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This is Part I of my thoughts to that lovely post by a father who calculated what his stay-at-home wife and mother to his toddler would cost him if he had to pay for all the services she provides. But really it’s an open letter to all primary income earners in families, who are lucky enough to have a stay-at-home spouse, whether they be dads or mums in heterosexual or same-sex partnerships.

This post was important because it highlights a couple of key facts about partnerships. One, it is the woman who still shoulders the lion’s share of domestic duties, even if she is employed outside the home. Two, this work is unpaid. Three, this work is often goes unrecognised, which is what this lucky dad wrote about. He hadn’t realised, up until recently, how much his wife meant to him – in very practical terms as well as emotional. Him having a stay-at-home spouse allows him to go about his work without worrying about childcare dropoffs and pickups, what to cook for dinner, whether he has a clean shirt, whether the gas bill is due, or whether there is milk in the fridge. It is this kind of happy arrangement that has benefitted men for decades and that Annabel Crabb writes about in her brilliant book The Wife Drought. And I applaud Steven, and I know he probably feels like hiding in a corner at the moment with what sounds like an enormous response to his heartfelt post. I’ve been there. But as a woman and a mother, who has been both a SAHM and working mum, here’s a few suggestions as to how you, Steven, and all the other fortunate people who have a stay-at-home spouse, can really repay your beautiful wife (or husband). I apologise in advance if you are already doing all of this. You sound like a great guy, so it’s quite likely that you are. If you’re not, here’s what you could do.

1. When you come home, she needs to have a break. Even if you worked flat out without a break today, you at least had some quiet time on your commute home. So when you walk in that door, remember that she has had a full day giving your toddler all her attention – she’s been working, too.  She might not even have had a proper lunch. So you take the toddler, reconnect with him, and tell your wife to go and do whatever it is she has been longing to do all day – go for a walk, read a book, hide in her bed.

2. Let’s talk about groceries. Have you ever done groceries with a two-year-old? When you call her during the day, ask if there’s anything you can pick up from the shops. Chances are she’s run out of wipes or milk or forgot to buy garlic. Pick it up on the way home. On the weekend, offer to do the weekly grocery shop or better, ask if she wants to go to the store. Alone.

3. Laundry. Ask if you can help with a load of laundry. Every day. If there is a pile unfolded on the couch, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT ask why the house is messy. Simply pick up the clothes, fold them and put them away. If you see your wife coming out of the laundry with a basket, tell her you will put it up.

4. Spend a day with your toddler. Alone. Send your wife out for the day to do whatever she wants. At the end of the day cook dinner for your wife. This way you will really know what she goes through every day. Your appreciation for her will skyrocket. Extra points if you use minimal TV.

5. Never ever ask why the house is messy. If you start doing this, repeat Number 4. (I don’t mean to offend, your wife might keep an incredibly tidy house; if so, pay her double).

6. Let’s talk about finances, paying bills and all that admin. There are of course advantages to being able to do things during business hours like go to the bank. But lots of admin tasks can be done online. Yes, online, in the evenings, after work. Take over some of these. It’s a huge burden for your wife to look after EVERYTHING.

7. On the weekends, you are equals. You share childcare and domestic duties. You both deserve a weekend off. Her job of being exclusive carer to your child is not to spill over onto the weekend. Does your boss expect you to work on weekends and after hours? No? Remember, he is your child too. Do the diapers. Cook a meal. Give him a bath.

8. When your toddler wakes in the middle of the night, take turns to go to him. Yes I know you have to wake up and go to work but so does she. Take. Turns.

9. Holidays. Your wife needs a holiday every now and then from her job. See Number 4.

10. Just remember these four magic words that you should repeat as often as you remember. “How can I help?”

I promise you, if you do these things, you will repay her far more than any dollars will. She will feel equal, something she has probably struggled with since giving up her paid employment. Nothing is more polarising than having a family revert from a double to a single income. What she does is priceless, yes. But she doesn’t have to do it all. Once we start moving towards a more equal distribution of domestic labour, this parenting stuff will get easier. And if you’re already doing all of the above, well done. You really do get it. :)

Part 2 to come soon 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for making this trip worthwhile. 

