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When you were babies and I went back to work and a PhD, it was all about you.

I worried that you may be somehow compromised by having a mother who left you on some days of the week to pursue a career. This was a selfish and dangerous act, I was told by the media (and indeed, by other women). My babies would end up depressed, anxious, starved of love, neglected, and generally traumatised by our separation. I was told you would never grow up quite right, that the experience of having a mother who wasn’t always there would somehow affect you forever and you would end up needing therapy.

I was also told I was a bad mother, or worse I wasn’t even a mother, but that’s for another post.

So I did what every other parent who works outside the home does. I loved you as much as I physically and emotionally could when I was around. I read to you every night, rocked you to sleep, slept with your little faces close to mine, took you for walks, to the park, planned your birthday parties, had playdates at the zoo, gave you baths, taught you how to use a spoon and fork. I did all the things. I fit my schedule around you. Throughout the PhD I made sure to fit in days to wake up late with you, to have a pleasant day wandering out to the playground followed by a nap, and a play at home. This would compensate for the times when you were suffering without me, in the care of another loving adult.

Now you’re in primary school – where did the time go? And along with you eventually becoming toilet trained, learning to strap yourselves in, do up your own shoes, shower yourselves, read and ride a bike, my PhD has morphed into something called “academia”. Last year was a blur of meetings, grants, conferences, deadlines, crises, reports, and way too many weekends spent “working”. Throw in clinical work and I was one stressed mumma. Yet you continued to flourish and thrive despite me not being around all the time. You are, undecidedly, two of the most loving, confident, infectious, joyful, resilient and engaging children I’ve ever met. And you love kale. Kale is your favourite thing. How did I pull that off?! I may be biased of course, and you’re not perfect (Exhibit A Your Honour – yesterday’s bickering in the car which required my “mum voice” and an order to please cease talking immediately or mummy will lose her shiz big time) but somehow, in the midst of the PhD, while I was trying so hard to ensure your needs would never be unmet, you’ve grown into two beautiful and bright little people.

Sometime last year, I cannot remember when, I experienced “The Meltdown”. This went on for quite a while. I had the sense of losing complete control over my schedule. I was hurtling down into an armageddon of endless demands. To compensate, I did what I’ve always done- worked harder. It finally occurred to me that this could not be the solution any more. I was working myself into the ground with nothing to show for it.

I’m now in recovery. And I’ve made a conscious decision to pull back, to say no, to protect my weekends and even my evenings. Work smarter not harder. Take breaks. And I’m not doing this for you this time. I’m doing it for me.

I need you like never before. After a week of battling my old friend Impostor syndrome, of juggling students and meetings and projects and people, I need to listen to your fart jokes, see your wide smiles breaking like the most beautiful sunrise across a beautiful little face. I need to be lulled by the gentle rhythms of the weekend – lazy breakfasts, baking, going to the beach, watching Pokemon. I need to listen to the musical chatter of your imaginative play, and I need to kiss you every night, once when you go to bed, and once more when I turn in, so I can see you sleeping and feel my heart explode. You complete me and revive me in a way my career never will. You put the strength back into me that ebbed away during the week. On Monday mornings I feel human again, I feel whole, and I have enough charge to get through another week.

Maybe I’ve always done all the things for me, and not for you. It’s just that parenting always seemed to focus on the needs of the child and not the parent. I’m learning now, the hard way, that self care for parents is the number one priority.

So it’s not you, it’s me. I’m saying no to weekend work, to the demands, not because you’ll be compromised and need therapy, but because I will. It’s time for me to thrive and flourish.

Thank you for growing up into the beautiful people that you are today. It gives me faith every day that I’m somehow doing the right thing.

Your loving mumma

x

 

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I’ve been on a journey to discover how to be happier for some years now. Initially it was pretty vague, but as the stressful events in my life ramped up, it took on a great deal more focus. Funny how that happens. 

Happiness research has similarly taken off in the past decade or two, and I won’t attempt to be an expert on this. You can go wild reading the excellent work of other people who are experts in happiness. Some of my favourites are Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Dan Buettner who researches the Blue Zones. There are loads of others – I hope you read them all!

What I am an expert on is how I gradually learned how to happy. Yes, not how to be happy, but how to actively create happiness in my life. Happiness has not been a state that descended upon me from the Gods because of a lucky day or positive external events. It’s been a constant striving, continual learning, repeatedly picking myself up off the floor and putting one foot in front of the other type of journey. A bit like life! So that’s why I think of happy as a verb. To me, happy is a doing thing. 

Also, for me, happy went in stages. I couldn’t incorporate the other happy things before the first few happy things. There are loads of ways to boost your mood but until you go back to the very basic, dirty, grubby, boring bits, the very foundation of how you think about yourself, I believe the other happy things will just float off like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. 

So here was my very first Happy step: Being Kind (Or Gentle) To Myself.

