Why your back pocket isn’t as secure as you think: choosing creativity over compliance

hairdressing talk

So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):

C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.

H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”

C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”

say what now?

When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?

And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.

let’s talk (on my terms though)

I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.

Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.

what’s actually going on here?

But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.

It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.

In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.

I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.

But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.

looking within

What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.

Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:

“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.

If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.

my journey

Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.

And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.

So that’s the path I took.

to law or not to law

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.

I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.

square peg, round hole

But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.

Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.

Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.

setting up our children

Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.

If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.

are you excited?

So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.

But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).

If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Brenè Brown

now what?

So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:

  1. Question your purpose.
  2. Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
  3. Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.

It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.

Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.

Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com

 

Mummy Doesn’t Always Know Best; the Benefit of Coaching in Parenting

Being a mum of an autistic child I’ve learnt to flexibly adapt my plans to suit my eldest’s mood – often it works but sometimes I end up with slapped-palm-to-forehead woe when I’ve missed something blindingly obvious (like taking him to a fancy restaurant sans iPad, toys or any other variation of distraction so his attention becomes naturally focused on the dainty glassware and heavy cutlery).

having a plan for your plan

Over the years, I’ve learnt to make a plan A, B and even a C for most things; from sandwich fillings to activities. For example, my eldest loves climbing (walls, trees, rocks, furniture – if it can carry his weight, he’s climbing it). So, if I’ve agreed to a trip to the local climbing centre, and this can’t take place, it can only be replaced by a trip which achieves the same aim so, perhaps to one of the local parks which has a climbing wall (this still requires significant explanation and evidenced based rationale as to why said plan needs to be amended but if undertaken sensitively can still lead to a positive outcome).

Ultimately, climbing has to happen because that was the verbally binding contract I entered into and there are no exclusion clauses; I’m well and truly committed. Any retraction of my agreement would be a betrayal in his world of the gravest kind and lead to mistrust, anger and heightened anxiety because the ‘plan’ has been changed so critically.

boo!

In practice, this means that spontaneity doesn’t really have much of a place in my home.  An example is when I’ve forgotten an ingredient I need to cook a particular meal and need my eldest to come with me quickly to the supermarket to pick it up. If I am to traverse this path, I need to be prepared for intense questioning as to what exactly I need to buy; how – when knowing I was making this dish – I managed to miss a vital ingredient and why an alternative dish can’t be prepared; accompanied by the qualification that I need to wait for whatever activity he’s engaged in to reach an appropriate point when it can be left (this can be anything from five minutes to twenty) or for the episode of whatever is on Disney Junior or CBBBC to have ended.

One of the classic manifestations of his autism is that there has to be an explanation for everything; nothing just ‘happens’. And trying to fob him off with a half hashed explanation is a false economy; if you omit detail you can bet your last penny that he’ll find the loopholes and put your own argument back to you, creating further explanations (or hole digging in my experience) and inevitable delay.

Not unlike a chief prosecutor intelligently unhinging an unreliable witness.

It goes without saying that the old Indian way of parenting (the one I certainly grew up with) of “just get in the car or else” is a huge no-no because it stokes the fires of anxiety, creates stubbornness, foot stomping/door slamming rage and lots of tears – if we’re in this zone, no-one’s going anywhere and nothing’s going to get cooked anytime soon.

All this for some basil to make a basic pesto. I could probably have ordered and have had my food delivered to me on Uber Eats in the time taken from the initial request to accompany me, to our actual exit from the house.

tipping the scales

One thing that puts my son on high alert emotionally is the prospect of being in an unfamiliar environment with people he doesn’t know. He thrives in familiarity – with everything. He has a visual timetable at school so he knows every activity he’s doing and when his breaks are. He likes knowing the rota for his teacher helpers and when one’s off unexpectedly, it can cause him anxiety and derail his day as his insecurity manifests through outbursts of frustration and anger.

He needs to know any changes to the usual schedule (at home and school) in advance so he feels ready for them; he needs to feel like he’s part of the planning process, not like events are being done to him. Through his beautiful eyes there is no discrimination or hierarchy; everyone’s equal. But this means that he wants to be involved in any decision affecting him; from what he eats to where we holiday.

no surprises

Whereas many neurotypical children love the excitement and anticipation of surprises, for my eldest this is akin to hell. You couldn’t say you’re taking him somewhere but keeping it a surprise without him stressing the whole time as to where he’s going. And until he arrives he’ll guess relentlessly and ask inumerable questions in his quest to know what’s going on.

Knowing things gives him security. It enables him to feel in control and minimises the anxiety that comes with anything unexpected.

His preference for familiarity pervades everything. He loves all foods and will try new varieties of cuisine but if you’re going to change something he likes, you need to tell him beforehand. I once blended spinach into a quiche mix and it turned the whole filling green – he wasn’t impressed and instead of digging in, he spent at least 20 minutes asking for an (adequate) explanation as to why I altered the recipe whilst poking it from various angles to ensure a nether beast wasn’t hiding in the pastry waiting to make an impromptu appearance. Well intended variations from the usual, generally, quickly lead to me being apprehended for my divergence.

So with experience – this is a new journey for me as well as him – I’ve learnt how to make him feel involved and encourage more peer level type coaching discussions rather than trying to flex my parental obedience muscle.

the plan that put all other plans to shame

Recently, feeling smug and content that for once I was ahead of the parenting curve (a rare occurrence), I told him he’d be spending the Easter break at a gymnastics club. I thought this was a foolproof holiday plan. He’d love it because:

  • he went to the gymnastics holiday club last year and loved it;
  • it was the same gymnastics club he frequents every week and he already knows the teachers;
  • his gymnastics training is massively boosting his confidence, flexibility and balance and he’s regularly chosen for demonstrations – which appeals to the showman in him.

However, instead of the awaited ‘thank you’, I was met with a look of pained disappointment and the statement “but I don’t want to go mummy”.

what?!

This was plan A; there was no alternative – I was so sure of plan A’s success that I had flippantly discarded the requirement for a plan B let alone C.

Alarms started going off in my head; I was thinking “but he has to go, there’s no alternative” whilst knowing that there is nothing I can make him do. My part time work means that my annual leave is pro rata’d and quickly consumed by half term holidays, a bit in summer, Christmas and inexorable medical appointments.

I felt that my unpreparedness had completely exposed me as a failed autism mum. If I couldn’t predict what my son wants and likes then no-one could.

I started rapidly scanning options in my head. All the holiday clubs locally would have been booked months ago and the choice of going to just any one isn’t a luxury we can avail ourselves of; I need somewhere that can accommodate his needs and where I can spend at least the first day settling him in and ensuring he’s getting enough one to one attention and is comfortable.

cross examination

But why didn’t he want to go? Like a barrister mentally trying to work out all the possible answers to the question before completing my sentence whilst simultaneously tiptoeing the line between aloofness and incredulity, I asked: “what’s wrong? why don’t you want to go?”. He replied “the place is different, it’s a girl’s school and I won’t know anyone”.

Oh heck – he was right (cue slapped-palm-to-forehead woe again).

Yes, it was the same gymnastics club and teachers but they relocated the holiday club this year to another school ten minutes away. This was a change in his world and I’d not prepared him for it at all. Damage control was needed for sure, but this was still a concern I felt I could reassure him about. I explained that the place was different and on the first day he’d need to learn where the toilets and lunch rooms are but after this, it would all be familiar. He was contemplative – a good sign.

With point two, I explained that usually it was a girls’ school but in the holidays it was for everyone; this explanation created no extreme reactions – another positive.

who’s going?

I explained he’d know other children from the club. “Who?” he asked, his interest peaked and wide eyes expectantly awaiting my reply. I was stumped. I couldn’t say for sure who’d be there; I don’t know any of the children’s names because there’s so little interaction with the parents at the class.

Generally when the children are reunited with their parents, it’s akin to a swarm of ants being released, each running to their respective carers who bustle them up and usher them out of the door whilst their arm is still half way through their jackets. (I’m as guilty of this as anyone, steering him to the car whilst he practices gymnastics moves in the car park, so I can get back to my tired toddler and avoid the looming 10 minute catnap which will recharge him and make sleep elusive for everyone).

