Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Surviving (with Christie)

One thing the bubble I grew up in didn't lack was female role models amongst my peer group. From my mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins to friends and mentors, I have always been in a world where women have excelled. Whether learning languages, conquering statistics, coding, teaching, listening, communicating with authority or managing people with inspiring empathetic skills. I went to a single sex high school, but up to the age of 12, the girls dominated us trouble causing boys. At university, I was in a single sex residence but our sister res was just next door. We shared meals, classes, life and debate. One of those inspiring people I met was Christie Roberts.


Trev:
Hey Christie, I hope you are happy and smiley. Was wondering if you fancied doing a guest conversation or guest post for my blog? 

Christie:
Thanks Trevor. I would be keen...where I can find time during Luca's brief naps 🙈 My only disclaimer is that I don't feel like I'm very "interesting" right now - hardly reading, barely thinking and a stay-at-home mom (indefinitely) but let me know more about what you have in mind and let's see where it goes... it's ironic you speak about being "smiley happy" - I am doing well and overall feeling happy but have actual struggled with postnatal depression - probably one "cause" close to my heart as I'm living it out... 

Trev: 
I don't have kids but get to spend lots of time with friends who do. Although I know actually being in it will be harder, I don't have the wool over my eyes in terms of how hard it is. Dan Gilbert talks about parenting in 'Stumbling on Happiness' as one of those entire life choices where the early part is very hard work. A friend I met with in San Francisco was in the 'crazy eye period' and told me how much he had learnt about unconditional love. He puts all he has into the relationship with the child, and can't expect love in return. He gets incredible moments, but he says it has given him a whole new sense of appreciation for his parents. He has started trying to make more time for them. 



Christie: 
Absolutely - our whole concept of love is challenged - this little creature with such basic needs that you need to meet, that can only communicate and process the world through crying. It's only as they grow a little bit that one starts to get the "rewards" of a relationship: smiles, laughter and sounds that make a baby feel more like a little person. 

It's also such a huge transition for someone used to order, predictability, structure and validation from ones work. Especially having worked in the research arena for the last few years, one of my main tasks is data cleaning and quality control - things are either right or wrong, and one applies basic problem solving to resolve conflicts. Now you're in a world where there is no schedule, no predictability, no control and no validation. One can't manipulate or problem solve a baby. One has to learn flexibility, to surrender to the chaos, to relinquish control and accept that one is to take a supportive role - and to tap into a more intuitive part of oneself. 

It's a huge life lesson. And it involves a massive shift in identity. I can't believe how much I am learning about myself through this experience. A baby is mirror - forcing one to see ones true self. It's deeply confronting.  

Trev:
Although each parent-child dynamic I have witnessed is unique, there are some parallels that make me smile/cringe. I particularly enjoy the 'emperor voice' some kids get as they still haven't quite conquered their pleases and thank yous. The world they see is the only world there is and there isn't the perspective adults perhaps take for granted. Then there is the little fact that our brains aren't fully formed till we are about 25, and that is still just the machinery. Parents arguably get to deal with us at our worst and may have to wait till we are parents ourselves till they realise the effort required. It seems to me the important elements are still looking after yourself and hopefully being lucky enough to have a support network. Although some of my friends say it is just a period of warfare you need to get through with as few battle scars as possible. 

Christie:
There definitely is a survival period - I think we are just emerging from that - the goal is to purely meet needs: feed, clean, hold, put to sleep. What has been so interesting to me is to see "nature vs. nurture" at work. While it is important for us to create and sustain a nurturing environment for our children, so much of who they are is not dependent on us. For example Luca was not a sleepy newborn - he was born with eyes wide open and he has been very aware and engaged in his world from the beginning. At first we were frustrated that he didn't fit the mould of what a newborn should (or should not) do - but as time has gone on, as we have gotten to know him better, we realise that this has nothing to do with us, with parenting failures but rather that this is how he is wired. So we are starting to accept that our (emerging) social butterfly, will not lie passively in the pram while we wander around the shops. He wants to be at eye level - in our arms, facing forward in the baby carrier at our chests - engaging with the world and its inhabitants. It's liberating to know that we have not succeeded nor failed in our parenting: he is who he is regardless of what we do. So we have to learn to embrace that our our role is to help facilitate the best version of who he is, rather than being responsible for "making him good".  

