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hourglass-620397_960_720Last week I had what I refer to now as the “24 hours from hell”. It started from the moment a ceramic mug fell on my head while I was reading The Gruffalo to my children. One minute I was sharing some precious memories, the next I was assaulted by a rogue mug that toppled over when my son jumped onto the cupboard next to my head. (Long story). I screamed, the children cried, milk went everywhere, and milk was cleaned up and children sent to bed immediately while mummy nursed an egg on her head with some ice. That night both children wet the bed, which meant two changes of bedding in the middle of the night; the following morning my tram ride was cut short by a random strike in the city meaning I had to get off and walk three blocks to get another, and what followed was a frantic day trying to get both my thesis finished for the evening’s formatting session, and changes on a very important journal article finished by midday. It was on that day that I said to myself, “Clearly this is a sign that academia and motherhood do not mix”. The juggling, the lack of sleep, the competing priorities, the toddler-induced mug injury, the urgent article revisions with less than 48 hours notice. No, motherhood and academia do NOT mix, I thought to myself with gritted teeth.

Then I paused, because I realised that this was just one day, just one lot of 24 hours. To define my life and my status as academic working mother by these 24 hours is like making a conclusion based on an outlier. It’s simply not valid. I thought about all the mornings when things go (relatively) smoothly and I sail into the office and drink my tea while calmly writing an article, my favourite “Peaceful Piano” playlist filling my soul with serenity and sending my spirits soaring, as I think, “This is the life! I get paid to write and listen to music!” On those days, I do indeed feel wholeheartedly that academia and motherhood mix very well, thank you, and I wouldn’t give up the mix for anything.

I should apply this to all aspects of my life – I should choose to only remember the good moments, because there are so many good moments. It’s like the song goes, “Ac-centuate the positive…” In any given day, I experience an astoundingly wide range of emotions, from white hot irritation, contentment, tenderness, boredom and anxiety. My children are a bit of a barometer, with their behaviour ranging from adorable to expletive-inducing. I have made the decision to let go of the latter and hold on to the former. I try to let go of the cranky comments, the whingeing, the tantrums, and the inability to walk in a straight line. They are usually momentary (except the walking thing – when do they learn to do this?!?!) and shouldn’t define our day. I used to mentally write the day off the instant we had some bad behaviour or a tense moment – “Today is an awful day”. Now, I shrug it off, carry on, and try hard to hold on just a bit longer to the warm and fuzzy bits, which are never too far away as long as I keep my cool. My almost-three year old son grabbing my face and kissing it with gusto. Two small sleepy heads on my pillow in the morning. My daughter declaring that I’m the best and most perfect mummy in the world. The giggling and the patter of little feet in our house. The impromptu dancing. The naked toddler streaking through the house snorting with laughter. The pre-bed snuggles (minus the falling mugs).

It’s the same with my life – I am trying to remember the days that go right instead of the days when everything seems to go wrong, the days when I manage to fit most of it in – work, family, love, a nutritious meal (extra points if home-cooked), exercise, some me-time, some couple time. Not all, but most of it, and I fall into bed a very tired but happy woman. Life is made up of all of these moments, and I want mine to be mostly lovely moments with the very slightest sprinkling of the cranky, messy, sleep-deprived times just to keep me honest – and hopefully, very few falling mugs.

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My dear followers, I am really deep into some stressful times at the moment. I know life always seems stressful, but I have a PhD to complete, small children (including one that has just started toilet training…give me strength!!) and we are moving interstate shortly with no house to move to yet, and I am half without a job as my post-doc position is nowhere near finalised. At times, it gets overwhelming and I have become prone to rumination, catastrophising (“We will never get a house”, “I will never get a job”, “We are going to be so unhappy”) and obsessively checking my emails and the real estate websites.

Seeing as I am right in the middle of what is undeniably one of the biggest upheavals of my life, it is the perfect time to check in with myself and with all of you, and bring to you some well-trialled techniques to “stress less”. I was reminded of this with “Stress Less Day” which apparently was last week, and probably fell on a day when I stressed more than I should have.  I always believe in practising what I preach, so here goes my tips for any of you going through anxiety, worry, and uncertainty about the future.

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean that it is. 

This was a wonderful quote I got from my new “What’s Up?” app. In fact, “What’s Up”, an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy app, is possibly the best thing that could happen to a stressed-out person. Yes, I feel anxious, and I’m worried about all the uncertainties in my life. But that doesn’t mean things are bad. I am trying to accept that no-one goes through life without feeling anxiety at some point in time. It’s the expectation that life always has to feel good that gets us down.

Increasing my “Circle Of Influence”

At the moment it seems like there is a lot that is out of my control. In fact, it’s an illusion that we ever have control over anything. Not knowing if I have a job or a house to go to, or if I will like our new neighbourhood, certainly feels stressful. I’m the quintessential “control freak” who likes everything a certain way, and runs away from uncertainty. It helps to remember the things I do have control of – such as attending to self-care, changing my attitude, just showing up, practising gratitude, breathing.

Questioning my catastrophising

At times when I am ruminating and thinking about the worst case scenario, it helps me to stop and question it critically. What is the evidence that this will happen? What is the probability that this will happen? Then I start to realise how ridiculous I am being, and I can move on.