To add to my ignorance, some parents elected for the odd gymnastics day and others (like me) put their children in for the whole Easter break. I expected that on a balance of probability someone either from his school or the gymnastics club would be there but I couldn’t specifically say whom or on what days.

‘Probably’ is not an answer my eldest can understand; it’s too uncertain. In his world things are black and white – it’s either happening or it isn’t, it’s guaranteed to be fun or it’ll be as boring as sin.

the failed oracle

In this case his gym buddies would either be there or not and why, as the mummy, do I not have this critical data? In his world, I know everything; I’m the supreme oracle, knower of everything with mental arithmetic abilities akin to Gauss, artistic abilities in the region of Van Gogh and the singing skills of Ava Max (he totally loves her). So on top of being fairly mediocre in these categories at the best of times, today, I didn’t have the answers to his concerns either.

“I don’t want to go” he said. “I’m scared that I won’t know anyone”.

Now what? It was Friday and the Easter break had started. My racing mind (and heart) flitted between “I need a back up plan” to “what other clubs did I know?” to “if I ignore it and wait until Monday, what if he plainly refuses to get ready?” to “I’m expected to be in training at work, how can I negotiate this when I’m perpetually self-conscious about working part-time?”.

In that moment I had a choice about how I was going to react to this situation. I could create a frenzy around me (and within me) or I could see it for what it was – my autistic child who looks to his mummy for security was telling me he was scared and supporting him was my priority.

chop chop

So I cut the negative self talk and told myself “If he goes happily on Monday, great – that’s plan A. If not, we’ll work it out whether that means I stay with him at the club or at home – and everything else will be dealt with once I know he’s ok”. I needed to say this to myself to (a) be ok with the absence of planning involved in this ‘plan’ and (b) acknowledge that I succeed as a mum everyday and not to allow negative self-talk to unhinge me when things haven’t gone the way I’d intended.

With this clarity of mind I told my son I had a proposition. He could counter it if he disagreed with any part of it (as if he needed permission) but he needed to hear it first; this was the peer level coaching in effect.

I had his attention.

I acknowledged that his feelings of nervousness were valid but unless he tried a day he wouldn’t know if he liked it or not. I proposed that he attempt one day – I’d stay with him until he felt comfortable – and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t need to go to any more; no questions asked.

It was a successful negotiation which ultimately resulted in him completing two weeks there and even obtaining two grade promotions. But even if it hadn’t played out that way, he’d have still had a happy time with a quickly cobbled scheme essentially consisting of being ferried between my husband and I, his doting grandparents and someone else I could rope in (that he likes) to exhaust the local climbing, soft play, cinema and trampolining facilities.

life’s lessons

I learnt two things from this situation:

(1) my son’s autism makes him so hypersensitive to change that as much as I’d love to plan for every eventuality, this is plain unrealistic. I need to get comfortable with this knowledge because it’s so counter intuitive to my highlighting-Post-it noting-mind mapping-diary managing self;

(2) whenever something purportedly goes wrong with my son, I turn to myself to ask what I did to cause it. And yet when it goes well I don’t credit myself with equivalent speed. Listening to my inner dialogue, cutting it as soon as the ‘blame’ conversation starts and replacing it with the question of what I can learn from the situation has literally saved me from self destruction.

Steve Chandler insightfully says “Only two things can result from having expectations. One: the other person will not meet your expectation and you’ll be disappointed (or even betrayed). Or, two: they will meet your expectation, and because you expected it, you won’t feel anything, because, after all, it was what you expected. So your states of feeling will either be Disappointed or Nothing” – Crazy Good.

So the me of today is planning not to over plan and not to hold expectations of others – including my son.

I should probably do a quick mind map to make sure I’ve explored the remit and ramifications of my new plan…

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How my autistic child made me a better communicator

We were over the moon when our son was born five years ago. After my earlier miscarriage – see Don’t say the ‘M’ word – I was in a heightened state of stress wondering if I’d get pregnant again or be able to carry a child to term.

When he was born I was still in a state of shock that he’d actually arrived (the 22 hour labour did make me wonder if he ever intended to appear) until he was physically given to me naked and scrawny and I enveloped him in my arms in a way that told him he was the new love of my life and into whom I’d pour every aspect of myself to nurture him. Like a mere 2% of the population, he was born on his due date which just made him more special (I value punctuality in everybody) but little did we know how special.

something’s not right

We suspected something wasn’t quite right when at every parent’s evening we were told that he’d met or exceeded all his EYFS goals except one – social and personal development. He struggled with sharing and could be dominating and loud, sometimes hitting out but I just put this down to being an active little boy.

Another parent’s evening came and went and then another. Two years passed; the feedback was the same. Jay* was different – and displaying increasingly challenging behaviour. One day the nursery sent me a video of him throwing books and chairs around the classroom; the rest of the children had to be evacuated whilst the staff tried to calm him down. As a parent I’d constantly ask myself if I’d spoiled him because he was our only child; maybe we missed the cues when we ought to have been firmer setting boundaries. Maybe we’d created a child who was totally out of control and would never conform to an educational establishment; the guilt and anxiety seemed to pile on exponentially with each nursery report.

They told me that in its 15 year history, they’d never seen a child like him before – that was a stab in the heart if ever I’d had one.

searching for answers

For two years I knocked on the doors of every relevant medical professional; clinical psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and paediatricians. In my outwardly ordered life, I’d plan our family meals and weekend events, ferry Jay between singing, dancing, martial arts and music classes, but inwardly I was in a state of complete uncertainty. Something was happening to my son but I had no idea what, or why, or how to fix it.

Every out-of-the-ordinary tantrum would be calmed with distractions such as YouTube nursery rhymes or biscuits and lots of reminders of how much we loved him. He was our only child and his behaviour is all that we knew. I’d use other kids’ behaviour as a comparator and rationalise Jay’s behaviour against this, always keeping that inner monologue going that he was just an active, clever and exuberant little boy and explaining any seemingly irrational behaviour away.

Finally we obtained a diagnosis of autism in 2018; Jay was aged 4.

the prodigal son

For most of his life, Jay was the only child. Between his parents and grandparents not to mention his aunties and uncles, Jay was doted upon as if he were the first child born in the world – ever.

And then I had another son.

This one (at least so far, although he has his moments) is neurotypical. This is just the science-y way of saying he’s not autistic and what in base, common language would be called “normal”.

realisation

It was only after the birth of Ash* and over the past three years that I’ve learnt and understood what “normal” child behaviour actually is (though there are days when I think he’s auditioning for a devil child movie role; he’d get the equivalent of an Oscar for a three year old).

I’ve also seen how Jay’s autism has influenced his brother’s behaviour. As the big brother, Jay is idolised. But with that comes the need to play with the same things Jay plays with, draw with the felt tips that Jay uses and copy the behaviour which Jay displays when he’s frustrated. The latter is extremely tricky; how can you explain to a three year old that the reason you’ve given Jay more latitude to let off steam when he’s kicking and screaming is because he’s neurologically different but that it’s totally unacceptable when he does the same and will initiate the warnings – timeouts – repent process?

what’s normal?

Up until Ash was born I didn’t realise I was an autism parent – I thought I was just a parent going through the usual motions of having a child who didn’t listen, would test me with his behaviour and drive me to every parenting resource on the market to do with establishing good feeding habits or a sleep routine. Ash’s arrival showed me how different my parenting experience was from those with neurotypical children.

Here are just a few examples of their differences and how they manifest:

feelings

Jay has an extraordinary vocabulary way beyond his years; he can tell you the rules of English grammar with the parlance of a prim and proper school teacher. But he can’t label his feelings beyond happy, sad, angry and more recently, bored (is it a rite of passage for kids to learn this word and use it at every possible opportunity?)

So when he came home and said he felt ‘devastated’ I thought “that’s it, we’ve cracked it – he’s mastered how to express himself!” (I had parked asking about the actual cause of the devastation momentarily) for this was a momentous occasion. Except it wasn’t and he’d heard the story of Romeo and Juliet at the Year 5 assembly and the word ‘devastated’ was used to express the feelings of the Capulet and Montague families at this union. [Note to self: (i) emotional labelling won’t just hit him like a meteor and (ii) remember that he has a razor sharp memory which can often mislead people to think he actually knows what he’s talking about…].