I have written before about Impostor Syndrome. When I realised I had Impostor Syndrome, when it was verbalised for me, it was a revelation. That was many years ago. I worked with my Lovely Psychologist on many things not the least being Impostor Syndrome and the Voice In My Head. Do you know that voice? “You’re not good enough” “you don’t belong here” “You’re stupid” “You don’t know anything” “one day they will find out”. 

One early morning, as I walked to the bus stop, thoughts swirling round my head in the usual ruminating pattern, I suddenly stopped and had an epiphany. I was creating my own prison. Nobody was keeping me in this unhappy, miserable state except for me! I felt like slapping myself. Except, I didn’t. I started treating myself as I would a very dear friend. Sometimes you want to slap that friend for the things they do. We’re so close to them that we can see everything, the good and the bad. But we don’t slap them, not physically at least. We might gently say to them that they’re being completely silly and suggest another way forward. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We sit quietly and listen. We’re gentle. We’re supportive. We hold their hand and say, I’m here with you. 

The thing is, I wasn’t being there for myself. 

Gradually, as I became kinder to myself, the Voice In My Head went away. First it was quieter. Then it disappeared. It pops up from time to time. I’m learning to notice it rather than give in to it. I notice how my heart starts to race (not in a good way) when the Voice talks to me. After the episode when the Voice appeared, I reflect on what happened. Why did it appear? what was going on? How can I do better next time? And most importantly, I don’t berate myself about how I behaved when the Voice took over. I was nervous. I said the wrong thing. I reacted. etc. No big deal! I noticed the Voice and gradually I’ll be able to manage it even if I’m in an important meeting or having a crucial interpersonal event. 

I now tell all my patients that they have to be kind to themselves. Start with kindness. If you can’t be kind, at least be neutral. Everyone can at least hold their tongue, to themselves. Notice the things you did well. Be honest when you stuffed up – everyone does. Then move on. No big deal. You can try again. Kristin Neff is a self-compassion expert – I recommend you read what she’s written too. 

So there you go. That was my first happy step. There will be more to come!  I’d love to learn about your happy steps. Happiness is a personal journey, and what works for me may not be as important for you. Please comment below! x

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Try not to complain about getting old.

Many will not get the same privilege.

 

Try not to complain about having to see your family at Christmas. 

Many will be extremely lonely with little human connection. 

 

Try not to complain about your job. 

Many would love to be gainfully employed. 

 

Try not to complain about having to walk somewhere. 

Many would love to have two functional legs. 

 

Try not to complain about your children. 

Many would love to be, or still be, parents. 

 

Try not to complain about having to cook. 

Many would love to live in a home and have food on the table. 

 

In many ways, you are living someone else’s dream. 

 

As the poet Mary Oliver said, 

Do you need a prod?”

“You could live a hundred years, it’s happened. 

Or not“. 

 

So let me be urgent as a knife, as Mary so eloquently said. 

Instead, know that you are #livingthedream in many ways. 

 

Instead, love the wrinkles on your face. They tell your story. And you lived to tell your tale, unlike other people who were called early. 

 

Instead, remember just one happy memory from your childhood. Cherish that moment and keep that feeling in your heart during the awkward conversations at Christmas. 

 

Instead, enjoy the opportunity to contribute your talents and get paid for them. 

 

Instead, relish in the way your two hips, thighs, knees, ankles, and feet work in amazing unison to take you places. You are independent. How thrilling!

 

Instead, notice the way your children’s eyes light up when they laugh, or if they are teenagers, go into their room and look at them when they are asleep. (You’ll have to stay up late for this – or do this early in the morning). Marvel at this human that you raised. Yes, you! You fed and clothed and cared for this human and they grew and grew like a mushroom. Then spend a moment sending love and compassion to those with tiny empty beds, and empty hearts. 

 

Instead, prepare your food mindfully, with thanks. Make every meal a conscious one. This can help you to eat well too. 

 

In many ways, you are already living someone else’s dream. Maybe many dreams. 

 

I have known and cared for people with many shattered lives, who would love to be you. I just hope you know that, before it’s too late.

 

X

 

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Happy New Year! I generally enjoy the opportunity to reflect as the years tick over. But one of my pet peeves are the messages that come screaming out in abundance on Jan 1. “New Year New You!” or even worse – “Get a new body for the new year”. 

A new body?! My body’s perfectly fine, thank you.

You see, our bodies are amazing. I don’t think people appreciate this enough. Got a virus? You feel like death and your GP tells you to drink fluids, rest, and maybe take some zinc (which actually works. Try it!) Is your GP useless? No! We know that generally healthy people have amazing immune systems that kick viruses in the viral butt and you will feel fabulous with time. Nicked yourself shaving? Your body immediately commands platelets to go to the cut to form a clot, then healing occurs from the bottom up of your wound. Your body, your amazing body, then builds a framework of collagen to start healing that wound. White cells zing about to get rid of any bacteria. In time, you would hardly know that you ever had a cut there. Good as new!

