Category Archives: Health & Wellbeing

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.

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

The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

Resiliency is one of those qualities that when we’re fully equipped and our resilience cup is overflowing, we don’t notice how strong we are- life just feels good. We tend to be either unfazed in the main by the curve-balls that constantly seem to come the way for many of us as adults or in a state of mind where we can readily find coping strategies to work through the issues we register. When our rubber band gets stretched out however, at some point we suddenly realise that there are cracks forming.

Hopefully, we reach that point with enough insight into our own inner workings and limits to know that our resilience systems are in need of repair. Psychological resilience is our ability to cope with stress and adversity. When we reach this state it’s time to regroup and find that inner strength to alter our situation (frequently that centres on changing our thoughts) in order to bring the rubber band back to its strong relaxed state. If we’re unaware that our rubber band is starting to fragment by being stretched so thinly then it’s difficult to see a way out of the tunnel that’s starting to enclose us and that can lead to the beginning of the blues or other negative feelings and for some people, symptoms of depression.

Stretching the rubber band

This last week and the last of my summer holiday, I reached the sudden realisation that my resilience indicator was reading low. In fact, it felt like I was hitting a record low alongside a feeling of being the most exhausted I have ever been. The power of the mind to erase previous negative experiences or at least lessen their magnitude means I don’t really think this was my least resilient point or my most tired- surely those severe reflux, no sleep newborn months were worse, or the times immediately post-earthquakes or other far more stressful events I have experienced? To me, it just felt earlier this week that like the polar vortex in the US that I was heading to zero or below.

It seems strange that at the end of a decent length holiday anyone should feel least resilient or most tired. However, anyone with children will know that holidays with children are not particularly restful (not even!), as pleasurable as they may be. In my case, after our family time away, it was two weeks at home for me and my daughter whilst my partner was back at work six days a week.

There are many interrelated reasons why my resiliency took a hammering at this point. Parenting a full-on boundary-pushing four year-old is one way to achieve a new level of exhaustion I have discovered (upcoming post). After another long arduous year with effectively no holiday time, it’s probably unsurprising that as the holiday went on, my mind and body realised how much resilience rebuilding I need. That and the trepidation of what the working year ahead entails as I am aware it is going to involve significant restructuring, including job losses, with one of the first (and uncharacteristic) emails issued this year about how we could maintain wellbeing this year (alarm bells screaming). For all the residents of Christchurch still, there are now the longstanding, multi-factorial and accumulated effects of being now three years and counting post earthquakes. The predictions of health professionals (e.g. here and here) were that the 3rd-4th year post quakes would be the hardest and they weren’t wrong and it’s worse for women.

Frequently, there’s a trigger(s) or factor(s) that is a resilience eroding tipping point and I would take a guess that all parents reach a point or many time points where their resiliency is far from optimal. In my case, the camel’s back-breaking stone was actually technology. We live in an age where we have embraced all the advances of technology and what it offers us, but there’s actually significant stress associated with use of technology- it’s real and it’s called tech stress. For me it was combined effects: a faulty motherboard in my work laptop which I have been waiting a replacement for for seven long months plus our home internet failing and promised support call-backs from our provider not eventuating. The ultimate tug on the rubber band has been, for the last month, needing to use my old, faulty and mega infuriating android because my iPhone was being fixed and has just been declared terminal following an unfortunate road/car vs. iPhone incident.

I’m acutely aware that this is a crazy first-world issue and seems pathetic as I write it, but the actual frustrations and time wasted trying to use this largely non-functional phone have felt epic. When technology use actually impedes life and impacts heavily on time in a negative way, it’s not the magical thing it’s touted to be.

