Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.