When I shared this list of the things that helped 2020, an undisputably hard year for one and all, it was a really excellent exercise in making me realise that despite the year being one of my hardest to date, it hadn't been all bad and that in the process, I had learned an incredible amount about myself, and the world around me, while also growing as a human being.
I suspect that that is part and parcel of navigating difficult periods of time - and this is a lesson in and of itself - but as I now reflect on what 2021 has been like and write a similar list of what helped me get through the last twelve months I have to admit that it wasn't personally as bad.
Indeed, in many ways 2021 was a really good year for me. That said, it was still undeniably challenging not least because of the on-going impact of the pandemic that continues to impact my professional life (as a travel blogger and content creator) and also my family life (I've only seen my parents for 2.5 days in two years).
So I still deem this list worth writing for myself because it gives me a moment to pause and appreciate what I learned and loved in the last twelve months, but I also hope that it offers some ideas or inspiration for things you can consider should
The Things That Made Me Feel Better in 2021
Writing (Fiction) (aka Following my Dreams)
This year something clicked with me regarding my writing fiction and it is absolutely the single best thing to come out of 2021, hence why this is top of my list.
I have always given myself permission to write but I have also given myself plenty of excuses not to do so. 2020 was a year full of excuses, and honestly, I understand each one. There was the pandemic, there were long lockdowns (and little or no childcare), there were months of spending any spare time trying to save my fledgling travel blog career and freelance writing business.
But in 2021 I ran out of excuses, or rather, I gave myself permission to stop coming up with them. And it was the best thing to have ever happened to me.
For the best part of ten years, possibly longer, if you asked me what is my dream job, I would have said writing fiction, and yet I put that dream on the back burner. A huge reason why I did so is because of financial security and (hand in hand with that) my having children. But earlier this year, I stopped spending time trying to save my travel blog and writing income and instead I spent that time working on my next book, The Weaker Sex.
By the time summer was here, I was starting to get new ideas for new books and I indulged each and every one. I wrote notes. I doodled ideas. I started mapping out chapters and scenes, and I even started to write first drafts for not one, not two, but by the end of the year, five new stories. I fell in love with my characters, felt full of joy with the way my plots played out, and I treasured every single second I spent writing. I am finishing this year with one book to be published imminently, and with 3.5 first drafts ready for editing and re-writes. I just did a quick bit of maths and I estimate I have written over 400,000 new words this year, not including the countless hours I spent editing The Weaker Sex.
Writing fiction this year has been the escape from the real world I needed, but somewhat conversely it has also been the deep dive I needed into finding myself again after a year, maybe more, of feeling a little lost about what I want to do with my time and energy these days.
It has been glorious and it has been confirmation I am finally doing what I have always wanted to do. But it's also very bittersweet that it took me this long to really commit to my dream. And of course, I'm nowhere near making it financially viable, something I have given myself a year to figure out and try and achieve. If this year has been the laying of foundations, next year I start to build and I am so very excited and terrified...
If this doesn't relate to you - and I'm sure it doesn't because not everyone has imaginary friends talking to them in their heads - I hope you can simply substitute the words "writing fiction" with "doing something I've always wanted to do and really committing and doing it". Follow your dreams, my darlings. We only have one life, we need to spend as much of it as we can doing things we love.
Oh and if you're curious what I've been writing... you'll need to wait and read one more item on this list (Clue: It's the last one!)!
The key difference between my pandemic experience last year and this year was undoubtedly the presence of vaccinations. While the Dutch were slow to roll out their vaccination program compared to other countries, I was as quick as I could possibly be to get my "prik" and now I'm a week or so away from getting my booster.
It's also true that vaccinations have become yet another fiercely and upsettingly divisive topic but I hold firm to the fact that they now exist and that this is still a good thing that is saving lives all over the world.
I am pretty sure I was annoyed including this one on last year's list, and I here I am annoyed I'm including it again on this year's list. But honestly, I can't not. Like writing fiction, meditation has been a real constant this year, and it's also been an undeniable tonic. The annoyance and reluctance to include meditation or even acknowledge it as a positive thing in my life is sign that I need to meditate more, by the way! So yes, this is definitely a habit I will be taking with me into next year and almost certainly, beyond that too.
