Published on Tuesday, 9 Jan, 2024
2023 into 2024
My annual, lengthy, round-up tradition continues into another year. 2023 brought a return to Japan, a return to work, a lot of fatigue and health challenges to navigate, but also a lot of lovely memories.
This post is part of a yearly series dating back to 2011(!), of which the previous post can be found here.
Before I dive in, I haven’t been on social media nearly as much this year, which has been both intentional but also unexpected in how fast I’ve dropped away. I said goodbye to Twitter and stuck to it (Mastodon is my sporadic home of choice now, plus instagram), but have found that switch, plus being on my phone less generally, and my policy around not posting too much about the kid changed my relationship with sharing. I’ve definitely felt a lot more disconnected from some online friends and acquaintances though, so if you’re reading this and we haven’t interacted in a while then I’d love to hear from you!
When I look back on 2023, it was both really tough in new ways, but was also full of really meaningful memories and great experiences and had more ups than downs. It’s definitely felt like a bit of a watershed year, both in terms of navigating what working life is like with a child, and also finally getting back to some of the pre-covid things I love (primarily travel!).
The overarching challenge of the year was health and fatigue. Unfortunately given the lack of proper rest in my new life my ME/CFS has flared at points, and I’ve found myself having to be really careful about managing energy. Physical, mental, and emotional exertion leave me depleted and sometimes feeling really ill, and so I’ve had to reduce some aspects of life to be able to keep my head above water for family and work.
On top of that, as I included in my 2022 update we unfortunately started the year with covid, and the household has subsequently had a cough the entire year. Coupled with seemingly endless nursery germs (it truly is more brutal than I ever knew), and a realisation that work annual leave is going to be skewed towards childcare during nursery holidays rather than for relaxation… it’s been a bit of a journey mentally! I’ve definitely had to revise my feelings around my own levels of disability as I’ve come to realise (and partially accept) just how much I do have to work within my limits at the moment, and that doing normal daily activities isn’t a given without degrees of management and building in a lot of rest. That’s meant that I’ve had to compromise quite a bit. Hobbies, garden upkeep, and crucially exercise have all slipped or disappeared this year, but I’m trying to not beat myself up about that. I do want it to change though, and am going to be experimenting a bit more this year to see how I can find a better balance. Somehow!
Outside of that, there were lots of highlights, in lots of different ways. My year felt like it was divided into two halves – with returning to work as the major divider.
The start of the year was much the same as my update from last year. I was the primary carer for my kid before they were able to start nursery, and days revolved around that. There was a lot of days of wrangling the (increasingly mobile) child at home, interspersed with numerous zoo visits, play parks, farm trails, swimming lessons, soft play, garden centres, and walks. We made the most of some covid immunity for trips to London for the aquarium and Frameless, played on the beach at Mersea Island, and saw baby capybaras at Jimmy’s Farm.
It was great, and I’m so glad that I was able to spend the time making some wonderful memories and getting to see the world though my kid’s eyes. However it also confirmed for me that I definitely did want to go back to work. I wrote a bit about this at the end of last year, but I was missing using my brain, working on problems outside of my household, and generally getting to use the skills and experience that I’d invested so much in to date. I could feel myself getting lower mentally and actually burning out a bit because of the relentlessness and pressure of dependence. I have a huge amount of respect for people who are full-time childcarers – it is a tough role! – but I’d felt like I was starting to lose a bit of myself.
A solo return to Japan towards the end of April
Shortly after the kid started at nursery, I did what in hindsight was probably the most important thing for myself across the whole year. As I wrote at the time:
“One of the things I’ve found hardest about the pandemic/pregnancy/baby life is almost never being alone. Now that the squirt is in nursery a lot of the time, it felt easier to go and do something for myself, and reclaim a bit of headspace. When getting into this my husband and I talked a lot about the importance of me keeping my sense of being a person outside of a motherhood identity, and not letting that consume all of the things that were important to me before. I’m very grateful to have the support to do so.So I’m in Japan for a little while, on my own, travelling around to some places I’ve never been and which will be a bit harder to do with a small creature. It’s already very weird to be away, and I’m going to miss everyone loads, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be to do so 💙. I can’t believe it’s been over 3 years since last time!”
I knew it was something I needed for myself, but the lasting impact that trip left on me was so meaningful, and I’m SO glad I did it.