The thing is, most people don’t like their bodies much at all. We walk around thinking negative thoughts about our bodies, about how our bellies wobble, our knees ache, our back hurts, our cellulite is gross, etc. And another sign we don’t like our bodies is that we trash them. We don’t feed our bodies enough whole food (most Australian adults don’t eat the recommended serves of fruit and veg a day), we don’t move them enough (most adults don’t get the recommended minutes of physical activity per week) etc. And we don’t look after our mental health – we fall into bad habits of rumination, lashing out in anger, impulse eating/shopping/drinking/smoking/whatever to ease mental discomfort. This has a huge impact on our body.

What if we loved our bodies instead, for the amazing things it does, even without us knowing it? What if we acknowledged and honoured it for the things it could do if we just treat it right? Would you expect an expensive sports car to run well if you don’t give it the right fuel and never take it for a service? Even if you’re unwell right now, your have a chronic condition like chronic pain, or parts of your body won’t work, focus on what it can do. Chances are you’re reading this right now with your own two eyes (or maybe even one eye!) Right now, light and shadows are being picked up by tiny cells in your retina, which send electrical signals down your optic nerves into your brain. WOW! Plus, our bodies have amazing capacity to heal even if you do have a chronic condition. Do you know you can reverse early diabetes with healthy eating and exercise?

 

This new year, I am challenging myself, and all of you, to love our bodies. Be proud of your body. Acknowledge the ways you haven’t looked after it, and then move on. What can you change? Start small – you can’t expect to run a half marathon if you barely did any exercise last year. What can you change tomorrow with your diet? Physical activity? Mental health? You start with loving yourself (yes Whitney had a point here…) and accepting yourself in your glorious imperfect self. Then you start treating your body the way it should be treated. Here are some ideas:

  • Nourish your body with plant-based whole foods. Eat more veggies. (French fries don’t count, sorry!) You’ll reduce  your risk of heart disease, and even your moods will improve! Fiber feeds your gut bacteria which can then produce more happy hormones.
  • Cut down on alcohol. Moderate drinking isn’t 3 glasses of wine a day. It’s 1 standard drink (less than one standard pour of wine) for ladies, and 2 standard drinks for men. Learn to unwind in other ways instead. Your body and your bank balance will love you for it.
  • Get enough sleep. Did you know sleep deprivation dials up the fight or flight response and makes you crave carbs?
  • Eat less sugar.
  • Move your body. Walk, hike, do zumba, play footy, whatever floats your boat. As long as it moves your body and raises your heart rate and you do it regularly.
  • Breathe. Learn to notice your breath. In and out. in and out. Hey! You’re meditating!
  • Laugh. A lot. Every day.
  • Strengthen your body. Do some weight training twice a week. This will help dem bones keep strong.
  • Most of all learn to be kind to yourself. 

My colleague Dr Kevin Yong, a GP who lives and breathes what he preaches, has some handy free guides to get you started. Click here to download!

BONUS!! You might be thinking that Dr Carolyn is SUCH a buzzkill right now. Cut down on wine?! Well I have a bonus recommendation for you. Coffee can be good for you! Thank you science! Here’s a wee blog I wrote about the evidence for coffee’s benefits. 

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So there you go. You don’t need a new body. Learn to love yourself, and love your body this year. Wishing you health and happiness!

