My first Christmas alone: lessons in solitude

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. Christmas Day alone, I figured, would be a good test.

With the year that’s in it, I found myself alone for Christmas. It wasn’t my first Christmas away from home but given the annual mass exodus from Berlin, unstymied by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I found myself bereft of friends and plans for Christmas day.

I travelled to Berlin in full knowledge that by doing so I was sacrificing Christmas. Before leaving Ireland in late October to make the most of remote working, I warned my family I would not be coming home during Christmas break: self-isolation and testing either side morphed a five-day trip into a costly, fortnight expedition, and the Irish government had made their views on the issue as clear as day.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It also helped that I am not overly sentimental about the holiday season. I wasn’t always this grouchy; as an imaginative child who read a lot of fantasy, I was thrilled to see the magic and mystery of storybooks playing out in real life. But once my younger brothers outgrew Santa, despite gallant efforts and fervent denial on my mother’s part, the Christmas traditions of my childhood were gradually dismantled.

Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I was mourning an intangible loss far bigger than Santa, or even Christmas: the loss of my childhood innocence and its sincere belief that anything and everything is possible. Adulthood beckoned, and sensibility, realism and cynicism took its place.

Afterwards, particularly as a teenager, I struggled to find my footing at Christmas. By its very nature – the advent calendar countdown, the month-long hype – Christmas conditions us to have high expectations, but my inevitable disappointment made it feel like I kept falling for the same cruel trick year after year.

While I enjoyed the season’s conviviality Santa had big shoes to fill, and what remained in his absence was rather…lacklustre. The dinner was bland, the dessert inedible (anything riddled with raisins is not dessert in my book), and as a vegan, aspiring minimalist, renounced Christian, I was ethically opposed to most of the traditions that Christmas is built on. It was, I summed up, little more than a glorified Sunday roast which took a huge amount of labour to pull off. Was there some hidden meaning I was missing?

Berlin, Christmas 2020

Unsurprisingly given my feelings about the holiday, I made little effort to organize plans for Christmas Day. Once it became apparent everyone would be travelling home, I registered the news I would spend the day alone with relevant indifference. I was more concerned about how my family would receive the news, given they had been asking after my plans in every recent phone call.

The plus side of being alone at Christmas is that you are truly alone, a luxury rarely enjoyed unless you live by yourself and even more out of reach with everyone confined to their homes. I wasn’t so much counting down the days to Christmas as I was counting down the dates till my flatmates’ departure.

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. I enjoy my own company and am not deterred by the prospect of embarking on solo adventures. Having said that, each move to a new city has been punctuated by bouts of loneliness. Christmas Day spent alone, I figured, would be a good test.

Empty streets in Berlin

 A Covid Christmas

My Christmas began with a lazy morning reading while eating one of four vegan donuts I had gifted myself. Around 10am I dragged myself out of bed and dressed to go running. I had planned to depart from my usual park route and go for a long run from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.

The streets were deserted save for families and the odd couple. Observing them as I ran past, I felt a momentary twinge.

Everyone appeared content, unrushed, taking simple pleasure in their morning stroll. It was the first time since Covid struck that the emptiness felt normal, the silence soothing rather than eerie. The only thing out of the ordinary was me, the interloper.   

And yet, I felt entirely at peace. My chest bloomed with the conviction that I was exactly where I should be.

In a year of ceaseless oddities, this aberration was the silver lining.  

My effervescent gratitude made me hungry to consume, to name the things for which I was grateful. Sprinting through the Museuminsel I marvelled at the elaborate, superfluous beauty of its architecture. I looked at the faces of the people I passed. I said hello to food delivery drivers and policemen, for whom it was just another day at the office.

As I pointed myself back in the direction of Prenzlauer Berg my phone rang. It was a video call from my mother, who had generously driven two hours to spend an allotted half hour visiting my grandaunt in a nursing home in the west of Ireland. Exercising her maternal clout, she successfully cajoled me into performing a breathless rendition of ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the middle of the Berlin streets. Not waiting around for the reviews, I continued my run home.

Her call was the first of many and between fielding calls from friends and family, I just about managed to cook and eat Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. By 10pm I was all talked out of it, ready to wind down and watch a film.

I’ll admit that seeing my family together celebrating and saying they missed me melted my icy façade ever so slightly. It was, I realised, important to know I was invited, wanted, and missed by family, even if I couldn’t be there. It made my decision to be alone a choice, rather than a lack thereof. And just like that, the hidden meaning of Christmas revealed itself.


My two weeks spent in solitude was a welcome retreat. Never in my life have I had so much free time coupled with space of my own. I had dinner with the occasional friend, but I was mostly alone, and happily so, a significant departure from my usual Christmas chock full of social obligations. If I felt my mood dip, I knew it was time to leave the house.

The experience made me think back to the times I had felt lonely in the past, both at home and abroad, under a roof shared with almost-strangers or the over-familiar.

Revisiting those periods, I realise that social isolation was only a half, and maybe even the lesser part, of my discontentment. While I used to think I felt sad because I craved the company of others, I am beginning to think its inverse was the case, that I craved solitude and the emotional space it affords.

Most societal maladies in one form or another stem from the negotiation of finite resources, with space being amongst the most coveted. This logic is implicit in the bargaining that makes up day-to-day living in shared accommodation, whose terms have becoming increasingly limited as Covid restrictions tightened.

Solitude, that is, being truly on one’s own, has been scarce for most, while those who live alone are drowning in it.

Many of our needs ordinarily met through the normal course of living in the Before Times – social interaction, time spent outdoors, emotional space – have become neglected during the pandemic. This leaves us with the difficult tasks of parsing through our muddled emotions to recognise, identify and tend to our unmet multifaceted human needs.  

Knowing the difference between these distinct yet overlapping needs is an important skill, particularly amongst younger generations who are uber-connected but also report the highest rates of loneliness.

As Berlin begins to fill up once again, my days of solitude are numbered. I’m excited to re-join society but having grown protective of my time alone, I intend to find creative ways to safeguard it.  


My grandad taught me to appreciate a smaller world

Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.

In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.

My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.

It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.

His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.  

With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.

My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.  

Me aged four, posing next to my grandad’s sunflowers

Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.

When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.

Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.

Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.

Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?

Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.

A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.

Save each other, touch yourself!

When staying safe means staying apart, a lot of us are missing out on human touch. Non-sexual intimate self-touch can help.

