Impotency problems

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Impotency when imposed on us is very damaging.

This is not perhaps a post about what you think it is. But for the males in particular who may have interest piqued DO keep reading.

While it may be nothing to do with sexual dysfunction this is an important post. Important for the way especially we treat women (and men) and so frequently treat children.

While we may often relate the word impotency to a complete failure of sexual power, impotency in its broadest sense is so much more. It is a state of reduced or absent power, helplessness, unpersuasiveness and ineffectiveness.

Believe me, it’s not a nice state to be in, especially for a prolonged period of time.

I previously wrote about how challenging it can be to embark on something new like a change of job or even becoming a parent, especially when change has been imposed on us.

I outlined that my academic position was proposed to be disestablished in the broad scale restructuring of the university where I work.  When I last wrote I was some nine weeks into limbo-land, waiting to hear my definitive fate.

I am now 30 weeks down of gestating my impotency and much like a pregnancy, I’m hopefully expectant that I’ll give birth to a more potent state in eight more weeks on 1st December. That’s when I leave my present position.

The act of closure, of turning a page to the next chapter begins.

Despite my best efforts and the hard work of so many around me, the mass of submissions to save my position and even morph my current position instead into something needed and innovative made no difference.

Way back at the end of May I learned my position was definitely going, in a meeting that started with “It’s quite clear you are an outstanding lecturer but on that basis we can’t retain you”. The rest of the meeting was similarly depressing and full of WTF moments- the excellent, valid points we made appeared to fall on ears wide shut.

As perhaps the only afflicted academic in my institution presenting an incredibly well supported alternative solution, it has been especially hard.

To never be able to engage in discussions about what we thought was a true win-win scenario has been cruel & wasteful.

To be left  without a voice. To be yelling, to be fighting and to have no one listen.

To do my best to trust those in a position of power over me and to believe that this was a process of genuine consultation.

To feel instead unsupported by my institution throughout this process, although that is not to say I did not have colleagues in support of me. In the main though as explained previously, the emotional support and empathy I so desperately needed in 30 draining and wasted weeks was lacking at work, or elsewhere.

To feel unacknowledged.

It’s been a horrible, long process, poorly conducted, lacking in good communication and true leadership.

For those that would expect a swift resolution after the final outcome was released sadly no, the eternal limbo land continued with a farce of looking at redeployment options.

And then nothing for weeks.

Until we have finally come to this closure point.

In amongst this though, there’s been a bullying email by a colleague, which said among other things “sort your bloody life out”, reminiscent of an authoritarian parent talking to a teenager.

Complaint laid, no response, follow-up, no response. Nothing after months.

And now there never will be. Assailant free to do it again to someone else.

There’s been feelings of intimidation, questions I have asked that sit now permanently remain unanswered.

There’s been a lack of real acknowledgement of the distress and stress that have been my world.

I could never adequately put into words what my year has been like. And no one unless they have been in an incredibly similar situation of this magnitude could begin to understand.

I can sum it up best as demoralising and feeling so impotent. That word.

What does such a protracted state of impotency do to a person? It lowers self esteem, it escalates the imposter syndrome.

It exhausts and takes away the fight because faced with non-listening ears, tenacity is simply not enough.

It leads to cycling backwards and forwards at each stage through the grief cycle.

It obviously places one under a large amount of stress. That has had for me the resulting effect of weight gain, not due to eating more, rather less, but because those stress hormones are screaming out to the body to keep stocking up for this danger that will not dissipate.

It lowers the immune system’s ability to combat infection. I’ve had many more illnesses this year, including severe asthma and an atypical migraine presenting like a stroke and putting me in hospital.

It leads to anxiety, especially in social situations because in my case basal stress levels are elevated and what would normally be an imperceptible rise in stress when placed in a social situation is now very much registered with adrenaline coursing. For an extrovert, this is bizarre.

It leads to difficulty thinking, concentrating and performing tasks.

Impotency and parenting

What has outlining the incredibly challenging and demoralising year I have had got to do with parenting? The situation I have outlined above sounds extreme and it is, but many parents who adopt a certain style of parenting, authoritarian in nature, impose somewhat similar situations on their children.

No matter what our age, we want to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected as a human being. When we don’t find ourselves in that space, whether adult or a toddler, there are negative impacts.

When children experience similar sorts of situations the outcomes for them are no different than what I described above.

Children trust in adults that they are being loved and looked after, that their best interests are in place. Parents sadly don’t always treat their children with the respect our little people deserve.

The first step in dealing with a meltdown is for the child to feel safe enough (often in loving arms) to be able to freely express these big feelings children have and secondly to then have those feelings acknowledged.

The same goes for babies who communicate their needs by crying and especially need the loving arms of parents. Little does not mean insignificant.

When children are hurt or upset, this acknowledgement is essential, no matter if it seems ridiculous to the parent. Whatever the upset, it certainly isn’t trivial to the child.

To achieve this putting yourself in the place of your child and trying to see it from their perspective is important. And being the bigger person, not through power over your child but rather control of yourself and your own emotions will help both of you through the situation.

Making fun of a child for a ‘trivial matter’ and their big feelings is never ok- that shames and humiliates them. Shame also results from feelings not being listened to.

Shame though is the most destructive emotion in terms of an individual’s sense of value and self-worth because it is typically the most obstructed and hidden emotion.  But shame when appropriately handled is important as it provides the weight for morality in our society.

An approach of acknowledging feelings first doesn’t mean that children get the ultimate say but rather shows them what they need to know-that they are valued.

For anyone in distress or under stress the best acknowledgement is often agreeing the situation is not ideal- for example provide the empathy they require and validate their feelings by saying “I can see that you have some big feelings about X…. etc”.

Too many of us however, skip over this emotional support that is the essential first aid, regardless of whether we are dealing with adults or children, because most people find it difficult dealing with feelings. And usually this difficulty is because of the way we were treated as children.

Frequently we skip straight to providing solutions or worse we either dare to make light of a situation by telling the child how they feel “You’re all right, you’ll be fine” or we deny them the opportunity to have feelings and shame them, “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s only a….” (so similar to “sort your bloody life out isn’t it?”), or “It’s not that bad”, or else we distract them “Wow there’s a rubbish truck going past”.

The second we do any of these things we are invoking a state of impotency in our child (or our friend, or our relative or our colleague). We are giving a clear signal they and their feelings are not valued and that they do not have a voice. This is invalidation.

The child in a state of distress is clearly signalling it has unmet emotional needs. This may not always be indicated by crying. Perhaps a child is biting, hitting, engaging in other destructive behaviours, being defiant or generally what might be described as ‘badly behaved’. Applying empathy or emotional support is actually the key to turning any of this behaviour around.

Many parents sadly think their children shouldn’t have a voice, that they must be controlled in a desire to have obedient teenagers and outstanding adult citizens. It might be tempting to use more authoritarian methods such as “Time-out” or threatening behaviour or telling the child how naughty they are in an effort to control.

Invalidation however, as I outlined above has a destructive effect on mental health and wellbeing and these negative impacts can be lifelong, especially in children.

Thus, authoritarian approaches may have the converse effect because rather than connecting, disconnection results as the child’s unmet needs are not being dealt with.

What place or space is there for a child to contribute their ideas? Toddlers and preschoolers who perhaps think of an alternative plan for something, need the opportunity to express their opinion and to have it genuinely considered.

Considered need not necessarily equate to agreed with by the parent. However, we are less likely to share our stories with those that don’t listen. When that happens, meaningful communication is lost and relationships get destroyed.

In order to be heard therefore, we first need to listen. Building trust through the act of active listening, acknowledging feelings and demonstrating empathy is how to achieve this. We need to give our children the space to be allowed to complain as this actually helps them and us work through their emotions and develop emotional resilience.

As clinical psychologist Colby Pearce says “for our own sakes and the sake of all we come into contact with, we need to get better at listening, understanding, accepting and respecting. Only then can we expect to be heard”

When we muck up as parents, for example in say unnecessarily snapping at our child, or shutting down their right to speak, taking the time to revisit the situation and acknowledge their hurt by apologising and providing an opportunity to listen will do restorative wonders. And it models important skills such as empathy we all want to foster in our children.

It might be tempting to think that acknowledgement of feelings is pandering to a child and allowing manipulation of the parent, but ensuring active listening and empathy as a response isn’t a promotion of permissive parenting nor a case of a lack of limits where they are needed as these equally make children feel unsafe. It is simply a matter of treating children as we would want to be treated ourselves.