Arriving back in Tokyo was wonderful, and especially given that the level of sleep-messed-up-ness that my body was generally dealing with meant that I had absolutely zero jet lag for the first time ever. New superpower!
I was slightly nervous as all the flight price/timing variables meant I’d be committing the sin of visiting Japan during Golden Week (a series of national holidays, complete with high prices and travel chaos), but actually it was completely fine, and meant that I also got to catch things like こどもの日 (Children’s Day) and some lovely sights and festivities. I was also able to easily book in for a meal I’d had on my list for ages – the stunning TeamLab x Moonflower Sagaya Ginza.
The timing of the trip was primarily dictated by opportunism with the gap between nursery and when I’d asked to start my new role, but on starting planning I realised it gave me some great seasonal benefits. One of the things I love most about Japan are the distinct changes across the year, and this time I was able to coincide the visit with a trip out to see shibazakura (moss phlox) fields, as well as Ashikaga Flower Park with its famous and ancient wisteria. The big perk was that I’d decided I wanted to go up north to Hokkaido to visit some areas I hadn’t yet been to, and because they’re considerably behind Tokyo it meant that I got to experience sakura season well after it had left the rest of the country. I was obsessively checking trackers, and very luckily managed to coincide with full bloom in a couple of locations.
Hokkaido brought a whole host of extremely excellent regional dishes, including butter corn miso ramen and soup curry in Sapporo, and a load of delicious seafood. I took the trains around a big loop, and spent time in Noboribetsu Onsen and the volcanic craters of Jigokudani, plus moved on to the utterly beautiful Tōya-ko, where I did some unexpectedly completely captivating walks around the UNESCO Global Geopark. The area has been preserved after natural disasters for educational purposes, and it was incredibly powerful to be able to go right up to the damage and experience the scale of destruction. In their words:
The walking trail takes you to the sites damaged by the 2000 eruption. You can find the craters and active faults that appeared when the volcano erupted near the former National Highway 230. There are the craters in the middle of the road; a pond that used to be a part of a river, blocked with the uplifted ground; a step-shaped road surface due to fault displacements; and heavy equipment left behind during evacuation. Such remnants should inspire your appreciation of what a serious impact the eruption had on the community… The remains of the public bathhouse and public housing that were filled with volcanic mud flow are preserved as is within the soil control facility. If you go a little further, you can go to the edge of the volcanic crater.
I also got completely into onsen culture on this trip – something that despite all my many visits I’d never done outside of private ones in hotels – and I’m a big convert.
Another day out was to Otaru, a small port city known for glassworks… and totally unknown to me before I got there… OTTER MANHOLE COVERS. This led me to a conversation with the local tourist information person who showed me a new-to-me manhole cover website, and led me to discover that there were COLLECTIBLE CARDS. Because of this I later took a big detour to Tomakomai - probably the dullest place I’ve been in Japan – to visit their City Hall’s municipal waste department and pick up a card and some manhole merch. Which… all jokes aside, was memorable for being a marker of just how much my confidence has grown in Japanese over the years to inject myself into that kind of scenario. There were actually plenty of collectibles on the trip, with special Pokemon manholes, and all-new train stamps to go back and start collecting too. Sadly the hotel carpets were mostly pretty normal.
The end of the trip led me back to Tokyo for a bit more time, where I stocked up on lots of essentials, and also enjoyed exploring again new-to-me experiences like kid megastores, where I picked up exciting baby food and cool clothes to bring home amongst all my other wandering around. I ended the trip much calmer, more relaxed, rested, and in a happier place than I’d been in a long time, but also was very ready to get home to my family.
Other notable moments
We spent the weekend in London for my birthday, which was the first time we’d been in an actual hotel with a baby. I’d now really appreciate if all people working on travel websites could include a checkbox for “includes some kind of darkened nook or corner to stash a cot in so we don’t have to sit in silence from 7pm”. Aside from creeping around a lot, we went to the science museum, I bought an utterly ridiculous amount of cake….and also went for an unexpected job interview seeing as the CTO was in the country and it was easier to spontaneously shoot to the office for an hour than come back later in the week!
A trip to Kent to visit my mum was more stressful, with a sick kid leading to a 111 call to get advice, which swiftly turned into them sending an ambulance. It was extremely worrying, but I was proud of myself as to how calm and collected I stayed. Several hours in A&E later thankfully we were given the all clear and sent back to rest.
