What’s So Hard About Being A Parent Anyway?

www.pixabay.com

See? Easy peasy…. www.pixabay.com

I really don’t mean to whine in this post and I hope it doesn’t come across complaining. I have simply been pondering the question of what it is about parenting that makes it so hard. Children are a delight, surely? Shouldn’t they bring me joy, fulfilment, and aren’t they fun to be with? With all the tragedies reported in the media recently, my thoughts have turned to my relationship with my offspring, to that moment when you think “What really is the most important to me? When it’s a life and death situation?” Loud and clear, it is my family – not my career, not myself even, but my two children and my husband. If I could ensure they were safe, happy and healthy, and if I could see them every day, I have everything I need. And yet, I find myself longing for some time to myself; when it is approaching 9pm and we are struggling to get either child to go to bed (what is with that recently?) that is when I begin to fantasise about spending a night alone in a hotel room.

So what is it that makes being a parent so hard? Why do we get together to commiserate, why do we call it “crazy”, and why do we respond with “Oh God, No!” when well-meaning friends ask if we have plans to expand the family? This thought of mine is backed up by evidence from rigorous studies that show that parents report less moment-to-moment happiness than non-parents, but a greater sense of meaning overall. Yep, that’s me.

Well, sometimes it comes down to this. Kids can behave in ways that melt your heart. They give the best cuddles, they insist on holding your hand, they like dancing, they say funny and endearing things. They can be unbelievably sweet to their siblings. Sometimes they will eat something that you have botched up at dinner, something almost inedible, and they will say “Yum it’s so delicious, Mummy! Can I have more please!” (This is a true story. It happened just last night).

My days are peppered generously with sunny moments like these, like when my son first wakes and only wants to sit on my lap for ten minutes. I have a long, indulgent cuddle with him, and spend the ten minutes just inhaling the top of his head. (He smells amazing. Don’t all small children?) Then he toddles off to start the day and cuddles are fairly few and far between after that from my little dynamo.

Here’s the rub. This behaviour is by no means constant. There are all those moments in between, such as:

• the tantrum over being given Vegemite on toast instead of honey
• refusing to eat anything apart from processed cheese
• hitting, biting and scratching when they don’t get their way
• assuming “The Rod” position when they are supposed to be buckled into the stroller or car seat (see cartoon below if you are not familiar with this position)
• saying things like “Then I won’t be your friend!” or “You can’t come to my house any more” (something I actually find quite hilarious) when I tell her she cannot have a cookie before dinner, or that she has to have a shower
• sibling fights
• refusing to brush teeth, get changed, get into the shower, get into pyjamas, get into bed
• throwing a nutritionally balanced, lovingly cooked meal on the floor
• wriggling around during a nappy change
• whining

The fact is, children are human, and they are not meant to provide us with constant amusement, entertainment, and joy. (Wouldn’t it be such pressure on them if this was the case!) Children get tired and hungry; they have poor control over their impulses and emotions; they deal badly with frustration; they do not appreciate nutrition, hygiene and keeping to a schedule the way we do. They are only children, after all. We are in charge of raising them to be well-mannered, considerate adults who still have all their teeth and can keep appointments. This is often in direct conflict with what children really want to do.

I read an article today (I actually Googled “Why Is It So Hard To Raise Kids”) which really hit the nail on the head. A paragraph reads:

All this makes sense from a historical perspective, the scientists point out: In an earlier time, kids actually had economic value; they worked on farms or brought home paychecks, and they didn’t cost that much. Not coincidentally, emotional relationships between parents and children were less affectionate back then — and childhood was much less sentimentalized. Paradoxically, as the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon.