In contrast all Ash ever talks about are his feelings, like a Hollywood diva that’s overacting and to whom I have to offer a lens of realism, i.e. you’re not starving; you ate your lunch 30 minutes ago.

literal translations

The other week I said to Jay “you’re the apple of my eye” and he looked at me with the  most confused expression. “What are you talking about mummy?” he said. I replied “it’s just an expression, it’s a way of telling somebody that you really mean a lot to them”. “Oh” he said and looked up and away in thought as he often does. “In that case mummy” he said with a beaming smile, “you’re the cucumber of my eyebrows”.

I often fall into the trap of using abstract language or terms when I’m talking to Jay and which his brain struggles to compute because he takes things so literally; for example, if I say I’m coming in a minute, he’ll start counting to 60. The use of expressions or common phrases is particularly unhelpful and can make a standoff situation worse but on this occasion, I’m glad I tripped up. Jay found a new way to express love for me. And it was the first time ever I’d been called a cucumber.

Ash on the other hand chooses to express his love by parping on my lap. Go figure.

domination

Sharing doesn’t come naturally to Jay. I’ll tell him to share, he’ll acknowledge my request, tell me he’s sharing (and believes he is) but he’s really not. Jay has an innate need to control proceedings. If it’s a tea party he’s in charge of the setup, menu and guests. You’re welcome to come with your teddies and toy characters but you don’t get a say in what you’re eating or where you’ll sit. Kind of like a tea-party-throwing-child -dictator; and this applies to everything. For example, he loves to play Articulate but the sand timer empties at 30 seconds. Because this simply isn’t acceptable to him, whilst everyone gets 30 seconds to answer as many questions as they can, Jay gets 1 minute 30 seconds. He’ll unabashedly (remember the emotions thing, he doesn’t feel embarrassment) turn the timer over until he’s completed 1 minute 30 seconds.

Invariably due to a combination of his intelligence and his cheating, he wins the game. And this is the result he expects every time because in his mind everything is polarised; win or lose; black or white – grey just isn’t a thing.

Ash however doesn’t care who wins Articulate (we simplify the questions for him). He loves the end of the game because it means he can put the triangular playing pieces on his fingers and pretend to be a witch.

contrasts

Oh the paradoxes, I could rattle off new ones everyday. Jay loves a loaded cheese toastie but doesn’t like melted cheese on his pasta; he insists on wiping every bit of food from his fingers when he eats so they’re immaculately clean but will happily pick up all sorts of unknown rubbish from the streets or dig soil with his hands. His room must be clean and tidy right down to the positioning of his favourite Lemur toy but his activity shelf downstairs is permanently at risk of collapse because of what he hoards there; one day the slight shift of a pencil is going to cause a paper hurricane complete with tumbling yo-yos, plastic medals and paraphenalia from the CBeebies magazines.

Ash’s just permanently messy.

broken record syndrome

At one point I wondered if I’d mastered invisibility because it seemed everything I’d say to Jay just wasn’t heard. I’d repeatedly say he needed to get ready for school (translation: put your shoes and coat on and wait by the front door) and even after the tenth request – nothing. The little one however, upon the first request, completes this and is now swinging from the bannisters trying to entertain himself whilst he’s waiting for his older brother. So I’m getting more stressed, we need to have left for school and I’m worried my morning plans will be thwarted by a hospital visit courtesy of the bannister swinging child attempting a trapeze act.

Many versions of this going wrong later and me generating red mist, I now have a better understanding of how the autistic mind works; I’ll split my generic request into three specific ones and only deliver one at a time. First shoes, then coat then door. Job done, well for the purposes of exiting the house. This manner of communication needs to be applied to every interaction with Jay, whether it’s a request to come to eat at the dining table, do his homework or get ready for bed.

Intense, hey?

But actually I’ve come to learn that this isn’t about dumbing down communication with an autistic child or heightening communication with a ‘normal’ child. It’s about clear communication – and everyone benefits from that, children and adults alike.

Don’t we all like to be told what’s required of us, why, the objective and then be acknowledged when we’ve executed something well? That doesn’t mean we’re  autistic.

my take-away

I believe that being more mindful in my communication has made me a better parent to both children. I take my time to explain what needs to happen, why it’s happening, coach them through the consequences of not doing so and acknowledging them positively when they do what’s required, especially if it’s off their own backs.

In doing so, I’m showing them that I respect them as people within their own right; they may be little but their voices are as valid as anyone else’s. I don’t adopt the role of a parent-dictator whose orders must be obeyed; just as this wouldn’t empower or elicit engagement with my team at work nor would it do so at home.

Having to pale back the language I use and be really clear on my intention when I’m trying to communicate something has benefitted me in all my roles as a parent, manager, friend, wife, daughter and sibling. This method has helped me to go inward and understand if I’m asking for something because it’s comfortable and the way it’s always been done or because there’s a necessary value in doing so. And it’s enriched my relationships as a result because there’s purpose and rationale in what I’m communicating.

Yes it’s stressful and sometimes overwhelming being in a high octane household coping with the din of light sabre fighting with intermittent stopping to make armoury out of construction bricks or do an impromptu dance to Rita Ora – all before 8am. But I’m so grateful for the challenges I face as an autism parent; it’s forced me to tap into my inner reserves of strength, to question and to adapt how I communicate and gain a better understanding of how people like to receive information. It’s made me a better parent, a kinder person and an empathetic team leader.

And adopt the existential persona of a cucumber.

There’s not many that can boast of that.

 

Photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

*names changed

How I’m turning yesterday’s pain into tomorrow’s promise

I’m the eldest of three children who grew up in a traditional Indian Gujarati household where the gender roles were squarely defined. This meant that from the age of eight, I’d stand on a brown plastic chair and wash the dishes because I was too short to reach the taps. By the age of 11, I was folding clothes, vacuuming, polishing and generally keeping house as well as being chief chopper of vegetables. I wasn’t unlike an Indian entry level kitchen porter who’d wash each spinach leaf in cold water to get rid of the mud (no one likes mud in their bhaji*) but never had the opportunity to do the cool stuff mum did like putting the array of spices in the dishes (freehand of course, no measuring).

low necklines, short hemlines

Being the eldest put a lot of implicit and explicit pressure on me. I had to be the academic role model and also the epitome of ideal behaviour (no boyfriends, alcohol, bad language, backchat, low necklines, short hemlines to name a few) because if I wasn’t our family reputation could be tarnished and no-one would marry me or my sister (cue dramatic music). At least that’s what I was told.

Looking back, I don’t mind that I was expected to do well at school and beyond; it made me aim high and push myself and if my parents didn’t keep reminding me of how hard they were working to enable us to have an education, perhaps I wouldn’t have such a sense of gratitude and value for their sacrifice now.

doors

But I never felt good enough; I never had a sense of worthiness. Praise was directly connected to academic achievement but even then, every accomplishment was met with a “good – make sure you keep doing it”. I formed the connection that as long as I did well academically I’d be worthy of attention from my parents otherwise that attention – however momentary – was inaccessible to me. I believed that my academic achievements were the key which unlocked the door to my self worth but the problem with this was that behind each door I opened, after the immediate high, I was faced with another door to unlock – so self fulfilment was always just out of reach.

My parents weren’t the touchy-feely type; I think post adolescence the most physical contact I had (and still have) with my dad is when I touch his feet in reverence at the beginning of each new year. I’d get birthday ‘pats’ from my mum but no bear hugs or kisses – that’s not to say they never happened when I was a child, they probably did but it just wasn’t the done thing in our house certainly from around age 11 onwards.

and?

So what, you might ask? What difference did it make because ultimately they fought all odds to provide for us, working seven days a week running a grocery shop and scraping by financially such that physical, let alone emotional, nourishment probably never even crossed their minds.

The difference is that if you don’t instil a sense of self worth in your children, they’ll seek validation from others. And if they’re not getting emotional validation from home, then they’ll look for it outside – and that’s risky.

