To The Dad Who Made His Toddler Give Up The Swing Today

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

I don’t know if you were the child’s father; you could have been his step-father, uncle, or nanny. But I’m going with the most likely thing.

You were pushing your toddler son on the swing when we came in. You saw a mum and her two preschoolers. My daughter got on the only remaining empty swing and my son, a toddler too, started to fuss. Normal sibling behaviour. I’m so used to their fights and wasn’t the least bit concerned, but I saw you look at us and immediately you said those brave and inflammatory words to your toddler. I shudder even now when I think of the horror that comes with that phrase.

“How about you give someone else a turn now?”

*shiver*

Predictably, your toddler said NO! NO! NO! You then tried to explain why he should give someone a turn, but the NO’s got louder. So you took him out of the swing and tried to distract him on another piece of playground equipment but he was having a minor tantrum by then. (I say minor because my son has been having tantrums that are worthy of an Oscar, and your son’s tantrum was definitely minor in comparison). My daughter had agreed to give her brother a turn, and had run off somewhere else, and I tried to tell you to put your son back on the swing. But you marched off with him, and we heard the whining and complaining get softer and fade away as you disappeared around the corner.

I wanted to say thank you for doing what you did for us today. You didn’t have to – you could have pretended you hadnt noticed we were there, or that a sibling fight was breaking out. There are no playground rules, just an honour system. But you chose to risk a toddler tantrum. You chose to break the relative peace of your day because you clearly wanted to teach your child to share, to take turns, to be mindful of others. It’s something that nobody tells you about – the anxiety of playgrounds. A parent pushing their child on a swing – what could seem more carefree than that? Yet behind this apparently blissful facade is the nervousness about needing to teach an underlying set of values. Sharing. Not being violent with other children (I was the nervous mum when my son got off the swing, as he started playing near another toddler and I was hoping he wouldn’t push or shove the other little boy).

Empathy for others. Being unselfish. Having boundaries. Patience. I was all ready to teach my son yet another lesson in patience, and then my daughter a lesson in sharing with that swing. But I didn’t need to.

I saw your face as you left. You looked worried, cross, irritated. Maybe you were tired of the umpteenth tantrum that day. Maybe you were worried that your son was never going to be able to share. (He will. Trust me). Maybe you were worried about being judged for having a selfish toddler (which is an oxymoron – all toddlers are incredibly selfish. And no I wasn’t judging you.) Maybe you had other things that were on your mind too (don’t we all?) But I really want to say thank you, for being a dad with principles, for not being afraid of the wrath of your toddler. For teaching your toddler playground etiquette. I know there are so many dads and mums like you, all trying so hard to do the right thing, all risking a tantrum so you can teach your children how to get along with others. All carrying that playground anxiety. Thank you. I wish I could have empathised with you about toddlers and their behaviour. I wish I could have reassured you that it does pass, it’s just a phase, and that I understand. I wish I could have conveyed to you that we were going to work it out between the three of us, but you were too worried about your son’s behaviour.

And that makes you a really, really good dad. I hope you know that.

To Change Your Health, Look To Lifestyle First

I know I bang on about this an awful lot, and the truth is that we all kind of know this but it’s hard to put into practice. There’s so much delicious food to eat, so much wine to drink, and so much time to sit and eat and drink and not enough time to go for a walk or ride a bike. Then there are jobs to do, kids to chauffeur, dishes that need to be done, bills to be paid, dentist appointments to meet. And to be honest, one of the reasons why doctors seem to rely on prescribing medication so much is that we talk to our patients about diet, exercise and quitting smoking and often nobody listens, so we’re forced to get out the prescription pad in an effort to reduce heart attack risk. It’s easier to prescribe a pill and patients are more likely to take a pill than to go to the gym. That’s not saying that there aren’t people out there that are very motivated to make changes; it’s just that the reality is that changing old habits is pretty hard to do.

hiring-personal-assistant-lying-sports-funny-ecard-Hg9

I recently read about two very large studies that reminded me, though, of the powerful effect of lifestyle changes on health. When I say health, I often mean longevity, and that means freedom from some of the major causes of early death – heart disease and strokes, and cancer. These two studies are stark reminders of the impact of lifestyle changes on heart disease and stroke risk. Far more than the modest effect of cholesterol-lowering drugs, which can cause significant side effects. (I do prescribe these but only if heart disease risk is moderate-high, and if we have exhausted all possible lifestyle changes). One study, which followed 20,000 Swedish men over 11 years, suggests that 80% of heart attacks can be prevented by attending to all five of the following risk factors: a healthy diet, regular exercise (40 mins or more daily), light drinking (1 drink a day), not smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight. I know, it really isn’t rocket science. Sadly, only one percent (that’s right, 1%!!!) of men kept all their risk factors low. But never fear. Even getting one thing right will reduce risk of heart attacks significantly.