 

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When my daughter turned four, I asked for birthday gift ideas. One was for a fairy door. A miniature door attached to the wall, where imaginary fairies emerge from. Given she is a huge fan of fairies in general, I went with this idea. Instead of ordering a $35 door marketed as a fairy door, I thought I would order a dolls house internal door (a hack I read about on the internet). I found a dolls house store on eBay and ordered a white wicker outdoor chair, a door knob, and some adorable accessories like a tiny broomstick, but yep, you guessed it, I forgot to order The Actual Door.

That was nine months ago.

Since then, “Order door” has been on my to-do list, but it has consistently made it to the bottom of the list below “Pay car insurance bill” and “Fill out kindy forms”. In other words, it became non-important, non-urgent. Time and time again that door order was bumped right to the bottom while I swashbuckled my way through a year of being a full-time PhD student, GP and mama. I wrote papers. I organised workshops. I took my kids to the dentist, allergist, and cardiologist. I analysed data. I did Christmas. And that fairy door was faithfully transferred from one list to the next, never quite making it up there. Until today.

Last night I awoke suddenly to a realisation. My daughter is going to be five soon. Before I know it, she will be six. Then seven. Then a teenager. Slowly, and yet not slowly enough, she is changing. She says Sesame Street is boring. She only wants to play with her friends (not me). She spends a lot of time alone in her room playing by herself. Life isn’t going to stop for us – the dentist appointments (sadly) will continue, the bills will keep coming in, my career will continue to burgeon and demand my attention. I will have school lunches to pack, recitals to attend, pap smears to get done (yay!)

One day I might wake up and it might be too late for that fairy door. That tiny piece of wood with six panels will only be that to her – a piece of wood. Not a magical doorway into fairyland and her imagination. That poor neglected door might finally arrive, if I ever get down to the bottom of my to-do list (it’s like the laundry – virtually impossible to clear) and she might not care a hoot for it. Non-important and non-urgent. But today, it went to the top of my list. Important and Urgent.

Urgent because time is passing as I busy myself with the tasks of raising a family and building a career, as we see birthdays, Christmas and Easter come and go each year like the ebb and flow of an unceasing tide. Tree goes up, tree goes down. Presents are wrapped and unwrapped. Each year marking a little bit more of a loss of this precious time, when imagination is at its peak, when my little girl starts every sentence with “Pretend I am…”

When will she stop pretending? When will she no longer believe in fairies and unicorns? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be too late.

So today, after taking a pause in the middle of writing yet another paper, I ordered the fairy door. And two tiny cat bowls (fairies have cats, don’t they?) A miniature pink mail-box, where she can put a tiny note to the fairies in. And a side table to go with that white wicker chair. (I almost ordered a set of four little celebration cakes and a miniature flower pot but I sensibly stopped myself).

Any day now, that door will arrive in the mail. We’ll paint it and put it up on the wall together with the fairy’s chair and table. And she’ll wait each morning to see what the fairy has done overnight. Eventually she’ll get bored of it and it will be forgotten. But not before I’ve had the chance to enjoy, to fully embrace, the marvel of childhood. The simplicity, the innocence, the beauty of this short time, before the fairy doors and unicorns and dolls and teddies are given away and packed in boxes and my children emerge into independent adults who no longer believe that fairies exist.

So much of child-rearing is important but not urgent. Today I learned that much of it is more urgent than we think. Over in a heartbeat, they say. During the long difficult baby and toddler months and years, this seems ludicrous, but the older my children get, the more I am appreciating it.

Important, and Urgent.

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By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Time is a funny thing. When I became a parent, and then a working parent, it became a precious commodity. I am obsessed with it. Each half-hour of my life is carefully plotted out on an Outlook calendar. Like Annabel Crabb, I use the whole day like an Italian farmer uses every scrap of the pig. One thing was sure – I never feel like I have enough of it. Time, that is. But then odd things sometimes happen – I will fall into a pocket of free time, and not know what to do with it. And, coming across a tiny patch of “leisure time”, I do what any other adult with a smartphone would do – check Facebook. Or Twitter. Click on a link and read funny “Engrish” signs or watch cat videos on Youtube. Which is all very entertaining, and I do subscribe to the idiom “laughter is the best medicine”, but watching another video of a cat on a Roomba is surely not the best way to spend my life and fill up those empty “windows” that pop up unexpectedly – like when the kids are playing quietly instead of fighting over me. Additionally, I have started to become more anxious, with self-doubt starting to rise again. I felt rushed, but also like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Yesterday I read a quote by Carl Sandburg that went

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you”. 