Exercise

It never fails to amaze me how much better I feel after a run. My head is clear, I feel confident, I have problem-solved, and I am free from anxious rumination even if it’s just for the rest of the evening.

Breathing

When I stop and take a deep breath, I suddenly realise how tense my shoulders are, how tense my whole body is really. With each breath, I can feel the tension slowly melt away – not completely, but it’s palpable.

Laughter

This may sound really banal, but I feel a lot better after laughing at something really silly – my favourite things are Youtube videos. “Babies Scared Of Farting Compilation” or “Funny Cat Videos 2014” have been my favourites.

My children

I wrote a post about How My Children Keep Me Sane. Yesterday we had a lovely day off, and they invited me to an indoor picnic. We sat around a blanket and my daughter poured me some “tea”. My son and I pretended to eat plastic muffins very noisily, with appreciative “Mmm mm” sounds. My daughter served me a random selection of unlikely picnic food like a wooden mushroom and a plastic eggplant. My son then decided to make a soup, and grabbed some plastic food, vigorously whisked it together in a bowl, and served it to me proudly saying he had made some “Baymax sugar”. I have no idea what “Baymax sugar” is but I was so grateful to them for letting me share a bit of their magical world, a world free of stress and worry.

Gratitude

When all else fails, practising gratitude and a positive attitude can work wonders. I’m practising looking out for the things that go right in my life (like my son doing a poop in the potty yesterday – imagine being childless and never knowing the joy of such an occasion!!) and my daughter and I regularly practise our “three things I am glad for” exercise.

With all of the above tricks, I am keeping afloat, and I know I’ll come out of this period in one piece. What about you? What helps you “stress less”?

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strawberries-660432_1280I was at the airport on my way to a conference, travelling solo for once, and visited the bookshop. I had brought along papers to read, but the thought of reading an actual book seemed so much more appealing. And I was intrigued by the title of Laura Vanderkam’s book. It seemed smug, as did the promise of finding me extra time in my busy week. Hah! I thought. The last time I read a time management article that promised the same, I found out it was written by a childless, single woman. I did a quick tally of what I did every day and found that on average I had twenty minutes to myself after work, commuting, the whole dinner and bedtime circus, and housework. I texted a friend saying that I felt like punching this woman in the face. Metaphorically, of course.

Then I turned the page and read Vanderkam’s bio. She has not one, but four children. Ok, kudos to you, lady. Then I read her compelling introduction, punctuated by the sweet line, “The berry season is short“. And read about joy. And bought the book.

Vanderkam’s book is no quick fix, no magic strategy repeated over and over again in different forms just to fill the book, unlike the offerings by many lesser beings out there who manage to wrangle a book deal. Vanderkam is the real deal. I love that her book is based on data (actual time diaries) not assumptions, and not anecdotes. Anecdotes are biased snippets that may not represent the whole truth. I know this deeply as a researcher. Cold hard data, however, tells the real truth. And we have been sold anecdotes for a long time – we only hear and remember the negative ones, of course. We have based the narrative in our heads on this hodge podge of cautionary tales from others. Namely: Having a career and raising a family at the same time is hard. Only exceptional and very rich people manage it. It’s not possible. You won’t sleep. You’ll have to work long hours. Your hair will fall out from stress. You might as well lean out now.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve bought into this narrative increasingly this year. I’ve read, and internalised, articles on how hard it is to “make it” as a postdoc, the gruelling hours that an academic must put in to build that CV and research output, the uncertainties with funding, the disappointment, the long hours you must put in in order to finish your PhD. At times, this has led me to stomp around the house feeling resentful as I put away dishes or laundry, fuming internally. I’m doing a PhD, dammit! I don’t have time for this! And I certainly don’t have time for myself! I’ve been operating on a a time scarcity model, never feeling like I have enough, and yet find myself frittering away bits of time (“time confetti” to use Brigid Schulze’s analogy) by endlessly rechecking email and Facebook. And increasingly worried about my workload as a postdoc – yes, no more PhD, but a return to clinical work, new responsibilities, and the ever-present “publish or perish” rhetoric  harping at me like some monkey on my back.

Vanderkam’s book is a game changer. Peppered with examples of how incredibly busy women “do it”, it’s a goldmine of practical and well-tested strategies together with a massive shift in the narrative. Yes you have time. Everyone has time, even these women. Most of all, we have a choice with what to do with it. It’s these choices that make the difference between being able to “do it” and feeling like you need to “lean out”.

The women in Vanderkam’s book are from a variety of backgrounds, and all command a salary of over $100,000. Clearly this offers them an advantage in terms of being able to outsource, and in particular use nannies or au pairs if needed. However, not all of them did, many choosing to work “split shifts” instead, and using flexibility to the utmost. I was pleased to see I already carried out quite a few of these “successful” habits with work, but chagrined when I got to the “Home” and “Self” chapters. Here is where I have fallen behind. Sure, I have wrought plenty of time with my children, I leave weekends free for family time, and I exercise regularly, but it has been with a sense of duty. The fun has gone from my life, replaced by an almost military sense of needing to keep everything in precise order, and again with the background excuse of “I don’t have time for that” when a fun activity is proposed. I have become a party pooper. I cannot recall the last time I read a book. Yet, I must have spent hours every week sinking into Buzzfeed browsing and Facebook re-checking.