We as parents need to also find the space in these situations to deal with our own feelings arising from our childhood, our experiences of having unmet emotional needs and shame leading to a feeling that we must also shut down the emotions of our children. If we want our children to be emotionally intelligent we need to spend time fostering our own empathy skills.

Final thoughts

I’m super tough and I will survive. Once I find a new job that suits and nurtures me, I’ll be rejuvenated but I will still bear scars. For me sharing this story has been a continuation of my step towards healing, of turning this experience into something positive. Rather than being hard, writing this post and re-finding my voice has been empowering.

I’m committed to using my experiences to better listen to and understand others, either directly, or in this post by helping others foster their empathy and listening skills too.

Our children though are more vulnerable than my adult state. “I was raised this way and it hasn’t done me any harm” may be a common phrase but it’s simply not true and nor should it be any form of a mantra to live by. No parent wants to see their child scarred and this should be as true of emotional harm as it is of visible damage.

Despite a horrific year I am blessed. I receive the validation every day that I am doing a decent enough job with MissBB. Every single day she does something nice for me, whether it’s giving me a special card or wrapping up a special ‘gift’ for me from objects in the house, painting something beautiful (like rainbows with pots of gold), passing me her last bite of her favourite food, or a super hug and kisses. And she makes me choose her stories every night.

And every time she does one of these gestures she explains why: “I’m doing this Mummy because you’ve lost your job”. With incredible empathy skills like that she will provide the right emotional support to those that need it as she grows.

Let our children have their voices. Let them gradually and with love become potent, not impotent. They are our future.

My Ice Doctor science blog post on the loss of my position can be found here.

New beginnings

New beginnings hold so much potential. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Karora.

New beginnings hold so much potential. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Karora.

An unintended and prolonged absence has occurred and like missing anyone you’re fond of, I’ve definitely missed my blog. Life for many of us seems to have a somewhat annoying habit of getting in the way of what we perceive as far better plans. In fact so often I have to resort to my Antarctic fieldwork or alternatively laboratory science motto “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.  Parents will relate to this concept as well because in the past tense, it can frequently be a summation sentence of a pretty ordinary day.

This first blog under the new title of Parenting by Instinct should be a joyous blog full of the celebration of a new beginning- like new growth occurring, the chance to celebrate a new season, the slight nerves mixed with excitement of doing something for the first time.

I should be using this first PbI blog post to discuss any number of new pieces of science that parents should know about – such as a recent study that showed that even small lies from adults to children may result in the child then becoming more dishonest (and I wrote an article on it here). Or another study showing that the gut microbe make-up doesn’t settle for up until the first three years of life and this has implications for breastfeeding duration.

I will write about these eventually but in the meantime for the last couple of months my world has been somewhat rocked. It seems incredibly ironic that my last post was about Embracing Change and as it turns out just a few days before change was so forcibly on top of me.

I wrote in that post about this kind of change and even the effect it is having in my city: “Change that’s not driven by internal ruminations and is instead imposed on us is frightening and the change and associated stress that my home town people are experiencing is leading to a new vulnerable spanning my age group.”

The university where I work has been under financial stress for many reasons, not the least of which have been multi-faceted earthquake related effects. These have had sustained and considerable impacts on the staff that work there. Exhausted after a very intense year of restructuring all of our undergraduate qualifications (on top of more direct earthquake effects) and aware that the ‘change proposals’ were being announced across Faculties, it was a strange combination of complete surprise and yet non surprise to find a letter on my desk telling me that there were impacts on my position from these proposals.

Twenty-four hours later in a meeting with my Dean, supported by my mother at her request and where the room seemed to come in and out of focus, I got to hear that they propose to disestablish my position. With some 15% of academic staff in our Faculty proposed to go, 10% of staff overall and potentially as an unintended outcome 42% of women academics these are big changes on the cards.

These last nine weeks have flown by in a roller-coaster blur. Confronting me at every moment of the day is the prospect of phenomenal change in the supposedly secure world of tenured academia. It’s been a long time, these two months, spent drifting in limbo land, working through the stages of grief for the existence I immediately exited the second I saw that ominous envelope.

I’ve never experienced feelings of stress on this level before and it doesn’t seem in keeping with my character, except that this particular stressor is sitting now on layers of significant stress from new parenthood, and many, many direct and indirect earthquake effects, all building up over several years like compound interest. Others in my city can no doubt relate to this.

It’s given me a sensitive stomach and the low point perhaps was eating the tiniest bit of a pretty average meat pie my daughter had been eating en route out of town last week, which within seconds had me violently throwing up all over myself in the car- I was even slightly more contained than that when pregnant with nine months of debilitating morning sickness. What followed was an unintended, uncomfortable and unpleasant drive home to get changed and clean the car before setting off again. Driving past the offending bakery today brought back the association and history nearly repeated. My daughter said “Oh poor Mummy, even driving past the bakery makes you nearly throw up”! It’s good at least that we can laugh about it and she has been developing fantastic empathy skills, frequently doing all manner of nice things for me because “Mummy’s lost her job” (although I haven’t yet).

Mental space has been filled with trying to find the strength to mount a response to maintain my position in some form and at the same time to think what else the future might hold. Is this an opportunity for change that may indeed be a welcome visitor, that might propel my life in a different direction? I’m not entirely ready for that aspect- too exhausted surviving the now, but it’s always in the back of my mind- possibilities being considered and ideas formulating.

Many people, far too many, go through the prospect of redundancy as I am. In my situation, my job is nothing close to a job- it’s far more of a vocation, a considerable part of my identity. Being a scientist is something that is intrinsically a part of me, inescapably part of my fabric.

So too, is being a mother. And throughout this beyond-stressful experience as I wait to know my fate and having  temporarily re-found my calmer state, I’ve been thinking about whether there are similarities of this experience to an aspect of parenthood,

In many ways, it’s a little like adjusting to life as a parent. One striking difference is that in general the birth of a child is a wanted event, whereas the prospect of loss of a job tends not to be. However, both situations are full of difficult, challenging surprises. Both involve going through a form of grief, or they should do.

Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment, especially in the modern world, where there isn’t typically extended family existence. At the same time as celebrating the new life you have created, ever so gradually finding your mothering or fathering rhythm, and finding the pure pleasure of moments spent gazing at the miracles of daily development, there is, or there should be, some level of grief to deal with the life you left behind.

And to fully engage in the parenting space, it’s essential that this process of mourning occurs. It may not even be registered consciously and I would hope for most parents it wouldn’t resemble anything of the grief I’ve felt with respect to my job these last weeks.

Some parents however, don’t complete their mourning journey, think their child must squeeze itself into their life that should largely carry on as before, but this places them stuck in the denial phase of grief unable to fully commit themselves to embracing the change that is in front of them.

Falling completely into parenthood doesn’t mean that all of one’s former life is lost though, nor one’s identify and nor should it- there’s no such thing as a complete life switch- rather life is a jigsaw puzzle at times, and bits fit in and out as required. It’s more fluid than that too- who we are today is different to who we were yesterday and who we will be tomorrow. Our environment and circumstances are constantly moulding us.

For me in the last few weeks, more than at any other time in my life, I’ve needed to find some space for myself and to engage in some self-care. I’ve had to continue to turn up at work, to honour teaching commitments, supervision of students, attend meetings and of course continue to be a mother.

With so much pressure ,self-care has been a necessity. This is important for mothers and fathers too. However, I think the societal pressures that seem to dictate that me-time needs such high elevation of status in the forms it is often promoted it should take are not always what is required. Self-care and me-time can be simple and it doesn’t even need to be without children; at least not in my book, as it seldom is child-free (see more here in The rubberband effect: building and maintaining resilience).

A cafe trip for a hot chocolate, time spent in the library slowly choosing books, gym and yoga time, a few minutes a day of meditation/breathing, the joy of cooking a lovely meal, watching a movie or a favourite programme, an afternoon snooze, an early night, gardening, a catch up with friends with or without kids all rate high for me.

But the most restorative thing is getting up high- driving to the mountains or more easily climbing up the hills in my city. There’s something that feels fantastic about working hard and then being on top of something, seeing a vista that is grand and sweeping- all the way from mountains to sea and over the city, connecting yourself back to home. It’s a form of conquering and feeling a profound sense of vitality, of connecting with the primal urge to be at one with nature and also of getting away from it all. I always do these trips with MissBB but a few weeks ago and early on in this potential job loss situation, she was in childcare and for the first time in her existence I was having a de-stress day at home without her.