And yet, I cannot deny that I do derive an indescribable satisfaction from raising my children, and cannot imagine my life without them. They are and always will be the most important parts of my life. I have long moved beyond suffering intense guilt from not always enjoying my children, but I continue to reshape the way I think about this parenting journey. It’s hard, raising children, the hardest thing in the world. But the events of this week, with the shooting of innocent parents and schoolchildren, has made me hold my children even closer, almost suffocatingly so, when I see them again. Because I’m so damn lucky to have them and have this day with them. Even days when my son is doing The Rod in the car seat.

http://ridingcoastal.com/tag/car-seat-cartoon/

http://ridingcoastal.com/tag/car-seat-cartoon/

 

The Poetry of Motherhood: Bittersweet

When I was little, I wanted to be a poet. I wrote very bad poems (one was an ode to a petunia, from memory), and even worse poems when I was a teenager. Poetry escaped me once I entered the pragmatic world of medicine, and even more when I became a mother. Yet there is something inescapably poetic about motherhood, or the experience of being a parent overall. There are many times when I experience moments of what could only be described as bliss with my children, and this seems to be magic, or at least, art.

I found a handful of sentimental poems on my laptop, written when my first child was a young toddler. I’m sharing this one with you, as it’s especially poignant today as I nurse a sick toddler, her younger brother. There is something about toddlers that I love – something sweet and free, and I have written about this previously. In amongst the grating tantrums and whining is something that makes every parent wistful, pensive, and pause a little in their busy day, knowing that this is the stuff that memories are made of. I wish I could bottle it so that we could just sniff it in our old age. But perhaps I shall write poems about it instead.

Bittersweet

I’ve never loved anyone quite the way I have loved you.

You give all of yourself to life, and ask for so little –

a cup of Milo, to play with the recycling, to climb the sofa over and over again.

In the cosy mornings, as I make us both porridge,

as I see you in your highchair with your bib on and spoon at the ready,

I have a moment of profound completeness,

a sense of experiencing a brief flicker of the purest beauty,

tenuous and leaving the tiniest ache

which reminds me that one day all these too will be memories.

 

Motherhood And Career Disruption

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I am preparing to apply for a highly competitive research fellowship, and one of the sections of the application is entitled “Career Disruption”. So this week I have paused to scrutinise my CV critically and without fear, and to contemplate how becoming a mother is reflected in my application and how motherhood has affected my career. The feminist in me desperately wants to believe that a woman, a mother, can be completely equal to a man, or a childless person. The realist in me is quietly beginning to think this is not exactly the case. I write with more questions than answers and I hope you will all excuse my rambling. I would also love to hear from you about what you think, and how it’s worked, or not worked for you. Because I am truly passionate about being able to combine parenthood and a career, but roadblocks like this highlight the struggle this will entail.

You see, I have leaned towards leaning out since having my first baby. First of all, there are those glaring absences in my CV. Any lay person could tell me all the reasons why I’ve only been to one conference and published one paper over the past five years. Duh! Let’s start with maternity leave for 7 months, during which time sleep was non-existent, much of my time was spend breastfeeding and then pureeing vegetables. Then there is the part-time work, during which I juggled raising a toddler and running a clinical trial. Just seeing my 300+ participant trial through to its completion was enough of a challenge, without the added pressure of writing papers. Conferences? Long gone are the days when I could fly off at the drop of a hat, or a click of the mouse; any conference travel now is carefully debated for weeks - is it a child-friendly country? Will we have to cross time zones?

So I begin to address my career disruption by writing “Despite taking a total of fourteen months maternity leave and converting to a part-time PhD for three years, I have managed to…” But why the Despite? Do I have to excuse my shortcomings? Will they give me a sympathy vote? Or do my deficiencies clearly indicate that my life circumstances are not conducive to competitive research activities, that I am the lesser candidate because of the realities of my personal life? That if I am not publishing frequently and presenting at numerous conferences that I am of lesser calibre than my counterparts? And what of the parents who do manage to keep up this hectic academic life, with all its travel and late-night and weekend writing bouts, how do I compare to them? (Not very well, obviously). Does becoming a parent necessarily mean that you are less competitive, less worthy because of your other commitments, and ergo, are all successful academics childless?