This was my first “aha!” moment for the year. I am going to manage my time firstly by living the life that I want to live, that I am meant to live – not the life I think I should live, or what others think I should  (though I am always open to suggestions). I can only be who I am – and that includes being a mother to two (currently small) children, and someone who doesn’t (yet) possess superhuman skills. Me with all my unique talents, quirks, personality traits, aptitudes, shortcomings, weaknesses and commitments. I am certain that this alone is enough to allow me to lead a wonderful life. I think the anxiety arising from feeling pressured to be someone else was contributing to the sense of feeling rushed and not having time, and paradoxically, driving me to hide in non-threatening activities like socialising on Facebook. I am going to be me, but will aim to be the best version of me that I can be. And that version will involve a little more reflection, learning, integrity, self-compassion, and that elusive concept, balance. I will attend to Quadrant II – important but not urgent activities. I will exercise conscious choice and cease the habit of reacting that I have slipped back into. Time is no longer something to be managed, but something to be spent wisely. So, I should really re-title this post “How I Plan On Spending My Time”.

I leave you with some words from Steve Jobs.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

 

What about you? Do you feel as though you are spending your time the way you should? How do you decide how to spend your time? 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this mission of mine to slow down in 2015. I’ve had lots of metaphors going, but the ship metaphor has been my favourite. It doesn’t just apply to slowing down – it applies to many areas of my life that make me feel anxious, nervous or unbalanced. I was inspired in the first place by the following quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper:
“A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
So here are the reasons I am going to be a mother ship in 2015 and beyond.
1. Ships are strong.
They’re designed by experts to weather the storms at sea and last for decades. They’re the world’s mightiest vessels. This helps me feel less vulnerable if I’m facing a new challenge with trepidation, or feeling a bit fragile or rough around the edges. (You know those moments when you feel like hiding under the quilt?) Ships are strong. I am a strong mother ship. I don’t crack under pressure.
2. Ships are made to weather the storms.
Kind of like (1) – ships are strong. They forge through a storm. I’m not a hopeless little rubber dinghy being batted about by the wind and waves. I am built to last through wild weather and then sail into calm waters. Because the storm always passes, eventually. I must remember this.
3. Ships need regular maintainence.
This is one of my favourite parts of the metaphor. Ships may sail out to sea but they always return to port, and have their barnacles lovingly scraped off, all bits checked and tuned, and repairs carried out. They’re only as good as how well they are maintained. This essential maintenance is scheduled in, to keep it strong, to extend its life, so it can keep on carrying its cargo. So in 2015 I am objectively scheduling in MY maintainence. To be honest, I am not actually sure what my maintainence should be, but it sure is an interesting exercise thinking about it. For me, at this stage of my life, I think I need regular physical exercise, down-time, some pampering, some reprieve from tight scheduling, and some fun. I need quality time with the kids and my husband. I need to see my girlfriends and have a laugh. I need mentoring. Inspiration. Kindness. And something to look forward to. Always something to look forward to.
4. Ships are graceful.
Not only are ships strong, but they exude a mighty sense of grace. They don’t get grumpy or flustered. They are as graceful as they are mighty.
5. Ships go places.
As in the quote, ships are made to sail the seas and explore. Ships do not hide in harbours, fearing the open sea. As long as the maintainence has been attended to, ships are built to take on risk. And, hopefully, this metaphor will help me as I face the changes that loom in the future – with more enthusiasm and less trepidation.
6. Even when ships are going fast, it feels like they’re not.
Instead of paddling a flimsy kayak furiously and going nowhere fast, if I go with the ship metaphor then I can imagine myself sailing effortlessly to my destination, wherever that may be.
It hasn’t been an easy week. I feel daunted by what I need to achieve this year – an 80,000 word thesis is in there somewhere. I’ve been meditating, almost desperately, to try to relieve some of my anxiety, which is probably counter-productive. But slowly, with practice, I’ll be able to transform my self image from tiny helpless kayak to strong, graceful mother ship. I’m looking forward to a more stable journey, a greater sense of strength, and of course, the maintainence.
What about you? How are you travelling at the start of 2015? What do you think your essential maintainence would be? 
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We went away, for three days. With no access to the internet and no phone reception. Which turned out to be a wonderful experience, as I was thinking about what I want for 2015. I reflected on 2014 and felt a sense of pride that we had made it through our gloriously exhausting year. 2015 feels rushed already, with many significant milestones to hit, a PhD thesis and papers to write, a new kindergarten to settle into (along with fairly working-family-unfriendly kindergarten drop-off times). I felt apprehensive and nervous; so it was a relief to have three days away from the relentless flashing red notifications of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to think and reflect.