On a Friday night five weeks ago I was seated at the only empty chair I could find in a crowded Dublin bar, scrolling through the news headlines while I waited for my friends. Ireland  was one day out from its first official confirmation of Coronavirus, but already the media were heeding warnings of how the public should behave. One headline caught my eye: ‘Coronavirus advice: Wash your hands and avoid hugging, kissing and hand shaking.’ I scanned the room, observing the crowds of people sat in small groups, leaning close together to hear one another speak over the jovial hum of voices.

The advice was at odds with the scene before me making it easy to make light of as one tends to do at the penumbra of a crisis, when you know the worst is yet to come but the present hasn’t altered enough for real worry to set in. I joked that it was my civic duty to patrol the bar and break up any kissing couples. Back then it seemed comical that the State concerned itself with the intimate Friday night activities of its citizens, offering well-intentioned warnings usually delivered by parents to the turned-backs of teenagers as they head out.

62 days, 20,612 confirmed cases and 1,232 deaths later the government’s intrusion in our personal lives has been welcomed, demanded even. With the entire country in lockdown my in-person social interactions are limited to three family members, and my movements restricted to a 2km radius. When I do leave the house, strangers wait behind a corner or cross the road to avoid me. No one has touched me in over four weeks.

This isn’t the first time in my life that the absence of touch has registered itself as a physical deprivation. Over the last four years I’ve moved to a new city six times, each time finding myself alone amongst strangers. The experience is not the same as self-isolation or social distancing, but when you know no one and no one knows you, it can feel like everyone is crossing the road to avoid you. You don’t find yourself being touched very often.

It wasn’t until I left Ireland that I came to appreciate how much Irish people like to hug one other. We are a nation of huggers, embracing friends old and new with equal enthusiasm (often to the bewilderment of visitors).

Each time I found myself in a new city trying to imitate the local greeting customs I found that I sorely missed being hugged. There is no greater feeling of intimacy than when someone wraps their arms around you and pulls you close, squeezing the distance between you to almost nothing. The weight of their bodies tells you, ‘I am here for you, I am present’, far better than words ever could. It is the opposite of feeling alone.

What better life-giving affirmation is there than the fission of skin-to-skin contact? To be seen, desired, acknowledged, to experience the warm glow of human connection. We spend so much time communicating through our devices or living in our own heads that we have become oblivious to subtle bodily sensations. Touching and being touched offers us an escape from the incessant chatter in our head; guided by instinct and desire the cognitive side of our brain disengages as we become both the giver and receiver of pleasure.

Although I recognised my internal restlessness during periods of yearning, I always looked outside of myself when I craved touch, operating under an implicit belief that this need could only be satisfied in the hands of another.

It wasn’t until I came across renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s ‘Where Should We Begin’ podcast series, which allows the listener to ‘sit in’ on an hour-long couple’s therapy session, that I began to think about this differently. In one of the episodes she helps a client overcome his physical discomfort by coaching him in masturbatory touch, which she defines broadly as touching one’s entire body for pleasure (in contrast to its common usage referring to genital stimulation for sexual pleasure). She encourages him to stroke himself, to caress himself, and to pay attention to the pleasurable sensation it arouses.

I had never considered touching myself in that way and realised that I am not nearly as good a lover to myself as I am to others. Although we touch ourselves constantly (our face especially, as we’ve realised as of late), we are rarely conscious of these absentminded movements nor the sensations they evoke.

Even my daily beauty routine is be performed with a heavy hand, moisturiser slapped on, rubbed in, washed off aggressively.

I compared this to a recent afternoon spent getting a facial and a massage. Over the course of two hours the beauty therapist blended oils, creams and lotions into my skin. Her movements were tender and gentle, and I lay there like a baby submitting myself to her healing touch. The experience was utterly relaxing, devoid of the pressure to respond a certain way or perform the receiving of pleasure often expected of lovers (women in particular).

I realised that I had been neglectful towards myself and needed to be more conscious of how I handled my body, that I should be gentler, more loving, more affectionate in my actions. I also realised that I needed to value the power my own touch if I wanted to unlock its potential to bring myself comfort.

I felt my loneliness most keenly lying alone in my double bed at night. I decided to put Esther Perel’s advice into practise. Applying delicate pressure, I traced my fingertips along my collarbone and across my chest in a sweeping back and forth motion, tuning my attention to the faint tingling sensation left in its wake. The effect was incredibly soothing and slowly the ball of tension in the pit of my stomach began to unravel.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic we find ourselves experiencing unprecedented levels of collective distress, while simultaneously being closed off from our regular stress-relieving outlets. With the virus having weaponised our social instinct, the panacea found in the company of others is the very thing we must avoid at all costs. The absence of a clearly defined exit-plan from our current phase of state-sanctioned celibacy is immensely frustrating, but on the bright side, it has created the ideal conditions for us to spend time alone and give more attention our relationship with our own body. In  a capitalistic and social media driven wellness era the affection we give ourselves is often undervalued. Now is the perfect time to change that. Save each other, touch yourself!

Failure to Launch Part III: The Follow-Up

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit to India

Last week’s series of ‘Failure to Launch’ showcased Karen and her mother Geraldine, who shared their experiences living together in South Dublin while Karen worked in a law firm. Since then Karen has been living in India for a year and a half, completing a fellowship at Ashoka University and training as a meditation coach while living in an Ashram. With the passing of distance and time this week’s follow-up interview is one of reflection and recognition between mother and daughter, and a rumination of the quality of life for Ireland’s younger generations.


1. Looking back at the answers you gave last year, has much changed? Would you answer the questions differently today?

I couldn’t remember reading the answers what the questions were and what my responses had been. But in general I can hear my own voice running through them and my answers stay the same mainly because I think my answers are very reflective of the Dublin housing market at that time and I don’t think that the Dublin housing market has changed. If I’m to believe the news it looks like it has worsened. So I stand by my answers so far. 

2. What do you think about your mother’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

Well obviously I think my mother’s answers were very prophetic. I think especially the line where she says that she’s going to India and India will hopefully be an awakening for her, and maybe a change in mindset and a change in career direction – that all has happened. I probably didn’t give my mum enough credit for how in tune she was with how I was feeling at the time because I think she managed to put into words the deep distraction or discomfort that I was feeling in myself. I wasn’t entirely aware of those forces at work or how I was feeling but she’s managed to really grab hold of that and articulate it. 