Clearly this is not so, although my current role models, as much as I admire and respect them, do not juggle parenthood and academic life the way I do. One is childless. The other, bless his heart, told me that when he did his PhD, he locked himself in his study for 12 hours a day writing, while his wife brought him his meals and cared for their children.

I refuse to believe that one can only be successful if childless or lucky enough to have a stay-at-home spouse. I value my husband’s career aspirations along with mine, and we are trying very hard to “make it” simultaneously. But, if we have few examples to follow, few trail-blazing couples to show us the way, how will we make it? We do not want to compromise on quality time with our young children any more than we currently are (they go to daycare four days a week). We share childcare and domestic duties as equally as we can, and heaven knows there are SO many domestic duties. At the end of every day, I am tired. I feel as though I have two careers – being a mother and being an academic – ok, let’s make that three, because I am also still a practising GP. And yet I chose all of this – even parenthood. And I am so so lucky to be able to do all three, don’t get me wrong – I just wish it wasn’t quite so hard to be perfect at any one of them, let alone all three. I overheard myself say to a colleague that I wasn’t going to take on a new activity because it would be “another thing that I suck at”. Yes, those words came out of my mouth.

So, as I battle on, trying to pad out my CV (it’s actually much fuller than I ever thought… I do say yes to stuff that I can do from home, I mainly “lean out” of the stuff that needs me to be somewhere after hours or travel), I am also contemplating what my CV really should look like.

My skills include:

Dealing with toddler tantrums while planning the week’s meals on my iPad, responding to my four-year-old’s repeated requests for ice-cream with a firm “No” and NOT LOSING IT. Ie. I can multitask AND have enormous control over my emotions. (Sometimes).
Being able to re-arrange schedules, dropoffs, pickups, within 90 seconds after getting the phone call about a sick child. A complex algorithm of how long the expected recovery will be, who is working from home on which day, and the criteria for exclusion from daycare, is automatically computed in my neuronal networks, yes, within 90 seconds.

And a realistic, no bs description of career disruption:

I have had not one, but two children. One did not sleep for almost twelve months. The other did not sleep for six. I breastfed both, until 12 months and 8 1/2 months respectively. Both have food allergies. One has a heart condition. I have spent many a day “off” ferrying them to specialist appointments, caring for them while sick at home, and many nights comforting them. Yes I have not published many papers over the past five years. But for many months, getting through the day was my only priority. I have managed to balance raising my beautiful children with a decent amount of academic work. I just don’t work the hours I used to – I am a lot more efficient with my time. I have learned to appreciate the value of a good nights’ sleep. I am also more passionate about my career than ever before. I have a daughter and I want to be a role model for her. I want my son to learn that women can have careers and still be present in the home. I have learned a lot about work-life balance and this is still a work in progress. I have determination (I have sleep-trained two children…) and grit (I didn’t quit the PhD even when my eyeballs were hanging out of my head with fatigue. Things are better now). I am a mother. You should know what that means – I’ve survived the toughest test of all.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you experienced a major career disruption? Did you find your way back? Have you leaned out, or leaned in?

Four Words That Changed The Way I See My Children

https://www.flickr.com/photos/valentinap/253659858/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/valentinap/253659858/

Some weeks ago, my toddler refused his daytime sleep. Flat out refused it. Screaming in the cot refused it. As I faced this irate little person, tears of anger streaming down his face and howling impressively, I had a sudden and unusual moment of clarity. Usually I would have become irritated by the nap deficiency. But that day, a phrase popped into my head, one that my friends and I often repeated during difficult times.
“This too shall pass”.

I felt detached from the emotion of the moment and simply watched my toddler, observing him, noticing the redness of his face and the wetness of his hair, wet with tears and sweat. This too shall pass. A moment of reflection, of pausing to remember this moment, so I could look back on it with some fondness and say, remember that day when you refused to sleep, and you were jumping up and down in the cot because you were so cross?