Working hard to get up high on the hills is incredibly restorative

Working hard to get up high on the hills is incredibly restorative

So I walked up the hills on my own and strangely it felt so difficult. I had no one to carry as I usually do and so I should have bounced up, but without the distraction of four-year old chatter I was left to concentrate on the steepness, the deep breathing, and my own thoughts about the future and it was hard. As much though as it was challenging I really felt a sense of achievement and it did give me precious time to reflect. I missed my girl though, and all I really wanted at the top was a hug from her. My life is enriched by her presence and I see no real need to miss out on that. At the end of the day we’re social animals.

At work my existence for these weeks has largely been filled in a sense socially as well- lots of intense discussions about my situation, albeit from concerned colleagues, but those same conversations have sucked the life force out of me, leaving me feeling an emotional exhaustion that even beats the newborn phase.

Sadly, I’ve also experienced colleagues treating me like I have a communicable disease: I’ve had doors shutting on me, people walking away and not talking to me- them being afraid of what to say, worried I’ll burst into tears on them. There was also a truly demoralising on an other-worldly level departmental meeting that ultimately saw me exiting but I teetered on giving an impassioned speech before deciding I would tackle inaction and apathy another way. And in the end it worked: the submissions to support me and the proposition I have put forward have been really amazing, and touching.

How many parents out there can relate to these same kinds of experiences in their role as mums or dads? Feeling isolated, shunned perhaps for many reasons, and when people know you’re having a hard time choosing to be absent rather than supportive? Or in contrast some truly devastating conversations that lead you wondering whether these people know the harm they are causing with their ill-chosen words, or missing words?

When we become parents we’re frequently accosted by offers of support and advice and it can be exhausting to listen to all this babble and to know what to do with it. So much depends though on the attitude that we bring to listening. People come to these discussions believe-it-or-not usually from a  place of caring and as much as it can be shattering and bewildering, sometimes it’s good to take on board what’s said and see how it fits. Stick up for yourself if you truly need to. But know too that in the process, listening can help you shape your own story and your own values, even if you disagree with what’s said. I’ve certainly found the discussions with colleagues helpful at work, as tiring as they have been, because they’ve let me work through my story and my plans and given me valuable outside perspective.

We’re used also  when adversity strikes (again) to hearing the supposedly reassuring “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. This is indeed true to a point but to be fair I think there’s a limit.  There’s only a certain number of challenges before I feel the character cup is pretty much overflowing and I think that many of us, including myself, that live in this earthquake-ravaged city have had a truly disproportionate number of adverse situations to face in the last few years. As an educator however, I know in reality we are always learning but it sure is hard to stomach that concept sometimes, literally!

In amongst all this challenge there was a day of pure fabulous-ness and a reminder that even in dark days that there will always be moments of total sunshine, especially if you work hard to create them. For us it was a day of chasing the Royals. Here’s a teaser picture. More on that in the next post.

Royal interlude- Duchess Catherine creates happy moments

Royal interlude- Duchess Catherine creates happy moments

As I wait to hear about my job, I’ve been reflecting about what I want my life mission to be. When I reached the top of the gondola on my walk, I met a young woman who had taken the gondola up and who was incredibly impressed I had walked up all that way. She told me that I, a complete stranger, inspired her. It was incredibly touching. She didn’t need to go out of her way to talk to me and more than that nor did she need to offer that personal piece of herself. What she gave me was a precious gift- of words. Words are easy to throw out of our mouths- but words that make a positive difference in other’s lives – they’re treasure.

What I want really is pretty simple: to inspire and to be inspired. I achieved both that day on the hills. Being a mother to a fabulous four year old too, who views me as her greatest role model and in turn inspires me every day, is a pretty good step in the right direction, whatever ‘job’ I end up doing.

Time to contemplate up the top.

Time to contemplate up the top.

Embracing change

Metamorphosis is within  our reach

Metamorphosis is within our reach

Change is often a word that instills fear. It signifies not only new beginnings but the unknown, a form of stepping over the edge and not knowing what’s beneath. Will you fall, fly, be caught?

Change in my earthquake ravaged city of Christchurch has become a constant and unchanging aspect of our lives, one that in many ways has been a most unwelcome visitor but one that has challenged thoughts, ideals and eventually prompted many of us into action and in amongst the trauma allowed the forging of new connections.

That’s the thing about change- we can fear what it may portend and shrink away from it as if it’s the Grim Reaper or we can look at change as an open door to a different world and hopefully a better place. Embracing change opportunities can be our own mini metamorphosis- an opportunity to shake off the old skin and discover what hidden strengths, talents and new structure lie beneath. To do that though we need to be receptive to what change has to say to us, or equally importantly what we say to change in return. It necessitates a conversation and if we are to be a friend of change then it’s not just a discussion but change will also require us to follow through on the action points created.

Like probably any of my fellow quake survivors I’ve been pondering change and what it could mean. I started this blog after months of hesitancy- a desire and effectively a strong compulsion to do it had expressed itself but I felt an inability to action it for months- after all I was too busy, wasn’t I or was it just too scary to express myself in such a public forum? Would I know what to do, what to write about, how to write?

I tend to have ideas whirring away that are slowly forming themselves like clouds in my mind often over days and weeks into more structured thoughts that just then seem to suddenly come together solidly like rock and at that point often there’s associated action. Perhaps others also ruminate quietly and somewhat unconsciously and most definitely organically with typically no forced agenda in a similar way to me?

And so it was suddenly when an opportunity in the form of a blogging competition for a local magazine presented itself late last year, this was the time to take action. I didn’t win the competition (not enough of my readers took their own action to vote)  but that’s not why I entered really- we have no room for the trampoline that was the prize!

That’s another thing about change- it can be easy to avoid it even though one part of you is curious to meet it but sometimes an imposed or self-set deadline forces a meeting with change head-on. We know at that point whether to follow the path change will take us on or not- sometimes/often the fear and hype of acquainting ourselves with change isn’t the reality of meeting change itself. Change can be more demure, more polite, more soft and caring sometimes than we imagine.

Although I might have had some hesitancy about starting my blog I always knew what I wanted to call it – some variation of Mother’s Instinct had come to mind when I wrote a magazine article about trusting our instincts. This piece was the blog seed that months later I finally placed in soil to germinate and become Mothering by Instinct. Mother’s Instinct and other variants were taken as names but Mothering by Instinct seemed to fit the bill perfectly for what I wanted the focus of this blog to be.

That focus was always about empowering those with children to make the best decisions they can for their families and for those who don’t have children to hopefully understand what may be best for parents and children. Parenting is a baffling and confusing exercise in a world full of media overload with the never-ending waterfall of misinformation that may not serve parents and children well and is in many cases quite simply detrimental.

I have a unique and privileged position as a scientist to be able to access scientific information and to dissect and critically evaluate it to know what aspects of parenting are supported by ‘good science’ and which ones aren’t. I believe that parents have a right to know this information especially where a counter approach is recognised as harmful to the child, the mother-dyad relationship or the family as a whole. In many cases this information though isn’t getting disseminated for a wide variety of reasons- societal pressures, entrenched ethos, commercial influences, lack of media awareness and buy-in, self-serving media interests etc. When I started my own blog I was actually completely oblivious to other excellent blogs that have nuances of the same theme  as my own but having discovered them I now also read avidly as their content informs my own.

Mothering by Instinct seemed ideal as it describes who I am and how I operate with respect to raising my daughter. I believe that many of us are out of touch with trusting our own instincts when it comes to parenting- we’ve become afraid and left feeling as if we have to turn to information sources and books to tell us what to do or just to fall back on what our parents did or those around us, knowing what we are doing doesn’t feel quite right but afraid to tackle it anyway. We’re afraid of the change that becoming a mother or a father brings, we’re afraid of getting it wrong and the consequences of this. Yet, we are our own best encyclopaedia if we choose to embrace the change that each new day of parenthood brings and trust in ourselves to follow change where it will lead us or indeed where we lead change.

Scientific knowledge can reaffirm what’s buried within us, which is where blogs like mine and others have a place. The presentation of accurate and easy to understand information can inform us and be used as a tool, assisting us to cut away the family, cultural and societal filters that often steer us as if in autopilot without us realising, letting us get back in charge.

I never wanted my blog to just be a relay of information though- it’s important to me to share some of my stories as I journey through parenthood so that people know that I’m an actual human with emotions and my own thoughts and that I’m fallible at times with my parenting journey just like everyone else.