I have believed the anecdotes over the truth. Vanderkam’s book also surprised me with the level of involvement these women had in their children’s lives. We all hear and believe stories of parents being so out of touch that they don’t know their child’s teacher’s name, but Vanderkam’s book gives examples to contradict this stereotype – women who volunteer to go on school excursions, for example, something I had previously pooh-poohed with the familiar phrase “I don’t have time for that!

Encouraged and somewhat embarassed by the fact that these enormously successful women work more hours than I do, shuttle their kids around to activities, have hobbies and exercise an average of 3 hours a week compared to my piddly 1.5 (and still appear somewhat sane and coherent), I have resolved to make changes. Firstly, making a list of fun things to do – for myself or with the family. A list of things to do with my time confetti – watch a TED talk, breathe deeply, go for a quick walk, listen to music. A plan for the exercise I could be doing. Most of all, renewed confidence that I can do it, even as a postdoc working fulltime with two children. I can lead the good life. Undoubtedly, my life is getting easier, whereas in the past it truly was difficult and I had significantly less time. My children are becoming more independent, so I have been left with pockets of time which I then spend “puttering around” or doing laundry. But I don’t want to die and have on my tombstone “Here lies she who did a lot of laundry“. I want to tick things off a bucket list, not a chore list. Most of all, I want to be free from the narrative of not having enough time and not being able to have it all.

Vanderkam’s book is not about promoting the image of an impossible supermum. She chronicles the lives of women who are ordinary women like you or me, no superpowers except for having more disposable income. A number were single mothers. Yet, these women were leading full and happy lives and importantly, they were working far fewer hours than expected. Granted, they worked more hours than the average person (44 hours) but this is much lower than the 70-80 hours that many successful people claim they work. Instead of trying desperately to reach some mythical “balance”, Vanderkam encourages thinking of our lives as a mosaic, with tiles of different colours and hues. It’s up to us how to fashion this mosaic, and decide which colours go where. Doing a time diary and logging your actual time spent on different activities can be illuminating.

Most of all, Vanderkam’s book validated my life while highlighting exciting areas where I could change. I already have and use flexibility. I fit self care in. I read to my children. I take breaks. But the berry season is short; and I could do more, while doing less of the useless stuff. I can turn the canvas of my life into something even more vibrant than ever before. It is possible, once I get rid of the narrative and use data instead. I will lead the good life. I invite you all to come along with me once more on this journey.

Some super strategies from the book:

Think about your life in terms of the 168 hours of a week rather than 24 hours in a day. You may not tick all the boxes in work, home and self every single day but over the course of a week it’s possible to fit in time for all of these.

Rethink the need to have meetings.

How to strategically use “face time” to your advantage, without spending hours at the office. (For example, being seen at the end of the day is valued more than coming in early. You can use the middle of the day for “self” care).

Ten secrets to happy parenting including making breakfast the family meal of the day, thinking through and planning your evenings, and playing with your children.

Apply the “Let It Go” technique to housework and emails. (Do not attempt Inbox Zero).

How to make the most of a commute.

Make time for a hobby. It’s so nice to create something by the end of the night instead of watching TV. (But watch TV if you find this enjoyable).

The berry season is short. Seize it and create a good life :)

Disclaimer: This is my first book review, and the links will take you to Amazon, providing me with a small commission off anything that you buy on the site. This will support my blogging work as I navigate my way through the last few months of my PhD and then into the glorious Post Doc period and beyond! If you buy the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it :)

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By TawnyNinja

About a year or so ago I wrote a little post on working and stay-at-home mothers. I had few followers on my blog at the time; blogging was something I did for “fun” and to practise my writing skills. I sat down one evening to pen some thoughts in response to blog posts I had read that attacked both stay-at-home and working mothers. What bs! I thought. There’s two sides to every story. So I wrote a letter, from one mum to another, addressing it to dear friends of mine on both sides of the fence, but also addressing it to myself. I remember getting a tingly feeling after I posted it. Perhaps I had a premonition of what was to come. But never did I expect that it would be viewed by almost 2 million people, that our server would crash because at one stage it was getting 2,000 views an hour, and that my inbox would be flooded with emails from emotional mums and eager magazine editors.

Social media can be brutal as well as enormously supportive and rewarding, and I bore the brunt of some very negative commentary, which only seemed to validate the importance of my message. Some said I was out of touch with real working mothers, such as those without a profession, and those who did NOT want to work. Point taken. Another major criticism of what I wrote was that I was perpetuating the myth of the “good mother”, of the need to put the family needs first (for example, getting up early to exercise).  And that was a very very bad thing.

Since then, I have been thinking about this A LOT, and I have also blogged about the damaging “cult of motherhood” which exhorts self-sacrifice with the promise that it is “all worth it”. And I have to say that I am no longer that mother in those “Letters”. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago that I entitled “The One Thing I Want Mothers To Stop Saying” which explains it.

I’ve heard this too many times. I hear it from patients, from friends, and colleagues. I have said it myself. But even though there is truth in it, I really want mothers to stop repeating this phrase.  Enough is enough.