This too shall pass.

I’ve repeated this phrase since then, on many occasions. During the good, the bad, and even the mundane and pedestrian parts of my parenting journey. Parenthood can often feel like a desperate race through the “phases”, always hurtling forward, always wishing this current phase was over, that the children would be more independent, less clingy, less messy, less fidgety, less screamy, less whingey. Every day is a rollercoaster of the sublime and the ridiculous, of tender and furious moments, of emotions lurching from irritation to pride. But I feel the ticking of the clock hurrying us along, each day passing by, never to be relived, and I come to know this with both relief and sadness.

Those chubby cheeks will pass.
Sand in little shoes, emptied all over our floor, will pass.
Repeated requests for more water, more cheese, more yoghurt, more sultanas will pass.
Waking up in the middle of the night calling “Mama! Mama!” will pass.
Waking at the crack of dawn will pass.
Little hands in mine will pass.
Tiny children sitting on my lap, thumbing clumsily through a book will pass.
Seemingly endless cycles of domestic chores (little socks are put away, taken out, worn, washed, hung out, folded, and put away again) will pass.
Couscous all over the floor after dinner will pass.
Screaming while being buckled into the stroller will pass.
Stopping to play with a bead on the floor when we are supposed to be getting ready to go out will pass.
Nightly nagging to brush teeth and get into pyjamas will pass.
Tousled heads on my pillow, heavy with sleep, will pass.
Jumping on the couch to the Octonauts theme song will pass.
Small, warm heads resting on my shoulder, as I carry them to bed, will pass.
Splashing in the bath will pass.
Fevers and illnesses will pass. For the most part.
Toys all over the couch and floor and in my bed will pass.
Crayon marks on the wall, and little handprints on the mirror will pass.
Walking at snails pace, while holding a small toddler’s hand, stopping to examine every leaf and twig will pass.
Endless questions about anything and everything will pass.
Refusing to eat something they devoured the night before will pass.
Pointing out something amazing to me will pass.

I wish I could say to you that it has made things easier. It hasn’t. I do, however, have a new sense of perspective, of being able to step back from the chaos from time to time and see the continuum of my parenting journey. At times I seem to lurch from thinking “I can’t wait for this to end!” to thinking “I never want this to end!” These four words remind me that it will all come to an end, eventually, all of it. I am also aware that these things will come to pass because my children are healthy; that if they weren’t their strapping selves, I might still be dealing with labour-intensive care even when they are adolescents or adults. Nor am I minimising the sheer effort and terror that comes with raising very small children. If only those glib words “It goes so fast!” – clearly uttered by people who are long past the toddler stage – could truly make those trying days any shorter. They don’t. Those days are long, sometimes impossibly and reduced-to-tears long, and that throwaway line can add additional guilt and ambivalence to an already difficult existence.

This too shall pass” though reminds me that time is not sentimental – it marches on and leaves all moments in its trail, no matter what their quality – happy, heartwarming, infuriating, exhausting, mind-numbingly repetitive. The hiding-in-the-bathroom crying moments. The breathless moments when you see a small child sleeping peacefully in a cot, clutching a much-loved toy. The pride and amazement when your baby masters holding a spoon, or learns a new word. “This too shall pass” asks me to accept parenting as an entire package packed full of this kaleidoscope of moments. It reminds me to live in the moment, just for today. Because today will pass, and tomorrow, and the day after, and, imperceptibly, so will my time with my children.

My son woke yesterday at 6am. Not a terrible time of the morning but early nonetheless. I patted him back to sleep but every time I tried to move away he started to fuss. So I waited by his cot, hand on his back, waited until he was completely asleep. All twenty minutes of it. My daughter was sleeping peacefully next to us. A few random toys were scattered on the floor – a little car, a stray Duplo block. I had this engulfing sense of sweetness, coupled with an ache in my heart.

This too shall pass.

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!

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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

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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? ;)