years variety, fascinate me. There is something essentially optimistic about writing down a To-Do list of goals, that you need only identify the areas of improvement to achieve them. My mistake in the past, and I realise this is common, is that I create grand resolutions in which I vow to completely transform myself, and as a result I fail miserably. This is not because I am lacking in resolve; it’s that real, lasting change is just incredibly difficult. Which is not to say it can’t be done. People transform themselves all the time.

Take me, for instance. I managed, after years of trying and failing, to successfully become a person who goes to the gym regularly. It took a lot of effort to just go every day. But I did, and now it’s been, like, what, two whole weeks, and I’m still going. Okay, so this isn’t the best example because it’s far too new a phenomenon. Call me optimistic, but, I’m still quite sure transformation of mind, body, life can be done.

Recently, I had been feeling out of sorts as a homemaker. An undercurrent of crankiness was affecting how I felt about myself, my marriage and my interactions with the kids. I thought about all my dreams and ambitions and degrees. Was I just wasting my life away? Would I be happier if I had made some different choices?

When I came across this quote by Lou Holtz – “If you’re bored with life – you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things – you don’t have enough goals”- I knew I had identified the problem behind my blah. I needed to put a new SIP into motion.

I started by asking myself what specific actions would make me feel better. I had to keep in mind that my desire for change shouldn’t shake up the lives of those living with me. I had to battle the paradox of accepting myself and yet expecting more from myself. The key, I decided, was to channel Neil Armstrong’s famous words: small steps by me that would equate to big leaps for mankind, er, my life. Minimum input to yield maximum results.

Like my previous SIPs, I divided my life into sections and because improving physical health is the most popular resolution in the world, I decided to follow the herd and start exactly there:

Physical – Lean, Mean, Green? Machine:

Thanks to some good genetics, losing weight hasn’t ever been terribly high on my priority list. After becoming a mom to two, I’m a size 12, which may not land me any modeling contracts but it’s a size I can live with. My health resolution had to with another fact of my life: I eat a lot of chocolate. Like, a lot, seriously. As in, after breakfast, between breakfast and lunch, after lunch, when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when my mom calls, when my mom doesn’t call, when its sunny … you get the idea. It’s been an addiction for a long time and one that I have tried unsuccessfully to break many times. Clearly, telling myself No Chocolate At All, Ever, Ever hadn’t worked. Neither had easier ambitions of Chocolate Only on Weekends or Chocolate Once a Day. It was time to turn this resolution on its head. If I couldn’t stop eating unhealthy junk food, maybe, I needed to also eat healthy food and they could just cancel each other out! Okay, so maybe the math isn’t quite so simple but the idea was sound. Eating something that was good for me would make me feel like I was doing something beneficial for my health. It would lessen the guilt I experienced with my seventh piece of chocolate for the day (because, as every knows, the first six are good for you!). It would, if selected carefully, be a food chock full of vitamins and antioxidants and beta carotenes and all the other health-related buzzwords.

I studied my options carefully. Could I add a daily salad to my routine? I love salads but I don’t always have the time to prepare one. Neither do I always have fresh greens available. Could I add some pills to my diet? A calcium tablet, a capsule of fish oil and an iron pill was an easy option. Well, maybe it was too easy. It was a healthy inclusion in my daily diet, sure, but it wouldn’t temper the guilt of all that chocolate and neither would it give me the feel-good rush of actually eating something beneficial.

I had been reading about the Green Monster smoothie craze for a while and maybe it was time to give it a whirl, literally. I took out my blender and after a little bit of recipe research, some trial and error, and quality ingredients, I had a winner. My daily smoothie, a tall, beautiful glass of green yumminess combines frozen berries, a banana, yoghurt and two handfuls of organic spinach.

The results are already in and they are gratifying: within two days of drinking my smoothie, I noticed my chocolate craving take an automatic step down without any effort on my part. It seemed the sweetness provided by the smoothie was enough to keep my blood sugar stabilized. Within a week of drinking, I felt a clear increase in energy levels and stamina. Within two weeks of drinking, three separate people commented on my clear skin. With such obvious benefits, is it any wonder that this is one resolution I intend to keep?

Mental – Clear Clutter & Suffer for Ten Minutes

When I was asking myself what changes I could make to lift my spirits, I first had to take a step back and identify what was dragging my spirits down. I realized immediately that while my home is generally neat and tidy, I have some pockets of clutter here and there which irritate me imperceptibly but definitely. And because if I’ve learned one thing from my mom it’s that outer order assists inner calm, I decided that tackling my areas of clutter was an excellent example of a small step I could take that may yield potentially great results.

The only problem – and the reason these cluttered areas had gotten so out of control – was because I hated the process of organising. Tackling my messy drawers gave me a squirmy, yucky feeling. But if my resolutions were meant to generate positive feelings, to be completely effective, they also had to embrace the feelings that I shrunk from.

The answer simply lay in small doses. I could set myself a time limit of ‘feeling bad’. Every day, I would do the unpleasant task of organisation but I would set an unbreakable limit of ten minutes. Surely, I could handle ten minutes of unpleasantness. After all, hadn’t I birthed two children for a combined labor of over 25 hours? Well, then.