“It makes me a better mother”.

“It” is usually something the said mother thinks she shouldn’t be doing, or feels guilty about doing. “It” refers to time away from her family, often enjoyable, usually self-care, and is somehow regarded by many people as selfish, unnecessary, or indulgent in some way. “It” is often –

  • time at the gym
  • going to work
  • going for a walk
  • going out for a meal without the children
  • yoga
  • any activity that implies the mother has some protected time away from her children.

Yes, in most cases, mums do come home refreshed and a better mother, better able to engage with her children, happier, and less stressed. And this is a wonderful thing, a positively reinforcing cycle. Health care workers often use this phrase to somehow entice mothers away from their profound responsibilities of caring for their families. The oxygen mask analogy is trotted out – put your oxygen mask on first so you can then attend to your children and family. You can’t care for them if you’re not well. Etc etc. I’m guilty of using this to encourage my patients to take better care of themselves.

But it has to stop.

Why? Because we are human beings first and mothers second, or third, or however we choose to see it. Why is it that once a woman becomes a mother she is expected to put her needs at the very last? We know that working mothers feel so guilty about not being with their children 24/7 that they will sacrifice their own sleep and leisure time to see to their “responsibilities” when at home. Stay-at-home mothers have to justify every minute that their children might spend outside of their care, for example in childcare. But why is it that we must always reference our roles as mothers when justifying time “off”? At the risk of grossly over-generalising, how often do we hear fathers saying “Oh man that was a good night out with the boys. It really makes me a better father”. While I am not suggesting that this phenomenon affects all women, nor that fathers do not ever put their families’ needs above their own, I base this post on what I have heard over and over again in the past few years as a mother, a doctor, and a friend. Why, just in the last week, I have heard it four times from different mothers.

When we lose the ability to consider that we have needs too, that we are human beings, when we start believing that our needs for sleep, relaxation, social interaction (with adults!) and physical activity are only important in the context of our ability to perform the role of mothering, we fall into very dangerous territory. We martyr ourselves. We put conditions on ourselves – when you do this, will you come back a better mother? Will your children benefit? We send a message to ourselves that we have no intrinsic worth as human beings beyond the work we do as mothers.  

I want all mothers to look after themselves, and to proudly say that their self care makes them a better person. It makes them a healthier, happier, more relaxed person. It enhances their quality of life. It gives them energy, brings a smile to their face. I want mothers to say that they go to the gym because they freaking like to go to the gym, not because they come back a better mother. They are going to see their girlfriends because they miss them and want to have a laugh with them. I want mothers to assert their needs for self-care irrespective of the fact that they have children.

And that, my dear followers, is why I am no longer the Mother in those “Letters” any more. I am slowly putting myself back in the picture. I am systematically exterminating guilt while continuing to think about the combined needs of my family – which includes me.

Amen.  

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By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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I hate to jinx it, but very recently my children have become easier, for want of a better word. They are five and two now, and are the best of friends. They play adorable games together which allows me to have cups of tea in peace. My five-year-old can wipe her own bottom (yay!), shower herself, and get her own snacks. My two-year-old is talking well now, and can tell us what he wants; while we still have tantrums, and the sight of him in restaurants still conjures up a mix of pity and terror from fellow diners, he can sit still for longer, have conversations, and is generally happy. At times, I am even that mother sitting and reading while her children colour or play quietly. (For about five minutes).

Proof that life has become a little bit more bearable is this.

Making a prawn and fennel bisque. Like, from Gourmet Traveller! From scratch! Who would have thought?
Making a prawn and fennel bisque. Like, from Gourmet Traveller! From scratch! Who would have thought?

I’m cooking again. Real cooking. Not throwing things hastily into the oven, churning out boring casseroles, or relying on good old spag bol. On weekends anyway, I feel remnants of the old me returning – the one who loved to cook elaborate meals, involving many ingredients, much simmering and sautéing and chopping, and the type that is celebrated with the clink of glasses at the dinner table and “Compliments to the chef!” I am able to do this mostly because my two-year-old has now been surgically extracted from my leg, and no longer needs to be in bed by 6:30pm.

This state of affairs sounds quite delicious, I know, to other parents who are still in struggle-town. I was there not long ago. I do not remember now what exactly made it so hard – the pain is all a blur. I do remember that it was freaking hard, and that I was miserable at times, and that I cried occasionally. I remember everything being a struggle with my toddler – each simple task of living like getting dressed and eating was an enormous and often physical and loud battle. I remember the 12 months or more of 5am wake-ups – of sitting on the couch in the dark with a wide-awake baby, the whole household asleep, wondering how on earth I was going to stay awake until 8:30pm. I remember being so tired at night my eyeballs felt like they were going to fall out of my head. I remember a lot of food on the floor.

And yet I worked and studied full-time, nine days a fortnight. Truth be told, going to work was an escape in many ways. Whenever I was tired, I reminded myself that being at home would have exhausted me just as much. Still, looking back, I don’t know I did it. I do remember making a pledge to connect and engage with my children to the fullest, despite the challenges, and to live these precious and exhausting years with more joy and less guilt. I do feel that I have done that. I have kicked mother guilt in the ass. And while I have trouble remembering the exact details of the pain, I remember the exquisite joys as though they were yesterday. I can taste and smell them; I can feel the little hands in mine still. These are etched in my memory.