My blog is only in its newborn days but I’m wanting my blog to continue to grow in value, in conversation and in readership and ever since my friend Darren made a Facebook comment after my blog’s first post I’ve been pondering whether I should commit to change. Now after much, at times circular, discussion conducted mainly over Twitter with people whose counsel I value highly, I have made an appointment with change.

This will be the last post as Mothering by Instinct. After this post the blog name should be changed to Parenting by Instinct (I say should not because I am hesitant but in case there are naming issues- I checked and as of now it looks fine) and I hope that you my valued readers will follow me to my new site. Redirections to the new site will take place automatically for a year to enable the transition.

Aside from the name change the site won’t change and the focus will largely remain the same. Mothering by Instinct was born because I am a mother  and that’s how I view myself and because of the play on words with ‘A Mother’s Instinct’, which might be ‘just a saying’ but I think is something many mothers no longer know how to listen to- mothers have strong innate instincts about their children and their care. I want for mothers to reclaim their instincts and to show them why with science.

However, I want this blog to be inclusive and its title may potentially exclude 50% of the population. This blog isn’t just for mothers although much of the content may relate to women (because I am one)- it’s for anyone that is a carer of children and even those that aren’t parents at all. A shift to include Parenting should enable men to feel welcomed as you are an integral and valued part of this parenting process too.

I do identify as a mother first and foremost- in fact I hadn’t even considered thinking of myself really as anything but (i.e. a parent) a mother until I put the question about changing the blog name out in the Twitterverse. I understand now though through that 140 character constrained conversation that some mothers think of themselves more as parents, presumably because they view equal responsibility with the father for raising their children or that mothers and fathers have interchangeable roles.

Although I can see there is a strong momentum for this ethos at the present time, for my own reasons that’s not how I view my own role- I am a mother (although one that is quite happy to talk about the wider, inclusive role of parenting) and to me mothers do things and bring things to child-rearing that fathers don’t/can’t and vice versa.  I’ll share in a future post down the track more about why the current trend which is a bit like ‘Dad’s can do anything’ may not best serve and why maybe we should be more accepting of letting mothers be mothers and fathers be fathers. That may seem contradictory to my blog name change but overlying this is the idea that we are all parents and most of this ‘stuff’ we need to know whatever role we have, so yeah let’s talk about parenting because that is literally the glue, but let’s also be cognisant of the subheadings beneath that.

For regular readers too you may have noticed posts are coming out at the moment fortnightly rather than weekly. That’s a side effect of the academic teaching year starting, grants due in etc etc. Where I can I’ll attempt weekly posts but sometimes you’ll find me slipping  into fortnightly mode. That’s also because I’ve been setting up a new science blog under the Sciblogs banner. It’s called Ice Doctor and you can find it here (live from sometime Friday 21st March). Ice Doctor will predominantly be a fortnightly posting blog and it’s the place to go if you want to know more about my day job and in particular Antarctic science.

That’s another aspect of change I’m embracing- it was a long time pushing myself to set up that particular meeting (a second blog) but it’s another thing I am very excited about. When we take control change isn’t so frightening after all- a little bit of an adrenaline rush, a flurry of excitement and suddenly what is new becomes routine.

How much do you share of any personal change you are going through? I recently read a superb post by an inspirational gym instructor Bevan James Eyles at the gym I go to- sadly I can’t go at times his classes are on but Bevan writes beautifully and provocatively, in this case about a conversation with a friends who was stuck in a rut- always complaining about an issue but not doing anything about it and how his listening and uttering one single question prompted an internal conversation in his friend and her pathway to change.

His post got me thinking. Depending on our vulnerabilities and our personalities we may not share much of our meetings with change with others- outwardly we may be having those same old conversations about how everything is well just same old. Underneath though and away from the conversations with friends and families a metamorphosis can be going on- starting a blog for example. I wonder whether friends/partners can detect this unspoken change and at what time and with what kind of friend do we feel comfortable enough to share change? And the flip-side- how many of us are willing to listen as Bevan did and then support our friends in their desire for change?

Change that’s not driven by internal ruminations and is instead imposed on us is frightening and the change and associated stress that my home town people are experiencing is leading to a new vulnerable spanning my age group. Of that I’m not surprised. It’s been a rough ride. People are sick of hearing “hang in there” and “Kia Kaha (be strong). What opportunities though in the constancy of inconstancy, in the normalcy of abnormality is there for a meeting with change that isn’t so threatening? What strengths do you derive from adverse situations?

Our children may be our best guide and best answer to this. Our children arrive facing endless and constant change- the world outside the womb and their development so rapid that every day is new with what they see, what they think and what they can do. How do children meet with change so tirelessly and not get overwhelmed by fears?

The constancy in this equation is you. When you give consistent nurturing and loving support at each moment of change, when you are there for your children and you listen to their communication and respond to their needs, then you provide the rock on which they can meet with change taking its form as the ocean lapping against the rock- you child dabbling toes in and then withdrawing them, listening to the sound of the waves and babbling back to them, feeling the force of the ebb and flow of the water, pushing off the rock and feeling the sea, the support of change all around keeping them buoyant, and the reassurance of a return to the rock at any point. In my blog I hope to offer support to parents to create the attachment children need to thrive and survive.

I’ll miss Mothering by Instinct- I’m attached to my creation but I’m looking forward to the change to a more inclusive name and the opportunities for growth. I know too that sitting just under Parenting by Instinct is my own personal subheading- that of a mother, a brave mother, one whose not afraid of at least this particular meeting with change.

Join me at Parenting by Instinct.

The place between: responding to your child’s distress gives everyone space to learn

photo 1 A couple of days ago I was struck by a revelation. Like the situation for many key learning lessons, it initially didn’t appear as a very auspicious day. In fact it was anything but. I was to be honest feeling hideous and worse than that, feeling hideous at work with blocked sinuses and vertigo, a super foggy brain that would not properly activate to the tasks required of me, a still malfunctioning computer and a strong desire to be in bed.

I had also mistakenly written down a meeting time an hour later than it was in my diary and when I received a polite Tweeted prompt from the meeting head (luckily just a journal article discussion club but one on an article I had provided and was meant to be discussing) I took off running across campus via the car park to get to the target building. Slightly distracted as I passed some IT staff (thinking about my problem computer), jumping over some borders at the same time, and not noticing the purely ornamental, annoyingly always undoing shoelace on my shoe had done just that and got stuck under my other shoe, I suddenly went flying through the air and smacked into rough tarmac at significant force on hands, knees and the front of my feet.

Hearing an “Are you all right Victoria?” from the IT staff I popped back up to crouch position, and realised that while I might be injured I was actually all right and I had a meeting to get to so I yelled back “I’m fine”. At this point though I kind of took stock and realised that 1) my right hand was missing a significant amount of skin on the palm; 2) I had really hurt my right knee and it was full of holes, and my left knee was similar; 3) I had grazes all over my feet and 4) causing the most distress was that my near new capri pants were literally shredded from the fall. I was relieved my new phone and well beaten up sunglasses had survived- priorities! Despite all that I was relatively calm. I managed to Tweet back en route that they needed to have the first aid kit ready.

I pretty much walked in the door of the meeting looking like a crazed lunatic, bleeding and probably looked a bit shocked. After all grown ups don’t typically fall over and come to grief. First aid was kindly administered and I carried on. Straight after my meeting I went to visit MissBB at childcare and asked her for all I wanted- a cuddle, which instantly made me feel better. Of course everyone I saw for the rest of the day asked me what had happened and I got a lot of “Oh how embarrassing” or “You must feel really silly” comments.

Not one to be deterred by injuries I went to yoga after work, where I discovered that approximately 88.8% of the moves were manageable, although not necessarily painless. It was here that my revelation happened. Lying down for the mindful meditative finale of the class, where I was meant to be clearing my mind suddenly I realised that despite feeling unwell I had actually demonstrated great resilience today. More than that my mind alerted myself to the fact that I could have been really embarrassed at what had happened but I wasn’t. I could have felt ashamed, berated myself for being so stupid, felt really sorry for myself, I could have cried (that would have been perfectly understandable), but I didn’t. I just accepted what had happened and moved on. I was struck by how powerful that felt, not to allow myself to wallow in negative thoughts in a way that society (clearly some of my colleagues) maybe expected me to act. It was a reminder that from challenge comes personal growth and that the mind when given the right conditions can flourish and grow with positive thoughts.