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You may have heard about a tidying-up phenomenon known as Marie Kondo. Marie is a Japanese lady who wrote a book about throwing away things that don’t “spark joy“, and rolling up your socks so you can have a pristine sock drawer. I have to confess I am not a Kondo convert and I doubt I will ever be, even though the state of my sock drawer suggests that I probably should. But I want to tell you about another way to change your life. And it does involve sparking joy.
Marie Kondo is the pioneer of inspiring people to "choose joy and complete their tidying adventures". Bless her.
Marie Kondo is the pioneer of inspiring people to “choose joy and complete their tidying adventures”. Bless her.
Some five months ago or more I decided to introduce one new positive habit a week. Simple things. Drink more water. Go to bed early. Do ten pushups in the morning. And practise gratitude. I stopped doing the pushups recently, but gratitude has changed my life.
Instead of saying “I’m grateful for…” (which sounded a bit naff to me) I started with “Thank you for…” At first it was hard. I did this first thing in the morning as I opened my eyes. I couldn’t find much to be thankful for initially. My job was stressful, I felt overwhelmed constantly and the mornings were dark and laden with the promise of dragging kids out of bed, sheperding them through breakfast, getting ready for school, finding hats and jumpers and water bottles and signing excursion permission slips. I groaned in anticipation.
As a GP I’ve seen a bit more of what life can do to a person. I’ve cared for people with MS, people dying from brain tumours and all kinds of debilitating cancers, with traumatic brain injuries. I had a patient who was born with no eyes. Others were born without legs or arms. Some were paralysed in accidents. I’ve looked into the eyes of people with advanced motorneurone disease and seen fatigue, desperation, or sometimes, acceptance.
So I started with what I was familiar with. “Thank you for my legs that work,” I said, wiggling my toes. “Thank you for my eyes that can see,” I said, looking at the ceiling. And then I wondered what it would be like not to see my children every morning. Or not be able to pick them up when they needed me. Or if I had been given six months to live and my children would be left motherless. And then I got out of bed and got on with the day.
It went on like this for months. Always starting with the physical. Then something amazing happened. I started to be grateful at other times of the day. Spontaneous gratitude for simple moments like seeing a sunrise. Walking. Hearing the chirping conversations between my two gorgeous children. A warm hug at night. A welcoming house, lights on and children’s laughter wafting out, as I came home after a long day. Beach days. A smile from a stranger. Getting a seat on the bus. Walking down a peaceful street without being caught in a civilian war. Stretching. At these really simple everyday moments I found myself stopping to cherish the sweetness of being alive. I’m still here. Still kicking goals. Still got another day on this Earth – what a gift!
These amazing effects on my mental health are also backed by scientific evidence. Fascinating research suggests that as little as 12 weeks of practising gratitude improves mental health and happiness, and even changes your brain. I’m a walking science experiment!
Gratitude has given me the ability to let go of my rumination and not get caught up in negative spirals. Gratitude has given me the gift of mindfulness as well – I am attentive to the little joys. I find myself noticing a lot. A tiny bird in a tree. Pink clouds draped across the sky. The perfect grin on my five year old. I’m also able to get going on difficult days like today. It was raining buckets in Sydney and I had to walk to the bus stop. I was super grateful for the Wellington boots that kept my feet dry, to my cousin for suggesting the Wellington boots. And that kept me going through the wet walk when on other days I would have been fuming about the rain and arrived at the bus stop in a foul mood.
It won’t change your life overnight, but things will start to change with a simple daily practice. Wishing you plenty of joy, and hopefully, neat socks too. x
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baking-2881192_1920Recently I took some time off during the school holidays. We woke up late. We went cycling and rollerblading a lot. We had leisurely lunches and long walks. It was beautiful weather and the days seemed to stretch on forever, filled with wonderful things like baking brioche buns, reading in the sun, and looking at the ocean. One evening, while I was rolling out pizza dough, drinking red wine and listening to jazz after a spectacular day of coastal hiking, I felt a really strange sensation in my chest. It was light, much like the beautifully risen pizza dough. It felt good.

It was joy.

And that’s when it hit me. I don’t need a struggle between work and life. I don’t need work/life balance. I need work-work balance.

I am an academic, which means a PhD is merely entry level and a chance to start at the bottom of the pile. The scramble to the top involves endless performing. Writing, publishing, doing research, attending meetings, writing grants, supervising students, filling out forms in endless Uni bureaucracy, community and professional engagement, teaching, even (ironically) attending meetings about work-life balance and wellbeing at work. If I see another email about a “working group” and two hour meetings I think I will cry.

We are expected to perform like circus monkeys, pirouetting and balancing ever increasing loads in an effortless display of super-human skills. The said effortless display is rewarded with promotions, grants, and more responsibilities. It’s like some kind of bizarre Ponzi scheme that nobody talks about – the elephant in the room.

So I do not need work-life balance, thank you very much. What I desperately need is a brutal slashing of my workload. Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working evenings and weekends being an academic circus monkey. Weekends are for connecting with friends, nature, and myself. Weekends are for decompressing from work, remembering that there is a life outside of the grind of academia, that beyond the University nobody cares about my h-index. Weekends are for sitting in the sun and eating biscuits (shh – don’t tell my GP), feeling the wind in my hair as I ride my eight-year-old’s scooter having the best time of my life, spotting whales in the ocean, reading psychological crime thrillers, and discovering new places to visit. For long conversations with dear friends. For movies and popcorn with the kids.

It’s not my work that pushes the boundaries, it’s the work on top of the work on top of the work. Layer upon layer of effort, brain space, and time, each layer threatening to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s these piles of terror that threaten my brioche baking time on weekends, that occasionally give me panic attacks, and lead to that heavy feeling on Monday mornings.

I don’t know what the answer is – either I am not cut out for academia, or I simply do the best I can with the time I am willing to give up. All I know is that nothing is worth the giving up of joy – that lovely, light feeling when I was rolling out pizza dough, that elusive elixir that I had not tasted for so many months due to my incredibly challenging schedule. But now that I’ve had a reminder, I am determined not to give it up.