I am not much different to any other parent. I do not have extraordinary challenges – just the everyday, mundane challenges of parenting small children while working. I do have flexibility, a reasonable salary (as a GP anyway, not as a student…) and find meaning in my work. But mostly, I coped because I took things one day at a time. (I had no choice really). And I know that new, different challenges are to come. But I want to pen some encouragement to every parent who is still in that dark, hazy time of raising small children. (Studies show that parents are generally as happy as compared to people without kids, except for those with preschool-aged children. These people are pretty unhappy and stressed). Perhaps you have the dreaded combination of two under two. Perhaps you have a ten-week-old, and have just been through the most difficult ten weeks of your life. Whatever the case may be, I want to say this to you, with all my heart.

Take things one day at a time.  

But make a promise to do your best every day. 

Some days, your best will disappoint you. That’s ok. Be kind to yourself. You’re just doing the best you can, and you’ve never done this before. Every phase makes you an absolute novice at parenting again. But tomorrow is another day.  

Some days will be very dark. This just means you are right in the middle of the tunnel and the light cannot be seen yet. But if you keep moving forward, there is a light. It’s bright and very beautiful. It will make you cry tears of joy.  

Every day, connect at least once with your children, and once with yourself, even if only for a moment before you shut your eyes at night. Be grateful at the end of the day, breathe, and start again tomorrow.  

It’s ok to “lean out” during these years. It’s ok to say you’ve got too much on your plate right now. You have. It’s crazy. But it won’t last forever.  

If the days are too dark, talk to someone straight away.  

One day at a time, the days will roll excruciatingly slowly into weeks, and months, and then a year or two. You will look back and that cliché will escape your lips-  “They are growing up too fast!” Stupid cliché. But it’s true. 

But I know that seems far away now. I know how hard it can be. But don’t blink. Take it all in. 

One day at a time. That’s all you need to do. The best is yet to come, but in some ways the best is with you right now. That’s the exquisite conundrum of parenting.

When you come out of that tunnel, I hope you come out with more joy, less guilt, and no regrets. And eventually you too will be stirring prawn bisque in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand, like me. (If that kind of thing floats your boat). 

x

 

By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
At the very least, photographs of tantrums make for hilarious 21st birthday party slideshows. By Kyle Flood from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Waaah!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!
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Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!
Happy birthday to my princess. And hello to fondant cakes!

At the start of this week I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. I was facing a week of extraordinary juggling of roles and responsibilities, and to put it plainly, I was grumpy. Grumpy that I had so much on, grumpy, even, that I had said yes to some of the things I had. Let’s take a look at the week that was and how it went, because it’s clear from the title of my post that I found unexpected (or perhaps expected) joy in much of what I did.

Monday morning: Go to baking store with four year old. Spend $120 on cake making equipment for her birthday cake. Perhaps I should have outsourced? Never mind. Browsing aisles of coloured fondant and plunger cutters gave me so much glee it almost felt illegal. 

Monday lunchtime: Meeting with Kindergarten teachers about the nut allergy incident from last week. Get handed a bunch of forms to fill out. Brain explodes slightly, but am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this very serious issue, which has now been resolved. 

Monday afternoon: Submit journal article to none less than the Lancet (which has a 99% rejection policy). Get quite excited when I don’t get rejected within the first 3 hours. 

Monday evening: Frost first birthday cake, followed by work on conference presentation until 11pm. Exhausted. 

Tuesday: Clinic. Am grumpy because of impending teleconference at 7:30pm. Think of pulling out. 

Tuesday afternoon: Teleconference cancelled. Mood lifts! Text husband, who immediately suggests we go and watch the Avengers. 

Tuesday night: Go out for dinner and watch Avengers Age of Ultron, which was tolerable because of my favourite character Ironman was in it. Kids are with Mum who is visiting us from interstate. Eat a choc top. Bed at 12:30am. Yawn!

Wednesday morning: Parent helper morning at kindergarten. Bring birthday cake along. Four year old is very excited, says it is a “really special day”. Listen to some awful knock knock jokes. Learn some Italian songs. Four year old cries when I leave, makes quite a scene. Wonder if I have done the right thing.

Wednesday afternoon: Supervision meeting with my Honours student, followed by practice presentation for upcoming conference talk. Get lots of “feedback”. Realise I have to change half my presentation. Brain starts to throb slightly. 

Wednesday evening: intend to go for a run but am too tired. In bed when the kids go to sleep. Paper is still not rejected by the Lancet! Get a glimmer of hope. 

Thursday morning: Work on presentation. 

Thursday afternoon: Hairdresser appointment. Finish reading Brene Brown’s book. 

Thursday evening: Run followed by dinner and then frost second birthday cake which, to my relief, was a success. Fondant is easier than I thought to work with! Why have I not done this before? Consider offering to make birthday cakes for our our friends and family. Slap myself a little bit. 

Friday morning: Paper is rejected by the Lancet. Resubmit to another journal. 

Friday lunchtime: Give a tutorial. Thoroughly enjoy being around “young people”. Their jokes are funny! Feel a little bit young again. Also feel thankful that I had my grey highlights covered the day before. 

