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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
I have recently been appointed to a new, more senior role. This role both terrifies and inspires me, and it appears to terrify others as well. When I talk about what I do and what I plan to do, colleagues and mentors invariably respond with “That. Is. ENORMOUS”. What they often don’t know is that I also work one day a week in general practice, and am raising two young children on the side. I think if they knew, their collective heads might explode. So I have stopped mentioning it.
This heightened level of juggling sometimes makes me feel like overcompensating for my multiple roles. I can be the perfect, overworked academic. I can be the perfect mum as well. I can do it all, and do it effortlessly. It’s a strange, masochistic way of coping with everything that is on my plate – by piling more on, it will all appear balanced! Ha!
Fortunately, I have, to my credit, figured out a few ways to avoid being that superwoman. I thought I would share them with you in case you could apply them to your life too. This is not just for working mums. It’s for dads, it’s for every mum, it’s for every adult who sometimes wakes up and thinks “I can’t adult today. Please don’t make me adult”.
1. Don’t be a superhero.
Don’t attempt superhuman feats. At least, not without a really, really, really good reason.
I was offered another role, a part time role, attached to a certain level of prestige, where I could help make strategic decisions, and generally feel important. It was in an area that I feel passionate about, and somewhat connected to my current role, but not exactly. It would involve a bit of extra income, look very impressive on my CV, and I would get to work with people that I liked. It involved travelling to Melbourne two days a month, plus a lot of extra work outside of meetings (I must admit, a part of me really liked the idea of having one night a month in a hotel, on my own). It was the kind of role that would be perfect for me – in ten years time.
I thought about this for a long time. I could work extra hours on the weekend, on the plane, on weeknights, to make up for the hours, I thought. I could see that two days a month as my “me time” and sacrifice all my other time to work and family in between. I could hire a nanny to help out, with the extra income. And yet, something in me hesitated, because it seemed like the only things to benefit would be my ego, my bank balance ( a little – not a lot), my CV, and that woman who wanted to sleep in a king size bed on her own without little elbows in her face. Everything else would no doubt suffer – time, energy, family.
Eventually I fought that superwoman in my head who told me “Go on. You can do it! You can do anything!!!” and wrote an email saying that I’d love to rethink the position, in three years time.
Don’t be a superhero.
2. Don’t be afraid to outsource.
When my daughter started school, we put her in two days a week of after school care. “She’s too precious to spend all her time there” we thought. “We must save her from this terrible fate”. After a while, the pressure on two working parents became clearer, and we put her in for an extra day. Towards the end of the year, it was getting so hard to juggle the 3pm pickups between us. This year, she’s in for four days and our stress levels have dropped dramatically. Now it’s only one day a week between us to juggle the early pickup. She is literally there for less than two hours, and she gets fed afternoon tea, does arts and craft with her friends, and reads books. She meets lots of friends from other classes. Invariably she doesn’t want to leave when I pick her up.
Don’t be afraid to outsource. Especially if it’s because of ill-conceived notions of something not being good enough for your precious ones. It usually is just fine.
3. Online canteen ordering. Enough said.
When my daughter started school, I had a Pinterest board of beautiful bento-style lunches. I was going to pack her edamame and cream cheese sandwiches one day, bliss balls and cute cheese stars the next. The reality was that she got a cheese sandwich cut in half, and some carrot sticks. Then I discovered Flexischools. If you don’t have something like Flexischools, I send my commiserations. With a few swipes, I can order my precious one a cooked lunch (pasta bolognaise, sushi, nachos…) plus they cut up the carrot sticks for me, and I can make this a recurring order. What?! My daughter loves the canteen so much, I now have recurring orders for every single day of the week. I no longer spend bleary mornings chopping up cucumber, only to find it hasn’t been eaten at the end of the day.
Get thee to an online canteen ordering system. And yes, please “make this a weekly order”.