I did just that.

searching

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had all the usual insecurities that come with being an adolescent Indian girl  – my dark upper lip hair was growing, what was I supposed to do about that? Why was I so plump compared to my tall, elegant White British best friend? How did I navigate the world of fashion when all I knew how to wear were matching tracksuits my parents bought from the cash and carry? And so much more.

My mum and I never talked about girly things like this or feelings generally so I looked outside to learn about the world. I learnt from friends to cake my face with makeup which hid my insecurities about my appearance and to wear fashionable, attractive clothes which hid the parts I didn’t want to draw attention to. The dolled up Reena was more outwardly attractive and drew the attention of the opposite sex – finally, some validation that I was beautiful, clever, funny and worth spending time with.

This all could have gone so horribly wrong. In the wrong company, I could have had my self-esteem eroded to dust or taken a completely self destructive path in my pursuit of worthiness. Luckily, my story didn’t travel that way but I was dangerously close.

And for many young people, this is how their story might play out – regardless of gender.

nourishment

As a culture, we have to make a conscious shift to nourish the emotional and mental health of our young people. I know that it’s harder because historically our ancestors didn’t do this and so it doesn’t come naturally to many Indian parents (my father was beaten daily by his dad and my mother never had positive affirmation from her mother) – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve nailed the ‘stiff embrace and patting’ technique – you know the one we give to friends we bump into in the street or relatives we meet at weddings. The type of contact which acknowledges someone without needing to put any feeling into it.

I’m not saying we should dispense physical contact to everyone we meet like chocolates to Trick or Treaters. It’s much more complicated than that and it starts with how we treat ourselves before we think about how we treat our children.

who’s thirsty?

You’ve heard the saying you can’t pour from an empty cup – well for me this certainly rings true. I’ve reconciled with myself not to resent what I didn’t have emotionally whilst growing up and instead to be grateful for the experiences I’ve had which make me who I am today. I’ve learnt to square up to my past without feeling shame or regret and to use my experiences as the foundation to influence positive change in me, my family and wider.

Something which the author Elizabeth Gilbert** said sums this up perfectly:

The things that have shaped me most are the failures, mistakes and the disasters but here’s a very important thing to recognise… failure, disaster, shame, suffering and pain do not necessarily make you a better person unless you participate in turning it into something good…

Never waste your suffering; suffering without catharsis is nothing but wasted pain… If you don’t transform from your pain then it was for nothing, you just suffered for no reason whatsoever… when bad things happen I think “how can I grow from this?”

We’ve all suffered some trauma in our lives – be it actual harm or the absence of something – but we’re all empowered to use what we’ve learnt from it to transform our lives for the better.

what I’m saying to my children

I’ve made a deliberate and conscious commitment to myself to raise my children in an environment of love and positive affirmation. I praise their efforts – not the result – when they draw (even if I don’t know what on earth I’m looking at); I tell them they can accomplish anything they put their minds to; I hug and kiss them everyday not in response to a good report but just because (this sometimes irritates them); I tell them I’m so proud to be their mother; I don’t label them, only their behaviour (i.e. instead of saying “you’re really annoying me”, I’ll explain “the longer you take to put your shoes on, we’ll have less time to play in the park” (don’t be mistaken, I get this wrong daily but at least I’m able to pull myself up on it and correct it).

drops creating wells

Will it make a difference? I think so. The drip effect of showing them everyday that they’re valued as people within their own right – not because of something they’ve said or done – I’m convinced will lead to an inner well of self worth where they won’t need external validation that they’re good enough; they’ll know that they just are.

We are all humans whose primary nourishment comes from love; love of oneself and love to others. And we’re each empowered with how we want our culture to be carried forward for generations to come. Do we want a culture where academic achievements define our children’s self worth? Or where their sense of worthiness is entirely dependent on pleasing others? Do we want to raise our children thinking they need to earn affection like a trader in the market place where self worth is traded on the size of the accomplishment, so the more you do the bigger pat on your back you get?

This is the way to go if we want society to be filled with children who are materially fulfilled at the body level but are emotionally empty at a soul level.

pouring nectar

Love can’t be assumed; it’s not translated through university fees being paid or items being bought. Pure, nourishing love which reaches your soul is felt from one heart to another.

So let’s make a commitment to ourselves to acknowledge our own past hardships and use the strength those experiences have given to us to affirm our own self worth. Once our cup is full we can pour into our children’s through our language and action; remembering that each child is a spark of divine human creation whose deepest need and soul nourishment is simply to be loved.

Without qualification.

Just as they are.

 

some notes:

*bhaji – a dry spinach curry

** taken from a podcast with Oprah Winfrey named Super Soul Conversations; Elizabeth wrote the hit Eat, Pray, Love

Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Unsplash

Don’t cut your nails on a Saturday

To understand the context of this statement let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a Hindu Gujarati. My father was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and was one of six children whilst my mother was from Kenya and one of seven children. Both grew up with every imaginable hardship – financial, hard discipline, emotional starvation – and their marriage was arranged via elders. There was no dating; they simply saw a photo of each other. Hinduism and Gujarati customs were an everyday part of theirs (and my) childhood; certain days were observed as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘semi vegetarian’ (fish but no meat), certain foods were prepared on particular days and I was completely accustomed to hearing what not to do to avoid bad luck.

The language of Gujarati is my mother tongue but I confess that whilst I can speak it, understand it and read a little, unless I’m speaking to someone (usually) elderly, I default to speaking English even when I’m being spoken to in Gujarati.

My parents brought me up to follow many things (including the nail thing on a Saturday   which effectively reduced my weekend opportunity to get my nails done by more than 50% when you take Sunday trading hours into account). It’s only later in life and especially after I’ve had my own children and am more spiritually inquisitive and aware, that I’ve started to question why we say and do certain things in our culture.

walking the tightrope of luck

The beliefs I was taught were a mix of what I would loosely call religious and cultural. Religious practices included praying, going on pilgrimages and observing key festivals whereas cultural practices would include things like:

  • Not putting the household rubbish out after dark because good fortune would leave through the open door
  • Never leaving a shoe or slipper upturned because it attracted bad luck
  • Not washing your hair for the entire nine months of your pregnancy to protect mother and child from infections (dreadlocks anyone?!)
  • Not tapping/waggling your foot because it invited bad luck
  • Eating a tablespoon of natural yoghurt before an exam for optimum performance

And hundreds more practices like this. To this day, I’ve never found a universally accepted reason for the ones I was taught – or even a rational reason at that.

do as you’re told

I was also taught obedience and that parents are the personification of God so you do as you’re told and don’t challenge – which limited the possibility of conversation around why. Add to that the difficulty of reverence to parents who sometimes behaved in ways that were morally questionable and you get a flavour of the emotionally conflicting and stifling aspect of my childhood which was probably an unwitting resemblance of their own.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for the material sacrifices that they made. Like many parents of their generation, they slogged night and day to create a life for their children which would be far enhanced materially and educationally than their own. This was the dream; this is what they lived for. But, being a parent is about so much more than this too.

parenting through fear vs. love

I don’t believe that being a parent in itself qualifies you for reverence and even if you do achieve this from your children, if it’s motivated by fear then the depth of loving feeling won’t necessarily accompany it.

Respect and admiration from your children is earned; it’s not owed.

For me being a parent is an opportunity to demonstrate those qualities which you value and want to see in your own children – truth in speech and action, acceptance, compassion towards others, manners, promotion of self-worth, tolerance – and so much more.

why?

I’ve come to realise that relatability is everything. Unlike my younger self, I encourage my children to enquire and be inquisitive whether it’s about our culture, the world and everything in between.

I want to leave my children the legacy of my culture in such a way that they treasure it and pass it on for generations to come. But I know the way I was taught to follow things won’t fly with them.

Immersive appreciation – not blind obedience – is the only way forward.

For example, I observe the Sheetala Satam ritual. On this day, we don’t use the cooker (so usually eat cold food) and light a diya (sacred lamp) offering prayers to Goddess Sheetala. There are many stories about why this day is observed; some say it’s about protecting children from chickenpox, others say it’s because back in the day, people only had a basic earthen stove and it was an opportunity to thank God for the resources He’d provided for us to survive. I’m not sure which version is correct but the reason I observe it – and tell my children about it – is because it teaches me humility. In not using the cooker all day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have the food and resources we do and to be thankful for them.