How to rebound

I could have spent ages self-analysing and trying to pinpoint exactly what factors were impacting me and to what degree but having spent enough time working out the general list my aim was to get that rubber band back to as close as its strongest phase as soon as possible using decisive action. To take myself back to a state of wellbeing using whatever psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources seemed appropriate. These are called cumulative protective factors.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Although I am largely opposed to listicles, it seems appropriate to insert a list here. None of it is rocket science. For me, some of those key wellbeing steps are:

  • Get out. Getting out of the house to experience new things or favourite things is a key way to bounce back. Sunshine improves mood. Taking children on our journey teaches them too the steps they can take to improve their own mood.
  • Get physical outside. There’s nothing better than pushing oneself hard in the sunshine. In my case that means carrying my petite four year old (but still 13 kg) up a steep hill to the top on a sweltering day for a stunning view or mountains, hills, harbour, sea and (broken) city and then engaging in activities that are fun for both of us.
  • Get physical inside. Whether it’s just at home doing squats and abs or a super hard gym workout.
  • Be kind to self. Kind thoughts. Kind actions. Treat oneself- a hot chocolate out (without over-indulging which will lower self-worth)
  • Dancing. In the privacy of my living room in front of and with my child to the latest hits.
  • Engage in daily mindful breathing. Breathe in and breathe out.
  • Recognising that external situations I cannot change, but my thoughts and attitude I can control, not falling into the victim trap- it’s totally unconstructive.
  • Yoga and pilates. One of my two gym sessions a week where I escape the house sans child.
  • Honesty with my child about how I’m feeling- the most touching thing that happened last week was my empathetic and thoughtful daughter putting together a whole bag of her things while I was in the shower so she could cheer me up, when my phone stress got too much. That and lots of hugs, when the tech stress rose to the surface! This honesty also teaches them that no one is perfect- adults struggle at times too. Letting them be a part of the support of the journey back to wellbeing is invaluable in teaching empathy and also allows them to witness how to find their own coping strategies.
  • Honesty with others (partner, friends, family) about what’s going on. Doesn’t need to be long and involved- a problem shared is a problem halved and all that.
  • Creativity. Doing something for me like craft is such a great way to rebound and feel self-confident and fulfilled.
  • Gardening. Looking at what is growing in the garden, the insects and butterflies and new life is such a restorative activity as is eating produce we have grown.
  •  Doing fun activities in or out of the house with my daughter (and my partner, friends, family)- getting joy from her development, catching up and connecting with others. A day with my parents picnicking and walking on the beach was fabulous.
  • Reading. As a parent and an academic, reading a work of fiction or literary non-fiction is such a decadent relaxing treat.
  •  Watching a movie. There’s no way anyone could watch Frozen and not feel more buoyant afterwards, even my musical hating husband.
  • Organising and goal setting. This can be as simple as getting the house in a semblance of order each day after MissBB is asleep, or making progress on some chores, writing lists and plans or even unpacking some more boxes following earthquake repairs temporary relocation (from a year ago…).
  • Thoughtfulness. Doing something thoughtful for someone else.
  • Abandon technology. Ok, so the technology is not working- may as well pretend I am still away out of range and attempt not to use it.
  • Sleep. Reset the mind. Recover strength.

Most of these are recognised as key factors that promote resilience. In the wake of the earthquakes here, much has been written about individual and personal wellbeing and I will write more on it in later posts. One of the best initiatives nationwide is The Wellbeing Game, which runs for a month each year and individuals from teams have to record their wellbeing activities across a range of categories during that time.  Aside from great data collection for governmental departments, at a personal level this game showed me daily just how many activities I engaged in last October that promoted my wellbeing and it also pushed me to fit in even more. I was pleasantly surprised just how much I did to address my health and it has since made me conscious of what I do in a day to foster personal wellbeing and register when I am not doing enough.

The other great social media campaign running in Christchurch (but applicable to anyone anywhere) is All Right? which is led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. Like The Wellbeing Game it aims to make us think about our mental health and wellbeing, here as part of the earthquake recovery process. With great billboards, postcards, lots of online resources and crazy spontaneous activities it is bolstering our exhausted residents. Mine and MissBB’s favourites: the posters stuck around the city with ‘free compliments’ to rip off and keep.

Many reality TV programmes are partly built around the concept of testing resilience- the Survivor series and the like. While, I was writing this post in the background I had the new Bear Grylls TV series, “Bear Grylls: Get Out Alive” shot here in New Zealand playing. American teams of two are put in taxing situations in our remote areas and those that don’t have coping strategies are eliminated. It’s both a contrived and extreme example of the assaults on our resilience we face daily, but the methods to improve resilience and be equipped for survival are exactly the same.

Just like the grip of the first polar vortex has eased in the US, my rubber-band is relaxing and rebounding again. Being prepared and equipped means a second cold snap for the US or in my case the return to work should hopefully have little negative effect.