4. Mums are like ice cream.
Last year my daughter begged me to come in for parent reading help. Twice a week, the lovely parents (usually mums…) came in to help the school kids with some one on one reading. For a while, I even considered changing my schedule so I could be there 10am – 10:45am on a Wednesday. Then I slapped myself out of my senses.
I just can’t be that mum. I work full time. I try to make it for assemblies, Easter hat parades, and the special occasions. But I can’t be that mum at reading help every week. I’ve had to realise that mums are like ice cream. Some are chocolate chip, some are strawberry, some are lemon gelato (or is it gelati)? Chocolate chip is not better than strawberry nor better than lemon gelato/i. We’re all just ice cream. Our kids might prefer one flavour over the other, but at the end of the day we’re still ice cream. All of us.
Fridays is generally a good day for me. It’s a day where I don’t have to get out of bed at the crack of dawn. It’s a day when I generally schedule the exciting, inspiring meetings that happen in the CBD in the middle of the day. Last Friday I walked my daughter to school and we chatted along the way. It was a sweet moment of intimacy. I kissed her goodbye and caught the bus to the city. I had energising meetings with inspiring people. Afterwards I told my boss I was going to get a haircut. He told me to enjoy myself. I sat in a food court and ate a nasi goreng, a terrible nutritional choice but my treat for the week. For a moment, I felt balanced, and strangely invincible.
Perhaps by refusing to be superwoman, I can actually be the superwoman that I am meant to be. Less is more.
To all the superwomen out there, I salute you. May we always make the right choices so that our capes fit comfortably on our shoulders.
“I wanted to ask you how you manage to balance it so beautifully” she asked shyly. “Work, family…”
I felt like a fraud when the young PhD student said this to me. (Yes, I suffer from Impostor Syndrome at home too.) I don’t feel like I am balancing anything. Let alone beautifully.
It’s the end of a very long year and school is not out yet. I’m barely hanging on by a thread in these final weeks of the year. I am just so tired of the struggle.
I struggle every day with my career. There is a real desperation, the way a starving person looks at food he simply cannot afford. The loneliness of being a postdoc, the crushing rejections that seem to happen on a weekly basis, have worn me down. I feel like I am trying to claw my way out of a deep well, with those at the top quite non-plussed at my inability to get out to where they are.
I struggle at home too – the daily battle to get socks and shoes on (their feet, not mine), to get food into little tummies, to get small people in and out of the bath and into bed. The PhD student doesn’t see me snap at my children. She doesn’t see how I spend too much time on Facebook at night because I am too tired to do anything else. She hasn’t seen me cry all the way through a chapter on “Mistakes” in my “Mindful discipline” audiobook (a brilliant book, by the way) – tears streaming down my cheeks all the way on my commute home, thinking of the countless ways I have failed my children.
So, balance? I’m not that good at it. Work and life consume me and I am wrung out at this time of the year, with almost nothing left to give.
And yet, I can see that she sees something different. Perhaps she sees a part of me I am blind to. Perhaps I see the same thing in my role models – the hugely successful academic women who have raised children and do this well. Perhaps they, too, feel like balance is a load of bollocks. (Excuse the language).
Perhaps what she sees is someone who wakes up every day and shows up, who fights for the things she loves, who is determined to make it work despite it all. She sees the part of me that is organised, resilient, resourceful, and able to laugh at myself. She sees, somehow, that I seek ways to keep myself going during the week – a beachside run, some meditation practice, blogging on my smartphone in the car before picking my son up from daycare. She sees the gratitude that drives me, literally in my darkest moments – the way I linger in bed breathing in my sleeping children during those cold mornings when I face a pre-dawn commute. And she must see the times I am in flow at work, and when I say a silent prayer for being paid to do something that I love. Perhaps this is the true balancing act. The fierce determination to create a meaningful life, even if it’s no walk in the park; the ability to see the Yin and Yang of our full catastrophe.
Perhaps balance is all about resilience, the “bouncing back”. It’s about digging deep, but also knowing how to fill the cup again after it has run empty.