I began the year meditating over 150 days in a row, and while I haven't maintained that daily streak, I have meditated over 3000 minutes this year which I'm incredibly proud of. I nearly always meditate last thing at night to switch some of the tabs off that are still beaming bright in my head, but I also have been known to do it when walking, cycling, before starting work, when I need a mid-afternoon pick-up or just whenever I feel overwhelmed with stress or another negative feeling.
Meditation has helped me deal with overwhelm, manage my anxiety and depression and it has definitely helped me parent differently, and show up for my partner, my friends and myself in a more meaningful way. That said, like positive affirmation, meditation is still something I more often than not turn to very quickly (albeit not always quickly enough!) as a reaction and my goal for 2022 is to make my meditation practice more pro-active.
But of course, I will be meditating with a view to not judging any of it as such too!
If you would like some tips for getting started with meditation, I strongly recommend downloading the Headspace app and treating yourself to an account. The guidance is positive, helpful and reassuring and there is so much to learn from the courses and videos available. There are even workouts, playlists and sleepcasts to enjoy too.
Music (& Dancing)
There are two things that 2020 was missing that 2021 got right. One is reading (which you'll find out more about below) and the other is music. This sort of clicked towards the end of last year when a winter lockdown was back in play and I realised I was going to be spending a lot more time at home and with my children again. I had long ago put away my dancing shoes for nightclubs, but at some point in the last few years I realised that I really do miss dancing.
So I started doing it more and got my children to do it with me. We even bought a disco light and had stop-dance parties whenever they had friends over. Now, when it's time to do the big clean up at the end of the day, I put on one of my favourite playlists and I dance my way through the sweeping and dishwasher stacking. I'm a big believer in moving our bodies to get rid of stress, and I love doing it to some great songs.
This also featured on last year's list and with good reason.
Exercise is fundamental to my mental health and while I ran and walked my way through 2020, and also picked up open water swimming, this year I began to do things a bit differently. I started switching up my workouts to include rowing, yoga and weights, I swam for longer once the weather allowed, and I was delighted when I could go back to working out in exercise classes in the summer. My body really appreciates the non-running exercise I do and I especially feel good after using weights, which is something I never really expected.
Considering I started the year with a disc bulge in my lower back that immobilised me for three days, I am ending the year feeling fitter and more confident in my skin than I have in a long, long time and I am very proud and grateful for this.
Eating Less Sugar & Dairy
This sort of goes hand in hand with the exercise in terms of the benefits on my physical and mental health, but actually this was more of a conscious decision and one I committed to practically overnight back in the summer of 2021.
Waiting on a pizza take-away order, my partner and I were sitting outside in the garden enjoying a glass of wine while our kids played (or mostly fought!) on the grass. As we talked about the summer and what plans we had and my partner mentioned how he wanted to eat healthier and exercise more now the weather was warmer. I have always exercises regularly but I knew at that time my diet had been stuck in a not particularly healthy loop for over a year so his wishes triggered something in me.
After discussing it a little more than night and then later that week agreeing to hire a nutritionist to help us improve our diets, we began tracking our meals and making changes. One change I knew I'd have to address was eating less sugar, and one suggestion the nutritionist made to us both was reducing our dairy and animal-based protein intake. We generally don't eat a lot of meat (maybe once or twice a week) but we were both eating cheese daily. I was also turning to sugary snacks to get me out of energy slumps and both of us were probably eating to much bread and the least helpful kinds of carbohydrates.
It took a few months but I noticed a difference in my mood, energy and body once I had dropped bread and cheese from my lunches, and once I was snacking on nuts and fruit rather than crackers and jam. I also switched out cow's milk from everything but my morning cups of tea, and made all our grains and breads wholemeal. I also tried taking some different supplements and adding walnut and linseed oil to my salads or breakfast bowls. These small changes helped improve my cycle, my energy levels and occasionally my sleep. It also feels like a change that has stuck because we didn't make drastic changes and we are very aware of the benefits.
Letting Things Go
I let so much go in 2021 and wow, it felt good! I suspect it's because I ran out of f&8ks to give but maybe there is more to it...
I stopped writing new blog content. I deleted social media apps from my phone for weeks at a time. I said no to offers of work that I knew could help rejuvenate my blog and freelance travel writing business but ultimately they didn't excite me. I stopped worrying what people thought of me if I hadn't hoovered the floor immediately before their arrival. I got much better at identifying negative thoughts (about myself, or anything) and I let them go. I didn't sweat it when I didn't reply to emails or messages the same day.