Another study, which followed over 7000 patients for 5 years, found that supplementing a Mediterranean-style diet with olive oil or mixed nuts resulted in a 30% reduction of risk of having a heart attack or stroke after only 5 years, compared to a group that was told to follow a low-fat diet. It seems that the type of fat we eat is more important than whether our diet is low fat or not. Unsaturated fats like the ones in olive oil and nuts are heart-healthy whereas saturated fat is thought to be damaging. And it’s amazing, to me, that relatively simple diet changes can lead to such an impressive change, without the use of drugs.

Moroccan couscous with seven vegetables. Mmm.. Photo: By Beata Gorecka (Own work (own Photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Moroccan couscous with seven vegetables. Mmm..
Photo: By Beata Gorecka (Own work (own Photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

So what is a heart-healthy diet? It’s one that’s rich in fruits, nuts, legumes and vegetables, with some consumption of whole-grains and low-fat dairy. You can find a great introduction to the Mediterranean diet (no it doesn’t mean lots of pasta…) here. Exercise is something we all know we could do more of; there are also clever ways to avoid being too sedentary such as getting a standing desk, or making your everyday commute more active.

What about cancer, another common cause of early death? The WHO recently released a 12 -point code on how to reduce your risk of developing cancer. Not many surprises here (avoiding smoking and alcohol, keeping a healthy weight, healthy eating, cancer screening, sun avoidance being some of the measures recommended) except for testing your home for radon, a natural gas that is linked to cancer. I had never heard of radon and have found this guide to testing your home for elevated radon levels. I’d urge everyone to look at the 12-point code against cancer.

It’s exciting, in many ways, that good health is within our control – it minimises the feeling of being victimised, of feeling vulnerable because of Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Food or whatever Bigs we often blame for our ills. Each one of us can carve out a healthier lifestyle which will reduce whatever genetic risk we inherited. Wishing you years of health and happiness!

Ck4epzlazy-rainy-exercise-confession-ecards-someecards

 

Making Those Moments Last: Dealing With Negativity Bias

By Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US (Happiness...) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US (Happiness…) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Of late, I have been wondering if anxiety is part of our makeup. In evolutionary terms, it would have been far more advantageous to be anxious about an approaching tiger, rather than laid-back and easy-going. Maybe we’re all just wired to be anxious, anticipating an approaching threat. I know we can relieve this with vigorous exercise, and that for many people this background level of anxiety can spiral out of control and begin to impact on everyday function. I guess it wouldn’t have been an advantage to be so fearful to the extent that one’s reflexes were frozen, and couldn’t escape from that tiger.

This evolutionary approach to psychology has been fascinating me, and then I listened to Rick Hanson speak about something he calls the negativity bias. We’re wired to remember negative experiences very differently to positive, he says. Positive experiences float past very quickly and we may not even notice them, nor store them in our memory. However, negative experiences seem very intense at the time and become stored in our implicit memory. This is clearly an advantage, because enjoying blueberries is not as life-preserving as fleeing from a tiger. Fear is a better survival instinct than joy or pleasure. However, we also rely on things like pleasure and a feeling of social connectedness, or connection, because this helps us build relationships within a community and allows us to pool our resources to band together against the threats from outside. (And also creates a village to help us raise our incredibly dependent offspring).

When I heard this, I had an A-ha! moment. This is why I find moments of joy in parenting so fleeting and often difficult to remember in the midst of whining, dirty dishes, snotty noses, attitude and backchat (yes it’s started), and bone-crushing fatigue. Those negative moments are experienced far more intensely than the positive ones. The negative ones can colour a whole day, turning it from a pleasant experience to a crabby, grumpy one, while the positive moments seem so fragile, so tenuous, like bubbles that will pop when I reach out to touch them. This is why. I thought it was just me. I thought I was wired all wrong, that I wasn’t cut out to be a parent.

Rick encourages the savouring of each positive moment, to make it last in our memories and to allow positivity to dominate in our psyche. A dozen seconds, he says, is what it takes for that memory to set in like the negative ones do. Relish the moment, he says, let it seep into you. And I am so enjoying doing this with my children! When I make my son laugh at bedtime with my silly kisses, I do this repeatedly, and drink in the way he looks, laughs, giggles, smells, and kisses me back. I drink it all in, I take my time, I stop. I touch little chubby cheeks, I run my hands through their hair, I look at them for a long long time, I take slow deep breaths and try to remember this very moment, or this very series of moments. At the very least it makes me pause in the middle of my busy day. At best, it will mean that I’ll remember so much more of the good than the bad, and my daily experience will change as a result.

