9 Unexpected Lessons of 2020

2020 began like any other. This time last year we were all making big plans and resolutions. Creating our bucket list, planning trips abroad and looking forward to the summer. 2020 brought the dawn not only of a new year, but of a shiny new decade. It carried with it a new sense of hope and celebration. 2020 was the year big things were going to happen. As the ball dropped we tipped our glass to a bigger and brighter future.

Epic trips and big adventures, the turning over of a new leaf. The promise of getting in shape, home cooking and sustainable living. New relationships, new careers, and leaving the jobs we hated. Creating better work life balance, more reading, more exercise, and a little more organisation. Early nights and a little less drinking. With dry January’s, vegan Mondays and feel good Fridays, all on our lists.

But as spring rolled around we knew 2020 would have plans all of its own. 2020 would be a year like no other, but not in the way we had imagined.

The end of the year, and the beginning of a new, is always a time for reflection. In a year where everything has been turned upside down, 2020 has taught us so much.

It’s taught us about ourselves, our families and communities, our passions, values and beliefs. It’s changed our perspectives. It’s taught us about resilience, strength and humanity. It’s taught us about staying connected whilst staying apart.

2020 has made clear what really matters, and how in the face of adversity we can all pull together for the greater good.

Whilst there has no doubt been darkness, there have also been glimmers of light. We are all aware of the struggles, the challenges and the hardships 2020 has delivered, so I don’t want to dwell on those. Instead I want to celebrate the highs, cherish the achievements, and highlight the lessons and unexpected flashes of joy the last year has brought.

1. Life is short

I would say probably the most obvious lesson from the year. 2020 has reaffirmed for most people that life is short, and things can change in an instant.

We’ve learnt to not take the simple things for granted — an impromptu catch up with the girls, a quick drink after work, a hug from a friend or everyone round the table for family events. Many of these things we’ve simply not been able to do this year, and we’ve missed them more than we realised.

A stranger once told me, ‘life is now’. I remember it to this day because something about these 3 little words resonated deeply with me. It made me reconsider many aspects of my own life at that time.

It’s so easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that happiness lies on the other side of an achievement — a pay rise, a house move, or job promotion for example. We get caught up in the hustle of always trying to get somewhere or work towards something else, and we run the danger of missing what’s happening right in front of us. We forget that we can be happy in the ‘now’, even if our situation isn’t ideal.

Life is happening right now. Life isn’t always something we are working towards, or planning for. Life is made up of everyday moments.

“Don’t overlook life’s small joys while searching for the big ones

H. Jackson Brown, Jr

2. Your kindness is priceless

2020 has affected us all in a number of different ways — emotionally, physically, financially. How well do we really know the people we work with, our neighbours or sometimes even the people we are closest to? Do we ever really stop to ask? We never really know what is going on for people ‘behind closed doors’. Be gentle with the people around you, because you never know what they might be going through, or are dealing with.

Research suggests that the feelings we experience when being kind produce endorphins associated with feelings of pleasure, social connection and trust. Meaning that kindness isn’t just nice for the person we are being kind to, but that it has proven benefits for ourselves also. Random acts of kindness increase serotonin, improve our mood, and act as a natural antidepressant.

Everyone’s mental health has suffered this year, so anything we can do to raise our spirits is a must. So let’s all just spread a little extra kindness.

“No act of kindness however small is ever wasted”

Aesop

3. Judge a little less

I think we could not only use a little more kindness, but also a little less judgement. We never know what people are going through, and similarly, we never know why sometimes people respond in the ways that they do.

If someone responds unfavourably towards us, or in a hurtful or spiteful manner, it’s easy for us to take offence. As humans, we’re hardwired to protect ourselves. Often, our first reaction is to put our guard up and act defensively. It’s a natural reaction to respond in this way. However when we do, it’s difficult for us to see the reasons behind another’s behaviour.

It’s easy to judge, and not so easy to listen. Have a little more patience. We can all take a moment before we react and put ourselves in that other person’s shoes.

“Never judge someone’s choices because you don’t know what it’s like to live their story”

Anna Grace Taylor

4. Smile behind your mask

In 2020 we all realised we can recognise a smile even when our mouth is covered. When times are hard, a smile can light up the room and provide comfort, reassurance and trust. At the moment we need this more than ever.

Working as a midwife throughout the pandemic has been challenging and arduous to say the least. When we first started wearing masks back in March, we worried for the women that we were taking care of. We worried that our masked faces would feel intimidating and unfriendly, at a time when fear and anxiety were already escalating.

We worried that we wouldn’t be able to communicate in the same way, and that our masks would become a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Interestingly, now as we approach 10 months of mask wearing at work, there are many women in my caseload who have only known my face in a mask. I’ve noticed more than ever, people commenting that despite our masks, how reassuring it is to ‘see’ a smiling face to welcome them at the hospital or in their appointments, or in labour.

Body language experts agree that an unseen smile is still valid. It’s important to keep smiling behind our masks, as our faces provide a lot of information during social interactions. Our facial expressions tell us how a person is feeling, what mood they are in, or whether they are approachable or trustworthy.

We can read people’s expressions and emotions by looking at their eyes, eyebrows or cheekbones. For example, we can detect a genuine smile in the ‘crows feet’ or laughter lines around our eyes. Our eyes are the window to our soul.

Today, I make the effort to smile even more than usual, and really try to focus on listening when I’m with women (despite the introduction of our digital notes demanding our attention). I make every effort to maintain good eye contact when someone’s talking to me to make them feel heard. I recognise that everyone is a little more anxious or ‘on edge’ than they might normally be, and that a reassuring smile can make all the difference to a scared patient.