For me, this is the take home message; it’s relatable and whatever the future brings when I’m no longer around, the message of gratitude and humility is everlasting.

my banned womb

I’m also happy to observe this custom because I’m not harming anyone by practising it.

By comparison, I was recently told that I wasn’t allowed to participate in a traditional  Shrimanth ceremony* (baby shower) because seven years ago I’d suffered a miscarriage (more in my blog Don’t say the ‘M’ word). I couldn’t believe that the same people who comforted me with assurances that my unborn child was actually a gift from God fulfilling their last karma** were now using my miscarriage as a reason to exclude me from being present and joining my family on such a happy occasion – and citing our culture as the reason for this. Apparently, even though I’d successfully delivered two healthy children my earlier miscarriage meant I wasn’t considered whole.

This experience made me question what messages and legacies we want to define our culture for generations to come.

To take someone’s past unfortunate experiences and use them against them isn’t just a sure fire way for future generations to reject our culture, it’s an affront to humanity at its core.

I’m not prepared to subscribe to any aspect of my culture which alienates or denigrates people. To me culture means inclusivity, celebration of heritage and strengthening bonds based on the foundations of mutal love, promotion and pride.

I don’t want to shed my culture, I want to celebrate it but I want to define my culture positively and set practices and beliefs which enhance and promote people and their wellbeing – not use it as a tool to divide.

To me, culture is captured by togetherness and servitude. It’s sharing meals and resources, celebrating each other’s successes, offering a hand when life gets tough and observing customs which tighten this thread of humanity between us.

looking ahead

Future generations won’t accept legendary tales or customs which shun members of the community. We live in an age where children want answers backed up by reasoning or the satisfaction of their innate sense of justice fulfilled. My humble advice? Be prepared to be asked questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but you’ll find out. And when you do get an answer to your question about why you do certain things, pause and ask yourself if you agree with the message you’re conveying to your children.

We are the beholders of how we define our culture to our children – we’re not slaves to following things we don’t want to or don’t agree with just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

When we’re at the crossroads we can choose the ignorant path of fear or the illuminated path of education and enquiry.

In Sanskrit the teacher is known as Guru which translates as the remover of darkness/ignorance – we are the primary teachers of our children so let’s use this empowerment to shed practices which harm others and redefine our culture so that it’s exclusively rich in love, acceptance and service to all.

some explanations:

*also popularly known as Godh bharai/Khodo Bharavo which essentially translates as “filling the lap” of the mother-to-be with abundant good wishes for a safe and healthy delivery.

**In Hinduism it’s believed that the cycle of birth and death continues until all past misdeeds have been compensated for through good action thereby enabling a person to merge with God and be truly free of this world.

Photo from post.jagran.com – image shows seven chillies and a lemon often placed outside homes and businesses and believed to ward off evil 

 

 

Stand up to Yourself

clarence-e-hsu-778568-unsplash

To yourself, I hear you ask. She calls herself a writer but talks about standing up to rather than for yourself? You read right.

I’ll come back to this in a minute – rest assured it’s a deliberate statement – but first a bit of context.

Golden Time

At my son’s school they have something called Golden Time. It’s a period where the children can choose to undertake any activity they wish, a chance to feel free and to engage in what they enjoy. Needless to say, he loves it and really looks forward to it.

I don’t press him too much on what he actually does in this time. The parent in me prefers to think he’s finding new and innovative ways to solve maths problems using an interactive abacus. The reality is that he’s probably in the mud kitchen finding more treasures to stuff in his impossibly small yet strangely very accommodating coat pockets  (how do kids do that?). Last week he brought back a bone. Like from an actual animal – I kid you not. We’re a vegetarian family; I know said animal had already been consumed by something but it was a new level of grossness in his treasure collection I wasn’t quite prepared for.

Anyway… so Golden Time means freedom, no regimented tasks; just time to indulge in what ignites the excitement within.

Sacred Fridays

The reason I’m telling you this is because Fridays are my Golden Time.

I work four days a week doing a job I love and managing a super bunch of people. Everyday I’m making decisions that can be life changing and restores justice – it’s a pretty great feeling. But that fifth day of the week, that’s my day. My day to indulge, to enjoy, ergo to reflect and write.

It might be short story ideas or blog posts but if I’m sitting at my desk with a steaming cup of tea and my lime green Icelandic wool blanket (slightly itchy but lovely draped over my lap) under the warm glow of my Himalayan salt lamp, I’m in creative heaven.

So if my Fridays are interrupted or taken away from me by life events, it’s not just a mere botheration – it upsets me on a far deeper level and creates a lava-esque bubbling within. We all have something we do that we love and which recharges our emotional batteries and keeps us going? Well, for me it’s Writing Fridays.

And then last week something happened.

Violation

My father’s house was burgled and it took me straight back to the day when I was around 14 years old and had returned home with my favourite cousin and a takeaway. The evening had been planned; we’d be eating a delicious meal together and then have a girly night talking about film stars and trying out different make up. But when we reached the front door we could see burglars through my living room window – it sent a shock through me which is as live today as it was then. I felt a sense of violation of our space, fear of their return and outrage at their temerity to forcibly enter our family quarters and help themselves to what they wanted. Our arrival rattled them and they ran away. But I couldn’t eat that night nor sleep; I was so afraid and no-one around me could understand why. Plus being from a fairly typical Indian household where feelings aren’t generally discussed, it was never spoken of again.

So when this happened at my dad’s house and he was abroad, I went to help restore his house to order. The memories came flooding back like crashing waves on weathered rocks evoking in me that same feeling of vulnerability and invasion that I’d experienced so many years ago.

And then Monday came and I had to put on my manager hat and carry on as normal. I was battling against a wall of work which had mounted from my absence (I’d been off for two months following a knee operation, see Accepting Life’s Lemons) and to top it all off, on Wednesday my son was sent home from nursery with a raging temperature.

Friday came around eventually but my son was still ill and I knew the writing simply wasn’t happening. It was both an emotionally and physically exhausting week – exacerbated by the lava-esque frustration and wistfulness in my drooping shoulders that my Golden Time wasn’t going to be had today.

Uh oh!

And then I remembered at 9pm that I’d seen an advert for a TV presenter role and the audition video was due that day. When it hit me, my heart sank. Ever since I was a teenager, I’d regularly ponder on a career in TV broadcasting and here was an opportunity quite literally under my nose where all I had to do was record a 60 second video about myself and deliver some scripted lines. I could think of every reason not to apply which included (this list isn’t exhaustive):

  • I hadn’t brushed/washed/done anything to my hair
  • I had no make-up on
  • I hadn’t slept properly (courtesy of the visiting Temperature) resulting in bags under my eyes that could accommodate a weekly family shop
  • My wrinkles seemed more pronounced than usual
  • I wasn’t feeling my usual upbeat self so how could I possibly come across as being engaged and excited by this opportunity?
  • What vaguely relatable experience of journalism did I have anyway?

And then I looked at the other side.

Here was an opportunity which had practically been gifted to me. It was a chance – and I could look away and use my near empty tank of energy as an excuse or I could face up to it, pull myself together and throw my hat into the ring.

Ultimately if I didn’t enter the arena how would I ever know if this was the beginning of something new and purposeful? I’d pledged that this year would be about writing, speaking and putting myself ‘out there’ – there was no way I could justify to myself passing up the very first opportunity that came my way to showcase a different facet of my personality. Ok, it might not lead anywhere – and I might not even like it – but equally what if it was the beginning of a new creative outlet for me?

So, armed with my dry shampoo, some flattering lighting and a (slightly forced) beaming smile, I recorded my piece and sent it in.

I was going to show up. I wanted to be in the arena.

Don’t look at the doughnut

The awe-inspiring Steven Pressfield, author of the War of Art personifies resistance and says “its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work”. What’s resistance? You know that voice, the one that tells you to eat a doughnut when you’re on a diet or not to share your innovative idea in a meeting in case it generates looks of derision from your colleagues. That voice that derails you when you’re about to try something new, different or exciting.