When my fiction writing really caught momentum, I let parts of my house get so messy and cluttered I lost my children in them. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration but the fact remains that I let go of more expectations on myself this year than I have, ever. And it was blissful. Truly. Yes, it was messy. Yes, eventually the clutter stressed me out (it's been my main job this week trying to find my children again). But what I gained from letting go of a few things was a real focus and joy for my writing, which in itself felt revolutionary this year.
(Reducing the Number of) Houseplants
This resulted in me giving or throwing away almost half of my houseplant collection, something that was also necessitated thanks to the great thrips outbreak of September 2020 rolling over into 2021. And similar to the point above, it was so liberating to "let go" of things that were weighing me down or stressing me out.
I also felt less emotionally attached to my plants which I think needed to happen as it would sometimes ruin my day (or week/month!) if one of my favourite plants showed signs of poor health, while now I feel much more philosophical about the circle of life with plants. I also spent a fraction of the money on plants I did in 2020 which my bank balance is happy about, and I feel much more comfortable just having plants I know are reliable and sturdy (and more pest-prone!) rather than chasing trends or spending too much money on special plants that have trickier needs! If 2020 was the year I fell in love with plants, 2021 was the year I made that love really work for me.
Prioritising Myself (Yes, Even Over My Kids!)
A controversial one to include for many reasons, but that fact alone makes me want to add it in with confidence. Yes, it has a lot to do with more childcare this year and also my kids ages (my eldest is six and my youngest just turned three), but I feel like this year was a year for me prioritising me, and for my needs sometimes taking precedence over their needs.
Depending on where you fall in the spectrum of parenting, the concept of prioritising yourself over your children will come as a shock, a concern, or a ridiculously obvious statement. There's that oft quoted idea of putting on your own oxygen mask first when a plane is crashing down - and I do believe in the message that portrays - but let's be honest, by the time the oxygen mask sign is on in an aircraft, it's probably too late for both you and your child or children. (Sorry to sober us all up.) Rather, I feel like keeping my own cup topped up at all times - even when, or maybe especially when - the sh*t isn't hitting the fan has been the key to avoiding some really hard mental health days or weeks this year. And sometimes to do so, I need to put my needs first and respond to them (as long as I can do so in a way that obviously doesn't hurt or harm my kids or anyone else!).
That's not to say I've avoided every single bad day, but I do have some confidence I've dodged some of them, and for me, that's a big win!
It will surprise nobody that positive affirmation is another way I made myself feel better at times during 2021. Not only was I writing monthly batches of daily positive affirmations for a year of affirmation
for this blog (and for over on my Instagram
and Ko-Fi page
) but I was actively trying to practice it for myself whenever I recognised negative thoughts spiraling out of control. I also started to do a lot more positive affirmation with my eldest son who has a habit of talking negatively about hiself when he's tired, frustrated or angry.
Finishing My Sixth Book (and FIRST Novel!)
Just in the same way that my first poetry collection Lover Mother Other surprised me in 2020, this year I was more shocked than anyone when I finished my first novel
... ever. And I don't just mean the first draft is finished, I mean the whole thing is finished, and it's going to be published in January.
Yes, working on The Weaker Sex was A LOT of work, but it was work I loved and wanted to do. Even though I've been working on this story for over four years - and at times I never wanted to look at a single word in it ever again - I have learnt so much about writing fiction through getting that book ready for publication and while I hope all future novel writing experiences will be different (and A LOT quicker!) I will be forever grateful for everything I've learned getting this book out into the world.
I have a draft blog post all about selling things on Vinted because it has definitely been one of the more unexpected and fun success stories of my 2021.
It's essentially an app you use to sell unwanted items (mostly clothes, toys, small homeware items and accesssories) and it has been a great way for me to clear out things we don't need and supplement my income. I hope to get that blog post published soon with some tips on how to get started if you're curious!
I can't do any of the writing, the work on this blog, and sometimes even the exercise, the meditating or the prioritising myself without childcare. Last year we relied heavily on babyseitters during lockdown (when it was permitted).
This year, it was thankfully back to school and daycares for all but three months of the year. I will never ever take childcare for granted for my own well-being and that of everyone in my family.