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Poor Albert, he discovered relativity and won a Nobel Prize, and still thought his work was a bit overrated
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Poor Albert, he discovered relativity and won a Nobel Prize, and still thought his work was a bit overrated
Poor Albert, he discovered relativity and won a Nobel Prize, and still thought his work was a bit overrated

So a couple of months ago I got an email from a stranger. He’s a radiation oncologist from the USA. He is “really impressed” by the research I’ve been doing and wants to connect and collaborate. I did what every academic worth their salt does.

I Googled him.

First, I discovered that he’s a Professor, with “over 30 years experience, countless awards and has published over 200 papers and book chapters” and that he is “recognised nationally as one of the top doctors in his field”. I then Googled for an image of what he looks like. He’s a tall bearded man in a white coat. I’m a diminutive female who has certainly not published “over 200 papers and book chapters”. When people describe me, the word “cute” often pops up. I felt a very familiar knot in my stomach.

I psyched myself into emailing Bearded Man back, and after a few emails we settled on a Skype call. Bearded Man was incredibly nice. I liked him immediately. We talked about our research interests and background. He was saying the words “I’ve read what you do and I really like the work you’ve done”. And at that moment, during that Skype call with Nice Bearded Man, a voice inside my head said:

“Oh. Well. He’s clearly talking about the wrong person. There’s been a huge mistake.”

Fortunately, my Lovely Psychologist had briefed me about the different parts of me that I should start to notice. This was Critical Me. This was Impostor Syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is “a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a `fraud'”. I’ve suffered from IS for years. It strikes me in many aspects of my life. I used to feel like an impostor mother. (“I have no idea what I’m doing here” when trying to calm a crying baby). I have Impostor Syndrome in my clinical work (“What is that rash? Why can’t I diagnose it? What is wrong with me? I know nothing”). And most of all, I have Academic Impostor Syndrome.

At that point, I managed to say to myself, “Why, hello there. I thought you had gone”. But our habitual thinking strengthens the neural pathways that lead to neuroses like this. It doesn’t take much for something to trigger IS and then Wham! I descend into an ocean of self-doubt.

But the noticing, the work with the Lovely Psychologist had clearly not been in vain. I kept my composure and carried on talking with Nice Bearded Man. We exchanged ideas. We agreed. We disagreed. We ended with a plan. We were both excited.

I spent a lot of time reflecting after that episode. It kind of clicked when my mother (bless her soul) sent me a WhatsApp message about a conversation she had with her periodontist. “I am afraid I was boasting about you” she said. “I told him you have three degrees. You are a triple doctor. He was amazed!” And it’s quite true. I have a medical degree. A Chinese Medicine degree. A Masters. A PhD. I hold senior leadership positions. I am a GP. I have toilet trained two children. When am I going to feel like I am worthwhile? When I’m a Professor? When I grow a beard? What if I get to Professor and start comparing myself to the other Professors in the room, thinking “I don’t belong here”? Why can’t I believe my dear mother and Nice Bearded Man?

So I decided that I’m done with Impostor Syndrome. I’m done with this because:

– I’m no good to anyone if I don’t believe in myself. What’s the point in being so self-deprecating?

– I’m disrespecting other people’s judgement by not believing in what they say. My boss, for example, constantly gushes over how wonderful he thinks I am. I have always put this down to him being an absolutely nice guy. But isn’t this disrespectful to him? Surely, being the Director of an Institute, he’s quite capable of evaluating his staff!

– The energy I spend on my misery could be translated to becoming even more awesome!

– I should just accept that lots of successful people have Impostor Syndrome and they survived. Like Albert Einstein who said “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease.”

– if I avoid promoting myself, I only let others who are less deserving get ahead of me.

Of course, I’m all for recognising where I can improve. I don’t want to end up with a false sense of security and supremacy. But the story of my life so far has been the opposite – a lifetime of never being satisfied with what I’ve done, always pushing for perfection, setting the bar higher and higher.

So I’ve decided that what’s good enough for Albert is good enough for me. I’m enjoying this new collaboration with Nice Bearded Man. And it’s great to feel that my lack of facial hair, age, the Professor title, the 200 publications and a white coat doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute meaningfully to a collaboration.

There’s a lot I can bring to the table as Small Woman with No Facial Hair and Only Ten Publications.

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people-2566854_960_720It was 5pm on a busy Monday evening and I heard children. They sounded a lot like mine. You were waiting in line for my bus, with two toddlers and two strollers.

You got on the bus and stood the entire way home because there was no room for you to sit down – the strollers took up the entire priority seating section. Your children were restless. I don’t blame them. The bus was crowded and the trip long and boring. And they were only about three years old.

You brought out snacks. Cheerios, in a container, that you (or someone else) had packed earlier that morning, or the night before.