When parents are resilient then they are better able to parent positively. Allowing children though to witness the ebb and flow of resilience is an important part of their own development (more on that in the next post). I just hope I can get our intermittent, suddenly dial-up speed slow internet to behave long enough to put out this post. Breathe in, breathe out.

Time out

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I am not sure I can imagine a better finish to a much needed and well-earned family holiday away than a perfectly still, warm night on a beach with a blazing bonfire made of gathered driftwood- my daughter’s first bonfire on her very first camping trip. A dramatic intense sunset slowing working its way across the clouds and through the hues, offset with the first proper blue sky that day, itself contrasting against the darkening silhouettes of jagged mountain peaks. Surf crashing gently on the beach. A smattering of people fishing into the evening. Seabirds gliding through the air and a glassy sea stretching to infinity.

The bonfire drawing others in like moths to a light. Flames mesmerising for young and old: other families and couples come over; camaraderie so easily generated in this moment. Children holding sticks and toasting marshmallows- all brown, crisp, exterior and gooey sticky insides. Roasted bananas split with chocolate melting within. And flour, water, some milk quickly grabbed from the tent to mix into a damper dough, wrapped around sticks and slowly cooked until crunchy on the outer with a scone-like interior. Divine with brown sugar and olive oil spread mixed with raspberry jam- my daughter’s concoction. Shared food passed around. Fireworks created from seaweed balls filled with air exploding on the fire- my natural scientist MissBB came up with this idea herself. Free conversation and utter relaxation- the mind still with nothing but the present. These are the things that create lifelong memories and that catalyse re-creation when children become parents. Total, beautiful magic.

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Kaikoura, where this idyllic scene unfolded is in my mind one of the most spectacular places I have ever been and I’m incredibly fortunate it’s on our doorstep, just three hours from home in beautiful New Zealand. Our brief foray into family camping was but too short. This summer holiday of just 10 days was our first proper travel holiday since a trip south for a week when MissBB was a few months old. There’s been scant in the way of time out in the last four years owing to a variety of factors, including earthquakes and hardship.

Our three days of camping came after another blissful week spending time with some of my partner’s family in the also heavenly Golden Bay, although the weather wasn’t always so sparkly.

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Golden Bay time was a chance for brothers to reconnect as adults, for the wives to bond and for the cousins to form strong friendships and especially for my daughter to have live-in playmates and to negotiate sharing her home life with other children.

Let’s be honest though- not all moments on holidays with children are quite so idyllic and magical. Family holidays can indeed be exhausting and frustrating and at times push you more than being at home- mainly because everyone is out of their comfort zone, despite being hopefully both comfortable and relaxed.

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As a parent it’s easy to tell the people holidaying without kids, unless a couple has been so outrageous as to leave their children elsewhere and are masquerading as a sans children couple. The childless couples are the ones likely fawning over each other, looking stylish and groomed with impeccable hair and makeup, having had unlimited time and a lack of any distractions in getting ready. They’re likely in shape, toned and healthy looking. They’re strolling down streets with just a small, fashionable handbag or along beaches hand in hand, popping into shops for some casual shopping for probably completely unnecessary but lovely possessions, or decadently dining in a café in a long drawn out lunch or dinner. At sightseeing attractions they gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes in between peaceful contemplation of the view. They have long, meaningful conversations. They look relaxed and happy and fresh. Remember those days?

Those with children may well look harassed and stressed, trying to manage child or children and somehow communicate to their partner episodically in frequently unfinished sentences or unanswered questions left hanging, due to the near constant, attention seeking activities of children. Alternatively, they are having harsh words about any one of a number of things (frequently just as an outlet for the frustrations of dealing with the tears, the boundary pushing, the obstructiveness, the incessant I-will-do-anything-to-make-it-stop whining (of the kids most likely)). They will probably have stains on their clothes whether they have a new-born or an older child and feel relatively dowdy, as soon as they catch sight of the glamorous childless, in the outfit they quickly compiled in the few uninterrupted seconds they had to get ready. Makeup may be absent and hair if lucky, brushed.