Starting the following Monday, I set my phone timer to ten minutes and got to work. I started with the kids’ toys and as it turns out, it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. I had already bought bins of different sizes and so I spent the ten minutes of Day 1 simply chucking items by group into different bins. Balls in the big red bin. Cars and trucks in the blue bin. Baby toys in the green tray. And when the timer rang, I stopped. I had a flash of “Oh I might as well finish it now that I’ve started!”, it just seemed a bit inefficient to work for such a short time. However, I decided that being firm in this regard might make me more liable to begin on another day even if I didn’t feel like it…because I knew the definite end was in sight. By Day 4, all the toys were in the right bins. I realized that to maintain this resolution for the long haul, I needed to teach my son (and myself) how much more convenient it is for everything to be in the right place. So, on Day 5, I typed and printed labels for all the bins so that my son would know what each container held. On Day 6, I home-laminated and pasted all the labels on the correct toy boxes. We spent the afternoon reading the labels and doing some practice runs of putting toys back and voila, I was done! The thrill at seeing all those toy bins neatly lined up with their cute little labels was terrific and every time my son requested a specific toy and I knew exactly where to find it, thereby avoiding a tantrum, I gave myself a high five.

Once that was done, I experienced the phenomenon that science backs: completing one challenging task supplies the energy to tackle another. I whipped through my toiletries cabinets and the kitchen drawer in a similar fashion, keeping in mind Voltaire’s wisdom “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and not getting hung up on absolute excellence in organization. I did just enough to clear the mess and enjoyed the surge of adrenaline and sense of satisfaction that each accomplishment provided.

My ten minute sufferings showed me how much I could get done when I did a manageable amount of work on a regular basis. These three areas of clutter had seemed so intimidating that for months I had procrastinated but by faithfully doing a little bit at a time, I achieved something big. To keep on with this resolution, I vowed to do something unpleasant every day for ten minutes and I am happy to report I have kept it up. Whether it’s organizing my bank papers, uploading pictures onto Picasa, making a courtesy phone call to an annoying relative or doing any of the multitude of small tasks that exist in every mom’s mental To-Do list, I found that just getting things done helped calm me down over all.

Emotional – It Smells Like Prettiness

The English writer Sydney Smith has said, “A comfortable home is a great source of happiness. It ranks immediately after health and a good conscience.” In 1820, in a letter to an unhappy friend, he offers the following tip for cheering up: “Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant.”

I found this simple little tip illuminating because Mr Smith didn’t talk about making the drawing room pretty. He’s talking about me, where I commonly sit. So often, in our homes the rooms in which we entertain guests are the most beautifully done while the family rooms or living areas where we hang out are comfortable, sure, but largely arranged to be practical. After all, we need space for the television, the computer, maybe the treadmill, and our books.

When I read this tip from Mr. Smith, I looked at my living area with fresh eyes – you know the kind of panicked, critical glance you give when your mother in law is about to arrive and I decided that by and large, my living room was gay and pleasant except for a few drab spots.

As a habitual anti-shopper, I had stretched a few purchases to the very end of their lives and even though shopping hasn’t been on my list of resolutions, a few smart purchases may very well make the difference I was looking for; for my living room and for my happiness.

For example, I have just the one big cushion on my couch, a deep red silk square that is about eight years old. Though I was still fond of it, the ratty corners and threadbare look was indication enough that it was definitely one of those things that needed to be replaced.

Another possible purchase was related to my quest for house plants. Research has shown that looking at plants and flowers elevates your mood and lowers your blood pressure. But somehow, no matter how many plants I buy, they all seem to die. If only they would scream for food and attention like my kids, I too could enjoy the refreshing and uplifting presence of greenery in the home. Maybe the answer was in buying a few quality artificial plants.

A third purchase idea was related to scents and smells. Why is it that inhaling something fabulous can lift our spirits so effectively and so fast? Smell is the most direct sense, says research. With all other senses, you have to process the information first. But with smell, it’s right there, changing your emotions and triggering memories. Pleasant smells lower the heart rate and reduce stress, and that in itself makes you feel better.  So apart from my vow to take regular showers, how else could I use this oft neglected sense? Perhaps my goal of making my living area gay and pleasant could incorporate a distinct scent.

I ended up buying a new cushion cover, a delicious stripey green and blue. I bought two artificial plants to hang from my living room window. And I bought a fat, red berry-scented candle

The cushion has livened up my couch. The plants are hung high enough that you can’t tell they aren’t real but still manage to add just the right bit of greenery and cheer me every time I look at them. And every evening, I light my candle and within a few minutes my home is fragrant with the sweet and tangy scent of raspberries. Lighting the candle has become a little ritual in itself that tells me and the children evening is here (Hums is nearly home! Kids’ bedtime is around the corner! Facebook, here I come!).

By limiting myself to a small budget and making a few choice buys only after I had genuinely studied the minutiae of my life and carefully identified areas of improvement, I achieved the small input–big output resolutions for happiness I had hoped for.

