on therapy, 2018, burnout, Brené Brown and gym for mental health

On therapy

Just over a year ago, I started seeing a therapist. It’s not something I’ve hidden from anyone, but is something I’ve had trouble talking about. Most people who know me don’t know about the vast oceans of hurt I carry in my heart. But when I realised that it had started to leak into my parenting, I knew it was time to get help.

Therapy has been deeply transformative for me. You see, I’m a natural storyteller and can – pretty dispassionately – tell people about events from my life without feeling too involved in it. I tell it as though it happened to someone else. I downplay the enormous hurt and trauma I still feel. You might have heard some of the stories, but you’ll never know how deeply I feel the scars.

But in therapy, I finally found an outlet for all the feelings I had been stowing in my heart since I was a child. I found a way to process all the pain, trauma and confusion that I had no way of dealing with before.

On 2018

2018 was an incredibly hard year for me. My son had a rocky start at his new school, and it was only after the start of the second term that I was able to start to focus on work. That meant my business took a back seat to the rigours of parenting. My sister, husband and I bought a flat late in 2017. We did a full gut job and renovation on the place, which I project managed as they both work full time office jobs. It took us a few extra months to find the right tenant, taking us up to June.

In July, we had the incredible privilege of taking a wonderful holiday in Portugal for two weeks to celebrate my husband’s 40th birthday. This was my highlight of the year. But if you’ve ever travelled with a young child, you’ll know how much planning and preparing it takes to pull off a successful holiday.

Just before we left for that holiday, I signed onto a 3 month trial retainer contract for what seemed to be an exciting role. It turned out to be both more and less than I thought it would be, veering wildly between far too much to do and focus on (and give my other clients their due attention) and far too little to keep me occupied for the time they asked of me. We ended the contract at the end of August, and I think we were all relieved.

In the last week of August, my son came down with the flu. Not an earth-shattering occurrence, except that after a week of the flu and another week of antibiotics for an undetectable suspected infection, he was admitted to hospital with severe abdominal pain. After 24 hours in the hospital, he was in surgery to have his appendix removed at just 3.5 years old. He and I were in hospital for 6 days, and he didn’t walk for two weeks. He was out of school for 3 full weeks over the course of just four weeks. By mid-September, he was on the mend and back at school and I could finally turn back to my work and pick up the pieces of life.

On burnout

But of course, all of these things took their toll. You can’t function on high adrenaline and stress for the better part of a year and expect to just put it down and function normally again. My work had suffered during those months – I knew it, and so did my clients – but my mental and physical health also suffered enormously.

While all of these events were difficult and hard to cope with at times, I was also working with my therapist to uncover and heal the wounds of my past. One day I will be able to write about these events without feeling unmanageably vulnerable, but today is not that day. Suffice to say that although you cannot see the rewards of the work, working through the traumas of your past is still work. And very hard work, at that.

Throughout the difficulties and setbacks of 2018, I continued to show up at therapy, to bring my hurt, pain and scars out into the open. I started to realise that I had built a fortress around myself and my heart. Some may say that my experiences weren’t ‘that’ traumatic, but to me they feel like the world. A world of hurt and pain that has made me shut myself up into a prison that no-one is allowed into but me and even I don’t go into that prison voluntarily.

But now that I am able to see what I have done, what I have become, I can see a glimmer of where I can go and what I can become.

I ended 2018 in an extremely low place. My business and my confidence had taken a knock. My brain, my body and my very soul felt exhausted, completely drained. The December-January holidays were nice, but caring for a 3 year old all day, every day is only so relaxing. And while I do feel better, I constantly wonder when I will start to feel like myself again.

On Brené Brown

 Last week, Brené Brown (and, truthfully, Audible) completely changed my understanding of the world and myself. I’m forced to take a break from therapy while my son is out of school, but try to retain a shred of sanity by listening to podcasts, and now, audio books. I’m halfway through my second listen of Daring Greatly, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it has changed how I think, how I feel and how I intend to parent. 