3. Before you went to India your mother said that you seemed troubled and unsettled and that she hoped the experience would be an awakening. Did her wish come true?

The wish has come true. She saw into a crystal ball! [laughing]. The wish has come true, as in, again she was spot on about me feeling troubled in Ireland but I don’t think I really understood how much so until I started meditating in India and that has really lead to a whole evolution of consciousness. And obviously the experience in India has given me a lot more exposure to different fields so I started to question whether I really wanted to go into law. Even that questioning itself has just been so beneficial. Because a lot of us don’t really have that space or the time to question, we’re just fed into what we think is the path post college. So I’m grateful for that. So overall, yeah, I do think it was pretty prophetic. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with your mother, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

I’m quite bad at keeping in touch with family so I work mostly off sending WhatsApp messages every so often. Even because we’re four and a half hours ahead here and my schedule is so packed, I do find it quite difficult to take phone calls. I’ll voice record for friends; I won’t necessarily do it for my mother, but she’s quite insistent with her WhatsApp messages. She sends me probably a message every day if not every second day, saying ‘Hello India xx’. So she makes me feel like I’m the spokesperson of India, which is kind of cute. So we’ll keep in contact that way and she’s coming next week to visit, so that will be really nice. It will be her first time to India. I’ve managed to convince her that she can come and it will be ok, and that she’ll have a nice time here. And this will be the first time she’ll have come so far away from the European continent. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month* which is 26% higher than the peak during the Celtic Tiger. Can you see yourself living in Ireland again and how do you think you’ll afford it?

I have no idea how I’ll afford it. It is something that plays on my mind a lot. If I was to go back to Ireland I would need a buffer period for at least six months where I worked and saved up enough to be able to put the deposit on an apartment or something, plus one month’s rent. At the moment I just don’t see how my life would be sustainable in Ireland because for me to live anywhere, you’d have to be on such a high salary for you to be able to live anywhere central in Dublin. I still stand by my word that I’m not going near the outskirts to the likes of Meath and I’m not commuting. So it does narrow down your options. I know that with my mum she said to Stan**, whose just come back from Canada, multiple times, that he need to consider moving out soon. Stan owes my mum some money from Canada and only once he pays that back, then can he move out. But even him and his friends are looking at places and the rent is just astronomical. So it is something I’m bearing in mind, it is something I will have to consider when making future decisions about what country I will be employed in.

*According to figures at the time of the interview

**Karen’s brother

6. Like much of our generation you have spent a considerable amount of time living abroad since graduating. What were your motivations for leaving each time and how has this changed your relationship with Ireland?

Probably while my initial reason in third year of college was because it was part of my university degree to move to Paris, my motivation to come back to Paris after I completed my degree is primarily because my partner lived there and I wanted to work for a year before pursuing further education. My reason to move to India was again to pursue further education. I do think that travel really broadens your horizons. I think it’s really important to interact with difference societies and cultures and all of this. So my reason for going to India was also to experience the culture there. And my reason for staying in India was because I found another programme that I wanted to pursue. None of the experiences that I am having here are available in Ireland. The quality of education isn’t there. Certain areas that I’m pursuing wouldn’t be as strong or developed as they are here.

I do miss Ireland in many respects and I do think Ireland is a great place. Especially if we take about our freedoms that we have in Ireland as opposed to India – that does play on my mind a lot. In Ireland women are a lot more free to wear what they want, to marry or not marry when they want. Although gender equality isn’t there yet, it is maybe more of a conversation than it is here. But similarly I do feel a disillusionment with Ireland. I see my generation of people, I hear so much about the housing crisis. It dominates the news and there are several protests where it was college students coming out on the streets and middle class people who were coming out on the street saying that we can’t afford accommodation and leaving. It is something that Ireland really needs to address. That and also healthcare. I was away when all the cervical smear scandals hit the news and the cover-ups. But similarly I was away when repeal the 8th happened. I was in a hospital bed and I was just so proud of my country, so immensely proud. There’s always a dichotomy there, between feelings of love and feelings of, ‘get your shit together’, you’re better than this. 

7. Just looking back over what you said, what your mother said – what are your general thoughts about the interview?

My general thoughts are that I didn’t realise how much my mum is a deep feeler, and how much empathy she must have to be able to read her children with that much detail. And also I just think its really funny. I always knew that she is liberal but there are some things that she wouldn’t really accept that much. I think that really comes through in her interview where she says, ‘everyone is welcome, partners are welcome and I have to adjust to these new morals.’ I think her comment about the fact we live in a disposable culture where people change partners quite rapidly, I think that’s actually a very concise observation about the era that we live in. We do like in a consumerist culture where people just chop and change, people think other people are disposable and you can treat them as such. She had these interesting inter-generational insights. With mine, I think it was just very matter of fact.

Karen and Geraldine together in India


1.  Looking back at the answers you gave this time last year, would you answer the questions differently than you did today?

Well that’s a very hard question to answer now because she moved to India in July 2017, so I haven’t had the one-on-one experience with her coming since other than her coming home for one week in July of this year. I found a completely different person came home than who went to India. I definitely noticed a big change in Karen, huge.

2. What did you think of Karen’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

No none of them surprise me because interestingly enough, although we may have had, I wouldn’t have called it fights, we were able to have open dialogue together. So anything that she has said in her answers she has said to my face. And anything I said in my answers, I had also said to her face. I think when she looks back on mature reflection as you could call it on some of her answers, I think she’ll realise that they were coming from a more selfish and indulgent side of it. I’d say she’d have a completely different attitude now.

Of course I wouldn’t want her bringing home strangers to my home and having them there in my house, and not knowing any of their history or anything like that. And that is where the dilemma always arose as to living under the roof with your mother and not having your own place to live. But its dangerous out there. I just think you generation just have so many more multiple relationships, jump into sexual relationships very quickly, and exposing yourself to an awful lot of danger. 

3. Before Karen went to India you said she seemed troubled and unsettled, and you hoped the experienced would be an awakening. Do you think her wish came true?