So thank you Rick for explaining my cavewoman mind to me. There are few tigers out there for me, though I scan the horizon all the time. Inside my cave there are two very adorable children and a spunky caveman husband. I feel like a very very lucky cavewoman indeed. :)

My Personal Philosophy On Eating

My approach to healthy eating is much like my approach to housework. I aspire to a clean and tidy house. I have systems in place to contain the chaos. My house is never perfect, and I don’t expect it to be, but neither do I want to live in squalor. Actually, now I think about it, my approach to healthy eating is a lot better than my approach to housework, as I value health more than hygiene and tidiness! So forget about that metaphor but let us proceed…

Ahem..

Ahem..

I ask all my patients about their diet, for many reasons. One is that it’s a powerful predictor of outcomes – both immediate and long-term. Another is that it tells me a lot about their lifestyle, emotions, and beliefs. Many of my patients are nervous when asked about their diet. They might fear judgement. Some don’t know whether they have a healthy diet or not, and if they should eat this or that. Some ask me if they should be following a specific diet, should they try intermittent fasting, and what do I think about the Paleo diet, eating soy, eating chia seeds, should they avoid grains, or give up coffee or chocolate. (I rarely tell anyone to give up coffee or chocolate – just reduce it!) Most are relieved to find that I am fairly relaxed when it comes to healthy eating. I don’t subscribe to any particular eating pattern, though I vaguely head towards the Mediterranean diet, for my personal cholesterol issues. I am also a realist. I know that people are leading real lives, often chaotic lives, and lunches are grabbed in between driving all day for sales assistants, or there is barely time for toast in the morning if you are a mum of schoolchildren. I know that in the evenings it’s easy to reach for sweets after dinner, in the mornings for a muffin with your coffee. So here’s my personal philosophy on eating healthy, one that I subscribe to personally as well as try to impart to my patients, if they are interested.

1. Eat real food.

This means food closest to its original form as possible. This gives you the most nutrients and least additives. It’s also cheaper. Real food usually doesn’t come in a shiny packet, box or jar. (well, almonds come in packets I guess…) But you know what I mean. I hope. If not, PM me.

These are called carrots. They're delicious. They're real food. Try them. By Kander (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These are called carrots. They’re delicious. They’re real food. Try them. By Kander (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2. Eat a variety of food. Don’t eat the same thing every day. I have known patients to live on a diet of almonds, rice milk and kale. Apart from sounding like a terrible existence, it’s also nutritionally unbalanced. Eating too much of anything, even if it’s a “superfood”, is not healthy. Nutrition is very complex, and we still don’t understand it well. Eating the same thing every day means you might not absorb the variety of nutrients that  you need, or you might absorb too much of a toxin. For example, fish is heart-healthy but it is also contaminated with dioxin, which has been linked to cancers. So eating fish at every meal will not help you in the long run.

3. Eat what you enjoy. I know someone (ok, she’s my mum) who eats walnuts every day because they’re “good”. My  mum hates walnuts. But she eats walnuts every day. Ugh. I hate walnuts too (perhaps it’s genetic?) but I refuse to eat them at all. I will eat other nuts that I enjoy. Life is too short. Lose the gross superfood that you can’t bear to eat.

I actually really like kale. You might not. If so, please find an appropriate vegetable substitute for kale. By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually really like kale. You might not. If so, please find an appropriate vegetable substitute for kale. By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

4. I get asked if avoiding dairy or wheat is a good or bad thing. It depends. If you have symptoms on dairy and wheat, don’t have those foods. If you have coeliac, of course you should avoid gluten. Additionally, if you have symptoms on wheat, it is likely to be due to a fructose intolerance. You should also avoid excessive wheat and dairy consumption (see 2). If you want to avoid these foods, go ahead, but ensure you are eating a variety of other foods as well (see 2). But if you enjoy bread and cheese, please don’t stop. You might need to cut down on cheese a bit, and I definitely don’t recommend eating lots of white flour; we also eat a variety of grain substitutes like quinoa and buckwheat (pseudo-cereals, apparently, but again see 2).