We only managed a couple of kid-free times at the start of the year, which were the utter ridiculous fun of the Cantina 2 gig, and a day out for lunch at The Unruly Pig and a walk around Shingle Street.
A little bit of kid content
Kid-wise we had a low-key first birthday with just a few family members. I really enjoyed making a cool little sealion-themed birthday cake (commemorating many, many trips to be transfixed at the zoo), as well as a hefty hand-painted and decorated busy board, inspired by how exciting trips to DIY shops apparently are.
Starting nursery was a bit of a weird time. We were all very ready, but I was still surprised at how emotional it actually was to make the switch, even though it was only (and still is) 3 days a week. One of the things I didn’t really understand til having my own kid was how nap times/quantity/quality and patterns of food intake can drastically impact the rest of the day, and for a while we had some horrendous evenings with an over-tired and over-stimulated monster who was used to getting a lot more sleep in a totally different routine. Thankfully that passed, everything settled, and they’re now absolutely thriving at what’s such a wonderful nursery environment.
After starting work
I started my new job in June. On my first day, during onboarding in London, I got a message saying my kid was sent home from nursery with suspected chicken pox (it wasn’t that). It definitely highlighted that working life now is absolutely not the same as before. On any day, I may be up in the night, getting up at 6am and doing 3 hours of chasing around/breakfast/lunch prep/bag packing/dressing before starting work, finishing up only to step out of my home office straight into kid dinner chaos, then bath, bedtime, cook adult dinner (everyone says to eat together but there is zero chance of that happening at 5:30!), and finally have about an hour before I head to bed myself. Nursery runs take 45 minutes both ways, and if we need additional care on non-nursery days that means packing up travel cot, buggy, all the other essentials, and also running them somewhere. I’m lucky in that I have a partner to share it with, but even with daycare having two working parents with demanding jobs is tough. It’s very easy to see how people do drop out of the workforce.
One of the most profound conference talks I saw this year was this one: Parents who code: How to welcome your developers back after parental leave by Sinéad Cummings, who highlighted examples like the disparity between how we as an industry talk about supporting and protecting those woken up in the night being on-call, but not those who are dealing with the same outcomes more personally.
Despite all of the challenges it’s been brilliant to be back in a work environment, and I’ve also even really enjoyed my infrequent commutes into the London office (time to nap! Or read!). I’m currently primarily remote but come in when I have cause to, otherwise I work 9/10 days and spend the other day with my kid, which has ended up being a good balance for me. It’s nice still being able to have time together and have adventures, without it being every day.
The company has been incredibly supportive. It was amazing to be able to come into a place and have other people role model dealing openly with challenges of their own kids, seeing people be supported on parental leave, and generally be in a culture that lived up to how it appeared on the outside. It was my first time working at a company with a woman CEO and extensive representation of women in very senior positions, and it has been extremely refreshing so see how that’s permeated through the culture.
Job-wise I’m not going to write too much, but I joined as Engineering Director for Trust & Safety across the whole org, which is a space that I absolutely love. It’s both a role that I’m extremely comfortable with (something that was important for me when I have so many other new things to navigate), but I’m also still getting to learn a lot about the domain, some of the tech elements I’m responsible for, and learning from brilliant people around me. We’re doing some very cool work, some of which I hope we’re going to be sharing more about officially soon.
A return to in-person events
In-person events still felt weird, but after attending dConstruct in 2022 I’d realised how much I’d missed the human connections and serendipity of in-person. In 2023 I attended a few things – I gave my only talk at Lead Dev London, was on panels at CTO Craft Conference and Seacon, hosted a Google Developer Group panel on Safety by Design at our offices, and was on a booth at Data Science Festival.
For events that were larger or less well-ventilated (props to Season for having the doors open at the back of the room!) I chose to wear a mask, aside from the time I was on stage. I definitely still felt like I stuck out for doing so, and it made things like noisy socialising and eating/drinking more difficult, but it also helped me to attend when I otherwise wouldn’t have been comfortable doing so.
Family trips and activities
As a family we’ve not yet been abroad, although we have some trips booked in for 2024. We did however have some lovely weekends to places like Dedham, Mersea, and beer festivals, and I made the most of my non-working days by heading to the sea, as well as back to the zoo. We went pumpkin picking, saw fireworks, went to the illuminations at Helmingham Hall, spent another long weekend in London to see lights and go to the Natural History museum, and had an excellent lunch at Fallow.