Friday afternoon: Home early to make decorations from fondant with my four year old, to put on the cake. The cake is finally done and all ready for the big party on the weekend! 

Well that was my week. Looking back, it was such a wonderful and full week, and I came out of it feeling really really good. Why? Because I had made the decision to make every single scrap of my day count, to spend it only doing things that were meaningful, rejuvenating, important, or that would make someone else important to me happy (or me happy). And the teleconference, for a voluntary position on a committee, was one of the things I had reluctantly said yes to but felt that I shouldn’t. Once that was taken out of the equation for the week, the rest of my week was authentic, honest and very satisfying, inasmuch as it involved jumping (leaping?) from one role to another.

I feel like I am giving an Oscar speech now, because I cannot do this juggling without flexibility. The nature of what I do is not time-based but outcome-based. This makes my week very flexible, apart from my clinic day, and allowed me to take two hours off to volunteer to sharpen pencils at kindergarten. Of course it’s not about sharpening pencils but about doing something that meant a lot to my daughter. But yes, thank you flexibility, and may you grace the work weeks of everyone else.

I also cannot do this juggle without a healthy disdain for meals that require hours of preparation. Meals this week consisted of baked salmon (in the oven and off to the gym!) and tacos with grilled pork and guacamole. In the big picture, time doing things I love is more important than spending hours in the kitchen, but I still do pump out home-cooked meals for every single weeknight.

Thirdly, sleep. I skimped on it for the first two nights and started to feel pretty grizzly. Then amazing after catching up on sleep. Sleep is the working mama’s secret ingredient.

Fourthly, fun and self care. Respect for the “date night”. Making the time in a busy week to get my hair done. I’ve given lip service to self care before and this week I had to force myself to pay attention to it (or rather the state of my hair forced me).

And lastly. The realisation that I am juggling very very good things and even things that bring me joy. Sitting in on an kindergarten Italian lesson and laughing at four-year-old jokes? Joy. Making birthday cakes? Joy. Even the tutorial, tacked on to the end of the week and seen as yet another time stealer, was joyful because I was teaching, and because it was fun. So I am filled with joy and gratitude, on this Saturday morning, for the week that was. An amazing week of work and love. And choc-tops. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a birthday party to organise :)

PS. Sunday evening. Party was a success. I cannot believe she is almost five. They do grow up fast… after the toddler years :)

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Two days ago, during a meeting, I got the dreaded phone call from kindergarten.

“She’s had an anaphylactic reaction”, they said. “The ambulance is on its way. How soon can you get here?”

It turns out they meant an allergic reaction, thankfully, but still that call was enough to send my heart pounding, and see me racing to collect my things in a slightly delirious haste, and run out the door.

But even though this unfortunate mistake of both kindergarten parent who sent birthday party food in with nuts accidentally, and teacher who didn’t check, meant that my child’s face swelled up and she threw up three times, I am grateful, once crises are over, that they come along at all.

I am grateful because nothing puts your true priorities into focus more blindingly than the experience of running down the street desperately trying to hail a taxi so you can get to your sick child’s side.

At that moment, it’s crystal clear what’s really important. And I’m ashamed to say that of late, it is mostly these crises that remind me. I tend to forget and become focussed on what doesn’t really matter. Just that morning I had a thought, as I scurried around Uni doing this and that, being “busy”, that I was so absorbed in work that I wasn’t really living the moment.

But during an emergency, I suddenly remember.

My laptop and what’s on it isn’t the most important thing. I couldn’t care less at that point.

Money isn’t the most important thing.

Having clean floors is definitely not important.

The most important, the dearest and most precious things to me, are the people that I love, and making them happy and safe. Being with them. 

Health is important. So valuable and so underappreciated, until it’s gone.

Time is important. Time to spend with the cherished ones in your life. Living each moment to its fullest.

I’m not saying that it’s good to live with crisis after crisis, unresolved; this is extremely stressful and damaging and sadly, is the reality for many people. Neither am I suggesting that we should neglect planning for the future, and managing our finances. These things clearly are necessary, though they tend to pale in comparison when the safety of a loved one is at stake. Who would rather have lots of money in the bank than be able to hold a frightened but healthy and alive child in their arms, or speak to Mum on the phone to hear that her biopsy results were all normal?

Our little crisis settled quickly, with the help of antihistamines, the reassurance of the nice paramedics, and lots of TLC. The appropriate steps have been initiated to strengthen the policy around not bringing nuts in. The poor parent rang me to apologise from the bottom of her heart, which I appreciated.

Crises like these are what I call my “reset” button. All the rubbish that was building up in my head is now cleared. I’m back on track again. But I don’t want to rely on crises to help me rethink my priorities, so I’m (re) starting a daily gratitude practice, to ensure that I’m fully appreciating and living every single day instead of missing out. Because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

What about you? What helps you to “reset” your priorities?

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I-try-to-take-one-day-atBeing a GP isn’t easy, but there are some aspects of my job that are quite simple. Like asking a few well-placed questions about lifestyle with every patient that walks in the door. I am constantly surprised at how commonly lifestyle factors contribute to illness – and feeling overwhelmed is a major culprit when it comes to poor lifestyle habits. The way I see it, becoming overwhelmed is the result of expectations exceeding capacity -either the expectations have increased, or capacity to cope has decreased, or both.