And there in my mindfulness practice I felt an incredible sense of peace and happiness. Even more so because I was struck by if I could get to this place at age 40, how amazing it could be to teach my daughter at age 4. Then I realised that she probably has this sorted already- children are at least 10x* more onto it than we frequently give them credit.

photo 3

Most of the time our children when they hurt themselves, or are indeed upset about something (whether we think their tears are rational or reasonable to us or not), just need our support and acknowledgement to get through their pain and/or distress. In other words, they need our emotional responsiveness towards them in that moment. We adults, when distressed may be able to administer our own response to suffice, as I did to myself, due to our much better ability to regulate our emotional state. A hug from someone else we care about though can be all it takes to feel all right again.

How we respond to our children in this moment (and there’s another blog post on this coming very soon regarding social media) can be a valuable learning tool and has longer term implications. My experience reminded me of an excellent recent post on Evolutionary Parenting I had recently read on Distraction, Redirection and Responsiveness.

Personally I’ve never been comfortable with distraction as a parenting strategy- it has always felt a little dishonest on my shoulders. Distraction is where we try to get a child/baby to stop crying or doing something by showing them something else. A child is for example really upset about their mother leaving them at childcare and so they get shown a ball, when all they want is their mum or at least someone to talk about that they want their mum. Redirection is a useful technique for some situations. This is typically used for misbehaving rather than upset children and is where you move a child’s undesirable behaviour to more desirable behaviour but with explanations of why, e.g tipping flour over the floor shifted to baking something together.

However, it is in the fostering of good attachment through responsiveness that I have been focusing my efforts as this has been clearly shown[1] to be associated with positive outcomes. Responsiveness is when you acknowledge and respond to the child’s distress/communication through respect for the child’s feelings. It doesn’t mean you necessarily give into your child and you can still maintain your boundaries (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood). It frequently involves staying with the child and hugging them until they are calm enough to look at other ways to express themselves and discuss other coping strategies etc. Responsiveness when a child is not distressed is equally important too in terms of setting up ‘at ease’ communication patterns as children age.

Like any parent I have my moments where I don’t comply with my own plan. A few months ago I was aware that MissBB was reaching a more challenging stage and I noticed that my parenting efforts were starting to frequently be the result of letting my cultural filters slip back into place, which wasn’t aiding myself or my daughter. Since getting back to my own parenting values (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood), with a central tenet of strong positive attachment including responsiveness, I have noticed a profound and positive difference in her behaviour. It’s a sample size of only one, but a good example that a form of “Are you all right?”  (and come and have a hug until you are) works incredibly well.

Given though, that children are frequently one step ahead, I decided to ask MissBB how she would like to be treated. I presented a scenario of having hurt herself and then outlined in the most unbiased language I could- distraction, redirection and responsiveness options. It’s just a sample size of one again and a single scenario of distress but she immediately said that she would want the responsiveness option. When I asked her why she said “because I just like hugs, lots of hugs”.  She also added that when she’s having trouble calming down she looks around her to feel ok- this is one of the strategies we have worked out together (you can read more about that in Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood and The rubberband effect: building and maintaining resilience)

That, and our mindfulness breathing approaches we successfully use. Responding to our children this way AND to ourselves is an empowering and positive approach for all parties. It’s a little bit like creating “The Place Between” – “The place where MAGIC sends you“**. In other words, providing a supported, calming and safe place until you or your child is emotionally ready to talk about their distress and work through it.

It takes enormous personal strength to grow as a person, to examine within and to find a better way, especially if that means not giving in to the expectations of those around you. It takes an equivalent amount of strength and the same principles to find the parent within, the one that deep inside you discover you want to be. At every step it may be a battle against the voices of those around you and all the filters that you’ve accumulated over your life that want to keep popping back into place. But when you can stand up and say to yourself “I’m all right”, acknowledging hurt you may have experienced but learning and moving on, then that’s a moment to cherish. I encourage everyone to embark on this journey.

And for our children, who are little but oh so very important people too, there’s no better time for them to start this journey than right now, with a parent or caregiver that can demonstrate their respect to their child’s attempt to communicate. It may feel like the hardest thing in the world sometimes to be responsive and it’s impossible to always respond in the most nurturing way without sometimes snapping in a manner we may all berate ourselves for after. Our children though teach us the remarkable capacity to forgive these transgressions when we find ‘the place between’ to provide us with the space to calm, think and then apologise. We all want our children to have a beautiful life, free from as much distress as possible- responding to them when they are distressed is one of the best ways to help them for now and for their future.

*Pure speculation, no scientific data to back this figure up whatsoever.

** Leon and the Place Between is a magical children’s book by Angela McAllister and Grahame Baker-Smith about the place where magic sends a boy, perfect for children 3 and above.

Scientific reference

[1] Grusec, J.E. 2011. Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development.  Annual Reviews in Psychology  62: 243-69.

A piece of you: fetal cells live on in their mother’s brains

Our children are always a part of us: mind controlling children are a reality

This post is written especially in mind for anyone that has had a successful pregnancy or suffered fertility struggles, the loss of a foetus through miscarriage or abortion, the trauma of a stillborn baby, or the devastation of the loss of a child.

If you’re female, what if you discovered that it’s quite possible you aren’t who you thought you were and maybe you aren’t entirely controlling yourself? Freaked out? Interested to know what I mean? Then read on. If you’re male with a female partner, at this point you might already be thinking that this makes a lot of sense, full stop. But still, read on!

For many prospective parents, the journey to a healthy baby in your arms is a long and often stressful one. With the average age of first-time mothers (and fathers) creeping ever higher, so too are fertility issues. It can be months or years before conception is successful and even then so many mothers experience the distress and devastation of miscarriage and fewer but not insignificant numbers also experience the mind-numbing shock of a stillborn baby. Women engaging in sexual intercourse without contraception most likely have experienced miscarriages, with about half of all fertilized eggs dying and then being lost (aborted) spontaneously, typically before the woman knows she is pregnant. The miscarriage rate is about 20% among women who know they are pregnant.

The former happened to me, the first month we started trying for a baby. I clearly felt fertilisation take place and then the movement of the fertilised egg down my fallopian tube and the very beginning of implantation. It was incredible to be that connected with my body, to feel the beginnings of life. Then though, my body went silent; everything suddenly felt wrong and I started bleeding. I couldn’t in any way prove my story but I know it’s true- women when they tune in can have very good insight into the inner workings of their body (this is the focus of an upcoming post). And even though it was just a ball of cells I felt a brief but intense flood of grief over the weekend that followed. This ball of cells felt like it had so much potential. Most likely, though implantation was not successful because something hadn’t gone to plan and this was a quality control measure to protect resources. Eventually my head accepted this idea.

Many women I know though have experienced that second category of miscarriage (or even stillbirth) when miscarriage occurs after they know they are pregnant. In this situation, the grief and sense of loss can be far longer lasting and have profound effects on the wellbeing of the woman and her partner.

What then does this have to do with not being who you thought you were? The excellent and very informed Dr Alison Barrett, obstetrician @DrAlisonBarrett alerted me to the information I am about to share at the New Zealand La Leche League conference where she spoke last year.

It turns out all mothers (and even those that have suffered miscarriages post implantation but never carried a baby to term) most likely have fetal cells living and residing in their tissues, and incredibly for decades. Although it was previously known that fetal cells circulate in mother’s blood[1] a 2012 study by Nelson et al[2], showed that DNA from male cells (most likely from a foetus, but possibly from a sibling) is frequently found (more than 60%) throughout deceased women’s brains (and other tissues). This is called microchimerism, where there is a persistent presence of a few genetically distinct cells within another organism. Note that it’s easy to identify male DNA (i.e. the Y chromosome, which is found only in males) in female subjects, which is why the study focused on the presence of male DNA. Female foetuses will in all likelihood also pass cells to their mother via the same mechanism.

For my early implantation failure, it is unlikely but not impossible any of that ball of cells made its way further into my body and now live on. The route is most likely via the placenta (organ connecting mother to foetus that is the means of exchange of nutrients, gas and waste), after it forms after implantation. The fetal cells it turns out are capable of breaking through the blood-brain barrier, to reside in the brain. They also end up in other tissues such as lung, thyroid muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin, where they can fuse with cells the mother has to form chimeric cell lines, which is a pretty weird concept when you think about it.