Earlier in this post I referenced the pain and trauma I still feel from my childhood. That pain and trauma has affected how I parent and how I feel about myself as a parent. I was parented through a system of shame and fear, and I have grown up to be a shame and fear driven adult. I never feel like I am enough. I never feel like I’m good enough to warrant care, love and acceptance. And that is largely due to the messages I received during my childhood, both overtly and covertly. 

I’m working through that in therapy, working to improve my relationship with myself, to shed the toxicity I grew up with and to change my inner voice. But while it has helped, sometimes I can’t figure out how to change how I communicate with my son. You see, when your own internal dialogue is negative, shaming and fearful, the way you communicate with others mirrors that. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown gives tangible examples of how she has changed the dialogue in her own life and in her relationship with her children. And these are the ways that I will be using to help improve my parenting and my relationship with my son.

On gym for mental health

In a fit of New-Years-Resolution-itis, I signed up for a gym membership last weekend. I haven’t told anyone yet, because I’m, well, truthfully, I’m afraid of the pressure and showing that much vulnerability. However, this wasn’t in the spirit of ‘must get fit and look thin’, it’s more for my head. You see, due to that messed up shame and fear childhood, I have some anger management issues.

I was chatting with my 3 year old, and asked if he can help me go to gym by going to the kids club while I workout. I told him that I hope it will help me to be a better mama for him. And my heart broke when he responded, “Yes, it will help to make you less angry.” You see, the way you interact with your child leaves an imprint on their heart. But the mistake I always make is thinking that one impression is the lasting impression.

Through the words of Brené Brown and Janet Lansbury, I have realised that my relationship with my son isn’t cast in stone. Each day, each time we interact I have a chance to change the impression. Sure, my previous interactions are still there, but over time, I can try to be better, to be the mama I so desperately want to be and to change the shape of the impression I leave on his heart. And if I learnt just one thing in the course of 2018, it’s that in order to be able to parent my son the way I want to, I’m going to have to learn how to parent myself in the exact same way.

So here’s to 2019.

I hope it’s the year I learn how to look after myself, how to show myself love and how to accept that love as something that I deserve. I hope that it’s the year I learn to parent with acceptance, love and empathy. I hope that the impression I leave in my son’s heart is one of love, unconditional and completely without shame and fear. I hope it’s the year I start to feel more like myself and less like the shell of a person carved out of fear, shame and exhaustion. I hope that I’m putting in place some structures that will make these hopes, dreams and intentions more reachable. I hope that I allow myself the space to fail gracefully, to succeed with an open heart and to put love out into the world. I hope that 2019 is the year I learn to be vulnerable and to Dare Greatly with every breath I take.

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a slow and difficult start to the year

I guess this is a bit of a rant, or maybe just a vent. Everyone talks about how hard 2016 and 2017 were but on balance, 2018 has been super difficult for me so far. Let me contextualise:

  1. Daycare closed on 15 December, and that’s when full time parenting kicked in for me. My husband was working pretty much straight through, with breaks on public holidays and 6 days off in the middle of January.
  2. Because of that mid-Jan break, we decided not to send the toddler back to daycare, because it would mean paying for a full month and he’d only be there for about 7 actual days (between their holiday and ours).
  3. His new school only started on 22 January, and because of their ‘staggered start’ system, he only went back on 30 January. January was a long, long month, but we got through it. We even had fun!
  4. During this whole six week period while I was also supposed to be on holiday, I was trying to squeeze work into many of his naps, and every spare hour I could find. Such is the life of a freelancer.
  5. And then school started, and we expected the pressure to ease off. MAN, WERE WE WRONG.

That’s when the shit hit the fan.

A New School

So, my boy is two and a half (he’ll be three in May), and we felt that he wasn’t getting as much stimulation from his old daycare towards the end of last year. We looked around, and found a lovely school much closer to home (his old daycare was closer to my old office, but a 45 minute round trip from home. And I work from home.) After putting his name down, we were offered a place for him last October which we had to turn down due to the volume of my work commitments (they ask parents to be available for early pick ups for at least the first week, and I just didn’t have that kind of time. We’d also already planned a holiday, which would throw another spanner into October.)

Fast forward a few months, and he got a place for January. Hooray!! We thought the transition period would be a bit tough, but man, it has been harder than we expected.