I am not immune to becoming overwhelmed. When my son was a baby and my daughter a toddler, I would get the same comment whenever we were out and about (him in the baby carrier, her in the stroller) – “You’ve got your hands full!” You bet I still have my hands full even though they are older now. I juggle two careers (GP and academia) and a family and in between I must run (as in jogging, not running away!) or I will go bonkers. And yes, at times I do become terribly, desperately, crying-in-my-GP’s-office overwhelmed. It’s tough being an adult, no?I know only too well how this leads to a vicious cycle of poor habits that exacerbates the situation. Let’s have a close look at how being overwhelmed affects our health:

My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health
My really high-tech and fancy diagram of how being overwhelmed affects your health

Is it sounding depressing? Don’t be discouraged! Life is dynamic, not static. It’s how we roll with the punches that defines  the outcome. When you’ve come off course, don’t beat yourself up about it. Realign yourself with your destination and get out of that vicious cycle. I’m not a counsellor, but I’ve counselled many patients about this, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Here are some of the lessons.

1. Ask yourself: Is this temporary?

Many situations are – a colleague is sick and you must pick up their shifts; a family member falls ill; you’re moving house. There are many “overwhelmed” periods in my life that were absolutely worth it, like passing final exams, having babies, or finishing a thesis. If it’s temporary, go into survival mode, and plan a recovery later. Try as much as you can to limit alcohol, take short breaks, and do some kind of exercise.

2. If it’s not temporary, is it worth it?

Diet and lifestyle are now considered the biggest threat to our health. Consider this: over time, and with genetic susceptibility, a poor diet and lack of exercise leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – all risk factors for chronic illness and major causes of death such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. This might be a wakeup call, a time to re-prioritise. And leads me to number 3:

3. Talk to someone about it.

The most powerful thing you can do is to say, out loud to someone else, what YOU need to do to improve things. This is when my job as a GP becomes dead easy. I sit back and ask a question like “Have you been exercising?” and a long monologue ensues which ends with my patient saying “I think what I need to do is…” And all I need to do is listen, and be witness to that. Amazing!

4. If it’s not temporary, can you change something?

Can you increase your capacity (learn a new skill, ask for more help? Can you resign from the PTO?) What isn’t necessary in your life, and what are you doing only to please others, or what can you reasonably say No to even if it’s a one-off or for a short time?

5. Connect with your body first. 

Yoga can be a quick, powerful way to reconnect with your body and listen to what it needs. I have a few favourite yoga poses (that don’t require athleticism…) when I need to remind myself of this. Breathe. Exist in your body for just one or two moments and not just in your mind. Aerobic exercise, of course, is a brilliant way of kickstarting wellbeing and motivation.

6. Practise mindfulness.

I find this really difficult when I feel overwhelmed, but I try very hard to stick to it as much as I can. However, it’s even more challenging when I haven’t attended to Number 5 above – connecting with the body first.

7. Practise positive psychology.

The negative spiral often includes a good dose of negative self-talk which is of course counter-productive. Be vigilant and consciously practise positivity. Start a gratitude journal. Start the day with positive affirmations. Challenge your negativity. But also be kind to yourself.

8. Take a mini-break. 

This might only be a couple of hours, or even half an hour if things are really dire. But take a break from what’s on your plate and get a different perspective. My children force me to do this every day and it does help, most of the time, to keep me balanced.

So here I am putting my money where my mouth is. Over the past few months, I’ve been the definition of overwhelmed. I’ve exercised less, eaten more junk, stayed up late, drunk way too much coffee. My skinny jeans have gotten a lot skinnier. I went through the steps above. Yes, it was temporary. It was worth it. I talked to someone about it. I changed things (I am about to take a sabbatical from clinical work for 6 months to finish my PhD). And I’m now exercising religiously at least every second day again. Diet, hmm let’s say Easter got in the way, but I’m getting there.

In fact, this makes me feel positively encouraged. It reminds me how much health and wellbeing is determined by what we do, and is in many ways within our control. Just as the negative spiral of poor lifestyle habits leads to the consequences of low concentration and mood etc that promote the feelings of being overwhelmed, so can a positive spiral lead us back to optimal health. I’m also grateful, in many ways, because these experiences of feeling overwhelmed allow me to completely emphathise with my patients. It makes me a better doctor. I’m on my way back to better habits – just as soon as I finish the kids’ Easter eggs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to bed early.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s imperative that you talk to a health professional and be screened for depression and anxiety, which require more management than what I have described above. Don’t be afraid to tell your GP. It’s very therapeutic. 

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It’s official. I’ve had 2.61 years of career disruption due to kids. I have all the dates; I even have a signed letter from my supervisor to confirm my years of maternity leave and part-time candidature. I need this for my fellowship application, because my “research output” will be assessed “relative to opportunity” – a new concept but a welcome one for others like myself who have taken a break, leaned out, along the years.

I have been saying to my colleagues that “This PhD is a doddle; building an academic career is the thing that is difficult”. I have wondered how life might have been without children – working ten hour days, weekends, writing and publishing and presenting and researching, building that “track record”. I’ve even had moments of fleeting envy when I leave at 4:30pm and see my childless colleagues free to stay until all hours of the evening, and on weekends to know they have the freedom to keep working, keep writing, keep up that research output.