You shushed them constantly so that they wouldn’t bother the people commuting home. Truth is that a third of them would have been thankful that it wasn’t them with their children on the bus, and a third of them would have been thankful that their time was over. Perhaps for the rest of the bus, it might have been a mixture of indifference, a renewed desire to stay childless, or a longing to hold a baby one day. Who knows. But you shushed them because you didn’t want them disturbing the peace of the bus. The peace of all those people travelling home without two small children to look after.

When one of your kids got a bit more boisterous, your voice took the edge that mine does constantly. “Stop that”, you said, in a low, terse tone, but it was only for a moment. (My voice usually carries on in that tone for quite a while longer). Then you quickly pointed out the train, other buses, anything to distract them, out the window. You spoke rapidly, and I knew it wasn’t easy to do this at the end of a work day – when your brain is full, your body tired, and you just want to be quiet and still. Like the rest of us. But you had two young children to entertain. On a long trip home. In a crowded, peak hour bus. So you found words, lots of words, in a persistent effort to engage their attention and stop them climbing all over the seats. You let one of them play with your lanyard. Over and over again he pulled on it, laughed, and let go. You held on patiently.

After a while, you gave one of them a device, (you said “turn it down” when it got too loud) and the other one seemed happy to look out the window with you. You leaned over, gave his sweet head a big kiss, and rubbed his little arm. And the two of you looked out the window together. You, standing up, next to the strollers, still standing at the end of the 45 + minute ride home. Your face next to your son’s face, looking at the buildings going past.

And I wondered at that moment what you were thinking. Were you, like me, grappling with that daily riddle, “Am I doing the right thing?” I wondered if you made this trip every day, with the Cheerios, the frantic pointing out of the train going over the bridge, the shushing, the lanyard game? Or was this a one-off, a transient change in schedule? I wondered if you were going home to a dinner that someone else had cooked, and an extra pair of hands to take over and feed and bath small children, read them stories, pass you a glass of wine, or if you were going home to an empty house and solo parenting.

I knew that being a working mother can be a choice, but can also be out of necessity, and is often a bit of both. For me, it’s a necessity though it sometimes seems like I have a choice. I wondered if you felt the same way too – if you questioned why, as you stood there going home on the bus, or if why was never an issue for various reasons. And I also questioned why we still question, in 2017, the fact that some women work after having children.

But I knew, from that trip home, that you were a great mum. You met your children’s needs on that challenging trip home, navigating the journey with aplomb, never losing your cool. You were ready, with the Cheerios, the distractions. You handled it like a boss.

So here are my wishes for you, dear working mum on the bus. And my wishes for all parents.

I wish you loving people to give you a helping hand, or sometimes a shoulder to cry on. I wish you people (partners, parents, nannies, babysitters, neighbours, friends, colleagues…) who offer practical help, humour when there is nothing else, a chance to vent when you need to, a shared experience, understanding, and encouragement. I hope these people are in your house, or nearby, but if they are not, I hope they tag you in funny memes about parenthood so you can have a laugh at the end of the day when you sink into your bed after the kids are finally asleep. 

I wish you happiness at work. There is nothing worse than facing the evening after a bad day at work, and nothing better than kissing your children after a great day. May you have mostly great days. 

I wish you minimal life admin. You know what I mean. I hoped that that night you weren’t up trying to figure out when to take your son for his four year old immunisations, or hunting for his latest Asthma Action Plan. I wish you the joy of online payments and forms, of automatic renewals and direct debits, and a life without paper as much as possible. When your children are in school, I wish for your school to be completely paperless, so that you don’t find out in Week 8 of Term 3 that you were supposed to bake a traditional family recipe and bring it to school for a talk, and you didn’t know because the letter never made it home. 

I wish you the ability to know what you need to look after yourself. This is not an annual massage or a manicure. What you need is often deeply personal. But you also need sleep, healthy food, exercise, rest, laughter, breaks, support. I wish you the knowledge, self awareness and perseverance to tick as many of these boxes as you can. 

I wish you lots more tender moments with your children. I hoped that that night would include some long, lovely three year old cuddles (amongst the inevitable tantrums, whining, food refusal, and general three year old ness). I wish you sloppy kisses that make it all worthwhile. I wish you lots of heart melting moments in between all that chaos. When your children get older, I hope you find hilarious notes from them like “I love you mum because you are lovely and have been doing good work”. I hope you keep these notes somewhere special, like in your heart and soul, forever. 

Most of all I wish you the courage, the strength, and the determination to get out of bed every day. I am thinking of you now and wondering if you’re making that same trip to the city, on the same bus, with the same strollers, the Cheerios, the pointing out of trains, the pulling on the lanyard. If you are, dear mum, I wish you all the strength in the world. You are, simply put, awesome. 