Brand New Everything

For us, it was just exchanging one thing for another – daycare switched with school – it’s basically the same thing with different people. I spent a lot of time talking about it in the holidays, preparing him for the new people, new things, new kids, he was excited to start and we thought he was ready.

The first week was difficult. Drop offs in the morning were clinging and teary, to the point where I asked my husband to take over, in case that improved things. It did, somewhat. But then they asked me to fetch him after just an hour on the second day. AN HOUR. I hadn’t had more than an hour at a stretch the whole holidays to work, and now school had finally started and I had to fetch him after ONE HOUR?! I was beyond frustrated. I didn’t understand what the problem was. Surely if we just started the way we meant to go on, he’d adjust more quickly? The third day, it was 2 hours, and by the end of the week the full school day – 12.15. Woohoo.

By the second week, I thought he’d be settled in. I fetched him early (to my mind) at 3pm, to give him a little extra time to adjust. But because I had to work, there were a few days that week that I fetched him later, closer to 5pm. At the welcome picnic that Friday, the teacher suggested that he was super unhappy with staying for aftercare (anything after 12.15). I was gobsmacked. He’s been at daycare since he was literally 4 months old! How is this any different?

Some Context From the Teacher

Well, then he came down with a bad cold and had to stay home for a few days (fevers and the like). So it was only this week (the fourth week of term for him) that I had a chance to speak to his teacher again. And I think I understand a bit better.

All along, it had been a simple switch in my mind. He had been happily hugging the teachers and teachers assistants goodbye in the afternoons, but mornings had been getting increasingly difficult. Lots of tears before leaving the house, more at school even with dad doing the drop offs, and an almost pitiful happiness to see me when I fetched him in the afternoon. Things weren’t going the way I expected them to, and I was frustrated.

After talking to his teacher yesterday, I realised something: whereas for me it was a simple switch, for him his whole world had changed.

He had been at daycare his whole life, he didn’t remember a time when he wasn’t at daycare. Now, we had taken that reassuring presence from his life and replaced it with new teachers, new activities, a new environment, new children, even new extra-murals, which he’d never done before. His days were never predictable, so he never knew what was coming, and he’s a boy who relies heavily on routine.

Also, he’s older than most of the kids in his class. There are two other boys his age, but he is new and they’ve been friends for a while, so he’s a bit of an outsider. The rest of the kids are little, not-quite-two or only-just-two, and are a bit boring for him. Without a single friend for reassurance, he felt all alone in this sea of newness.

He stopped eating, he stopped napping, he started chewing on his nails, his sleep deteriorated (and it was always pretty bad). His immune system even gave in, and he got sick in the third week of school. He was basically shutting down in the face of overwhelming newness.

So, What Now?

Well, after our chat yesterday, we’ve decided to cancel his extra murals for this term, to let him get used to school before we throw something extra at him.

I’ve agreed that I will fetch him early 3 days a week, and arrange my work so that he only stays late for a maximum of 2 days per week.

We’re going to try to bring more Montessori activities home, to give him the control he seems to crave, so that he can start eating again. We tried that yesterday afternoon, and it seemed to work.

Now that I understand it better from his perspective, I can plan. I can work around what he needs. After all, that is why I quite my full time office job, so that I was able to be there when he needed me.

(I’m also going to offer to rewrite their new parent guidebook, so that future new parents are less confused and frustrated when this happens to them. The lack of communication was a huge contributor to my frustration and the lack of understanding on my part was difficult for him.)

I feel bad for not seeing it sooner. Of course I do, there’s nothing like a bit of mom guilt to drag you over the coals. But I also feel like a lot of confusion could have been avoided if the school had been a bit more communicative. This is my first experience with a more formal school environment, with Montessori, with changing schools – I had no idea he’d find it this difficult. They knew. They knew, and they hinted at it, but it was only yesterday that I finally got a straight answer and explanation of it. So I’m going to pack my mom-guilt away and work with what I’ve got.

It feels to me like no sooner do you understand something, as a parent, that it changes again. There’s nothing familiar but change itself.

