baby-84626_1280
,

baby-84626_1280Well, hello there! I feel very guilty for not following up with Part 2 of this series in a timely manner. Thank you for reading and commenting, and sharing amongst your fellow PhD mothers (and dads). The response to my first post on how to finish a PhD with small children really surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have – I should have known there is such a great need for support and advice during this time. A PhD is daunting even for those without small humans to feed, love, burp, toilet train, and sing to sleep.

Some of you have asked about my children in the context of my PhD journey. When my first child (“Star”) was 8 months old I started working casually as a research assistant on the project that was to be my PhD. It was funded by an NHMRC Grant and based on a pilot study I conducted as a Masters student (I handed in my thesis for that when I was 35 weeks pregnant). My supervisor was  the Lead Investigator. Some six months later, my supervisor suggested I turn it into a PhD saying “you just have to write a thesis at the end”. Ha! famous last words. So I officially began a part time PhD with Star as a 15 month old. Two years later I took maternity leave for my second child, “Owl”, for 7 months, then returned part time initially for a few months, later switching to full time for a year.

So here you are, PhD mums and dads – Part 2 of my series on How to Finish a PhD while Raising Small Children (ok, maybe the series will just be two posts. Feel free to let me know in the comments what else you would like to know!) I will apologise that this post is largely written for PhD mums. I recognise that dads play a huge role in children’s lives and often face the same insecurities but I argue that unconscious bias means that the experience of being a PhD dad might be slightly different from being a PhD mum. But I’d love to hear from you about this.

Managing my mind? What do you mean by that? 

In my first post I wrote about time management. This is super important. A strategic approach to your very precious time is key to your success. But even if you manage your time like a ninja, you will still have to deal with the thoughts in your head, and ultimately, how they make you feel. So this is about managing your mind (and your emotions, and energy).

1. First, ditch the guilt. 

Guilt about not being with your children, guilt about not making them organic purees to eat every day, guilt about handing them over to a carer while you work on your PhD. Being a PhD parent can be incredibly guilt-inducing. There are so many different types of the guilts that we are subjected to. Basically, particularly if you’re a mother, society implies that your role is to stay at home with your cherubs, baking cookies, making play dough, taking them to Gymbaroo, colour coding the nursery, singing nursery rhymes while you cook a nice hot meal for dinner. Not dropping them off at daycare and then heading to the lab. The guilts can come on quite insidiously – a flippant comment from a colleague. An article about Ten Top Craft Activities for your Toddler. My favourite line, said to me by a slightly snarky (non PhD) mum was “Oh, I couldn’t do what you’re doing“. And not meant in the positive way.

I want you to ditch the guilt. I unsubscribed to any social media or newsletters that perpetuated my sense of guilt (think Kidspot, etc). I learned to accept that everyone has opinions and are entitled to them, but it doesn’t mean they are valid, and most of all, they have no business commenting on my decisions. DITCH. THE. GUILT. Hasta la vista, baby. You have every right to choose a meaningful life. You are contributing to knowledge. And motherhood was never designed to be endless years of staring at your baby as it babbles. Mothers all around the world have continued to work, bringing their babies along in a basket on their backs, or leaving them with the village/older children. It’s only in our society, with its peculiar cult of intensive motherhood (look it up…) that we get the guilts about not being with our children all the time.

If you feel guilty about daycare/childcare, please head over to my (somewhat outdated) post on on it.

2. Remember, you are important. Yes, YOU. 

Question – who is the most important person in your life? Is it your gorgeous eight-month-old? Your cheeky, rusk-throwing two year old?

No – it’s you. YOU are the most important person in your life.

Look after yourself first. Like, not just because you will be the best version of yourself, and won’t be the crankypants version. Not because you want to be less irritable with the children, more productive with writing etc. Because you deserve to be looked after, as a human being. Repeat after me. I MATTER.