 

This post is in no way written to elevate working mums over mums who work at home. We are all awesome. And my wishes above are wishes to all parents. May we all learn how to look after ourselves x

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One of Pema's quotes. Photo by BK https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/26055906766
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This year, I feel like the Queen Elizabeth II that year when Fergie broke up with Andrew, and life in Buckingham Palace was generally falling apart. The queen remarked that she was having an annus horribilis. I’m having my own version, minus the papparazzi.

The Queen was not amused, and neither am I.
The Queen was not amused, and neither am I.

I found a Lovely Psychologist who listens to me with an appropriate mixture of concern and empathy. She introduced me to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which sounds a lot to me like Buddhist teachings and philosophy. At the same time I started listening to a lot of Pema Chodron audiobooks. Pema is awesome – kind of like Ellen De Generes but as a Buddhist nun. Her wisdom and humour and the way she seems to describe my life in her audiobooks keeps me grounded while I commute, run, or lie in bed totally wrung out at the end of the day.

One of Pema's quotes. Photo by BK https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/26055906766
One of Pema’s quotes. Photo by BK https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/26055906766

The first thing that Pema talked about which completely threw me was the concept of “groundlessness”, when the solid foundation under you, the ground, is taken away like a rug pulled out from under your feet. This groundlessness is actually the true nature of reality, she says. Nothing ever stays the same. Relax into the edginess of the energy.

Relax, Pema? While my world is crashing down around me?

My Lovely Psychologist says kind of the same thing. First, she gets me to notice what I’m feeling and when, and the nature of it. Is it hot or cold, expanding or constricting, she asks? Where do you feel it – head, chest? And I notice lots of things.

First I notice boredom. Quite a lot of it. When waiting for the kids to hurry up and finish their breakfast, put their shoes on, get in the car, brush their teeth. Boredom, closely followed by irritation.

I notice sadness, grief, fear about the future. A sense of everyone’s mortality, of the losses that are to come, that are inevitable. Nobody can avoid sickness and death, say the Buddhists.

I notice the stories that run like a broken record in my head.

 

I’m not good enough. I’m not good as him, her, her. I’ll never get there. (Wherever “there” is).

I’m overwhelmed. I can’t do it. It’s all too much. I want to give up.

I’m a bad mother, wife, daughter, gardener, cook, housekeeper, bookkeeper. I’m failing at it all, spectacularly.

Why on Earth does it take them so long to put their shoes on?!!

 

My Lovely Psychologist listens carefully and asks me, Can  you make room for this?”

 

My initial thought is “Hell no!” but I try. I try to sit with my feelings of deep inadequacy, of insecurity, of sadness, anger, and so on. I imagine I’m like that little girl in Inside Out with Joy, Disgust, Sadness etc in her head. Except, I imagine my sadness and my fear as sitting beside me like pets, going with me wherever I go, sometimes disappearing and then reappearing. Me and my hangups, just going for a walk together. I make room for them. I lean into them, I come closer to myself, as Pema says. I learn to “relax with the edginess of the energy”.

 

Me and my hangups, going for a walk together.
Me and my hangups, going for a walk together.

 

It’s not easy, but what helps was the realisation that the struggle against these difficult and challenging emotions was worse than the emotion itself. Yelling at my children as an attempt to relieve boredom and irritation and frustration. Endless overwork and inability to wind down after work due to feelings of profound inadequacy. And so on. Our pain drives us to do things, in a desperate effort to relieve pain, that only compound our situation. Addiction. Overspending. Being mean to others. Workaholism. You get the picture.

 

I’m learning to recognise my own patterns of struggle, and develop new ones that are more helpful. It’s certainly a difficult process. My Lovely Psychologist is patient and kind. She says, sometimes you just have to do the best you can. And that’s probably the best advice that I can give you. Apart from Relax into the experience of groundlessness, notice what you’re feeling (mindfulness)  and then lean right into it. Make room for it.

 

And just do the best that you can.

 

xx

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Exactly seven years ago, my life as a self-assured, fresh-faced, pert thirty-something who spent her weekends blissfully attending Friday night drinks followed by yoga and pilates classes on Saturdays came to a sudden, screaming, abrupt end. Oh, how I thought I had it together at that point!

Along came our very much awaited baby, Star, after a dream pregnancy. Apart from some horrendous morning sickness, I sailed through the rest of the pregnancy like some beatific goddess, posing for bikini shots at 22 weeks, running until 28, walking and swimming until the day I went into labour.

From the moment I heard her wail, and saw her tiny little face, everything changed. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past seven years.

 

I learned that I could love in a way I had never known before. A fiercely protective, at times obsessive love. And then I learned that I could love more than one child, even when I thought it was impossible – that I could experience the same tenderness with another little human being. I learned that the first love you have with your child is like an infatuation. You’re addicted to them. Is it the hormones? Perhaps. But intoxicating nonetheless. I learned that looking into your child’s eyes, seeing them smile, and having them kiss you is one of the most sublime experiences in the whole world. I learned about joy, bliss, and utter fulfilment.