And yet I have come to realise the truths that perhaps only parents understand: productivity is about quality, not quantity. Six solid hours is realistically what I can produce in one day; I have grand plans for the evening but after wrestling two small children into bed, lying down with them for half an hour, fending requests for water and a special blanket and more kisses, my brain is mush and I would rather watch cat videos on Youtube than write a paper.

Even more than this, my children give me something more than wide hips, grey hair and a quiet, desperate wish to one day complete my morning ablutions without an audience. They bring me meaning. They connect me to life itself. When I hold a tiny, chubby hand in mine, when I kiss a round cheek at night, when I breathe in that gorgeous warm just-woken-up smell and hold a soft little body in my arms in the morning, I know why I am here and why I am doing what I am doing. This is not to say that people without children do not have meaning in their lives; they do, of course, and in fact they have so much time to contemplate this sense of meaning too. Perhaps this is why, as a parent, connecting with our children is one of the most breathtaking experiences, because it occurs in the midst of utter tedium, repetitiveness, even boredom.

And those years of career disruption? To be sure, my career WAS disrupted. I have no papers published during that time. No conference presentations to put on my CV. It’s a gaping hole, that 2.61 years. And yet, on the other side, it was marvellous. It was filled with muslin wraps, long walks with the pram, sleepless nights, spew on my shoulder, delicious baby gurgles, toothless smiles, babycinos, trips to the library, quiet moments at home, noisy moments at home, dancing, scribbling, and lots of cleaning food off surfaces. It was marked by a feeling like I could never love more than I did that very moment, like my heart was exploding out of my body. It was a sense of awe, that I had been entrusted with the care, feeding and raising of these very special people. (It was also the hardest thing I have ever done. I have written of this previously.)

And so, to my children, I want to say this. Thank you for “disrupting” my career. Thank you for those years, the best years of my life.

Thank you for the way you love me without hesitation, without any judgement; for forgiving me for all the times I am distracted because I am thinking of my work, or my research, for loving me even though I am nowhere near perfect. 

Thank you for the way you remind me to be mindful and grateful of every single moment.

You are my guiding stars. Every evening I pack up my laptop and race home because I cannot wait to hold you in my arms again. (Sometimes I go for a run before holding you. But you know exercise makes mummy less cranky).

And every single morning, you give me a reason to get out of bed, to keep showing up. 

Thank you for making this trip worthwhile. 

 

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I-Am-EnoughI’ve been writing a blog post entitled “Nine Ways to Beat Anxiety”. It’s sat there, unfinished, for weeks. In the meantime, my anxiety levels, which started rising when I decided to apply for a very competitive fellowship, have skyrocketed. Eventually I faced the facts – I was suffering a major relapse of Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is marked by the desperate feeling that some day someone is going to discover your dirty little secret – you’re just an impostor. You don’t belong where you are. You’ve faked your way. And some day, they are going to find out.

Impostor Syndrome took its toll on me. I started to say Yes to everything that might allay my Impostor anxiety. Looking back it was easy to see how it all snowballed. A host of changes looming this year, major milestones and deadlines, it all came to a head recently. I broke out in a rash, went to see my GP and wept (doctors are human too), and wept again when I saw my counsellor.

Deep down I couldn’t shake this feeling like I just wasn’t good enough, and I felt like I was paddling desperately to keep my head above the water. I also felt extremely time-pressured and like there was no escape.

I tried lots of things. I explored self-compassion – showing myself compassion, loving myself despite my imperfections. I started reading Brene Brown. I confessed to my husband, who already knew, really. Eventually, all of the above helped me make an enormous decision that lifted the burden significantly. But more on that in another post.

I’m now feeling a lot better. But not before I had done some soul-searching. I tried to search for the origin of these “not good enough” messages. I always assumed that someone, somewhere had said things that made me feel this way. But when I looked back, I realised that nobody had ever said to me that I was hopeless, or not a worthy person. I have had negative feedback, awkward moments, humiliation, embarrassment, times of extreme discomfort or stress, but mostly, the messages were internal. I interpreted negative feedback, no matter how minor, to mean that I was intrinsically “no good” as a person, and I was intensely uncomfortable with this feeling. So I always strived to be perfect, to avoid the burning shame of feeling inadequate. But the messages were all mine. The tape, the voice was mine. I couldn’t blame anyone else – I had, effectively, imprisoned myself.

The way forward, then, is to see myself as who I am. Not black and white, good or bad, but a human being intrinsically worthy of love and belonging. And to have the courage to stand up, feeling vulnerable, but accept my imperfections, even accept that I might fail. To have the courage to challenge my beliefs. To finally be kind to myself. This is the ultimate courage – to stand up to my own criticisms. It’s the only way to free myself from this prison of self-doubt. I have been my own worst enemy, for decades. But through these next few difficult weeks, I am going to be brave, by saying “I Am Enough”. That whatever outcomes arise from the day, the week, the month, or from this fellowship application, I am and always will be worthy of love and belonging.

I Am Enough.

Have you ever suffered from Impostor Syndrome? How did you cope with it? 

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