Absolutely, in its entirety it has come true. She has lived in India for a year with students whose parents have pushed themselves to the Nth degree to make it affordable for their children to get the experiences of Ashoka University. She has stripped back all the layers of materialism that we take for granted over here, and she can now live a much more humble and frugal life and find that far more fulfilling than the life she ever lived over here. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with Karen, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

We’ve kept in touch regularly, Whatsapped daily, if not certainly every second day, third day. We try and touch base on the phone once a fortnight, once every three weeks. I’m not usually hung up on that, we don’t do Skype, we just ring on Whatsapp and have a good long chat. When she’s have a period where maybe she’s travelled or she’s done something, she’ll ring back, she’ll tell me all of what she has done and I’ll tell her what’s happened on this side. I think this bond has strengthened because with a lot of this meditation and heartfulness of what Karen is doing comes a lot of reflection. And therefore she has a lot of time to reflect on her own life. I think she has tapered her anger and tapered things that were bothering her, she’s managing to unravel. She’s certainly reached the level of contentment that I don’t even think she expected to reach. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month*, 26% times higher than it was during the Celtic Tiger. Do you think Karen will live in Ireland again and how do you think she’ll be able to afford it?

I don’t think Karen will live in Ireland again. I don’t think she’ll settle in Ireland. She may have to come back for a transition period, but with the studying that she’s done over in India and the meditation that she is doing currently, she has also had a lot of time to reflect on a career plan and is trying to bring that into fruition with further study in China with a view to going down the international relations, diplomatic core, foreign affairs, which I think will be right up her street. I’m so happy to see her out of the field of law, solicitors and barrister, where its just dog eat dog. I don’t think it was ever going to float her boat, it would just have frustrated her. I think she’s probably on a trajectory now that she’s happy with and she’s doing all the right things to make that come to fruition. 

*According to figures at the time of the interview

6. How do you feel about the fact that Karen, like many of her generation, have to leave Ireland in search of better opportunities and economic security amongst other reasons. 

I personally think its fantastic. I have been a traveller myself all my life, from the age of nineteen I was heading off to the continent and we didn’t have any money. We were in a generation where it was safer. You took ferries, got lifts from truck drivers to your destination – that is unheard of in this day and age. If you got into financial trouble we couldn’t ring our parents, there’d be absolutely no question of them sending us money or anything. You found a job no matter how menial until you got your couple of ha’penny together and you got by. It’s amazing how you got by. And therefore when it came to earning money and saving money, we were probably very good at it because from the age of nineteen, twenty, when I was in college I got a strict budget. I got a budget that I had to live on. If that budget was gone, that was tough. Ireland has definitely become prohibitive for any youngster whose trying to climb on the property ladder now.

I don’t think it’s such a great country to live in at the moment. There isn’t an awful lot of prospects out there for youngsters. I haven’t met any of your generation whose happy and content with their lot and kind of going, gosh yeah my life is great. Everybody seems to be looking towards the next step of what he or she is going to do and how they’re going to move on a little bit. The big concern here is how they’re going to afford to buy. You’d get a mortgage for what people are paying in rent at the moment, and yet there’s such a shortage of property. It’s such a Catch-22. I wouldn’t be signing up for that if I were you. I’m not a needy mother where I have to have my children here. I’ve always said to them, and I think they’ll agree, ‘Go. Go and do. Enjoy the world. It’s a big place out there.’ There’s nothing like travel to broaden the mind.

7. Overall, what are your impressions of the interviews having read them back?

Obviously they’re very though provoking. I think Karen and I both answered them very honestly. I think when she reads back over her answers, she’ll laugh. I laughed! Her responses were so, oh how would I describe it, they’re just so juvenile in many ways. Don’t take offence Karen about that. [laughing] They were just silly. ‘Oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ Her standard of hygiene. I would be the least clean person. My house is certainly far from pristine. If you’re having friends in and they’re spilling drink all over the floor, I’m not cleaning it up. I think she would be exactly the same. It’s a very funny thing to look back on, the two of us when we were both living in the house together, and now that we’ve been apart. When she came home for the week in July, and I said it to her, a completely different person came back. Much calmer, more reflective. I just find she listens so much more. She wasn’t jumping in with her opinion all the time, telling me it was like this. She was far more at peace with herself and able to listen to a conversation and here what you’re saying and take it on board. Not always being the aggressor and trying to get one up or anything. She was so calm and so happy in herself. It was fantastic to see her like that. 

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part II: Living at Home

Karen and Geraldine on holidays in Romania in 2017

In part two of ‘Failure to Launch’ I chatted with Karen and her mother Geraldine, who spent six months living together in their family home in South County Dublin when Karen was twenty three. The conversations took place a year and a half ago, when Karen was preparing to move to India for a fellowship and contemplating a career as a barrister. In this revealing and insightful interview we talk money, fears of the future, and the difficulties having sex when you still live at home. Karen continues to live in India, where she is living in an Ashram and training as a meditation coach. Next week’s piece will see Karen and Geraldine reflect on their own and each others answers one year on, having spent twelve months living on other sides of the world.


1. How do you find living with you mum in your family home at the age of 24? 

Living with my mum can be very difficult. I think that she had a newfound independence post the separation with my father. She has really reclaimed her home and reclaimed her life, and doesn’t really want adult children hanging out of her hair. That said, she has been incredibly accommodating for me moving back after living in Paris. We do clash on occasion as we have very strong characters. Just in terms of the general set up, I pay €200 rent a month to my mother and that’s just a kind of general contribution towards food and stuff. I don’t but any groceries – she buys them all, she fills the fridge. The trade off would be that I try to do some chores, although she tells me that I don’t do enough. Generally it’s reasonably harmonious, well, in recent months it has been. The only thing I find is there is an expectation with my mother to spend time with her and contribute towards the general family atmosphere and I find that I am too busy to do so.  

2. Do you worry about money?

Yes I do still worry about money, even though I know I’m only making a slight contribution. €200 is minimal compared to what I would be paying if I was paying Dublin rent elsewhere. I do worry about money because obviously I’m saving up towards a masters and I do have to make payments towards that. Living costs can be quite high, and if you’re having any kind of social life that can really rack up. That said, if my money stopped tomorrow all my basic amenities are covered. I’ll always have food and there will always be food on the table. I cycle most places. I generally just need money towards my masters and going out and other necessities. 

3. When you think you’ll own your own home?

Never, never [laughing]. Realistically, considering the line of work I’ll be going into, unless I have a partner I will not be able to afford my own home, not in Dublin. If a mortgage saw [my line of work] they might think I am a risk and I don’t think I would be getting a mortgage on sole income. So I would have to be on a dual income with a partner, and then again I don’t think I would be earning enough to live in central Dublin or even suburban Dublin. I don’t want to commute, I don’t think that’s a quality of life, so I’m not willing to go to the outskirts of Dublin or to stay somewhere like Meath. So that only leaves me with one option, that’s to buy elsewhere and live in a different country. And not until I’m probably at least 33. 