Even more eerily microchimerism has other forms as well.  Foetuses can also pick up cells from a twin, or even an older sibling, as some fetal cells do linger on in the uterus. In a truly heartbreaking story, a mother nearly lost her children through trying to prove they were hers for custody and failing- they had none of her DNA and must have arisen from ovarian tissue from her unborn twin- “she was her own twin – and the twin was the biological mother of her children”. Microchimerism can even occur following blood transfusions in immunocompromised patients. So rather than us being just us, we are not the autonomous beings we thought.

It is bizarre to consider that we carry fragments of others and even stranger when we consider we are used to thinking of our mind as our own. Now though, we know that within our brains we have cells from others living and functioning and influencing how we function in ways we don’t yet understand.

There are potential health implications of having fetal microchimeric cells residing within us. They are likely to play a role potentially in protecting us from disease, tissue repair and cancer prevention and they may be involved in immune disorders. The Nelson study for example, found lower amounts of microchimeric cells in women with Alzheimer’s. And in rats it has been found that if a pregnant rat was artificially given a heart attack that fetal cells migrate selectively to the injured heart tissue[3] and help repair it[4]. Now that is totally incredible! Baby helps mum even before the baby is born. I will expand on what the studies show in a later post.

For me, when I first heard this information I was blown away: blown away because it is conceptually so interesting and seemingly like farfetched science fiction, but also aware that this should be public knowledge for all women. Many women grieve for a baby they lost at some point. To comfort, people often talk about the (angel) baby looking down on them from heaven. However, I think a far more comforting thought is knowing that living pieces of your child are inside you, never leaving your body.

I hope that this really does give solace to those that have experienced this kind of loss. You carry your child with you for life.

And for those of us lucky enough to have children that we conceived and gave birth to, I think it’s also incredibly comforting to know that for the duration of our lives, little pieces of our children also live on in us.

My theory, based on the current evidence, is that the role of these fetal cells is to provide protection to the mother, in order that she is around to care for her child until adulthood and beyond. And isn’t that perhaps the greatest gift perhaps our children may give us? Aside from the way they also visibly enrich our lives on the outside. Could this be part of a mechanism too for how ‘memories’ pass between generations? The human body is really remarkable even now we know the human body is really a humans body.

This is a post in an episodic series I will put out on the wonders of being a micro-chimaera, the incredible world of epigenetics and what it all may mean for parents. Subsequent posts in this series will look in more detail at: 1) these microchimeric fetal cells within mothers and what the science tells us their role might be; 2) the flipside- maternal cells that migrate to the fetus pre- and post-birth and what their role may be; and 3) what epigenetics is and why parents might be interested in it.

 

Scientific References

[1] Dawe et al 2007. Cell Migration from Baby to Mother Cell Adh Migr. 1(1): 19–27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2633676/

[2] Chan et al 2012. Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain. PLOSOne 7(9): e45592 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0045592

[3] Kara et al 2012. A Mouse Model for Fetal Maternal Stem Cell Transfer during Ischemic Cardiac Injury. Clin. Trans. Res. 5:321-328. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419501/

[4] Kara et al 2012. Fetal Cells Traffic to Injured Maternal Myocardium and Undergo Cardiac Differentiation. Circ. Res. 110:82-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3365532/

Making mammary use mandatory: why legislative or incentivisation approaches to increase breastfeeding rates are unlikely to succeed & why these measures are an erosion of a mother’s rights

Could being found not to comply with the mandatory breastfeeding law in the UAE see mothers on the wrong side of the law?

Could being found not to comply with the mandatory breastfeeding law in the UAE see mothers on the wrong side of the law?

Breastfeeding has once again been hitting the headlines in the last week, stirring up milk debate around the world with the announcement that the Federal National Council (FNC) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has passed a clause making breastfeeding mandatory for the first two years of a child’s life. Breastfeeding at least within the UAE is now ‘a duty and not an option’.

This is indeed an interesting move and one that warrants a little more examination and consideration than any initial response as it raises interesting ethical ideas.

I’m a strong advocate for promoting breastfeeding as the normal scenario for mothers and babies, in line with the official line from UNICEF, WHO and other organisations, whose policies are based on the outcomes of numerous scientific studies.

Note I won’t refer to ‘breast is best’ or state that  breastfeeding gives benefits throughout my posts as breastfeeding is the physiological norm and NOT breastfeeding carries with it numerous potential negative immediate and long term health outcomes for mother and child. I’m also in firm favour of wherever possible breastfeeding to two years and beyond. Thus, you might logically suppose that advocates like myself would be supportive of anything that is intended to encourage breastfeeding and improve breastfeeding rates, including this new law. However, as I’ll explain below I’m not in favour of approaches that do little to educate and empower both mother and child as a whole.

Punishing non breast-feeders

The FNC has been debating the addition of this clause to the new Child Rights Law for some time. There were fierce opponents within the FNC who did not favour its inclusion. The intent of the clause is to foster strong mother-child relationships by maintaining that breastfeeding is a right for all children. This idea (and the suggested duration of two years) is taken from the Quran, although the Quran itself does not suggest that breastfeeding must be mandatory- the derivitisation within the clause stipulates the mandatory nature.

I would say that access to breast-milk (rather than breastfeeding per se) should indeed in these enlightened times be a right for all children. This might on the surface put me at odds with many women, who would argue that it is a mother’s right to choose how she feeds her baby. I’m not arguing against this as I also agree. I don’t perceive a child’s right to breast-milk and a mother’s decision on how to feed her baby as mutually exclusive.

For a variety of reasons, not all mothers are able to actually breastfeed and certainly not all are able to breastfeed for a full two years (I’ll discuss more in later posts how reduced milk supply can arise from breastfeeding patterns particularly within the first 2-3 weeks post-partum). Luckily in Western countries donor milk is now becoming more routinely available, either through formal arrangements such as milk banks or through informal arrangements between friends, now providing a viable alternative for those that cannot feed their babies themselves. In contrast, the alternative arrangement within the UAE seems to be the paid provision of wet nurses for those that genuinely are unable to feed. This may then not be the same (i.e. less empowering) as a mother obtaining donor milk and feeding her child herself, although a much preferred and as paid for by the state, cheaper alternative to formula. There are pros and cons to either donor milk/wet nurse scenario.

Part of the rationale of the addition of this clause is to ensure consistency with existing labour laws that allow working women time for breastfeeding. A clause to ensure all workplaces have a nursery did not pass into legislation although a nursery law proposal not specific to working women will be tabled soon. Thus, it is clear that the UAE is trying to put in other supportive (although still legislative-based) measures to improve the mother-child relationship.

However, the passing of the legislation does allow for husbands to sue wives if they did not breastfeed throughout the first two years of their child’s life. How enforcement would work is unclear at this stage but punitive outcomes could be put in place. I wonder what will happen for mothers who may find their milk supply dwindling between six months to a year and unable to meet their two year quota?

20Mar2011_2220_fence my hand

Opponents argue that such a negative consequences approach will actually lower breastfeeding rates or morale around breastfeeding as women experiencing issues will feel pressure that may adversely rather than positively impact breastfeeding. Parents may hide what they are doing or not doing for fear of losing a child, rather than seeking out support.

Thus, we have a situation where the rights of the child are being acknowledged, which is fabulous, but not at this stage the rights of mothers. Like other advocates, it’s my belief that such an approach will not work. Some mothers within the UAE are also speaking out.

In the UAE, both a woman and her breasts actually belong to her husband. The Child’s Rights Law now makes the breasts the property in essence of the child for the first two years of its life. So at no stage does a woman actually ‘own’ her own breasts. For us living in different countries this is a staggering thought.

And what of mothers who wish to breastfeed longer than two years? I Am Not The Babysitter sums it up here in her post when she says that it will just add to the stigma of breastfeeding. Husbands regain ‘breast control’ at two years of age and may either potentially say Stop or Continue.

If we want to improve outcomes for parents and their children, and specifically here improve breastfeeding rates and duration of breastfeeding, then the key is both appropriate education programmes and strong support systems from hospital bed to home. Women need to feel empowered about the choices they make for themselves and their children.  It’s going to take a community approach to improve breastfeeding rates, not a predominantly law-based one.

Legislative measures do have a place, however, alongside education and mentoring systems. Longer (six months or more) paid maternity leave, nursing and childcare facilities within/adjacent to workplaces are key infrastructural support components that are known to work. In most countries though, including here in New Zealand, we are a long way from the ideal at present.

Rewarding breastfeeding with cold hard cash

Could mandatory breastfeeding become the standard in other countries too? I think that this is highly unlikely in most Westernised countries at least but an opposite and potentially as disastrous approach is being employed in some places.

