Tag Archives: children

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.

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Embracing change

Metamorphosis is within  our reach

Metamorphosis is within our reach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me at Parenting by Instinct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific reference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Scientific References

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

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

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

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

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

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.