3. Be kind to yourself. 

Being a PhD student AND parent is pretty nerve-wracking. You always feel like you’re never “good enough” as a PhD student, there is so much to learn, you’re out of your depth. It’s the same with parenting. You are always dealing with a new stage – once you get over the teething, then there are the tantrums, and the toilet training (why do these things always start with T???). I can’t tell you how many times the phrase “I have no idea what I’m doing” came to me during parenting or PhD-ing.

What helped me immensely was practising self-compassion. I learned to be really kind to myself. I gradually worked to remove the nasty voice in my head that said negative things about my performance at all times of day. Now, there is a gentle, encouraging, and wiser voice that picks me up when I’m down and challenges assumptions when I start going down the rabbit hole of “I suck at this”. I’m so glad, because it turned out I didn’t suck at anything at all – I raised two beautiful children and finished my PhD submitting it one month BEFORE THE DEADLINE and after moving interstate and starting two new jobs.

You do not suck at this. You rock.

4. Get help. 

You can’t do this alone. During my PhD candidature I went to my Uni counsellor regularly. She was a very kind woman who sat and listened while I told my stories of woe, overwhelm, insecurity. She validated how I felt. She listened. She understood.

You will no doubt seek support from family and friends, and I hope you are lucky enough to have a loving household setup to support you. But there is something about seeking a professional’s help to walk next to you on this journey that can make all the difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A counsellor, psychologist, your GP are all highly skilled and qualified to help you optimise your mental health. Please see your GP if you are struggling with anxiety or depression (low mood, feel flat all the time, tired, and not enjoying anything any more). I’ve been honest about my own struggles with mental health and I really encourage you to honour yourself by taking care of your mind and emotions. You are important!

5. Take breaks. 

It’s exhausting being a PhD parent. You need to take a break from both. Go on holidays (difficult during COVID.. but maybe a staycation). Have fun. Get someone to look after the cherubs so that you can have a day off just to do nothing, or a night off to have dinner with your partner or friends. Take a break from the exhausting grind of nappies, rushing out the door, cleaning up after toddlers, scraping poo off tiny Crocs (true story), and dealing with the pressures of the PhD. At the end of the day, can you steal a quiet moment, even if it’s lying next to your demanding toddler at night, to breathe and connect with yourself? That’s a break too. Go on. You deserve it.

6. The “no regrets” rule. 

Throughout my PhD tenure I lived by one rule. Whatever decisions I had to make, I carefully considered if I would regret them years later. This meant that I ended up deciding to do some hard things, but not other hard things. For example, I was struggling with being part time – I just wasn’t getting the traction on my writing that I needed to. But I didn’t want to miss out on some of the lovely aspects of being a parent to small children, like spending the morning in pyjamas, visits to the park and zoo during the week, playdates etc. So I decided to switch to full time but spend a 9 day fortnight on my PhD (and additional work as a GP). One day a fortnight I woke up, didn’t check email, didn’t write, and planned catchups, playdates, play dough, Story Time, whatever it was that I wanted to do with my children. Those were some of the most precious memories of my time with them as tiny children. But it meant that I was also able to progress well on my PhD.

~

I don’t have a single regret about my time as a PhD mum. (I wax a bit lyrical about it in one post – please note that I had rose-coloured glasses on at this time as I had finally done the bloody thing!!) Well, one. I wish I had been kinder to myself. I wish I had learned how to manage my mind better. I kind of stumbled on it along the way. I am grateful for this experience, because it really highlighted how much I needed to be on the ball to manage my own mental health. Once I realised I had to work on that too, everything fell into place a lot more easily, and I have continued to learn difficult lessons through my postdoc.

Please write to me (drcarolynee@gmail.com), comment, add your experiences (be aware that the above experience is just one PhD and everyone’s is completely different), give me feedback. Share with your PhD parent friends in case this helps. Maybe it won’t. and that’s ok!

May the Force be with you all!

 

Share

IMG_4053When you came along, I thought you would be different.