And there is a joy and reward in that: discovering more of who he is as he grows and learns more about himself each day. It's both fascinating and fulfilling to see his daily development - not just in the obvious milestones of walking, talking etc but in his perception of the world - from being a passive observant to seeing relationships between people and things, being able to engage in a game and to discover his sense of humour. 

Nature v Nurture

Trev:
It is interesting that the survival period sometimes relies on skills we feel we have been able to specialise out of. For the purposes of a job, we can outsource administration. We can outsource chores. We can outsource anything that isn't our core competency. When it comes to parents, they are all in. They need the soft skills of knowing which fights to pick, and when to dish out affection. They need the tone of voice and confidence to set clear boundaries. They need to clean and act as a servant to the little majesty! There are lots of things we do for ourselves that ordinarily we wouldn't do for other people. Enter children and any traditional motivations get flipped on their head. It really is the best example of a Gift or Sharing Economy we have. Where the inconsistent and independent reward comes in those moments of joy, discovery, learning, engagement and humour. 

(I am enjoying this conversation - I think the people I have spent time with would love to hear some of the insights you are having! Funny how it started with you saying you don't have anything interesting to say, and then all this awesomeness gushes out) 

Christie:
Haha - it's a symptom of my Type A comparison syndrome that lets me tell myself "I'm just a mom" while other people are conquering the world. My world has shrunk and I am aware of how monotonous and mundane my days can be - menial labour sometimes - which, as you mentioned before, can be quite humbling for someone used to functioning at a different level. There is no outsourcing of changing nappies, mopping up vomit, pee and poo. It's messy at the coal face of child-reading and there's something quite special about that too: the great leveller - it's so basic, so primitive that one feels connected to parents of the world. This universal connection that comes with his rite of passage. 

And it's so comforting to know that we are not the first, nor the last people to struggle with this transition. While it can feel incredibly personal (symptomatic of isolation), the experience is so universal. Perhaps the most universal - there will be differences in approach, to how children are wired etc. but there are some common themes that all parents struggle with. And all parents have to find their own unique way to deal with their unique challenges but the struggle is shared. 

I take no comfort in the people who find it easy but rather in those who struggle - both with the physical aspects as well as the mental and emotional shift. And it's so freeing to know that it is normal to struggle. And one learns to give oneself permission to be imperfect. To accept and surrender to the chaos. 

And with that baby wakes up and my thoughts are interrupted 🙈🙈🙈 

Trev:
It is funny. I have actively chosen to step out of the world conquering and narrow down to more simple 'micro-ambitious' tasks like learning to cook and domesticating myself. I really didn't like the corporate world structure of pay and hierarchy determining whether people had 'done well at life'. I was also worried about how much of the success came from privilege and randomness. I worked hard, but working hard seems partly a random skill too! I recently wrote a post wandering what would happen if 'the rain came'. If we were all paid a Universal Basic Income that gave us financial freedom. That equaliser would mean everyone chose what they did based on incentives other than what we are used to. Parenthood seems like a great equaliser too. Whether you are a Billionaire or a Single Unemployed Parent, you are the custodian of a life. A little person who still has to learn EVERYTHING. Including that you are a pretty big deal. 

Christie:
I had already taken some steps back from work before Luca arrived - working in research projects where I had flexibility. Over the years I have learnt more about my capacity and preferences - that working in clinical medicine wasn't going to be my future but rather to find other avenues where I could put different skill sets to use and that would energise me. I still have to fight the natural desire to think less of myself. And parenting has really revealed how hard on myself I truly am. My big challenge at the moment (working through with a therapist) is how to be kinder to myself, to extend myself grace. If I don't, then I end up treating parenting as a performance and both Luca and I suffer as a result. I can only treat him with kindness, patience and love if I learn to treat myself with the same measure of respect. Easier said than done. 

Trev:
Yes, a lot of the stories we tell ourselves to cope sound amazing and then are ridiculously hard to put in practice. I think we are also in a rush. There is a Jewish saying that 'life begins with the kids move out and the dog dies'. A lot of jobs are probably best reserved for people with gravitas and wrinkles. I think we should probably only start working when we are 50! My mother, aunt, and father's wife all went back to university in the last decade and have launched new careers. I would rather get advice from, invest my money with, or work with someone who has been punched in the stomach a few times by life and carried on. The strongest people in my life have been women, and that is no doubt because the responsibility of parenting used to fall largely on them. I learn a lot by spending time with my friends who are parents. Thank you.
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