“Use your smile to change the world; don’t let the world change your smile”

Unknown

5. Put yourself out there

As the world began to lock down, I decided to make the most of my time indoors. Ordinarily, I like to be out and about exploring new places on my days off, so I knew lots of time inside was not going to sit well with me.

I like to keep myself busy, and I like a challenge. I’ve tried to keep my mindset positive by keeping my mind active. I decided 2020 would be the year I got my head down and learnt some new skills.

Whilst I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to this year, I am very proud of the achievements I have made. This year I have attained a Level 3 qualification in Teaching and Education that I hope will help me expand my role as a Midwife, and open up new opportunities for me in the future.

This new knowledge has been invaluable in my role as a childbirth educator and trainer, in helping me better serve women, birth partners, and birth professionals who join our classes. I hope to take this learning forward into the new year with more classes as Covid restrictions begin to lift.

This year I’m also extremely proud to have achieved a free-lance writer’s position at BellyBelly, one of the world’s largest baby and parenting resource websites.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but never really considered myself any good at it. I’d convinced myself that I would never be able to do it ‘for real’ or ‘professionally’, but saw it more as a hobby. However as time went on and more people began to read my ramblings, I felt encouraged and began believing in myself a little bit more. Until one day I saw the job posting for BellyBelly which ticked all of my boxes, and I just decided to go for it. I put my application in, and tried not to get my hopes up too much. I saw it as an opportunity to build my confidence, practice selling my skills and putting myself ‘out there’ — something I’m never particularly comfortable doing. After a couple of interviews, I was absolutely elated to be offered the job, and so glad I’d put on my big girl pants, and put my self-doubt aside.

This year also saw me join the home birth team within our trust — a dream job for me within the NHS. Homebirth, as many people know, is a long standing passion of mine. I thoroughly believe in birthing at home, and love being able to share that passion with the women and families we support. In doing so, I’ve joined a fabulous bunch of like-minded, supportive and inspiring midwives who are part of my new work family.

2020 has taught me to be a little bit braver, and to believe in myself more. If we can’t believe in ourselves, then who will? It’s taught me that we can achieve things when we put our minds to it.

It is always easier to make excuses and find reasons for not doing things. But life is short, and if we really want something, we can make it happen. We just need to take the first step.

“You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine”

Roy T Bennett

6. Be a role model

I am no stranger to the effects Covid-19 has played on our mental health over this last year. I’ve experienced the highs and lows as much as the next person. Working within health care this year has sapped nearly every ounce of energy from my body. I began to recognise how easy it is for my mood to rub off on others around me, particularly my son. With even more time spent together indoors than normal, it’s become ever more important to model the type of behaviour I want my son to learn from.

I want him to be proud of the things he believes in. I want him to feel confident in his abilities and the things he is capable of achieving. I want to teach him that growing isn’t just restricted to being a kid. Life is an ever evolving process of growing and learning, and that often that means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Learning will always be limited if you stand still.

“Your children will become who you are; so be who you want them to be”

Unknown

7. Work hard for the things that you want

Another lesson I want to teach my son, is that no-one else will do it for you. You have to work hard for the things that you want. Sometimes that means throwing yourself ‘all in’ at the start, in order to achieve what you want in the end. That might mean, starting early and finishing late. Working when others are playing. Sacrificing opportunities or adventures in the interim.

I want him to learn that nothing worth having comes easy, but that in the end, creating a life that satisfies you, is always worth the effort.

“Some people dream of success while others wake up and work hard at it”

Napoleon Hill

8. Black lives matter

The events that occurred earlier on in the year that fuelled the Black Lives Matter movements touched me deeply. More so than ever before.

2020 highlighted in so many ways the extent of racial disparities and inexcusable systemic racism that still exists so profoundly today. Not just in far away places, but right here on our doorstep too.

This is not a ‘black problem’. This is everyone’s problem, and one in which we all play a part.

We all consider ourselves ‘not racist’, and that racists are ‘bad’, and therefore I am ‘good’. However we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves, and realise that it is not as simple as that. We have grown up in a world which is inherently racist, and so without realising or acknowledging it, we all play a part, however subtle.

2020 made me take a look at my own bi-racial heritage and my own inherent beliefs and the part that I, and others around me play.

2020 became the year we found our voices. We all need to take responsibility for our own actions. We can all advocate, learn, teach and listen to create equal opportunities for everyone. Don’t stay silent. Read. Educate yourselves on the lived experience of black people. Listen to the news. Ask questions and get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Our children learn from our actions.

“Each of us as citizens, has a role to play in creating a better world for our children”

Nelson Mandela

9. Family Matters

2020 has magnified the notion that family matters more than anything. Families are made up of people who stick around and choose to love you unconditionally and selflessly — whether biological or metaphorical.

We know life is short, and who knows when our time will be up. In 2021 lets value those we love above everything else. Lets hug our children a little closer. Let’s tuck them up at night and give them that extra squeeze. Tell them we love them and not shy away from our feelings. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves, letting those we love, know we care. Let it be known we are there regardless, because nothing else matters more than family.

“Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family”

Anthony Brandt

I came across the following quote by Leslie Dwight, which I think rounds up 2020 perfectly.

“What if 2020 isn’t cancelled? What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for? A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw-that it finally forces us to grow. A year that screams so loud, finally awakening us from our ignorant slumber. A year we finally accept the need for change. Declare the change. Work for change. Become the change. A year we finally band together, instead of pushing each other further apart. 2020 isn’t cancelled, but rather the most important year of them all”.

Leslie Dwight

As the sun sets on 2020 and we reflect on the year that has been, let’s look forward with optimism and hope for a brighter 2021.

Happy New Year.

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