Last year it was announced by University of Sheffield researchers that a trial was being conducted in some areas of Britain to tackle the very low rates of breastfeeding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire by incentivising through cash payments. If the trial is successful, the intention is to trial the scheme out nationally, before making it a nationwide policy. The trial will record breastfeeding levels and look at the attitude of the mothers to the monetary vouchers given.

Mothers who opt to breastfeed (and regardless of whether they were going to anyway) will receive £120 ($245NZD) in vouchers for chain stores/supermarkets. All they have to do is sign a form saying they have breastfed their child for six weeks. At six months they go through the same form signing to receive another £80 (160NZD). Although the intention is that they buy quality food etc, there is nothing to stop participants spending the money on cigarettes or alcohol. If the scheme is adopted, cash would be given for mothers to spend as they see fit. There is also no way of knowing whether participants are telling the truth.

The idea of the incentivisation scheme is that it will supposedly raise the perceived value of breastfeeding through paying mothers for the service. Although it’s the ‘flip side of the coin’, this scheme in essence is disempowering women in much the same way as the UAE scheme is and it has received a lot of flak. UNICEF released a statement saying that incentivisation may have a role and that “any new research can only be assessed once it has been completed and its various successes and limitations are clear”- in other words- a reasonable ‘let’s wait for the outcomes’. UNICEF emphasise that support is fundamental to breastfeeding success.

To me though, it is frightening to think that these are the solutions that being offered. How can those in charge so easily misjudge people and inaccurately identify appropriate solutions? It doesn’t look like the scheme is associated with any form of education, support and mentoring system.

The researchers involved have defended their scheme and the money invested in it by saying that similar schemes exist elsewhere (Quebec, monthly payments for breastfeeding; India, free food for breastfeeding mums). Just because a scheme operates elsewhere, it doesn’t make it the right choice. The researchers also claim that they surveyed mothers in the target areas who were largely in favour of the scheme- this might be the case, but again it doesn’t mean the scheme will be successful or appropriate. Schemes like this in my mind actually probably cheapen mother’s perceptions of themselves and their behaviours and disempower with the “You do this and I’ll give you this” mentality- there’s a level of handing over control of your body to someone else and I’m not talking about the baby.

Enforcing Caesareans- cutting out a mother’s rights

Where are we heading to if we are intent on fostering change by disempowering rather than empowering mothers? Again in the UK last year there was an alarming case of an alleged forcible Caesarean carried out following the mother supposedly seeking help for a panic attack. The outcome of this was being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, five weeks of hospitalisation followed by sedation and a C-section without her knowledge and consent in order to remove the baby purely for child protection purposes. How far will we go to push parental control out of the hands of the mother?

06Aug2011_3329_fence blue sky

Both a mother’s right and a child’s right must be considered

It is a step forward in many ways that the rights of children are being considered and given weight to. We acknowledge the right of the child even as a fetus from a close to midway point in gestation. Knowing the health outcomes of breastfed babies versus formula and advocating for the right of the child to have a chance at the best life possible through a right to breast milk is a further forwards step but in no way should this also be at the exclusion of rights to the mother as this may inevitably lead to negative impacts on the maternal relationship. If we want good parenting then we must put considerable effort into support and mentoring of parents- neither a carrot-based approach nor a cane-based approach fit this manifest.

The researchers and enforcers should learn from positive parenting what really works

Financial incentives and/or legislative change may be one small puzzle piece in improving breastfeeding rates, although it’s personally not one I favour. After all, we use negative financial incentives (taxes) on harmful substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. The University of Sheffield researchers state that “the advantage of financial incentives is their ability to attract and engage their target audience”. It seems to me that this is buying in (excuse the pun) to the idea of entertainment as a solution. I think we parents deserve a little more respect than that.

The approaches discussed above appear to come from the perspective of treating the symptoms (let’s improve breastfeeding rates) and not the cause (why are breastfeeding rates in the UAE and UK (and other places) so low?). Such a solution is the easy way out, that might result in a short spike of improvement as a quick fix but is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.

Legislators and researchers might be wise instead to look to those of us who use positive, gentle parenting approaches to understand that communication, superb educational and peer mentoring together with widely available nurturing support are likely to have more substantial positive effects on breastfeeding rates. Alongside these approaches as well as increased paid maternity leave, better or cheaper childcare access and breastfeeding rooms in workplaces, consideration should be given to taxing formula in the same way as alcohol or cigarettes, making formula prescription only, investing in milk banks to ensure all children have access to breast milk and even perhaps some incentivising of breast milk donation (like sperm donation, where the money is given outside of the target family and therefore does not impact on that family relationship). In knowledge, not money, lies our future.

30Apr2011_2344_fence

An article based on this post appeared on The Conversation UK site on February 20 2014. You can view the article and comments at https://theconversation.com/forcing-mothers-to-breastfeed-is-no-way-to-help-children-23377#comment_317931

Links

http://www.thenational.ae/uae/government/fnc-passes-mandatory-breastfeeding-clause-for-child-rights-law

http://www.unicef.org/eapro/breastfeeding_on_worldwide_agenda.pdf

http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

http://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/practical-parenting/baby/feeding/article/-/21171893/uae-passes-breastfeeding-law/

http://muslimvillage.com/2014/01/31/49427/uae-mothers-must-breastfeed-for-two-years/

http://www.iamnotthebabysitter.com/three-reasons-uae-mandatory-breastfeeding-law-sucks/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10442290/New-mothers-bribed-to-breastfeed-by-NHS-with-200-shopping-vouchers.html

http://nz.lifestyle.yahoo.com/practical-parenting/baby/feeding/article/-/19803323/financial-incentives-to-breastfeed-a-waste-of-money/

http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/News/Statement-on-new-study-on-financial-incentives-to-breastfeed/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/20/not-ashamed-giving-mothers-incentives-breastfeed

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/02/caesarian-choice-allegations-forced-intervention-pregnancy-childbirth

http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/leslie_burby.html

http://www.shef.ac.uk/scharr/sections/ph/research/breastmilk/fi

Boundaries, fencing, & reliving childhood. Surviving the preschool years (and Antarctica).

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica.

I certainly got to experience the full fury of the Southern Ocean the first of several times that I’ve travelled down to Antarctica by ship, either departing from New Zealand in this case, or South America. At one point we encountered stormy weather, complete with 15 metre waves and pitch and roll close to the boat limits. It left me feeling a distinct lack of control over my existence.

The latitudes heading towards the frozen landmass are very reverently referred to as the Roaring 40’s, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties and travelling these waters for this landlubber usually involves significant, debilitating seasickness.

It’s a heck of a roller-coaster ride through tumultuous seas that generally worsen before you reach the sanctity of Antarctic waters itself, the Silent Seventies.

If you gave me a choice, however, of skipping directly to Antarctica by a comparatively short but uncomfortable five hour plane flight dressed in full survival gear or six or more days of boat and stomach heaving up and down at sea, I would probably always choose the ship-based option.

Never one to typically take the easy road, I’m aware that sometimes the journey itself is the most memorable, if challenging, part. In the case of the Southern Ocean, there is much beauty and mesmerising change to be found along the way that those who travel airborne to Antarctica never get to experience. The constant, graceful companion seabirds, that vary in the type of species one sees as the ship migrates south like accompanying guardians each doing a shift; the subtle changes in the colour and texture of the oceans; the captivating and spectacular icebergs that appear; the whales, seals and finally penguins that bring unprecedented delight once the calmness of the pack ice appears; the pack ice itself- that most magical experience of pushing through these floating sculpted jigsaw pieces with the unnerving sound of the ship rubbing on ice but the most divine colours in water ever; and of course the vista of the frozen land itself- mountainous, treacherous terrain but also the most indescribable, sublime beauty. And we travellers just know looking at it that it offers pure pleasure of exploration once we land.

And the waves, the weather and the cold on that journey- well they just really let you know you are alive. They’re there to test you, to push you to limits at times. All of this extremeness serves to make you think and reflect and ultimately I’d like to think that everyone that heads south is a better person at journey’s end- looking at the world with new eyes, having experienced life on earth like nowhere else on this planet.