How do you feel about that prospect? Are you scared?

I guess because I feel like everyone is in the same boat I don’t there are many people who have that steady pensionable income jobs. A lot of people are living in jobs that are transitional or transient and are looking at the prospect of maybe having several jobs. There’s not really that same road to success or even progression through the hierarchy that there was historically. So it doesn’t really bother me now, but I’d say it might when I hit late twenties and really start to access the situation it, especially in terms of putting a deposit on a house. There are a lot of people’s parents who will help them out with that but if you’re not helped out where does that leave you? You’re looking at a shitty first home to buy, and I’m not willing to do that. If I’m buying a home I want it to be a home that I really love. I don’t really have the skills to buy a shitty home, do it up, and then resell and then buy a nice home. I don’t have the skills for that and I don’t have the energy.

4. Do you feel like your sex life, dating life and social life is affected by your living situation? 

Absolutely, absolutely. In dating life, if you’re dating someone initially it’s not usually a big issue that you’re living at home. But once you cross that boundary and want to go into a sexual relationship, if both of you are living at home, especially in my home, it is out of the question for me to bring somebody home. It’s not even that my mum is not liberal. She is liberal and she would not mind that I’m having a sex life, I think she understands that it’s just a natural part of the age and stage at which I’m at. Its more the fact that she hasn’t verified this person, and she is so worried that I could bring someone home that could potentially rob something from the house. That’s her main concern. She doesn’t care about the sex life but she doesn’t want me bringing strays off the street and then them robbing her. It’s her home as well. There has to be a little bit of respect in terms of the people you bring here.

In terms of social life as well, equally so. She doesn’t mind me having a couple of friends over for drinks or whatever, so long as I tidy the place afterwards. And by tidy I mean spick and span. It is something that I find I have to raise quite early in terms of dating relationship. You’re looking at the person, and if the other person says “I also live at home”, both of you are like, “Fuck”. You wonder, “God, what are we going to do?” Realistically people are going to have sex regardless of whether they live at home or not, so you have to find other avenues of having sex. And the only other avenues really is to be that horny teenage couple in the park, or to rent a hotel. You miss out on nice things like making dinner together, or “Netflix and chill”, and general hangout time. It becomes very like a courtship, and then very seedy if you have to go the hotel route as well. 

5. Do you feel like your generation comes under fire for you lifestyle choices and spending habits?

I feel there’s a general perception of our generation that we’re selfish, that we’re very much in pursuit of our own happiness. That we are unwilling to put our heads down and do the hard work to actually get those jobs and stay in them, to do the graft and then get the home. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. To a degree the employment life or the work life has shifted. I don’t think those jobs are really in effect anymore, they’re not out there for us anymore. I do find that maybe just looking at our generation, we went through the recession, we saw the hard times, and we went through the boom. I do think to a degree that curbed how frivolous and how out-there we were previously. But there aren’t many of my friends that I would think are good with their money, spend their money well, and know how to save. I would say that I don’t know how to save whereas I think my parents are very good savers. I don’t know where they went wrong on that, or where I didn’t pick that up, but maybe when you see to a degree the amount of work that has to go in behind getting a house, owning a house, paying off a mortgage, sometimes you just look at the outcome and think, “That’s not something I want, that’s not something I’m willing to do.” And I think that’s ok as well. 

6. What is the best and worst part of living with your mum?

The best thing I’d say is to always have a backup there at home. When you live abroad or out of home, you do feel like everything falls on your shoulders and you have to be very independent. Whereas it is nice, especially if you have a mind-block or if you’re anxious about something, to go home and discuss with someone like my mother in person, to get her life experience and her opinion on something. Sometimes she talks absolute shite and doesn’t help me at all, but oftentimes even having that conversation will make you reflect differently on the issue and then you can move forward with it. The worst thing is definitely not having that space to invite people over, or make people dinner without having that anxiety of having to clean up. Or, are we using the correct glasses, or if something smashes WWIII is going to break out. Having that element of clean up directly after to her standard, I think that’s the worst thing.

Karen and Geraldine in 2015 celebrating the end of her law exams


  1. How do you find sharing the family home with your adult child?

Karen has only moved back home in the last six months and it has been a challenging time. She has lived outside of the home for the best part of three years. Two assertive women, two opinionated women, two strong women; it required an adjustment period and a lot of negotiation on both our parts. I find it challenging because I’m separated, her father and I don’t live together and that brings its own challenges. She sometimes feels that she needs to go to him if things aren’t going her way in the house, which I don’t agree with. It’s now my house; she lives here under my terms and conditions. Karen is very independent and likes to come and go when she pleases and having lived away, finds it very hard to adjust to living in a family home and “my house, my regulations.”. She has come onboard to an extent but I have said to her on occasion, “A twenty-four year old girl vs her mother living together in a house is very difficult”. It is difficult to find common ground and negotiate a communal living that we can both agree on. But in general, it works! 

2. How old were you when you first moved out of your family home?

My experience is probably a lot different to what my children have experienced. I went to boarding school at twelve years of age. My mother had remarried the year I went to boarding school, therefore we were moving to a new place to live and it was only a place we went to on the school holidays, a new place completely. We had stepbrothers, stepsisters and stepfather. Fortunately for me I was only twelve so I adopted tremendously, integrated really well, loved my stepfather, went to live on a farm, loved the farming life. It worked very well for me! Having said that, I moved to boarding school at the age of twelve and I never went home. At eighteen I was in college. As we moved to Tipperary I was living in Dublin for school days, college days, so I never actually went back home to live with family, with my mother or stepfather. So it was a completely different lifestyle for me. I’ve always lived more or less independently. We had our allowance, we had our budget, we rented our accommodation. We went to college, we got a job and then we got married. That’s how long I’ve been out of the family home. 

3. When did you buy your own home?

I got married in 1990 and we bought our first house in 1993, so I’ve been living here twenty-three years. 