But first, our holiday. We went to Daylesford, Spa capital of Victoria, though none of us got any spa time. (We did put the kids into the spa in our cottage but they were terrified!) Grandma came along for moral support. We stayed at Bergamo, a lovely two-bedroom cottage in the middle of peaceful countryside. They provided us free-range eggs for breakfast, and little goodies like this:

I saved this chocolate all to myself. The kids were having none of it!!!
I saved this chocolate all to myself. The kids were having none of it!!!

We visited a lavender farm, and had an outstanding Ploughman’s Lunch Platter; our kids were pleasantly surprised to be allowed to eat nothing but carbs that day (breadsticks and crackers, anyone?) and we enjoyed the peace that comes with said children eating bread. We wandered the lavender fields, saw lots of farm animals, and bought some lavender honey and essential oil.

Bowl of carbs on the right was consumed by the kidlets with gusto.
Bowl of carbs on the right was consumed by the kidlets with gusto.
We had many peaceful moments like this. These are my kids - I usually don't post photos of them to protect their privacy. But aren't they adorable? :)
We had many peaceful moments like this. These are my kids – I usually don’t post photos of them to protect their privacy. But aren’t they adorable? :)

On the way home, we stopped by a trout farm where each child caught one trout within minutes (not sure what they do to the trout but it’s guaranteed!!) and we enjoyed super fresh baked trout for lunch.

Smoked trout pate. Yum.
Smoked trout pate. Yum.
It was the kind of holiday where having a glass of wine every lunch time seemed the right thing to do. Certainly not something I will keep doing all year, but it was definitely pleasant :)
It was the kind of holiday where having a glass of wine every lunch time seemed the right thing to do. Certainly not something I will keep doing all year, but it was definitely pleasant :)

We had a great time. The kids got to see lots of farm animals and even went for a mini-hike. And while I didn’t get to finish the book that I ambitiously brought along to read, I managed to relax despite spending all day with the kids. I was surprised at how much I loved not having access to the internet. I felt uncluttered, more centred, calmer. It was quite enlightening.

After three days, I decided that what I want for 2015 is to learn how to slow down. The pace of 2015 might be lightning fast, but I need to feel as though I am coasting, or sailing, rather than paddling furiously. I am not quite sure how to do this yet, but this will be my mission for 2015. Slow. Down. (or learn how to). I have a feeling this will involve more meditation and less Facebook and compulsive email checking. I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life desperately trying to keep up. I am not even sure what I am trying to keep up with. Some call it life, but it feels like anti-life to me.

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I’m hoping you’ll all come with me again on this journey. This year I wanted to combine full-time work/study and being mummy to my gorgeous kids (and wife to my dear husband) as happily as I could. I feel like I have made a great start, but my mind needs to stop frantically scurrying about from one tiny detail of our life to another. It exhausts me and energy is what I need more of, not time. So thank you for being there this year, and here’s to another adventure in 2015. x

What do you want to work on in 2015? What’s your mission for the New Year? What do you really want? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bittersweet

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

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

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

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

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

I have a moment of profound completeness,

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

tenuous and leaving the tiniest ache

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

 

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By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I am preparing to apply for a highly competitive research fellowship, and one of the sections of the application is entitled “Career Disruption”. So this week I have paused to scrutinise my CV critically and without fear, and to contemplate how becoming a mother is reflected in my application and how motherhood has affected my career. The feminist in me desperately wants to believe that a woman, a mother, can be completely equal to a man, or a childless person. The realist in me is quietly beginning to think this is not exactly the case. I write with more questions than answers and I hope you will all excuse my rambling. I would also love to hear from you about what you think, and how it’s worked, or not worked for you. Because I am truly passionate about being able to combine parenthood and a career, but roadblocks like this highlight the struggle this will entail.

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

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

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

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

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

My skills include:

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

And a realistic, no bs description of career disruption:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This too shall pass.

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

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

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

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

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

This too shall pass.

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