I thought you would be a halo of peaceful luminescence, interspersed with cute yet amusing events such as laughing at how little sleep I had had. I thought my baby would look at me and smile on Day One (I know, right? Nobody told me otherwise…)

Instead you dragged me, completely unaware, into a place of terror, confusion, at times despair, and you threw me into a deep hole of where I felt like I was drowning in my own inadequacy. Why won’t my baby stop crying? When will I get some sleep? What day is it? Why can’t I get this right? Why is everyone else coping so well? I pleaded.

You brought me strange gifts – guilt, mostly. I felt guilty all the time for not being a good enough mother. You brought me exhaustion like I had never known before. Anxiety – lying in bed with my heart pounding in my ears, not able to breathe properly. Self-doubt. But with these, you gently brought some other gifts into my life. And tentatively, I began to notice and accept them.

You brought me connection. In those early days, I learned who my tribe was. I walked for hours with my tribe and our babies. Some of them were experienced mothers with adult children who emailed me from across the seas, with encouragement. Their babies had been like mine. They turned out ok. More than ok. They knew what I was going through. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

I now know how to seek out my tribe, wherever I go.

You brought me tenderness, and with that a fierce protective love that buffered me through those difficult early months and years.

Courage in the face of vulnerability.

Empathy. Compassion for people who are in a dark and desperate place. I can now sit next to them knowing that is probably all they need.

Humility. Awe. Hope.

You forced me to confront the neuroses that had haunted me all my life – my impostor syndrome, for example – but that I had always managed to blithely ignore because I was a young, carefree child-free adult who could patch over these difficult emotions with my holidays, my yoga classes, my fancy dinners for two, my weekends filled with enjoyable and non-confronting things like having coffee in a trendy cafe, or visiting a museum. I now know what I must do instead. Be mindful. Name emotions. Channel my wiser self. Practise gratitude. Reset my comparisons. Be comfortable with the discomfort. Breathe.

One of your most difficult lessons was about self-care and self-kindness. I get it now.

Each year, you bring me an opportunity to reflect on how time is marching on. Those wrinkly babies grew into chubby toddlers, boisterous preschoolers, and I now have a ten-year-old who prefers to keep her room door closed, thank you. My child-free friends have to rely on New Year and birthdays for this opportunity, and they don’t get to see how much life changes in one year. With each milestone – first steps, toilet training, reading, learning to shower on their own – we let go, just a little bit more, with both joy and trepidation.

Thank you, Motherhood. For the gifts you brought. For your wisdom, even when your lessons were harsh and I resisted. Thank you for the joy.  And the heartbreak. It has made me authentic.

Thank you for the opportunity to make memories for two of the Earth’s members.

And thank you for turning me into a leader.

On our ten-year anniversary, I can honestly say I’m so glad you entered my life. And will continue to gratefully accept all the gifts and lessons that are yet to come. My heart is full.

X

IMG_4548

Share
mother-937038_1920
, ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your loving mumma

x

 

Share
son-2935723_1280
,

 

 

Try not to complain about getting old.

Many will not get the same privilege.

 

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

Many will be extremely lonely with little human connection. 

 

Try not to complain about your job. 

Many would love to be gainfully employed. 

 

Try not to complain about having to walk somewhere. 

Many would love to have two functional legs. 

 

Try not to complain about your children. 

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

 

Try not to complain about having to cook. 

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

 

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

 

As the poet Mary Oliver said, 

Do you need a prod?”

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

Or not“. 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

X

 

Share
thank-you-3690115_1280
,

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

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

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

I Googled him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share
people-2566854_960_720
, ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

This year, I feel like the Queen Elizabeth II that year when Fergie broke up with Andrew, and life in Buckingham Palace was generally falling apart. The queen remarked that she was having an annus horribilis. I’m having my own version, minus the papparazzi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And just do the best that you can.

 

xx

Share
, ,

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.

bodhi

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. 

IMG_5824

 

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

Share
Photo courtesy of Tom Simposon https://www.flickr.com/photos/randar/15740129339
,

Photo courtesy of Tom Simposon https://www.flickr.com/photos/randar/15740129339
Photo courtesy of Tom Simposon https://www.flickr.com/photos/randar/15740129339

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.

Share