I am looking forward to bouncing back after the Christmas holidays. I have not had a proper break for more than 12 months. I have had sneaky little breaks here and there but they have been much too short for any lasting rejuvenation. I have both career and mummy burnout. But the end of the year is almost within reach.
Most of all I am looking forward to a few weeks of not having to explain to my children that they have to put their shoes and socks on every morning and hurry up because Mummy is late.
Wishing all my loyal followers a safe, happy, relaxing end of year break. Merry Christmas if that is what you celebrate. And a very happy and healthy New Year. x
Hello there. It’s been a long time. I wanted to say that I’m all right. It’s been a tough few months of transition but I’m doing okay.
I’ve been practising mindfulness. I wish I could say I am doing some actual meditation, like sitting on a cushion and breathing. I am not. But I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s amazing book “Mindfulness for Beginners” and it was an eye-opener. And I’ve tried my best to transplant his wisdom straight into my daily life. I wanted to share with you some of the insights I’ve gained recently. It’s not like my life is suddenly, immediately, amazingly and 110% better. I have my ups and downs. But slowly, I feel like I’m making inroads.
Let me share with you the reason I picked up that book. I’m a full time working mother. Despite my best efforts, I was spending the most part of the day:
(1) Stressing about the million things I had to get done (grant application, commute to work, meetings, job applications, writing papers, prove myself to the world, exercise, make lunches, connect with my children, make nutritious food, remember the note for the excursion, do my Business Activity Statement, groceries… you get the picture), and
( 2) Spending every evening wishing my children were in bed already. This second part made me stop suddenly and think, this is not a way to be living. To wish my children away, because I am so overwhelmed I just need some space on my own. And Number 1 made me feel like a “human doing” as JKZ says, not a “human being“.
Yes I can outsource, I can delegate, I can take shortcuts, I can reduce my expectations, I can do all those things that working mothers are blithely advised to do. It wouldn’t solve my problems. My problems are all in my head.
Here is the first part of my journey. I’ll share more as I go along. I hope these will help you too. It’s not unique to working mothers – I think everyone can relate. But I struggle daily with the demands of work and home, so my aim is to thrive and experience every moment without any regrets and without having wished these years away.
1. I learned that thoughts are not real. They’re things I have made up.
That’s right – thoughts are not reality. When I realised that I don’t actually have to think quite so much, it was such a relief I almost cried. Even now when I remind myself of this, I feel my brain suddenly relax and give out a huge sigh. What? I don’t need to obsess and think all the time? It’s not real? Life will go on if I stop going around in circles in my head with my endless to do list? Wow.
2. You cannot get rid of your thoughts. But you don’t have to get carried away by them.
This was another revelation. I always thought I had clear my mind and not have thoughts. Once I accepted that they would always be there, bubbling up from the surface like a simmering stew, I could accept them and let them go. They are just my brain cells firing after all – if I didn’t have thoughts I may very well be in a coma! But I don’t have to grab on to the endless thoughts that pop up in my head and end up in hopeless rumination. It’s like sitting next to rapids and watching sticks bob around and flow down the river. As long as you stay on the banks, and don’t jump in, nothing will happen to you. (The sticks are like thoughts, obviously). But the moment you dive in and grab on to a stick… good luck to you. In the words of Queen Elsa – Let It GO!
3. Mindfulness allows you to see things as they really are.
It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but I can challenge negative ones a bit better. And then I have really useful thoughts, you know, the ones like “Maybe I should ask so and so to be on my team at work, that would be really helpful!” And mindfulness helps me refocus, to get out of my head so to speak. It’s a bit like zooming out of a shot and seeing the entire ocean or forest or beautiful landscape in front of you instead of focussing on one tiny leaf that has been magnified hundreds of times. I honestly feel as though my head, which sometimes feels enormous from so much over-thinking, suddenly shrinks to a normal size, and I become a normal person again. I suddenly remember my place in the world, and that there are billions of people with problems, and that mine aren’t particularly special, or difficult, and that the sky is blue right now, the leaves are moving gently with the breeze, sounds of the outside world suddenly reach my ears, and I notice people, cars, trees, flowers, clouds again when before I was just existing in a maelstrom in my head.