So that’s how we’ve been this year. I’m hoping things will turn around soon, and either return to normal or we’ll get used to this new normal. We’re all exhausted with the sheer volume of decisions we need to make each day. And I’m reminded that change is huge. It’s huge whether you’re a little boy or a grown-ass woman. Change is huge and hard, and we all need a little extra grace to adjust to it.

So, my little boy, I’ll see you at 12.15 then. As long as you need me to be there, I’ll be there.

one cup homemade granola

So, I asked on Twitter this morning if you want my homemade granola recipe, and the response was good, so here goes. I tried MANY different recipes before settling on this, and it’s really more of a method than a hard-and-fast recipe, which I think is easier and more flexible anyway.

INGREDIENTS

One cup each:

  • Oats – old-fashioned/rolled (not instant)
  • Coconut – flaked, desiccated, ground
  • Nuts & seeds (roughly chopped, if large) – whatever you have or that strikes your fancy
  • Dried fruit (roughly chopped, if large) – again, whatever you like

1/3 to 1/2 a cup:

  • Coconut oil
  • Honey (or other liquid sweetener)

And:

  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Optional:

  • A sprinkle of protein powder
  • A spoon of cocoa/cacao
  • 1 tsp vanilla

METHOD

  1. Preheat your oven to about 150ºC. This is a low-and-slow recipe, don’t be tempted to turn the heat up to speed things up (I did once, and it wasn’t pretty). If your oven has the option to choose the element, choose the bottom one, and turn off the fan.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, measure out your dry ingredients (except the fruit) and mix them up.
  3. Melt the coconut oil and honey so they are both liquid (I do it in the microwave, but you do you).
  4. Pour the melted oil and honey in and mix it up. You’re looking for a slightly sticky consistency, and for all the mixture to be covered. If it’s not yet covered, melt a little more and mix that it until you get your desired consistency.
  5. Add the salt into the mix now, to keep it from being far too sweet, and add your cinnamon. If you are using any of the optional ingredients, now’s your moment.
  6. Pour into a dish* and pop it into the oven. Take it out every 15-20 minutes to stir and check the colour.
  7. Add in the dried fruit when you are about 10 minutes from done – just sprinkle them on top and stir into the mixture.
  8. After about 30-45 minutes or so, it should be sticky, clumping up and golden – that’s when I take it out.
  9. Keep stirring it while it cools – the less often you do so, the larger the clumps (and the more likely it will be to stick to your dish)

We eat this with our morning fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, and I sometimes have a little bowl with some milk as a snack. It lasts for about a week in an airtight container kept on the counter (I don’t know if it lasts longer than that, because we always finish it within a week).

* Now, I’ve found the dish is important. Most recipes I found recommended using a cookie/sheet pan, and I found that dried my granola out too much, making it dry crunchy, instead of a sticky/chewy crunchy, which I prefer. So I use a ceramic baking dish for mine, but you may do as you please.

let’s be kinder to ourselves, ok?

It’s so funny, sometimes it feels as though the whole world (or at least MY whole world) leans towards a kind of “group-think” and everything you see, say, hear and read leads you towards the same conclusions.

I work for myself now, and it can get pretty quiet at home on my own, so podcasts have become my officemates. Last week, I was listening to some TED talks while I ate my lunch and this one from Jennifer Senior came up. It crystallised something I’d been thinking for quite a while, and gave shape to my thoughts in a way that I struggled to articulate for myself.

Jennifer speaks about the difficulty of ensuring happiness for our kids, and how it’s a very lofty goal that really only came about in the last 20-30 years. How, in previous generations, the emphasis was different – on children as working members of the family, on the importance of productivity and kindness as markers of healthy children. She says we should think about teaching our children how to be kind, thoughtful of others, productive members of society, and hope that happiness comes as a by-product of being a good person, rather than from some level of self-excellence.

Then this morning, I read Belinda’s blog post on Imperfect Parenting, and that was when the “group-think” feeling hit. Belinda mentions her friend who dropped the ball on pajama day at school, how her kids were the only ones there in their usual clothes. She goes on to mention that she drops the ball on a weekly basis. Except I don’t think that’s fair.