Relational – More Couple Time

The truth about my life at home with young kids was this: General stress was affecting my time with Hums and lack of time with Hums was affecting my general stress. But no matter where I turned, the advice for happy couples seemed to be oddly repetitive and almost clichéd in its dictums: Do new things together. Have date nights. Take interest in each other’s interests.

But as effective as these might be for someone else, the thing is, I’ve been married for seven years and I’ve been myself for twenty-nine. I know that what works for other people doesn’t have to work for me. At least in this season of our lives. With Hums’ crazy work schedule, did we really have the time to go on new adventures? With no reliable babysitting option available, could I reasonably resolve to have a weekly date night? And just to share interests, did I really want to waste any more of my life watching National Geographic?

My relationship with Hums is one of the most significant factors in my happiness at home. In a sense, Hums is my home; home is us being together. I wanted to foster more of a tender light-hearted atmosphere between us and I wanted time together. Could we stay in, do something new together, and have our date nights and take interest in a common area?  Just the other day, Hums had been raving about some Gordon Ramsey video he had seen. I had been secretly planning to buy him a Ramsey cookbook for our next anniversary (it would’ve been a gift that keeps giving.to me) but then I thought that I needn’t wait for our anniversary to do something that will bring happiness for us. Cooking together, now, could be the ticket to my relationship revamp.

See, being married for seven years means so many things. If everything is going right (which it is, thankfully) you and your spouse love each other more deeply because you know each other so much better. But maybe it’s the increased work load, or it’s the young kids, or it’s just that you pervade each other’s life so much that sometimes it hard to actually see each other. Married people are so intertwined and so interdependent that it can be hard to maintain that sense of wonder and excitement of the early days. I like my present enough that I don’t want to bring back the past, exactly, but I did want to keep the spark going.

A little bit of planning and several wonderful meals later, I am happy to report: every Friday night, Hums and I stay in. We chop, slice and sauté the evening away – steak Diane, crispy salmon, potato gratin to name a few accomplishments – while the kids play around us. It’s low key (no dressing up required, yoga pants welcome) and low stress (the kids are in front of us, right where we like them) but big on fun and intimacy. We get our adventure, our shared interest and our date night all in the comfort of our home. It might not work for other people, but it works for us and we are the most important people in our world.

Bring On the Rest of the Year

I made a few other resolutions to myself for this year but they are all works in progress. I am trying to get to bed earlier because getting a good night’s rest improves physical health, promotes marital harmony, helps me get up for prayer (which is a resolution on its own) and makes me a better mom to my kids. Along the lines of better mothering, I have resolved to do one creative endeavour, or ‘art project’ as he calls it, every day with my son.

In making, breaking and remaking all my resolutions, I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and women in general. We come in all shapes and sizes but we all need more sleep and less stress. We’ve long accepted that our bodies are subject to the whims of other creatures of various needs. We live mostly on Skittles, YouTube videos of kittens, and the edge. Raising children, whether we are stay at home moms or career moms, may be a labour of love, but, as anyone who’s watched the same episode of Dora twenty times in a row can tell you, it’s still labour. But, unlike the Lamaze breathing we practiced, we wait our entire lives to exhale.

But I don’t want to wait my whole life away. Nor do I want to wait until I’m 60, or 40 or even next year.

So this year, with the help of my resolutions, I’m taking back my life or, at the very least, my state of mind. I’m not going to wonder if the grass would have been greener on my side had I chosen a different life.

You make the choices you do based on what you think you know about life. And sometimes life will turn around and break your heart, but other times, your 4-year-old will saunter in with three dots on a piece of paper and declare it “Beautiful art project!” You will sit down to a dinner of crusty bread and seafood chowder your husband has lovingly cooked up. Your artificial plants will look almost comically natural and your spinach smoothie will be greener than anyone’s grass. You will be struck afresh that your life couldn’t have possibly turned out any other way.

So that like the intergalactic hitchhiker, every day, you too can happily and honestly say, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

Happy new year, one and all!

**The idea of including beautiful scents in your life and doing something painful for ten minutes is inspired from Gretchen Rubin’s personal happiness project.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, December 30th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Parvez
    Dec 30, 2012 - 4:28PM

    Seeing the name Hiba Masood I said …….this I I am duty bound to read.
    Now I have to be honest, it was long so I read this and I read that but I got what you were saying and as always you have a way of saying it well. Wish you and your lovely family a very Happy New Year.

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  • H.M
    Dec 30, 2012 - 10:02PM

    Parvez,

    You are kind and I enjoy your feedback.

    This was a feature article so it was quite a bit longer than the usual column.

    But yes, I do have a problem with being precise. I think to myself, if it can be said in ten words, why not twenty? ;)

    Happy new year to you and yours.

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  • Parvez
    Jan 2, 2013 - 11:35PM

    @H.M: Didn’t Shakespeare say ‘ Brevity is the soul of ….. a good blog ‘…………yeah I couldn’t resist that.

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