If you don't get symptoms from wheat and are not coeliac, please enjoy bread but in small amounts and hopefully with a bit of delicious butter. By Stacy from San Diego (anadama bread  Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t get symptoms from wheat and are not coeliac, please enjoy bread but in small amounts and hopefully with a bit of delicious butter. Stick to wholemeal. By Stacy from San Diego (anadama bread Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

5. I also get asked about sugar. Is it “bad”? Is our epidemic of diabetes and obesity due to sugar? The truth is, we don’t really know yet. Sugar makes food palatable. We certainly need very little of it in our lives, but I don’t think we need to avoid it altogether. I like the idea of moving on a spectrum towards healthier eating. I personally allow myself one dessert a week. Some weeks I actually stick to this. Other weeks I might sneak in a biscuit or two. I bake with sugar substitutes but I try to remind myself that it’s just sugar in another form. In other words, I’m trying to have a healthy relationship with sugar. Not an addictive one.

I think there's a good reason why cane sugar looks like cocaine. Use wisely. By Fritzs (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I think there’s a good reason why cane sugar looks like cocaine. Use wisely. By Fritzs (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

6. If you have a craving, it’s telling you something. It could be any of the following: You’re hungry. You’re bored. You’re tired. You’re sad/anxious/having another emotional issue. You’re not getting the nutrition that you need. This last one is an important one. I don’t think it’s proven in any scientific research, but I believe that if you’re undernourished, your body tells you to keep eating in the hope that you actually eat something that’s good for you. You know, with minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, protein, fibre etc. But if you keep reaching for a donut, you’re not getting any nutrition, and you’re still hungry. Anyway, I always ask my patients: what is this telling you?
7. And lastly – this is the most important thing of all. All the palaver about whether we should avoid grains, fat, sugar, or dairy is just a storm in a teacup. There are vigorous debates for and against. Saturated fat is bad. No it’s not, eat more meat. Everyone is missing one crucial point, the missing link. EAT MORE VEGETABLES!! If you make vegetables the focus of your plate, you will naturally reduce the proportion of fat, sugar, grains and dairy that you consume. So put those vegetables first. I don’t care if you eat them raw, juice them, soup them, stir fry or steam or bake. Just eat them! Lots of them. Five serves. Lots of colours. With every meal as much as you can. I think the reason the poor vegetables haven’t had their own campaign is that nobody is going to make a lot of money if people eat more vegetables. The cattle industry, poultry industry, packaged food industry, gluten-free industries aren’t going to profit from it.

Photo: Andy Wright, www.flickr.com

Photo: Andy Wright, www.flickr.com

Lastly, a word about developing a healthy relationship with food. Food nourishes but also brings pleasure. Enjoy it. Please don’t eat walnuts if you hate them. (Or kale). Please enjoy a little treat every weekend. If you like Timtams, eat them once in a while. Please partake of the wonderful culinary offerings from the many cultures that flourish all around the world. Please eat birthday cake when it’s your birthday. I am speaking as someone who once had an eating disorder, and who is thankfully well and truly recovered. Food is love, so eat real food most of the time, choose your treats carefully, and love yourself in the process.

Learning To Be An Optimistic Parent

By Beth Rankin [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Beth Rankin [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I was touched by all the responses to my post on pessimism, and inspired to find a better way. I promised I would report back if I did. So I went and bought yet another e-book – “The Optimistic Child” by Martin Seligman. (Amazon’s coffers are overflowing from my purchases, I can tell you!) And, upon reading about how to teach children to think like an optimist, I have been teaching myself to do the same. Because I strongly believe that children learn primarily by example. How can I model a healthy outlook on life to my children? How can I teach them better ways to look at the world and approach the inevitable daily bumps of life?

The first thing I learned was that optimism isn’t what I thought it was. It actually means believing that bad events happen because of temporary, local causes and good events from permanent, global causes. Optimism does not mean letting yourself off the hook for a mistake you’ve made; it identifies the specific cause of the mistake. For example, this is the internal dialogue that usually happens after I yell at my children:

I feel so awful for yelling. I’m such bad mother (believing in a global cause, not a temporary cause). Now my child will be traumatised forever and will be depressed and anxious as an adult (catastrophising). All because of me! Why can’t I ever control my temper? I’m an awful person and I’m so depressed. Did I mention I’m a really bad mother?”