I then learned that ambivalence is normal. This took me many years. I learned that you can love being a parent, and feel utterly and completely broken at the same time. I learned that postpartum depression can take many many years to surface, that the early months of sleep deprivation and self-doubt are nothing compared to the times spent sobbing silently in the car on the way to or from work when the babies are all grown up. I learned that you then get out of the car, wipe the tears away, and somehow let a bit of colour back into your life again. I learned that self care is so much more than the throwaway phrase “me time” – it’s not about massages and pedicures. Self care is about a commitment to allow yourself space to reflect, to prioritise what your real needs are, to make difficult decisions. Self care is most of all about creating a stronger self awareness, and being brave enough to do what needs to be done. It is about picking up the phone and getting professional help. It’s about saying you’re not coping instead of pretending you’re doing just fine. I learned that even though you think you’re being resilient by getting up, showing up, and pushing through that endless sleep deprivation or the work-family juggle,  once you push the “dig deep” button too many times, the cracks will start to show. I learned that everyone has a limit.

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I have been through more change and done more work in the past seven years than in the previous thirty-four. Every day I struggle to make sense of what I am doing. Every day I question what I do. Every day I look for ways to get closer to the answers of how to lead a good life, to be a role model, to not be an asshole. And I’ve learned that I’ll only get closer to this but I may never get there. I’ll always be trying. And that’s ok.

I learned about being flexible, that there were so many things I thought I would not do that I eventually did as a parent. Let the kids watch TV. Use disposable nappies. Let my toddler eat off the floor. (It was clean!) Use formula. Send my toddler to daycare. Work full time. And so I try to bring this flexibility and openness to the rest of my life. I try to remember that I’m not always right the first time.

I learned that being a parent is a lifelong journey of worry. Every new stage brought with it new fears, uncertainties, a sense of the unknown. It was frightening at times. And so I learned to let go. I saw our lives stretching out with challenges and milestones like an obstacle course – teething, sleeping, toilet training, primary school, puberty, sex, disappointment, failure, rejection, leaving home. And so much that I could not control. It was like a movie. I started crying a lot more during movies. And experienced the breathlessness of letting go and stepping into the void.

I learned that there is nothing quite like the friendship you can forge with certain mums, whether they be strangers or women who are already family or friends. I leaned on the warmth and support of so many other mothers – including those whose children were long grown up. I learned that a kind word to a confused, sad, fiercely protective and vulnerable new mother goes a long way, and that, conversely, a flippant comment can wound deeply. I learned that sharing each stage together created bonds that are stronger than steel. I learned about empathy, compassion, humour, and friendship in a way I had not experienced before.

I learned that guilt is a bitch, and you have to kick that bitch in the ass. I learned that unconscious bias is alive and well, and often perpetuated by women. I learned to tune out messages about the perfect mum in stock photos, with her perfectly coiffed hair, her smiling children neatly dressed in designer clothes. That mum never had grey roots or avocado on her blouse. Those children never had dirty faces or unruly hair. That mum never yelled at her children, drank too much wine, or spent too much time on Facebook because there was nothing else to do during the mind numbing hours between pre dawn wakeups and the first nap of the day.

I learned that so many simple things that I used to take for granted were actually so so joyful. Being alone, for example. I crave being alone, where before I would do anything to have company. But now, solitude is like the holy grail. I fantasise about plane flights and hotel rooms on my own. There are other things that a parent rejoices over that I would have thought bananas in the past. A poo in the toilet. Sleeping in until 7:30am. Sleeping through the night. 

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They say it takes seven years for the skin cells in our body to complete renew themselves. You’re literally a new person after seven years. And I feel like a completely transformed woman. There is still the old me in there – she comes out like a mischievous imp whenever we have a babysitter for the evening. She is charming, witty, carefree, funny and loves karaoke.

The new me has a sadness to her, as though she’s seen something she cannot unsee. But there is a depth and a richness to her. She understands the ups and downs of life, the tragedy, the inevitable grief. She cries with more intensity, she spends a lot of time in contemplation. She’s authentic. She has a grit to her, and a “scary mummy” voice that would make grown men stand to attention. She has a tenderness to her she didn’t have before, a real softness, strangely tempered with a razor sharp edge. Her knees no longer shake when she speaks in public. She understands her patients’ lives and their struggles. She looks toward the future with anticipatory grief, but also with courage. And most of all, after seven years of being a mum, she is finally learning that to be the best kind of mum, she needs to look after herself first. She’s finally, finally taking her own advice.

 

Dedicated to my beloved children “Star” and “Owl”. I am so grateful for the lessons you continue to teach me, your endless love and forgiveness for the times mummy gets cranky and shouty, and the way you make everything light up.

 

And to all the mums out there. Happy Mothers Day for Sunday. xxx

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