Excuses, excuses

I could’ve rattled off a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t submit an audition video and reconciled myself with it – but I didn’t. I recognised that the more excuses I made, the more I actually wanted it. I wanted to have that experience. (In case you’re wondering, the TV company actually liked my video and invited me to a second audition –  I’ll let you know how this part of the story ends in the fullness of time).

Someone once asked me if I was resisting taking actions to fulfil my dreams because I was more afraid of my own success or because of a fear of failure. What’s failure anyway other than an opportunity for us to learn more about ourselves and grow? No, it’s the success that’s more scary – what does that Reena look like?

I might have had a week that’d rather be forgotten. And I might have lost my Golden Time too. But despite all that, I didn’t lose to resistance. This experience reminded me that mindset really is everything. Even the complex yet delicate lotus flower has to push  through murky waters for its beauty to be realised. It’s inherent in its nature – and in ours too.

 

Photo by Clarence E. Hsu on Unsplash

 

Don’t say the ‘M’ word

Seven years ago I lost my baby. Though others didn’t call it that. It was called a ‘missed miscarriage’, a foetus, a zygote and ‘it’ – but never a ‘baby’. Never a word that reflected what by unborn child ever really meant to me. I found out there was no heartbeat just before I was due to have my first scan.

For me, this baby was everything. I had a lovely home and a wonderful husband; my baby was the missing piece of the puzzle. When I started bleeding, I Googled every possible normal cause there could be – anything that could be an alternative to miscarriage because I couldn’t bear to think that this story ended in any other way than my child coming into this world in six months’ time.

Fantasies

I’d already imagined their features and pictured what our new life would look like. My husband and I would talk to the ‘bump’ about our family members, our lives and sing to them. I’d imagined scenes of us taking a stroll in the park, feeding them, stroking them to sleep gazing at their innocence and angelic beauty. I’d thought about their room, possible names and how loved they’d be by our family.

When it all fell apart, the way I was treated was anything but emotional or with care – a complete juxtaposition. I was processed by the hospital; just another ERCP and sent home as they worked through their list of patients in the same boat. What was for me such excruciating trauma emotionally and physically, I guess for the medical staff was as commonplace as the removal of a tooth by a dentist.

Searching

I remember feeling so desperate and alone and searching on the Internet for answers. All I came across were forums where mums were asking the same questions that I was thinking, why did this happen? Was it something I ate? Did I not take care of myself properly and thus put my unborn baby’s life in jeopardy? I just wanted to know why.

I turned to my culture. I was told by some relatives that losing this baby was actually a blessing. That according to karma (paying off the debt of your past actions) and reincarnation, conception was all the baby needed in order to achieve their ultimate realisation and merging with God. This concept was so ethereal and difficult to grasp from my limited human mind but strangely, it did provide some comfort. But not the practical answers and reasons I was looking for. What I learned much later was that there wasn’t a single definitive reason for this happening which I could hang my rationale on and point to as something I would never ‘do’ again.

I was looking for a cause; something I could blame. Then I could demonise it and cast it out of my life forever.

The logical mind looks for reasons I suppose. But what I really needed at that time was the ability to walk and talk through what I was going through with people around me.

Starvation of conversation

But people were afraid of asking me how I was and I was afraid to bring it up directly in case it made them feel uncomfortable. So here we all were circling the subject, each pretending that we were achieving Oscar winning performances wearing the ‘look’ we thought most appropriate for the occasion when the reality was a palpably awkward environment with everyone itching for an exit stage left.

So what were we all afraid of? Were people afraid that if they talked to me about it I would cry? Did they think that I was on my way to forgetting about it all and perhaps talking about it would set me off again? The irony is that the longer I didn’t talk about it the harder it was to deal with. I would’ve really appreciated those around me asking me “so how are you feeling today?” Or “how are you coping with your loss?” This would have at least told me that they were open to hearing about my feelings.

Now I realise that this is about way more than talking about miscarriage.

The problem with asking someone “how are you?” is that you never really know whether they’re asking out of politeness or whether they are genuinely enquiring about how you are coping emotionally with life.

You just don’t know how much of your feelings or experiences to offer up in response when you’re asked this question.

Realisations

I’ve learnt so much from this experience. I’ve learnt to ask people specifically how they are in relation to whatever is going on in their life. I want to be the best mother, sister, friend and wife I can be and I realise that this means being open emotionally and also being prepared to share my own experiences so that others can identify with me.

That’s one of the reasons I’m talking about this today. It’s crucial to acknowledge that it’s not only helpful to talk about emotionally destabilising experiences but that any trauma requires a healing process and internal reconciliation – not just burying it within, which like graves in a cemetery eventually crack through the earth’s surface and manifest again waiting to be dealt with.

Showing up

I remember from my childhood the days when something happened and my parents would make a phone call using the old dial telephone to offer support (you know, the one which if you got a digit wrong you’d have to start the whole dialling experience again) and then if practical, they’d turn up at that person’s house. They didn’t have a lot to offer, certainly not showing up with gifts, chocolates, flowers or any other token item. It was just them. People. They’d show up as a sign of solidarity and whether they said it explicitly or not they were telling people that they were there for them.

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in a parallel universe. How can it be that in a world where you can speak to someone through video phone on the other side of the world in a fraction of a second with complete digital clarity, we’re actually more emotionally isolated from one another than we’ve ever been?

The digital age has made it all too easy in times of suffering for us to just send a vanilla message – “sorry to hear your mum’s died, I’m here for you if you need me” – leaving the onus on the vulnerable suffering to reach out to seek support. Did we really mean that message of support or did we feel that it was something we ought to do to relieve our conscience of a societally imposed obligation? It’s uncomfortable thinking, hey? Hell, I’m no angel, I’ve been guilty of it too.

But reflecting on this has led me to commit to myself that where I can, I’ll make the special effort to make that phone call or to drop by. No chocolate; no flowers; just me. Being present – showing up. On the days when the only time I come up for air from a frantic day is before 5am or post 10pm (generally accepted as times one oughtn’t ring people) I’ll leave a recorded message on WhatsApp. A meaningful dedication with depth expressing what I need to and offering a practical hand of support (N.B. I’m good at popping over with a macaroni cheese).

It’s my small commitment to making this life as rich and deep with meaningful relationships as I possibly can.

And you?

I’d encourage you to reflect on whether your relationships are as nurtured as you’d like. And anyway, you don’t need to listen to me, I’m just some random person spilling out my thoughts and feelings onto the page and hoping you’re not throwing tomatoes at your screen. But various spiritual texts talk about sharing love, speakers qualified to talk about relationships like Jay Shetty, Brenee Brown, Marisa Peer, even Oprah talk about investing in your relationships, listening to hear; not to respond, and being your authentic self.

They must be on to something… surely?

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Autism, Airports and Indians

Autism creates an interesting reaction amongst Indians.

There’s the Fix-Its who’ll say “we’ll find a doctor in India that will have a cure” (because obviously all other doctors pale in comparison), the Spiritualists who say “we’ll pray that it goes away” and the Ostriches that say “he’ll grow out of it / he looks normal / he’s just a typical boy”. I’ve heard it all.

I think the one that probably annoys me the most is when someone who’s spent an hour or so with my son says “he seems fine to me, you’d never know he was autistic”. Telling me that he doesn’t seem autistic trifles my three year battle banging on the doors of medical professionals looking for answers, to the mere wave of a dismissive hand.

Icebergs

They say still waters run deep. Well never has a truer word been said about my son. He can go from playing a boardgame quite merrily, humming A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman to full on tears, tantrums and rage in about the time it’s taken you to read this sentence. Oh, and it was probably caused by something as predictable and innocuous as landing on a snake during a game of Snakes and Ladders.

The spectrum in autism spectrum disorder is so apt; today a meltdown could be caused by his brother stepping on a Lego model by mistake when yesterday it was shrugged off. Or me climbing the stairs ahead of him making me the ‘winner’ when normally he’s running up them oblivious to who’s around.

Suffice to say that everyday is an adventure where we learn new things about him, what he likes, dislikes, sets him off or creates anxiety. A few years of this has enabled me to tune my antennae to look for ways to help him be as comfortable as possible wherever we are.