4. How do you feel about Karen bringing home friends or sexual partners?

The house has always been open to Karen, and any of my kids, bringing home anybody. I firmly believe their generation is completely different to how we grew up. I firmly believe that friends are very welcome, partners are welcome. I mostly prefer to think if they’re in a relationship, no matter how temporary, that they are able to bring home that person to the house then going out somewhere, having to rent a room, or whatever one does when one is that age. It’s completely different to the way that I was brought up but I am completely on board with that. 

5. What is the biggest difference between your generation and Karen’s generation?

We never had an open relationship with our parents. We had left the family home from a very young age. We would never discuss anything personal, sexual, or anything else with our parents. We went home to their house and we obeyed their rules. If we brought someone home we slept in separate rooms. We just adhered to their rules. There were very decent people but they lived a very conservative life, and we respected their lifestyle. This generation, we have had to go with the flow and accept their new nuances, their new morals. I would like to think the house is open. I don’t agree going through various partners or umpteen people. I’d like to think that that they would meet and settle, but I think they’re of a very disposable generation where its very much based upon self-gratification. You need to be very careful and you need to realise what you’re doing. I think it’s going to be very hard for Karen’s generation, or any of my kids, to meet the person who’s going to fulfill all their criteria. They’ve had it all and now I’m not sure they know what they really want. 

6. What do you think of Karen’s lifestyle and spending habits?

Well Karen has a very unique lifestyle. I think she is a woman who definitely hasn’t found what she’s looking for. She comes from a family, particularly on her father’s side, of serious intelligence and with that intelligence comes serious challenges. She seems to be in pursuit of something that I’m not quite sure is out there. She has to follow her dream. She’s off to India now in a few weeks time. She’s going with her heart, having done a French law degree. I’m hoping it will find her some peace of mind and some direction of where she wants to go. To me, at the moment she’s very unsettled, very troubled in many ways, and as a mother probably won’t discuss it with me but with her friends. She’ll get there; she’ll definitely get there. India may well be an awakening for her, an opening of her mind and a complete change of career and direction. 

Expenditure, again, she probably doesn’t fully realise the value of money. Again, she will get there. She’s living at home, virtually rent free as she’s paying only a nominal rent. I’ve given her money to survive in India, which she’s going to pay back. But life is tough. Earning money in Ireland is tough. She’s going to have to come back and she’s going to have to realise how she’s going to afford to live and divvy up the expenses. At the moment she probably isn’t fully aware of the cost of living, as are many of her generation. 

7. What is the best and worst thing about living with Karen. 

It’s lovely having a female living at home. I had only one other son living at home, one daughter living in Paris. We probably don’t get enough time to bounce off each other because she lives a very full life and she likes to socialise. She’s not here much. But we did go on holiday together which was fantastic for both of us, just to have that one on one time. I find her fascinating and interesting and do love having a female presence at home, but, at twenty-four years of age its time to move on Karen. Go live your own life! [Laughs] 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part I: Rising Rent Prices


Part one of a three-part series about the impact of Ireland’s rising rent and house prices for Irish millienials. Next week’s piece will include an interview with a mother and her adult child about their experiences living together.

Within the space of a single generation Ireland has gone from a nation of independent homeowners, to renters and hangers-on living in the childhood bedroom of their parent’s abode. A confluence of factors brought us here, from the global economic downturn and nefarious banking practises, to lack of new properties and soaring prices in the rental and housing markets. For the millennials and baby-boomers that have found themselves elbowed off Ireland’s property ladder, it is of cold comfort to know that their shared ill fate is not through a fault of their own. Itching to vacate the family home, their dreams of freedom either had to be postponed, or the more favoured option, realised beyond Irish shores. Those that stayed behind were forced to stay with their parents or fork over half their salary on rent, a hefty price tag for the taste of independence.

Irish parents have graciously played a huge (and often overlooked) role shouldering the burden of the government’s ineptitude to curb errant landlords or increase the housing supply. As shown by the rise in homelessness those who have a place to stay are still the lucky ones, but living with your parents in your early to mid twenties is far from an ideal situation. To begin with there’s the unnatural pairing of a couple in their fifties co-habiting with housemates half their age. Familial ties aside, the lifestyle choices and unsociable hours of a person straight out of college is going to rub any parent the wrong way. Manoeuvring these obstacles demands compromise on both sides, but this compromise implies sacrifices that neither party should be forced to make. As you enter into the full bloom of adulthood it becomes increasingly important to have a physical space of your own; a space to organise as you please, for inviting lovers and friends, a space for experimenting, being completely yourself, and stepping out of your parents’ shadow.

Child-parents relationships are perpetually reductive in the sense that we are always bound to our childhood and our role as children in the company of our parents. While they may shower us with endless love and hot meals, at some very basic level it is unhealthy to live with your parents past a certain age. Living under your parent’s roof means adhering to their rules (‘My roof, my rules’, is a refrain every child has had retorted to them at least once during a family argument), a completely fair expectation considering it is their home first and foremost. However these limitations inhibit us from forging our own path and closes us off from parts of ourselves. It is only when we leave the parental sphere that we gain the necessary space to stir up latent pools of our personality, revealing internal avenues unbeknownst even to ourselves.

While for some the noise made by millennials may seem like much ado about nothing, the dawning realisation that buying our own home or even renting an apartment would be immensely challenging registered itself as a deep loss for most of our generation. We watched with a mixture of bitterness and resentment as the carefree, youthful interlude of salaried jobs, minimum responsibilities and a place of our own before the onslaught of mortgages and babies, shrank into nothingness, meanwhile the return of our parents’ investments, the houses we occupied but did not own, multiplied in value under our very feet.

No one could have anticipated that the housing crisis would get as out of hand as it did, nor the pain it would inflict on our small island. Admittedly there is a distinctly bourgeois tone to this article considering the 9,968 people who are homeless, 3,811 of whom are children according to the latest figures by Focus Ireland. Still there is a growing discontentment amongst the Irish youths, who are voting with their feet and streaming out of the country in their hoards. Making Ireland feel like home is harder than ever.

Is ‘Dry January’ worth the hype?

Let me come clean from the get go before I flaunt my New Year’s abstinence – I did not make it through January without drinking alcohol. Not even close. Even before January began I knew I wouldn’t last the duration. I had planned a much-anticipated trip to London towards the end of the month, and withholding alcohol was not part of the plan. It was an absence of intention as opposed to a lapse of will, which perhaps in hindsight is a degree worse.