The optimistic parent in me could say instead:

“I feel awful about yelling. I was tired and lost my temper. I shouldn’t have done that (Not shirking responsibility). I need to apologise to my child and explain that I shouldn’t have yelled at her (Making it right). It hurt her feelings and she’s upset now. It was probably very scary for a little child to be yelled at (Understanding the accurate consequence of my behaviour). What’s happening with me right now? Why did I yell? Oh yes. I’m tired right now, and hungry, and she was dawdling on the way out of daycare. I gave her a warning but I guess she is only four after all! I need to get us fed and we’ll all feel better after a warm shower and a cuddle. I should get more sleep tonight so this doesn’t happen again. I think I also need to go for a run because I’m been a bit irritable today”. 

As you can see, responding to my pessimism extends to many different parts of my life. My clinical work. (“I’m a terrible GP”). My PhD. (“I’m a hopeless student”.) The house. (“I suck at this housekeeping stuff”.) Even being a friend (“I’m a terrible friend”). The pervasive, global words are never, always, I am. I have been aware of the voice in my head for some years now but have only just begun to pick my thoughts apart.

I have only read half the book so I’m afraid I’m giving you only half, or perhaps just a few pieces, of the puzzle. And I am no psychologist so forgive me if I get some of this wrong. But so far I’ve found those simple concepts really helpful in my day-to-day life. I’m learning to challenge my overwhelmingly negative thoughts. For example, my habit of repeating to myself “I’m so exhausted all the time”. I’m changing this to “I’m feeling exhausted today” or “Lately I’ve been feeling exhausted”. It’s a more accurate representation of what is going on in my life, because I am certainly NOT exhausted ALL the time and it’s unhelpful to repeat that to myself. On the other hand, I’m not telling myself “I feel really energetic!” when I don’t feel that is true. I’m also challenging those “I’m a bad mother” moments. I know these happen to lots of mums and it can be crippling. Instead of thinking I’m a terrible mother, I am localising the problem (“I yelled at my daughter today”) and countering my pervasive bad-motherness by remembering the ways I am actually NOT a bad mother. Sometimes just the act of acknowledging this changes my mood immediately.

I am also attempting optimism in the ways I think about other people. You know, the damaging ways I apply pervasiveness to the behaviours of others, forgetting the good, the sunny, the wonderful parts of their personality. “He always infuriates me!” “She is ALWAYS whining”. “He never gives me a break!” Those sorts of really unhelpful, toxic thoughts. I change them to “He is annoying me today!” or “Gosh she is being really whiney right now!” Again, I feel immediately better because these are accurate representations of what is going on and I’m not discounting how I am feeling at this present moment, but I’m able to move beyond this temporary behaviour.

A strange thing has happened – I am enjoying my children a lot more. I have to confess that for a while I wasn’t really enjoying their company very much. Perhaps I was too stuck in my ways of pessimistic thinking. Who knows. But since making these simple changes to my thoughts, I have really sincerely enjoyed being with them, just playing, laughing, cuddling, watching them run around. I feel like I’ve been given a really great gift – actually enjoying being a parent again.

I’m continuing to read the book, notice the way I think, and practise changing it. I still have anxiety when I think about the future and all the things that might go wrong. I’m working on it though. Right now I’m focussing on dealing with each day as it comes – each and every day with its loveliness, its warmth, and its hope. It’s like I’m ready to catch these fleeting seconds of joy as they bob past me like bubbles or float past like feathers in the breeze. Some days I’m really good at this. Other days or moments, not so. But if I can teach my children how to do this too, or how not to stop doing this as they become buffed and polished by the realities of life, I will lie on my deathbed a very very happy woman.

Confessions of a Recovering Runaholic: Shooting for a 10K race

IMG_6741

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been running again. My hip didn’t cope with a 5km run early in the piece so I’ve been keeping to a maximum of 4km every second day. My plan to run a half marathon by October 12th, for the Melbourne Marathon, was officially dashed, and for a while it seemed like even the 10K was off the cards.

But this week, after cruising easily through my 2.5 min intervals, I did some calculations and decided that the 10K might actually be possible. 10K would be highly symbolic to me as this is the mileage I frequently ran prior to injuring my hip; being able to run a 10K easily would mean that I was back to where I started off, but with better biomechanics in my hip. (My physio seems to enjoy giving me new and harder exercises to do every time I see him; I am literally working my butt off!)

So yesterday I took off for a 5.5km run and it felt WONDERFUL. I sprinted like a little lamb while listening to a podcast of neuropsychologist Adele Diamond talking about how exercise benefits executive cognitive function. What a brilliant way to get me into flow – the state of complete engagement, when you lose all sense of time (in a good way). I woke up to a reasonably happy hip and am planning a 6km run tomorrow, then an 8km two days after that. If my hip holds out for the 8K, I’ll be at that 10K race start line on October 12th for sure.