Being autism-travel-savvy

After a few painful travel experiences involving queuing, lots of frustration and my head teetering on the brink of explosion, I’ve learnt to scout out the facilities at every place we travel to and from to minimise the anxiety and bouts of infuriation – for all of us.

When we recently travelled from Heathrow, I was so impressed at the care we received to help us have a smoother journey, from wearing a lanyard as a cue that we needed a bit of extra help and prompting staff to offer it, the border staff who took us straight to the passport checking desks and the stewards that let us board early so we could settle our son.

Where’s his father?

So it was quite a contrast when I rang the airline (who shall remain nameless – being sued isn’t that appealing) ahead of our departure to see what facilities were available upon landing. I explained what triggers can lead to my son’s meltdowns and what facilities I’d experienced previously to give them an idea of what I was enquiring about. I received this response: “but isn’t his father with him?”. I paused. Maybe I didn’t explain my question clearly enough. I tried again. I slowly explained who was travelling, my son’s condition and what can help us have a smoother journey. I was again met with:

Operator: “but ma’am, you just said his father was there right?”

Me: “Err, yes”

Operator: “then can’t the father deal with him?”

I gleaned a few insights from these comments. This operator knew as much about autism as I do about the diet of the Lappet Faced Vulture (don’t scratch your head; the answer really is zilch). He also harboured a somewhat archaic and paternalistic outlook that the ‘man’ of the family could surely save the day and deal with any of his son’s issues (I’m only the mother, pah! In his eyes I probably shouldn’t even be making the call to the airline, far too official for my rank). This airline evidently hadn’t rolled out any hidden disability awareness training for its staff (I also think the general customer service training is questionable…). But I don’t blame the operator.

Ignorance is no defence but equally, education about hidden disabilities is our collective responsibility if we want to create an understanding and tolerant society.

Rise up

In the Indian community, we don’t talk about problems with our children or the difficulties we have raising them. We love to shout about our children getting into the best schools or being inaugurated into one of the holy trinity professions (doctors, lawyers and accountants) but we won’t say how hurt we feel if they’re excluded from school or in any sort of trouble.

There’s a palpable fear of seeking advice out of shame that we will be judged as being inadequate parents.

This cloud that hangs upon our community is serving no-one. Not the child who could be missing out on support and resources they’re entitled to nor the parents whose mental wellbeing is at risk keeping up this Little House on the Prairie charade of perfect family life whilst secretly imploding within.

Hello

Well I’m calling it out.

Yes, I have an autistic son and yes, it’s incredibly challenging. There are days when I have to scream because every single request is met with protests, tears, backchat and foot stamping – and it might only be 8:00am. The other day in all the din I told myself to go to my happy place – but I couldn’t even remember where it was because I didn’t have a second’s peace to collect my thoughts when the diatribe I was being subjected to was just so loud.

Yes, there are times when we eat out that I want to shrink away because he won’t stop pouring the salt, waving the knife or the wine glass or anything else on the table, simultaneously making boisterous noises, whilst the family on the next table eat in peace stopping occasionally to quip with their children about the day’s adventures. Seeing what ‘normal’ family life could be like can feel like the sharp sting of a needle.

Yes, playdates are anything but fun for me; I spend the entire time checking he’s emotionally sound, fearful that an innocent push or shove from another child might lead to a crying, foot stamping meltdown that will take the best part of 40 minutes to recover from.

Pride

But in every challenging moment I have with him, I can draw from an abundance of times that he’s made my heart swell with pride and made me feel so grateful to be his mother.

His eyes see what the rest of us miss. We turn a door handle and walk through a door. He stops to observe the mechanism within the door and the effect of the turning on it. He identifies the scents of flowers. He can create stories on the spot with a theme, purposeful characters and structure whilst simultaneously acting out the parts. He can recall details from two years ago and link them to something that happened today (the memory thing is usually my undoing because he never forgets what I’ve promised him (usually chocolate) as a last resort to getting something done).

And I challenge anyone to beat him at a game of eye spy.

Foundations

My husband and I might be the foundation of our little family but no house was built on foundations alone. You need walls and a roof. For a long time the perfectionist in me said I could cope with anything life threw at me, alone (see my previous post on Handling Grief). It took me a long time to say ‘I need help’. The people around me had no idea because I’d mastered my Little House on the Prairie charade but when I reached out, sure enough, many hands outstretched to grab them. These pillars and roof safeguarded the foundations.

Education

I explained to my extended family what autism was and how it affects my son – and me. Now when they call, I can freely say if I’m having a good day or not, have a rant about how the incessant form filling for support for my son feels like I’m banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall or how tired I am because he wouldn’t sleep alone last night. The conversations I love are the ones where I can say he’s had amazing feedback on his concentration in class or how well he played a board game with his peers. The point is that I can just be me. No shoving things under the carpet or walking around with a painted smile on my face out of fear of judgement.

Yes, I have a son who’s autistic.

Yes, he’s different.

And yes, I’m going to keep talking about it until such time as the sense of awkwardness around the subject no longer exists.

photo by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash.com

 

Handling Grief

Cancer

When I was 22, I stopped my Masters degree to became a full time carer for my terminally ill mum; she had cancer. She’d first been diagnosed at the age of 41 and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy which succeeded – together with an iron determination – in keeping it in remission for around 12 years. Like the world’s most toxic boomerang, it returned with a vengeance twice more in less than two years and the third time it ultimately defeated her. She was 54.

If I reflect on her last moments, I can remember with a clarity of vision far superior than any curved TV, holding her hand and hearing her breaths slowly being further and further apart whilst my heart raced faster and faster at the truth whose light was blinding but to which I refused to open my eyes and acknowledge. And then she left – finally released from the tortuous prison of physical pain to a world, I choose to believe, of spiritual serenity and every freedom imaginable.

So as mum’s physical life ended, that’s when the next chapter of my own, began.

I couldn’t cook, drive, hadn’t ever paid a bill or run a household before. But in the wake of the trail left by the unwanted boomerang here was its gift to me. I’m the eldest of three siblings; at the time, one was at university and the other was two months away from his GCSE exams. My father is a traditional Gujarati man (think dhal, bath, shak, rotli* most nights, Indian TV series and cricket and you’ll get the idea). So I stepped up; not like the steps you use at a circuit class, I mean I stepped up (imagine the furthest your right leg can reach on a staircase whilst your left foot is rooted to the bottom step, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about).

Wonky chappatis

I learned to cook (the rotlis* resembled a politically incorrect and geographically questionable world atlas but were edible nonetheless), took driving lessons, kept my home in order, supported my siblings through their exams with innumerable pick ups and drop offs to the middle one’s halls of residence and the younger one’s exam sittings, took over the administration of my dad’s business and resumed my Masters degree. I was doing great; all systems going simultaneously and everything in order. I mean who needs a break when you’re functioning on permanent autopilot mode?

Smelling the coffee

I was living a lie and the worst thing was that I was both the perpetrator and the victim of it. When mum died, in the flick of an emotional switch, the blinkers came on – I was in survival mode and no peripheral emotions or distractions were going to take me off track. So far in life I’d conquered many challenges and this was going to be just another thing that I’d do – successfully of course because there was no alternative. We had to eat, get to places, survive and so much more.

Nearly 20 years later I’ve learned that the way I’d dealt with everything back then was that I hadn’t actually dealt with them.

I prioritised everyone else’s needs not stopping to consider what mine actually were. I thought I was performing a service by being self-effacing and devoting myself to the progress and happiness of those around me. But the truth is that I hadn’t grieved; I denied myself the breathing space to understand what was happening and allow the support network I had around me, in. I was afraid that by showing my vulnerability people would assume I wasn’t coping and would try and take over, threatening the stability of my family.

What a fanciful story I told myself; I had an answer for every scenario, an excuse to hand perpetually as to why I should just keep my head down and keep going. I was a super charged landmine waiting to be triggered before an epic explosion. I’ve learnt this through lots of reflection and coaching conversations that have helped me to grieve for the loss of my mum and for the girl who lost her youth but which has also enriched my relationships and taught me to feature in my own life.