There are more insights from the book which I’ll save for another post. The link is an affiliate link which means Amazon pays me a dollar if you buy the book after clicking on my link. But that’s not the reason I wrote this post at all. I just wanted to share what it’s brought to my life, and I’ve been sharing it with many of my patients. I hope it helps you x
Last 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.
I used to say, whenever someone expressed admiration for my ability to function coherently at work despite being a mum to small children, that coming to work kept me sane. And this was, and still is, certainly true. Work means order, quiet, predictability, intellectual stimulation, adult conversation and having lunch without needing to clean the floor afterwards. It most certainly helps my sanity.
Yet in these last few months of increasing pressure, with a PhD deadline looming, multiple new responsibilities, and the impending stress of an interstate move, heralded by frantic searches of real estate websites for the perfect home, something quite odd has been happening. It is my children that are keeping me sane.
It is my children who bring the immense relief from overthinking, from mental strain, from all this striving. It’s like taking a complete break from worrying, ruminating and hand-wringing of my life of late. My children bring me straight back to the most important place- the present moment – remind me what is most important – fun, love, silly jokes (and food) – and most of all, love me even if I havent written the perfect chapter or figured out what we are going to do next year. Regardless of how my day went and what challenges I have failed to master, they bound towards me at the end of the day with faith in my abilities as a mother. Just being there validates my worth to them – you’re here, mum! That’s fantastic! We love you. One warm hug, one set of tiny arms wrapped around my neck, and the workday melts away.
My children make me laugh, which is a powerful stress reliever. They make me realise that even the smallest things can matter, and this is beautiful. Stopping to pick a flower. Enjoying a sunset. Looking forward to icecream after dinner. Delighting in the bubbles in the bath. All of these things are exciting, magical experiences that are exquisite in their simplicity and accessibility. Happiness is right there within our reach. The look on my son’s face when he has a bowl of grapes all to himself is a reminder that there is so much to love and be thankful for. The moment when I am walking my children to daycare, completely absorbed in my worries about the day, and my son points to the sky and cries out “Look mummy! A helicopter!” And I suddenly come back to the present moment. The times when my daughter announces, from her bed, that she is coming to give me something that I really really need, and climbs out to plant a kiss on my cheek. “There,” she says. “There is all my love. Now everything is ok.” And tears well up in my eyes when I realise that, of all the people in the world, my children might be the wisest of them all.
My children have no fears or worries (yet). Problems can be solved incredibly easily in their innocent minds. There are no barriers in their minds – everything is possible. It’s breathtaking. I feel like such a downer whenever I say “That wouldn’t work” or “It just doesn’t happen that way“. Where did I learn these phrases? How did I become so rigid, seeing all the negatives, the things that get in our way, how something couldn’t possibly work out? Surely once I was that pure innocent and stunningly creative little soul. Somewhere along the years, I learned that “it’s not that easy”. I’ve stopped exploring options beyond my narrow scope of “what might work”. I became an adult. And it makes me weep to think of all the possibilities I gave up.
Yet I know what lies ahead for these children. I know the pain of rejection, of disappointment, of things not quite turning out the way you thought they would. Failure. Humiliation. Puberty. I know too that they will survive these, and will have vastly more wonderful, inspiring and triumphant experiences, but that as human beings they will eventually remember the things that go wrong before the things that go right. My job is to gently and persistently steer them towards the positive, towards resilience, towards making sense of adversity, and overcoming challenges.
But these months of rushing around, hustling and worrying, have undeniably been tempered and made sweet by these two beautiful human beings. As will the next few months. Somehow, very unexpectedly, I have come to realise that I cannot do it without my children – without their cheerful faces, their ready kisses and hugs, and even without their toilet humour (the “poo poo” jokes are currently all the rage). Because if one cannot laugh at a fart joke, one has lost all the spirit in life.
An example of a joke my daughter told me this morning:
Zero plus zero equals zero! (Cue manic laughter)