A Short but Sweet Family Reunion
My family in the UK and I have very much been cautious about seeing each other over the last few years and even though it's meant we haven't seen each other much, I have no regrets. It has kept us all safe and healthy.
But in the summer of 2021 we drove to France to meet with my parents and my brother and his family and while it was a very short reunion - just two days - it was indeed very sweet. We stayed in a fantastic holiday house and did very little but hang out together, eat good French food, drink nice French beer and wine and splash about with the kids in the jacuzzi. All being well, we really do hope to repeat this sort of arrangement again this year.
Staycations in Amsterdam
This year was very much the year of staycations in the Netherlands for us and my partner and I were able to enjoy a few nights in Amsterdam hotels too.
With our boys a bit older and with an excellent babysitter they love, this year we had more nights away than we usually do. In fact, we had four little Amsterdam staycations in The Pulitzer Hotel
for my birthday (fantastic!), a really memorable night at Unbound Amsterdam
(so stylish and unique!), a spontaneous getaway at the Van der Valk Hotel
(lovely!) and more recently a cosy stay in Pavilions The Toren
Staycations in the Netherlands
We did a number of staycation trips to holiday parks in the Netherlands this year, and strangely only stayed in one new place. This is because we returned to two vakantieparks we loved staying at last year - Dormio in Maastricht
and Dutchen Gooilanden
in Loosdrecht - which I am now a big fan of. There's something quite nice about knowing exactly what you're getting at the other end of a journey.
The other vakantiepark that was new to us was Hof van Saksen
, which is a great place for young families, but we didn't love our accommodation and the Covid-restrictions did make swimming and activities a little complicated. I hope to write a more detailed review soon.
One Blissful Holiday in Greece
If you've read this blog for longer than a few years, you'll know we love our luxury family holidays in the sun, and our week in Crete in October 2021 was our first in over two years. We actually had the same holiday booked for October 2020 but it was cancelled. So yes, this holiday was much anticipated and wanted, and it didn't disappoint.
Open Water Swimming
Something else that was new to me in 2020 that became a regular fixture in 2021 was open water swimming. I managed to keep going as the seasons changed and by the time summer was upon us, I was swimming in the river near my house three or four times a week.
While I very much prefer to swim in the water during warmer months, I have to say that there really is something truly invigorating about swimming in freezing cold water - even if just for a few minutes - and then having a long hot shower after. I have also noticed a huge difference in my breathing when I first get in cold water, and likewise my panic is a lot less severe. All in all, I think open water swimming is going to be something I keep doing in 2022.
As we reach the end of this list, I have to say that the last two things on this list are the things that helped me the most during hardest moments of 2021. Simply put, I don't know where I'd be without the kind words, enthusiastic encouragement, and unwavering love and support of my friends.
And romance novels? Hmm. I bet you weren't expecting that! Well, neither was I!
It will be no surprise that I'm an avid reader, but I have always actively avoided romance novels as I have long had a certain opinion of them. That opinion is that they're sexist, poorly written, and all follow the same sort of script.
In recent years, many people have tried to convince me that this opinion is very, very wrong, but I haven't always been open to exploring it any further and testing who is indeed correct. That was until 2020 was my worst year in decades for reading books. I was in such a deep reading slump and I just wanted to read something, anything, and get the joy and distraction and escape of reading back in my life.
I'm not sure exactly what prompted me to do it but around Easter time I downloaded a Talia Hibbert book and started reading. And I couldn't stop. Talia Hibbert is a British author of diverse contemporary romance and I was hooked. Her novels are well-written, brilliantly funny and deliciously steamy. From there I discovered many other romance authors and many different romance genres.
Exploring this vast, rich and enlightening world of books has not only made me fall back in love with reading, it's also been crucial in demolishing a lot of the conditions I was putting on my own writing. As a result, I'm now writing my first romance novel and I have nearly finished drafting a four book series of romance novels.
If you're curious, I will one day write a bit more about this shift and about my new enjoyment and enthusiasm for the romance genre, but for now let me just say, if you love reading but have found yourself in a bit of a funk with books, try romance. Have a little search of the type of books out there (it's not all corsets or topless torsos, let me tell you!). There really is something for everyone (my personal favourites are dark/suspense romance and steamy romantic comedy).
And let's make that my happy ending! If you'd like to share some of the things that helped you in 2021, please do in the comments. Now I'm off to read a romance novel, or write one!