Aiming for a concrete goal has boosted my mood significantly. I have to admit that I was finding the steady 4km plod boring. But with a goal in sight, I’m more energised, focussed and enthusiastic. I feel alive. But this time it’s tempered with a great deal of good sense. If my hip complains at the 7km mark, I won’t be pushing it on race day. I’m happy enough to be out there and running again. The eight-week quarantine I endured was enough to knock this sense into me.

But do me a favour. Don’t mention it to my physio until after race day, ok? ;)

Coming To Terms With Pessimism; or Making The Glass Half Full

Is the glass half full or half empty?  By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is the glass half full or half empty?
By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have always been a pessimist. I was optimistic in hoping that this wasn’t true, but completing the Optimism Test by Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” has confirmed it. According to my results, I have a pattern of believing that bad events are pervasive and universal, and good events are due to specific reasons. Basically, if something bad happens, it’s all my fault and I feel terrible about it (I’m a stupid person/forgetful/uncaring etc). If something good happens, it was a fluke, I was very lucky, someone was willing to give me a chance. Apparently I also score fairly low on “hope” which made me feel, well, hopeless for a while. But now it’s out there I want to know what to do about it.

I didn’t know I had Impostor Syndrome until I realised I was catastrophising excessively (is there such a thing?) I realised this some years ago when I received a phone call from the College of GPs. Someone rang and left a message for me to call them back. Immediately I thought of all the things that might have gone wrong. I had forgotten something. Maybe I had forgotten to pay my annual subscription. Maybe I pissed someone off. Maybe someone made a complaint about me. Maybe they were going to take away my Fellowship! With a trembling hand, I dialled the number on the message and waited to hear my fate.

The lady who answered sounded chirpy. Would I be free on such and such a date? They were organising an awards ceremony. I had received a coveted research award, to the value of $20,000. I almost fell off my chair.

I can’t say that that realisation had changed my outlook much though. Over the years, I have continued to think the worst whenever faced with a similar situation. Letters in the mail are catastrophised to mean I had forgotten to pay a bill. Emails mean I have done something wrong. Messages from the clinic are about patient complaints (they rarely are, but I still I have the fear). This is despite muddling through a Masters degree, getting an enormous grant for my research, and a prestigious scholarship from the NHMRC. Despite all this, I can be reduced to feeling stupid, unprofessional, sloppy, lazy, hopeless and worthless if something goes wrong, or even if nothing goes wrong. Any little (or big) successes I’ve had can be wiped out in my mind by the smallest of errors. I rarely excuse myself to say I’m tired, haven’t had enough sleep, have too much on my plate, etc. It’s not part of my psyche to do this – I feel as though I am excusing my innate “badness”, as though I’m trying to talk my way out of it. It feels false and wrong. Even if someone praises me in public, I get embarrassed and talk down my achievements.

And of course, this becomes even more florid as a parent. Each little bump along the journey of raising children is interpreted as my fault. Kids sick again? It’s not daycare, or the normal winter bugs. It’s because there is something I’m doing wrong, obviously – I’m feeding them too much processed food, not exposing them to enough sunshine; in other words it’s because I’m a bad mother. A very pervasive, universal thought.

Being a pessimist has its advantages. It drives me to check everything, work extremely hard, never assume I’ve done a good enough job. But usually this is done with its fair share of nervousness. I’ve made a commitment to change though. Not so much for myself, as I’ve managed quite well for the past four decades despite my hopeless outlook. But I want my children to learn to be optimistic. I can’t bear the thought of them going through what I do. Not that I don’t want them to take responsibility for themselves, but I want them to believe strongly in their successes and move on from adversity and mistakes. I want my children to grow up believing that good things happen for pervasive and universal reasons, and bad things happen for specific and changeable reasons. If I can teach myself a little of this, I can then teach them. And that is my hope. :)

The Ambivalence Of Being A Parent: or It’s All About The Tea

Number of cups of tea consumed while on writing retreat: 25. Number of cups of tea consumed when at home with my kids: 0.  Photo credit By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Number of cups of tea consumed while on writing retreat: 25. Number of cups of tea consumed when at home with my kids: 0.
Photo credit By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been twenty-nine hours since I last saw my children. I’ve left them in the capable and loving hands of my husband and mother, bless them, and am on a graduate student writing retreat in a gorgeous coastal resort. Yesterday morning was hectic before I left, with instructions to give to my mother about where the Epipen was and what snacks the kids could have, and the fridge stocked with food (I have to admit none of it was prepared by me, but at least there was food…)

I had two hours of adult conversation in the car, then a civilised unpacking of clothes, a writing sprint session, followed by a leisurely dinner at 7pm, which is the time I have usually fed and bathed the kids and gotten the first one to bed. Not having to drive, cajole, bribe and threaten my way through the dinner, bath, pyjama and toothbrushing routine was simply an astonishingly wonderful experience. At 6:30pm I was reading an ebook on the couch instead of wrestling a 19 month old into pyjamas (what is with children not wanting to wear clothes?!) while listening to the repetitive adventures of Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy. Ironically, the book I am reading at the moment is All Joy No Fun, which explores “the paradox of modern parenthood”.