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They may spend considerable time getting ready and then out of the car at every stop (and the reverse getting back in) and will be carrying large, practical backpacks around full of outfit changes, jackets, packed food that will be refused due to the lure of bought food anywhere. They may be dealing with public meltdowns, manic behaviour. The mummy tummy may well be present, the one that just will not disappear even if there is time squeezed in during a typical week for exercise; bikinis at the beach abandoned these days in favour of the one-piece.

Attempts to find normality in a rare treat of a meal out will be a delicate juggling act of entertaining their child, getting them to eat something, probably with fries despite best intentions and getting out of there quickly without too much destruction or embarrassment. The only shopping done is likely something for their child, because the parents know they will like it (and the adults don’t really need anything, they tell themselves), or alternatively as a means to do anything to stop the whining.

At every step of the way there will be complex negotiation, consideration of sleep routines and dealing with the full gamut of emotions of each child. A true feeling of relaxation may only be captured in moments. Do some of these aspects sound familiar? In our case our holiday has coincided with the unexpected return of the Why? phase to everything, something that we thought we’d left some 18 months ago. What a delight!

Evaluating these two very different scenarios just as presented above leaves the childless scenario at prima facie as by far the most preferable holiday option. However, there are actually many benefits of family holidays. I’m not sure I would trade back to the time of pre-child.

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Taking time out is so important to our wellbeing. Holidays are the big ticket items in terms of recharging our mind and body but there are lots of smaller things we can do on a daily basis to create personal wellbeing for ourselves and for our children (and I’ll refer to them frequently in future posts).

As a mother working a crazily full-on, allegedly part-time job it seems impossible much of the time to have time off, especially this past year, where my workplace has been undergoing significant change. This summer holiday is my first real time off all year, something I will not be repeating I hope in 2014.

Holidays allow us to step away from our routines, to leave chores behind and expose us to new situations that replenish our soul. They’re the chance to get fresh air and exercise, to reconnect relationships- be that with partner, children, family, or friends. They’re the chance to meet new people, to experience new or favourite places, do novel things, or the activities you most love doing. They’re the opportunity to find moments to relax, sleep more, to read a book, to savour food, wine and most of all to find our breath and centre ourselves.

Whilst most of that list can be done without children, there are things that I think holidaying with children do to generate greater wellbeing restoration. My last post discussed what having children does for the wellbeing of adults facing terminal illness; research shows that having holidays also increases the wellbeing of cancer patients. Our moments with our children fly by so fast- holidays provide ideal ways to overdose on capturing the memories of being with our children. Whilst children may seem a whirlwind of energy necessitating your own storm of parenting effort in return, being with children actually forces us to slow down, to savour the little things more, to pace ourselves.

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The best thing though that having children does is it gives us the perfect opportunity to recreate the treasured memories we have of our own childhood and ones that suit our values, now that we are parents. We can do this in the full realisation as adults of just how amazing and special being a child is, so that we truly appreciate the episodes in a way that we could not possibly do as children, when we thought that childhood would last for ever. In a way, it should last for ever and with having children it does.

Helping our children create their own magic holiday memories means pushing the boundaries for all of us- both parents and children alike as we engage in activities that may make us slightly fearful for our own abilities, and maybe for the safety of our children. Yet, it is in this space that we all grow, learn and find ourselves. There are powerful skills that we can teach our children as well- ways that we can tackle our fears to conquer mountains, overcome challenges and acquire new abilities. To me holidays are all about adventures- of the mind, the body, of places.

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On our holiday, apart from tripping around most days to new and old favourite haunts, our adventures were mainly about fossicking in rock pools, climbing rocks, exploring limestone canyons and caves and boulder hopping on rocky beaches. Teaching coping strategies to our little charges is an excellent reminder to ourselves of the techniques we need to employ to cope with the more frustrating and challenging aspects of holidaying with children. Breathe.

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I’ve got two weeks left of my break, based at home now and plenty of home chores to achieve in that time. I’m in absolutely no rush whatsoever, though to return to work. Work can most certainly wait.

I can’t wait however, to go on my next family holiday, to build those memories, find my inner child, discover new challenges to get all of us out of our comfort zone and grow personally and as a family. Unquestionably there’s going to be a beach, bonfire and some rocks in there somewhere. In fact, with all the unpacking still to do but my partner back at work tomorrow, it’s incredibly tempting to throw it all back in the car and sneak away for a mother-daughter adventure.