Honestly, I’m 32 now, and I still have a fairly clear recollection of my childhood. I remember packed lunches and bathtime with my younger sister (we were kids, and it was fun.) But I don’t remember the times that the ball was dropped. There was less of an emphasis on this almost unattainable level of “perfect parenting” that we seem to want to reach now.

What I do, clearly, remember from growing up is when my parents – no, my dad, especially after he started single parenting – lost his shit when the ball was dropped. How he blamed everyone except himself (a personality trait that still exists today). And it is that that I will do my hardest to avoid.

I think what I’m trying to say is, we’ll all be happier – kids and parents, hell, people in general – if we relax the reigns a bit. If we try to be kinder to each other and kinder to ourselves. If we value kindness over other things, and try to teach acceptance, kindness and tolerance to out kids through the example we set with ourselves.

So although I am only 2 years into this parenting thing, I’m trying my hardest to be gentler on myself. Kinder to myself, and if the toddler lives on Flings one weekend, well, we’ll try to fit some veggies in next week. If I forget to pack something into his bag, it’s not the end of the world. There’s a lot of stuff to remember these days, and expecting yourself to keep track of everything is unrealistic. But getting mad with yourself or your child because you forgot something? Well, that’s just silly.

Let’s be kinder, ok?

winter-warmer chicken keema (ready in 30 minutes)

I’ve already mentioned that sometimes it’s hard for me to find time (and energy) to cook, and I know that’s a common problem, because I see it on Twitter all the time. It’s hard enough when you’re a full time working woman, who is primarily responsible for coming up with food in the evening (whether you’re single or in a relationship). Throw a baby or a toddler into the mix? And it’s 100 times harder.

So I’m starting a record of quick, easy to execute dishes that are comforting for a cold winter night, but don’t take hours and hours of cooking. Even one of my go-to dishes during summer, the grain bowl, takes too long to put together when I want to eat before 8.30pm (and the toddler just WON’T LET ME GO). And I’m lucky, I work from home, so I can (sometimes) get it together to put dinner on before my boy comes home from daycare, but we aren’t all that lucky.

This was dinner last night, and it was quick, easy and tasty. Yes, I’m big into Indian flavours at the moment – spices like turmeric, cinnamon and masala make sense in winter because they are warming and tasty, but they’re also good for boosting your immune system and keeping you healthy, so it’s a win-win.

Chicken-Keema-5

Chicken Keema (or a way of using chicken mince that isn’t meatballs) – link to original recipe here, which is where I took the pic from too.

INGREDIENTS
500g chicken mince (or pork)
2 tsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2-3 green chilies, chopped fine (I used jalapeños)
1 inch piece of fresh turmeric, finely minced (optional, my addition)
1 inch piece of ginger, finely minced(optional, my addition)
1 large garlic clove, finely minced(optional, my addition)
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp red chili powder or chilli flakes
1 tsp garam masala
4 tomatoes, diced (I used a tin of chopped Italian tomatoes, as I had no fresh)
Salt to taste
½ tsp black pepper
2-4 tbsp Greek yoghurt (optional, my addition)
1 cup frozen peas (optional, my addition)
1 cup broccoli and cauliflower florets (optional, my addition)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. In a large, deep frying pan, heat oil. Once warm, add onions and chilies and sauté until onion is softened. Then add in the ginger, fresh turmeric and garlic, if using, and fry until fragrant.
  2. Add chicken mince and mix. Cook on medium low heat until chicken is cooked through (chicken will turn white)
  3. Now add all the spices and stir, until the spices are integrated and slightly toasted. Then add the tomatoes, fresh or canned
  4. Cook for good 20-25 minutes or until the liquid is completely cooked off. Keep stirring it in between. Traditionally, this is a fair dry curry, more about the mince and spices than the sauce, but I wanted it to be more saucy, so once most of the tomato had cooked off, I added in a few spoonfuls of Greek yoghurt for some saucy creaminess.
  5. The original dish also entirely lacked vegetables, and I wanted some, so I tossed in some frozen peas, and sautéed some broccoli and cauliflower in a pan, then threw them in at the end. If I’d been using my brain, I’d have added frozen broccoli and cauliflower straight into the curry, which would have saved on dishes and time, so do that rather.
  6. Serve over rice or with naan.