It’s actually a very fitting book for this experience. I’ve had the opportunity to experience what life used to be like – the predictable, steady, quiet kind of life that allows for long periods of sustained concentration, uninterrupted conversations with adults, and multiple cups of tea (I think I am developing a bit of a tea addiction!) Evenings are not spent in nervous anticipation of the uphill battle to bedtime. Routines are flexible, and life does not stop at 5pm for “peak hour”. Evenings are actually spent taking time over food; food does not end up on the floor. Mornings are equally relaxed; I wandered out of bed at 7:45am today (surely that would have been considered terribly early in my pre-children life) and made myself a coffee, and drank it without a wriggly toddler sitting on my lap. Then I did three solid hours of writing.

All Joy No Fun analyses the reasons why raising small children is “no fun”. It’s unpredictable, messy, physically exhausting, and seemingly endless. There is little respite apart from when children sleep. Small children cannot get themselves to bed; an adult must help. Small children also frustratingly live in the moment, which can be infuriating when one is in a hurry. An one always seems to be in a hurry with children to care for. There is so. Much. To. Get. Done.

But I’m now reading the chapter on “all joy” and reflecting on what I love about having children, and what keeps me from going completely and utterly insane. What is it? It’s partly the physical affection they lavish on me. It’s also the way I am their entire world (almost) and all they need is me. At times of course this is overwhelming, but surely it is a bit of a headspin to be loved this much. Last night when I Facetimed my children (is that a verb?!?) they were both chanting “Mummy Mummy Mummy!” as though I was a celebrity. It’s the way my toddler runs away from me and giggles hysterically in the kitchen, the way my daughter reaches over to me when I come to bed (she’s been in my room an awful lot) and says sleepily “Mama…” and rolls over and goes to sleep. And then when I look at her tiny and perfect face, with eyes closed, slumbering peacefully, I feel a double disbelief at the fact that I produced and am raising this utterly perfect child and also at the fact that she is SLEEPING. (I still feel astounded when I see her asleep, as she was such an awful sleeper as an infant). It’s the way my toddler sometimes performs the simplest acts of affection, like laying his plump cheek on my hand, and clutching my other hand with his chubby little fingers; a rare moment of peaceful tenderness that I will remember as long as I live.

I’m also reflecting on my needs. I needed this so much, to get away. I can almost reach out and touch the serenity, and I am so grateful to be here. The grass is very very green on this side for sure. But I will soon return to my own side of the fence, with its chaos, its unpredictability, and its utter joy. I will look back at this peaceful afternoon, sitting on the balcony with my umpteenth cup of tea, anticipating a 7pm dinner. I love, and need, this kind of effortless peace and sequestered time to think, write, plan and create. And I also love being with my children, though I do find that a lot harder. And it’s okay to feel ambivalent about being with my children. I no longer feel guilty about that. It is what it is – an experience peppered with brief, fleeting moments of joy, plenty of hard work, and yes, it can be boring.(I often describe a day with my kids as “herding cats all day”).

I will remember that it is impossible to know the silence without the noise, or be full without first having been empty. And I am ready to go home an empty vessel ready to be filled with joy (and hopefully some tea). For the most part. It’s not all joy and there isn’t much tea to be drunk. But that’s okay too. :)

Drinking In Joy: Or How It Feels To Be Running Again

It felt a touch surreal, much like the fanfare of a wedding does after all the months of preparation and anxious anticipation. And at the same time there was a tentativeness, an uncertainty, as though I was seeing a lover again after a prolonged separation. What would it feel like? Would my hip be ok? Would I be unfit?

As it turned out, my first run after eight weeks felt wonderful. It was only on the treadmill, at one minute easy jog intervals. I did another treadmill run after two days, then my first outdoor run, on my usual route, yesterday afternoon.