I relinquished my teetotaller vow an additional two times before the trip. My mother of all people was the first person who enticed me to break my pledge, a reversal of roles my younger self would never have dared to imagine. She had opened a bottle ofgood’ prosecco, which she had been saving for me to open on a special occasion. A multitude of celebratory events in my life worthy of ‘good’ prosecco had come and gone yet the bottle always remained unopened. Instead, the birthday of a family friend, which coincided with the only time in my life I had sworn off alcohol, was deemed the idea occasion. I initially demurred the offerings of a glass, resolving to stick to my pledge, but given my mother’s affrontation I played the role of dutiful daughter and acquiesced. Admittedly, it didn’t take much coaxing. I drank one glass and it tasted divine.

My second moment of weakness occurred a few days later. I was at a friend’s birthday in a swanky bar in town and glasses of champagne were being handed out for free. Amid proclamations of how good the champagne tasted, and one particular friend accenting her enjoyment with audible lip-smacking, I couldn’t stand the feeling that I was the only one missing out. Ameliorating my guilt with the flawed logic, ‘Its basically the same alcohol so it doesn’t really count’, I sipped my free glass of champagne and savoured every drop.

Alcohol is to be Enjoyed
Both lapses imparted wisdom that was as valuable as the month long prohibition itself: it is possible to really enjoy alcohol and in small quantities too. Along the trajectory of my career as a seasoned drinker, beginning with my teenage days drinking whichever brand of cider was most inexpensive, I had come to regard alcohol almost entirely as a stimulant, forgetting that it is a luxury product to be tasted, savoured and appreciated. If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal. Getting to the truth of the matter, a lot of the time when I drink, I binge drink.

If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal.

Like most people my alcohol consumption rotates around my social life so the bulk my drinking is done between Friday and Sunday. If I avoid alcoholic social events, it is entirely plausible that I could go stretches of weeks without drinking at all. However once I’m geared up for a night out, I’d lash the stuff back like its going out of fashion. I had known for a long time that my alcohol consumption and the surrounding patterns of behaviour were unhealthy, and it was this dissatisfaction that prompted me to join in on the ‘Dry January’ hype.

Dry January
There is one particular night in Dry January that sticks out in my mind, the night I played the role of ‘sober friend’. A group of friends and I had gone to a bar followed by a bar/club, the kind of place where you can have a dance and actually talk to people. While everyone was drunk and merry, I experimented with different kinds of fruit juice, starting with orange and boldly working myself up to pineapple. Not the least perturbed by my sobriety, I enjoyed my friend’s drunken antics and all in all had a great night. I talked to lots of different people, spent less money, and felt great the next day. It actually surpassed similar alcohol fuelled nights in the same venue.

Looking back, two things stuck with me:

  1. If I enjoyed someone’s company, the following day, I knew I actually liked them
  2. Being sober is far more stress free.

Number one is pretty self-explanatory but number two requires some elucidation. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not saying drinking alcohol is stressful per se, but the very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong. This can range from minor incidences, like losing your phone or purse, or potentially finding yourself in a compromising situation. Every time I drink beyond a cautious few drinks, in the back of my mind there is always the fear that something regrettable will happen, either due to my own stupidity or my inability to resists someone else’s. This of course is liable to happen with or without alcohol, but restricting one’s alcohol intake very much undermines the chances.

The very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong.

Reminding myself that I can have fun without alcohol, or that I can simply enjoy a few drinks, Dry January served its purpose. The hype was equally as valuable, providing the necessary impetus and a legitimate excuse not to drink (a decision which I doubt would have been met with as little resistance on an ordinary occasion).

So with such positive experiences of abstinence in January, how did I fare in February?
My first night out in February started with good intentions. I was actually going to count my drink intake, or so I told myself. This proved slightly harder because I was drinking a punch mixture made by a friend; vodka, peach schnapps and juice mixed in a steel pot, because we’re classy like that. Without even realising it, getting to the end of that pot became my challenge. It was after all free alcohol, and drinks in the club are expensive. As is always the case in Ireland, time and speed were of the essence and my drinking was driven by urgency rather than caution. I was drinking for the future as much as the present. Although I didn’t end up in too bad a state, on reflection, my motives for drinking were questionable. There is something about a club environment, current or impending, that incites me to drink beyond what is reasonable, a desire to shake off my sober state.

And if I go a little deeper, it’s more complicated again. In recent years I’ve realised that when it comes to alcohol and tolerance, my own bodily limits are somewhat of an enigma. I usually start out with a vague, unarticulated (even to myself) goal in mind; drink to loosen my inhibitions, while preserving my memory and not totally surrendering control. The sweet spot between sobriety and getting plastered. Sometimes I get it just right but veering towards drunkenness is far too easy; once I get to a certain level of inebriation a little voice inside my head starts egging me on – ‘go hard or go home.’ Mostly its fine, but I will wake up the next day wishing I had drunk less.

Sober Parent and the Drunken Child
My second night out in February, I took a different tac by starting out the night purposefully, measured my drink. Dare I say it, achieved that sweet spot. Despite its effectiveness I can’t say it’s a role I am pleased to undertake, playing both the sensible, sober parent, keeping alcohol out of arm’s reach of my later drunken, child-like self, but perhaps it is an unavoidable by-product of alcohol and one that I just have to accept.

Growing up, but especially leaving Ireland, has transformed my drinking habits. When you quickly realise that the behaviour normalised here is totally shocking abroad, it forces you to examine the Irish drinking culture with a critical gaze, while allowing the necessary distance to do so.

As generalisations go, the reputation that Irish people drink too much is fairly accurate. In the country responsible for the phenomenon ‘pint baby’, it is too easy to brush away drunken affairs with humour, forgetting to take any lessons on board. I have absolutely zero judgment for anyone that has a messy, drunken night, it would be the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black, but taking some wisdom from past mistakes wouldn’t go amiss either. The advice I am giving myself at least is, drink with awareness and intention, veer on the side of caution rather than recklessness. And don’t forget to savour the taste too!

An Ode to Female Friendship: Why I would rather be a woman in a man’s world

It wasn’t until I was older that I truly understood the force, the institution that is Female Friendship. Growing up as a child in the segregation of Irish schooling, I was only friends with other girls. We were forbidden from interacting with ‘the boys’ during school hours, and friendship in my eyes was a sacrament that only existed between members of the same sex. At lunchtime we would peek out the back window and those that hit puberty long before I did would point out they boys they had kissed at the weekend, or ‘scored’ as we used to call it back then. Before we even had time to know one another as friends, boys quickly came to hold the position of sexual objects: to be kissed, fawned over, or held at arms length. In my little world, friendship was female.