In September we took a trip to stay in a couple of places in Norfolk – first in an airbnb by the beach, then in a hotel with a hot tub, sauna, and massages. We had some lovely times pottering around and relaxing, and we also went to see my brother and their family.
In October I headed on an epic trek, driving to Yorkshire and back through floods for a single night in order to scatter the ashes of my step-mum. She died in Singapore back in 2021 after a lengthy battle with a brain tumour, and whilst I’d attended the online funeral at the time, it was nice to finally be able to celebrate her properly. A collection of her family and friends from around the world rose before dawn, drove in procession against an absolutely stunning sunrise to Roseberry Topping, where we climbed to the top as the sun was coming up. We followed it up with breakfast together, before myself and others drove away again.
Ongoing home improvements
The house felt like it was constantly a total mess this year, which both my husband and I haven’t enjoyed, but also haven’t had much in the tank to fix. Despite that though we did manage to make some progress on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while.
The biggest project was clearing out my home office and turning that room into a play room for the kid. We subsequently made a new office in the room we had bad memories in from the cat TB saga of 2019 and which had been an unloved dumping ground ever since. It had also had asbestos floor tiles taken up and sat with just a naked sealed concrete surface, so something badly needed to be done. We got a quote for some flooring, and whilst we were at it decided to redo the hallway too, which was always a bit of a rubbish surface but had had holes in since we moved a radiator. Unfortunately, the night before it was all due to be laid, we were moving boxes and taking up our temporary cardboard surface, only to find mould and wet. Long story short, it turns out a set of piping had some pinhole leaks and there was actually a decent amount of water under the floor that we didn’t know about 😖
After some additional work to dig up the floor and lay new piping, the new play room and the office eventually got sorted. I love having a new view out over the garden, plus a lighter and brighter room to be in. I haven’t been able to do as much gardening this year, but I did enjoy having a beautiful set of cherry blossom and acers outside my window, and also properly tidied up a couple of borders to make the view nicer. We’ve had extensive flooding in the garden as of October, and subsequently a few times afterwards (including now), so it’ll need a lot of work to get back to the same state in the new year.
Finally, we also painted some horrible brown old tiles in the front porch, and I’ve been incredibly impressed with how easy it was and how well it’s held up since. Rustoleum floor tile paint, in case anyone else is in similar need.
The two biggest losses in my free time have been studying, and exercise. On the latter, I simply haven’t had enough in the tank to do additional physical activity without making myself ill, but coming off the back of pregnancy inactivity I’m now feeling very weak physically and extremely unfit. This year out of necessity I intend to experiment a bit with quick activities that focus on strength (which to be fair I have made progress on after regularly carrying a 12kg+ lump around a lot!) and flexibility, and see if I can find something that helps me feel healthier whilst also not making me ill or too drained to spend energy on other things (if you’re not familiar post-exertional malaise is a common symptom for people with ME/CFS).
I also haven’t done as much studying, and in fact I think it’s been at its lowest level since I began taking Japanese seriously. This is again because of needing to prioritise where I spend my mental energy, but also not having big chunks of time to settle in with a textbook and focus any more. I have been keeping up some activities – my sessions with my teacher continue to be a delight – but in terms of more formal elements I can feel like my confidence, speed, and ease of expressing myself is slipping. Again, something I want to try to rebalance and build in a bit more structure around, especially as I have another exciting trip booked!
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom though. I read 21 books (a good chunk of which was during the nights!), and played 10 games. My favourites were Deathloop and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, plus books in the Expanse series and Revenant Gun (Machineries of Empire book 3, which was a surprise favourite after book 1 was a confusing slog).
I also enjoyed making things. The previously mentioned busy board and birthday cake, a wooden advent calendar, I took my first hand-building ceramics class and loved glazing, and a big new wooden grass compost bin for the garden.
And so into 2024…..
Despite the ongoing challenges and some serious test results pending for a close family member, I’m actually feeling pretty optimistic going into 2024. We’ve already got two holidays planned in, which I’m very excited about, not least because that’s the most organised I can remember being in a very long time! I’m also looking forward to seeing how the kid grows and changes, and getting to share ever more experiences with them. This year has been limiting, but it’s just different and another puzzle to work out, and I’m hoping that being another year in and settling more into a routine will eventually yield some solutions. And with that, I’m wrapping up and going to do some Japanese practice before an early night. Happy new year all!