The new ‘me’

Now, I’m much more attuned to my own feelings; if I keep having a recurring thought I know that something’s bothered me and I’ll do something about it. I make time for me without a side dose of guilt that my children will be psychologically damaged because I’ve missed a bath and story time. I’ll sit in a café reading the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency instalment or meet up with friends for a nice meal knowing that by investing in my own well being, I’m best serving those around me because they get a fulfilled and happy mummy, wife, sister, friend and daughter.

I’m no expert; I can’t dispense educated advice on why you behave the way that you do or whether you feature enough in your own life. That’s a path for you to explore when it feels right for you. But from my experience I can say that it’s absolutely worth pausing to reflect on your life experiences, your fears and whether you are your authentic self or wearing the personas you think that others expect to see.

In my case, I didn’t get a handle on my grief and instead let it handle me by shaping how I featured in my relationships. My grief wore a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak that was so convincing even I didn’t know it was there. But it was deceptive because it seeped into every aspect of my life and bore itself out in many shapes and forms – it created an inner neediness that led me into destructive relationships, created a feeling of heightened paranoia and sat on my sense of worthiness like an elephant on a daisy craning its neck towards the sun.

Pausa

I’m inviting you to stop, reflect and take stock of your own relationships. How do you feel when you see or speak to the people that matter most to you? Then ask yourself why – is it because you can show up as your no-holds-barred true self or is there a tension within, an inner rod in your back that stiffens and causes you to behave a certain way? If it’s the latter, you can live with it or you can do something about it.

Truth doesn’t have to be painful. Unless it’s your little sister telling you, you look like a demon from an ancient Indian legend because yes, your hair really was that long, black and poofy when blowdried. Maybe she could have kept that one hidden. Or at least introduced me to anti-frizz spray.

Until next time,

Reena

*staple Indian meal of pulses (dhal), rice (bath), a dry vegetable curry (shak) and flatbreads also described as chappatis (rotli)

 

Accepting Life’s Lemons

So, like most working mums, I pretty much work at full throttle 100 percent of the time. A typical day looks a bit like this:

The regime

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5:30am – rise and get ready (interspersed with getting kids ready because of course they’re also morning kids – sigh). If it helps, picture me precariously holding an eyeliner brush between my teeth whilst helping #2 take his pyjama top off because apparently only mummy is allowed to do this

6:45am – leave for work and a 1 hour 20 commute where I listen to something inspirational on YouTube (like a talk by Marisa Peer or Brenee Brown for the 20 minutes I’m overground)

8am to 3pm – work with a verve that would give Tim Cook something to think about, eating lunch al desko (anything that can be eaten with one hand) whilst challenging my bladder with the ultimate endurance tests (I just need to respond to this last email before I absolutely have to pee)

3:30pm (because who actually leaves on time) – return commute home and of course normal people don’t travel at this time so there are no ‘fast’ trains or ‘short’ platform exits, no no, it’s the full travel experience the scenic way

4:30pm – home, put the kettle on, quick hugs and hello’s whilst hearing both parties’ representations about how the other has aggrieved them (not easy when they’re doing this simultaneously), express my sympathy and feign understanding at their pain, remind them that they are brothers that actually love each other and there’s no need to quibble over that one toy because there are 999,999 in that pile over there they could choose from

4:45pm – kettle boiled, put (some variety of) pasta on – change into home clothes (the dry cleaning bill would outstrip the cost of my work dresses within a week otherwise)

5:15pm – serve up the kids’ dinner with a dose of ‘why is he eating faster than me, that’s not fair!’ on loop

5:45pm – clear up then upstairs for bath and pyjamas (this bit can take as long as you like because it’s dictated by numerous factors including how long they’re on the loo, if they discover a toy in their room they have to play with straight away, if it’s a hair washing day (God forbid), if the older one decides to practice his gymnastics routine – in his pants or naked; somewhat different to the TV gymnastics most people are familiar with – and of course, mood

7:00pm – upstairs for reading time (again this can vary from one book to five however slow and monotone I make my voice)

8:00pm – If I haven’t accidentally nodded off with one of them (happens a lot) then it’s downstairs to root around in the fridge for the world’s speediest dinner or ingredients to achieve the same end (omelettes and stir-frys are a firm favourite) and I’m usually ably assisted by my darling husband who’s also returned home from saving the world (he’s a hospital based optometrist so only comes home after he’s seen the last patient – not a job you could boil an egg by…)

9:00pm – dinner done, we settle down for some TV time but I’m usually robbed of this and fall asleep a mere 15 minutes into watching a re-run of Gogglebox (why is it so compelling watching others watch TV?!)

The bump in the road

Any of it sound familiar? Well, you can imagine my horror when I recently had to undergo emergency knee surgery (I’m fine, don’t panic) and was told that I wouldn’t be walking properly for up to three months. I was in complete denial with a leg locked at 40 degrees yet still messaging my team from A&E to say I’ll be a “bit late” – that was five weeks ago and I still haven’t made it in.

I was obsessed with getting back to work and managing my household because my body knew no speed other than road runner mode. The thought of being ‘idle’ sent shivers through me; what was I going to do? I’m the matriarch, the one people come to for help when they need looking after; the one who can whip up tasty meals for unexpected guests and can host an impromptu kids party with innumerable activities that could give a vaguely decent entertainer a run for their money.

I was so focused on how I’d return to my crazy normality that I ignored my needs in the here and now.

Well, they say everything happens for a reason (I’m not sure who ‘they‘ are but ‘they’ feature in my life a lot and seem reliably knowledgeable). In my case, my injury provided me with the gift of time and a forced halt to the 1200W blender that is my life.  Instead of focusing on surviving through my convalescence, I used the time to take stock and make some really powerful life changes (more of that to follow in later blogs).

So, I thought I’d share some tips for any similarly highly charged people to avoid derailment if you’re stopped in your tracks for some reason.

My survival 101

1. Accept help.

I know on a normal day you can juggle plates on a scale worthy of the Moscow State Circus but acknowledge that things aren’t ‘normal’ temporarily and so it’s ok to allow your loved ones to cook/clean/tidy/nurse you to recovery – they’re only doing it to reciprocate the love you’ve showered upon them so really, fair’s fair.

2. Make lists.

Writing down the things that you want to get done rather than bottling it up in your head, will make you feel like you’re doing something and then you can either delegate the tasks or if you’re up to it, do them yourself. I took the time to put a bit more effort and research into gifts for the three upcoming kids parties my son would be attending as well as booking a long overdue fridge and oven clean. Amazing what you can do with wi-fi, a credit card and an armchair.

3. Sleep.

Seriously, when did you last have the house to yourself and the freedom to do this guilt-free? My last proper night’s sleep was definitely before my kids were born so nestled with my favourite fluffy pillow and a snuggly blanket, I’ve made my own daytime den in the living room where I can keep Come Dine with Me on low volume whilst I snooze (I can’t reconcile sleeping in my bed during the daytime because it just feels wrong). For the days I need a cat nap but just can’t get to sleep, listening to Dr Wayne Dyer’s Everyday Wisdom on low volume sends me gently to la la land.

4. Read.

Anything – be it trashy magazines, that book you’ve always wanted to read, recipes to finally use up that packet of buckwheat you bought knowing it’s a super grain but having no idea what to actually do with it; just read. When was the last time you read for pleasure or read something which was entirely unconnected to one of the hats you wear (mother, wife, employee), just reading for you. Indulge yourself, you deserve to and you’ll feel great for it.

5. Reflect.

‘Normal’ life is manic, you’re spread so thin across all your roles and responsibilities that you’re practically transparent.

You’re so busy doing all day long that you don’t get the chance to think about simply being.

Here’s your chance. Close your eyes and think about you; what did you aspire to be when you were a child? Did you achieve that? If not, what happened? What excites you? Do you have excitement or passion in your life? What does it look like? If you don’t, can you make some space for it?

Reflection and coaching during my convalescence has helped me to realise that I love to write and whilst my life and career are happily geared towards the service of others, actually writing is also a medium I can use to achieve this. And this is how my blog was born and I’m sitting here writing to you all, sharing my experience from my warm sofa den whilst my leg is bandaged up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feel free to share your own survival tips with me!

Until next time.

Photo by Alex Loup on Unsplash