I didn’t expect to feel quite so stupidly excited, but as I rifled through drawers looking for my neglected armband and cap, I kept shouting “I’m going for a run! I’m going for a run!” And as I headed outside, strapping my iPhone to my arm, I felt a familiar feeling well up deep inside me, bubbling like a spring, and then it gushed out as I put one foot in front of the other and started…running. It was joy. Pure joy.

The first thing I noticed was how fast I was. I wasn’t even trying to run fast, because these are little test runs, going a bit further each day, always checking to see how the hip pulls up. But Runkeeper kept telling me I was running way faster than my previous race pace at most intervals, and my overall pace, even with stopping to walk every 90 seconds, was the same as before I stopped running eight weeks ago. All that crosstraining on the bike had paid off. I also barely broke a sweat, and again I sent a silent thank you to my faithful friend the spin bike for helping me maintain my fitness over the eight long lonely weeks in the gym.

The second thing I noticed was how great it felt to be outdoors. Those first two runs on the treadmill were ok, but oh what a difference being outside ! I noticed the crisp breeze on my cheeks, the branches of the trees silhoutted against the fading blue sky, the birds calling as they flew home to nest. I breathed in the softness of the Spring air. And my ears drank in that gravel-crunching sound, the sound of my sneakers on the track, that tells me I’ve come home.

So I ran, all of 4.3km, stopping every minute and a half for a brief walk. My hips felt great. They still feel great this morning. My brain was bathed in the familiar cocktail of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Happy juice. At times I felt tempted to pick up the pace and keep running. But something told me not to be too cocky, and to risk undoing all the patient and good work I had done.

I changed my registration for the Melbourne Marathon from a half marathon to a 10K. I have five weeks. Ample time for a 10K. I have a tiny hope that I might be able to train for a half marathon in five weeks given my fitness has stayed the course and my pace has improved. But we’ll see. In the meantime I’ll be out there, three days a week. Crunching gravel, listening to the birds, and drinking in joy. And feeling grateful, so grateful for every single opportunity to do what I was born to to. Run.

Can't wipe the post-run smile off my face :)

Can’t wipe the post-run smile off my face :)

 

Why Parenting Is Harder Than An Office Job

I started writing this and could keep going forever. Note the caveat of “office job” that is, as opposed to working in an Emergency Department, customer retail, or any environment that involves unpredictability and the likelihood of having to deal with cranky, irrational people.

  1. You face incredible resistance towards getting the simplest things done at home. For example, the very basic activities of daily living, such as dressing and feeding your small children. Your agenda: to nourish and clothe your child. Their agenda: to experiment with how far they can fling the lovingly-prepared and nutritionally-balanced meal you prepared, and how long they can spend running away from you before you yell at them to “Come here and get dressed!!” And whether said high-fibre low-fat mostly-plant-based meal can be replaced by Cheerios, M&Ms or a stick of processed cheese.
  2. Nobody at work minds if you want to go to the toilet on your own. In fact, it’s encouraged.
  3. Nobody at work minds if you sometimes move away from them or extricate them from your lap so you can make a cup of tea, do the dishes, or answer the doorbell. They generally don’t start screeching every time you leave the room – they know you are coming back. And you can do your work without your colleagues clinging to your legs and crying.
  4. If people at work have tantrums, the kind where they lie on the floor, kick their legs and belt out a thousand decibels, they are generally led away quietly after the tantrum has abated and either fired or encouraged to take some sick leave until their personal problems are sorted.
  5. People at work generally don’t stand next to you and ask you “Why” questions all day long. If they want to ask questions, they usually send you an email or call a meeting. They don’t ask you why you are wearing blue today, or why you are sitting down, or why you are standing up, or why you chose to eat a salad, or why don’t dogs fly.
  6. People at work have to undergo OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) training. They understand that it’s not safe to climb the shelves or jump off the kitchen table. It’s all in the manual. And they will be reported to the OHS committee and the “incident” will be documented, and nobody wants that kind of thing happening. It’s just too much paperwork and bother.
  7. If you go to the toilet, your colleagues don’t yell out “WHERE ARE YOU!!!!” from the office.
  8. If you have a disagreement with someone at work, they usually don’t start yelling “Well then I am NOT YOUR FRIEND any more!!” and walk away in a huff. Usually.
  9. You get paid to go to work.
  10. You get holidays from your office job.
  11. People at work value silence. At the most you will have to put up with mindless gossip or the Top 40 radio station. People at work don’t bang the stapler on their desk repeatedly because it sounds fun, or shriek loudly, or have noisy fights over whose turn it is to use the photocopier. If they do, perhaps you should get a new job.
Please add to the list! :)