While I still believe growing up that way that it still did more damage than good, it created a space for The Female Friendship to grow in utter purity. Only in adulthood, which has allowed me to experience the contrast, has its gloriousness revealed itself to me. As females we congregate together, usually over tea or wine, and spend hours discussing our lives, cleansing ourselves until the brittle problems of life have been softened and shrunk and can be dealt with more easily. Over empty bottles of wine we pry open our chests, let our problems spill out and swap with one another, talking down the beast till it is soothed and returned to its owner.

This desire to take on our friends’ problems as our own is a powerful thing, an endeavour to understand each other as wholly and as deeply as one human can another. So many of a woman’s problems are shared we see our reflections in each other. When I read about the struggles of women, past or in the present, I cannot separate myself from them. I see myself in their pain because I know it could have just been me. And sometimes it has been me.

Our store of shared experiences allows us to feel our problems viscerally, to experience them, to re-experience them in a way that most men simply can’t because their position in society protects them. Try as you may, it is hard to understand what it is like to inherit the fully developed female form and all that it brings with it: being touched, grabbed and groped till it becomes normalised until one day, a horrific revelation, you realise you have been taught to get used to being an object for strangers. Or how to navigate and burgeoning friendship with someone of the opposite sex, when you suspect they might want more. A problem with a gender-neutral form but twisted in a world where the kindness of women can automatically be taken as an expression of romantic interest, creating a trap where you are either way you’re perceived as cold.

The problems of being female in a man’s world are so nuanced and convoluted and embedded in daily life, it would take centuries of diary entrances and female accounts for a man to fully grasp what it means. Even as women it is hard to understand because we have never known any different. They are so bound in our world experience that they have crawled beneath our skin we need to remind ourselves they don’t belong.

So even if a man allows himself to try, he won’t quite get there. Some men do try. They try to overcome their physical limitations and see the world as a woman does. A male friend of mine came close. He told me about a time he went to a gay club and felt the heavy male stares saturate him throughout the night. He felt the male indignation when a friendly interaction turned sour upon advances being rejected. He told me the experience helped him understand what women go through on a daily basis, how it shapes our experience, leaving us wary and cautious.

However length and breadth of The Female Friendship is not defined by our problems as women, or our rejection of misogyny. Each friendship has its own rich identity. Within the confines of many female friendships is the wall-less space where we can reveal ourselves as vulnerable, where we can give and receive gentleness. We do not have to hide between hard words or be brave and emotionless at all times. Being a man comes at a price, and even though I live in a man’s world I would still rather be a woman.

Re-Defining Success

With New Years having just passed under our nose, it is once again that time of year where we place ourselves under the microscope for rigorous self-inspection. A season of gluttonous self-indulgence brought to a close, the  leap from depravity to punishment fits in nicely with the spirit of the religious festivities. For every drink or pie too many there is a sin to atone for, and the tallying up of our annually- accumulated vices sweeps us into the new year on a fresh wave of disgust and loathing. This year however I found the idea of waiting till New Years to change my life positively comical. With self-improvement and wellness very much in vogue, tearing yourself to shreds only to build yourself back up again is an year round, if not daily, activity.

As a recent graduate seeking employment this has been especially true in my case. Prepping myself each day with a series of daily resolutions as I enter the intellectual pageantry of job-seeking, the bid to make myself ‘worthy’ has become an unrelenting endeavour. With each job-spec highlighting my shortcomings, waiting until January 1st to up-skill is a luxury I simply cannot afford.

Since it began, my job-seeking process has become all-consuming. As a young graduate whooshed out from my university cradle, it has been an unspoken, mutual understanding reached by society at large the becoming gainfully employed would be my de facto purpose in life. The discussion is not whether I should look for a job it is a forgone conclusion. The pressure feels immense at times. Days of unemployment stretch ahead of me like an indeterminate prison sentence, each job application like a parole meeting.

Society has come define work as virtue rather than a means to an end and being educated and unemployed is tantamount to a sin. Friends that have chosen to enjoy the time between jobs rather than fill the void say feel ashamed of the indulgence of “doing nothing”. Gaps on your CV timeline are the ultimate faux pas, prompting suspicion and demands for explanation.

In modern times we have become so fixated with work it has fused with our identity, leading us to vilify those that are unemployed. This was touched on in a piece in The Atlantic where the author hypothesises a world without work by taking a look back on a time, surprisingly not long ago, when work was interspersed with play and free time was not equated with idleness.

I have grown fed up with feeling unsuccessful because I do not have a job. Or more accurately, I have grown fed up with employment and career advancement being used as the sole benchmark of success. On some level acknowledge that friends, family, good health and happiness are the most important things in life, but it remains confined to an idealistic plane of existence, reserved for late-night discussions over glasses of wine rather than how we actually define or live our lives.

Unlike our parents’ generation, millennials regard their careers as an opportunity to realise their purpose in life. While that is certainly for the better, their ability to be mutual exclusive from one another is too easily forgotten. Success is broadly defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose”, but in our modern-career driven lives we have demoted it job success. The gendered phrase, “the successful businessman” has been drilled into me since I was a child, but does one ever hear of a stay-at-home mum being described as successful? Even a Google search of ‘successful mother’ brings up webpages overwhelmingly referring to ‘career mothers’, as though raising children is no achievement in itself. Would we ever describe a father as ‘successful’ if he gave up a career to mind is children?

Looking for a job is exhausting and demoralising. With the final decision out of your hands, it is easy to feel powerless and consumed by the search. No matter how much graft you put in, unless you lockdown an employment contract the finishing line continues to taunt you from the same distance. Perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that those with jobs are also perpetually miserable while at work, but even more so on their downtime. A famous study of Chicago workers in 1989 led psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre to describe this as ‘the paradox of work’: their results showed that workers wished they were somewhere else when working, but still reported feeling better and less anxious at work than anywhere else.

If I am potentially going to be miserable either way, it seems that using employment status as the watermark is a rather skewed way of defining success. Beginning this 2017 I intend to rectify that by applying my own definition success. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job? No. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job that I deem to have purpose? No again. But it does mean I will stop myself from using a formula of success that favours work over happiness.

I will define my own purpose and I will define my own success.