Parenting is really no different from ship-based travel south. It’s a damn hard roller-coaster journey as well and we all who travel this route will be sorely tested at times. It will be uncomfortable, maybe even gut emptying painful. Like the waters next to the Antarctic continent itself, where the supposed utopia of the Silent Seventies may still be far from silent, might indeed be unbearably cold with wind that whips straight through the body, our children even as adults may still push buttons and we may never find that elusive stillness. However, along every step of the way, just when it all seems too much our child’s beauty will melt and then re-melt our hearts; their crazy antics will bring immeasurable pleasure and every day we will celebrate the little changes and milestones that occur in our child’s development because no one day being a parent is the same.

Although there are varying research outcomes[1][2][3] on the happiness of parents versus childless adults (something I will delve into more deeply in future posts so just giving you media rather than research links here), parent’s lives are undoubtedly changed by the experience of having children, hopefully mainly in a positive sense (see Leaving a Legacy).

None of it’s easy though and the toddler and preschool years are certainly busy and brain-taxing. They’re frequently referred to as the Terrible Two’s, Terrific Three’s and Fabulous Four’s. In many ways, these nicknames are accurate, although in our case we didn’t find anything very terrible about the Two’s for MissBB; although they certainly are for some families.

There’s no question there is huge amounts of pleasure to be gained from a toddler as they migrate into a pre-schooler, becoming more of an individual and in doing so becoming more of everything- more busy, more noisy, more active, more talky, more tantrums, more whiny, just more! Many parents then may find that the Trying Three’s and Furious Four’s may be more apt descriptors.

We have hit the 4’s with an abrupt full on Roar- maybe that’s why she likes the Katy Perry song so much. MissBB has certainly been letting us know she is her own person with her own opinions and decisions about how she wants her life to be run. There have been some significant developmental shifts associated with this- an explosion of language and non-stop talking in our already vociferous child and the dropping of the day sleep completely. No wonder I’ve been exhausted (The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience). It’s also as I alluded to in Time Out coincided with the Why? phase returning- the one where it’s all about the question and attention and nothing to do with actually listening to the answer and when combined with whining has the ability to irritate more than pretty much anything.

And recently at every step of the way there has been boundary pushing and more boundary pushing. Children are born to push boundaries. By age four they are in full combat mode, frequently in armoured tanks, apparently itching to take down all fences. This may seem at times like a curse to parents, but this assertiveness is an essential part of development.

Boundaries constitute the space between one person and another; a limit that allows us to protect ourselves. When we impose boundaries or limits we make it possible to separate our thoughts and feelings from those around us, and in doing so this allows us to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.

When we do this around our children we are teaching them the process of building boundaries as well by letting them know what is acceptable and not acceptable to us. Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and it’s important to remember this about our own children. As this is the framework on which they begin their lifelong process of defining their own boundaries, it’s essential as parents to think carefully about how we engage in this space. Boundaries need to be clearly defined but they also need to be flexible and for those with two or more children in their families, consideration needs to be given to the unique needs of each child.

There are several kinds of boundaries: physical boundaries (i.e. the physical space- the space we own around our bodies); emotional boundaries (these help give us the space needed to deal with our own emotions); intellectual boundaries (the right to think what we want and apply it in our own way); and spiritual boundaries (the right to believe in our own spiritual/religious beliefs and respect for other’s perspectives).

Why are pre-schoolers so good at seeing how strong and high the fence is, particularly with respect to physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries? At this age children are slowly becoming aware they need to lessen their egocentric take on the world but typically with strong push-back to maintain it- it’s a great shock to discover the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Alongside that, they also need to know that they are safe– they need to know what their physical and emotional limits are – how far can they go before it’s ‘dangerous’. If we create intact emotional boundaries (and the other types of boundaries too) they allow both parent and child to feel safe, supported and respected in their relationships.

20131230_0012-FenceCreating our boundaries is a little bit like the fence around this grave. The fence denotes a limit, where the remains of the deceased are still respected by a physical line. At the same time it gives someone walking in the cemetery a boundary where they can perhaps feel emotionally and spiritually safe that they aren’t stepping on the dead. Good boundaries are actually a winning situation for both sides.

However, when pre-schoolers are testing any of their limits, it can be challenging as a parent to deal with. As trying as this is, it’s normal behaviour. Parents then need to respond by providing their child with clear (I prefer this over ‘firm’), as consistent as possible, yet flexible boundaries around demands, expectations or requests. Like all things though, it’s important to pick your battles and ask yourself that all important “Does it really matter?” question. It can entirely feel like a game of fencing- one jab in from the child, and another back from parent to demonstrate what the limits are. A fencing game that never ends.

Whatever the limits you decide are important to you, it’s important to unconditionally love. It’s also essential to employ some flexibility with respect to boundaries- each child has their own needs and not paying attention to this can create problems especially in the teenage years.

Gentle guidance with a very nurturing positive approach has been shown to be best. These children are little people and need to be treated with respect, rather than punishment based approaches. Some excellent resources can be found on Our Muddy Boots (e.g. Children have rights too, Why I do not use time out or time in; Bullying my kids),  Evolutionary Parenting (e.g. What is discipline, Bullying, Parenting and Communication), PhD in Parenting (e.g. 3 R’s of toddler discipline: repetition, reaction, reassurance), Lori Petro’s site as well as here. One way to foster boundaries is by teaching appropriate manners and ensuring parents and child use them.

However, at some point the wheels will fall off (the parent) in response to the child and it’s easy to use words and actions that are punitive, shameful, blaming and judging in nature. This is so easy to do because we have all these layers of societal and family filters through which we view the world- the way that we were raised though is not necessarily the way we may want to raise our own children. When we’re parenting at our best we have recognised that these filters exist and battled through them to discover the way we actually want to parent, which may be quite different. When parenting becomes challenging, it’s easy in our stress of losing control and of being exhausted for those filters to flip back into place and revert to perhaps how we were treated as a child without realising there is another way- that it’s actually a matter perhaps of re-finding our own values.

To get back to connection with your child, some of the tips here are particularly fantastic. Usually what is required involves applying the very own strategies I teach to my child to myself: our mantra is Stop (recognise a trigger), Breathe (mindfulness), Think (what the problem is), Do (take appropriate action to solve the problem) or Say (express what you want) to deal with the issue at hand.

Being mindful that your child is a person in their own right, it’s often great to talk about things as Lori Petro suggests. Bring in some humour and some honesty about what behaviour is pushing the limit and troubleshoot together to make the boundaries intact again. Often I think, based on my own experiences it’s us as parents that need to shift our attitudes rather than just expect that our children will comply.

That such positive routines work is shown by a reduction in bedtime tantrums (together with improved marital satisfaction) by Adams and Rickert[5] versus the graduated extinction method. Also, as media reported here Avolio et al[6] found that children that experienced an authoritative (“authoritative parents can be described as being demanding (challenging), responsive, rational, considerate, consistent, and assertive yet not restrictive) parenting style versus an authoritarian (“authoritarian parents are controlling, lacking in warmth, support and consistency”, and favour punitive approaches) style were more likely to take on leadership roles as adults and less likely to engage in modest to serious rule breaking. Parents are indeed the first leadership trainer.

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important.

One of the best ways I can think of to both know what it’s like to be a child pushing hard and to teach them how to both create boundaries and to push through them when they are holding us back is to engage in challenging activities with our child. The activities may be a recreation of our own childhood or something entirely new. I wrote about this with respect to holidays in Time Out and although this can be done any time with your child, holidays provide an ideal consolidated learning opportunity.

It may be something like exploring a cave, climbing a tree, swimming in waves, rock climbing, kayaking or just jumping off something, or even engaging in imaginative play (a trip to Antarctica by boat perhaps?). When faced with the fear of thinking we are at our limit what do we do?: stop, breathe, think, say or do.

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As adults, teaching our children we may feel a little out of our comfortable zone but being aware of the risks, and letting just a little of our control go all the same is such a powerful learning tool. This is the space in which we can all grow.

References:

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/living/parents-happiness-child-free-studies/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/parenting-and-happiness_b_1497687.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/one-more-take-on-whether-_n_4066427.html

[4] http://www.suzannewelstead.com/resources/Boundaries.pdf

[5] Lisa A. Adams, Vaughn I. Rickert 1989. Pediatrics 84(5): 756-761. Reducing Bedtime Tantrums: Comparison Between Positive Routines and Graduated Extinction http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/84/5/756.short

[6] Bruce J. Avolio, Maria Rotundo, Fred O. Walumbwa 2009. Early life experiences as determinants of leadership role occupancy: The importance of parental influence and rule breaking behaviour. Leadership Quarterly 20(3): 329-342. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984309000794#