Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law

Beauty

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I have a very beautiful friend. She has it all: small frame; slim, shapely body; fabulous poise and posture; long, straight, jet black hair; smooth skin; good teeth; an open, friendly smile; brown eyes you could drown in. She is married with a kid and a part time job, she and her handsome husband own their own home. She also suffers from severe depression.

People ask her all the time, ‘How can you be depressed when you look so gorgeous, when you have so much?’ Society appears to equate beauty to happiness, with a lack of understanding that more may be required. On the other side of the same coin, when a person has an obvious disfigurement it is assumed that they deserve to be pitied.

When I read of a person suffering facial burn wounds commentators will look on the outcome differently depending on gender and age. If it happens to a young girl it is considered a tragedy that she has ‘lost her looks’. There is little discussion about the potential infections or future pain that a serious burn wound can cause. The discussion centres around the potential for cosmetic surgery, how she will feel when she looks in a mirror, how society will treat her.

None of this is new of course. We notice beauty and are initially drawn to a person based on outward perception, although this view is quickly coloured by actions and conversation. Still though, health appears to be undervalued except by those whose quality of life is adversely affected by a condition. When the illness is unseen there is a tendency to assume that the sufferer could get over it if they really tried.

In recent years there has been more open discussion about mental illness, yet still it is assumed that the young and beautiful have no cause, no right to feel down. Outsiders, sometimes even supposed friends, will look at a person and judge if they have an acceptable reason to feel the way they do. Years of suffering and self hatred are swept aside as well meaning passers by suggest losing weight, getting out more, a change in attitude as a cure. Become a different person and all will be well, just do it.

When the sufferer already looks perfect there is incomprehension that they could want more than they already have, as if beauty were the pinnacle of achievement. Could this be why, as an older woman, I hear certain peers talking with concern about losing their looks?

There are many older people who look fabulous, but even highlighting this is to give credence to the idea that beauty is so important. At what cost has this look been achieved, how does the person feel, what else have they achieved? When we read of mental health issues amongst the rich and famous does it help us to empathise if we can see something about them that we consider could be improved?

Nobody chooses to suffer a mental illness, and there is no treatment that can yet cure it. The best that can be hoped for is a strategy for management, improvement to allow for survival.

There is no doubt that achieving a healthy weight can improve physical health and thereby quality of life. An attractive haircut or a flattering outfit can give a temporary lift. What an ill person needs though is not a demand to change, but support and acceptance for where they are now, however they happen to look. Well people would benefit from that too.

 

 

 

 

Parents, power and empathy

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As parents we have power over our children. If we are to do our job successfully then, at times, we will be forcing our children to behave in a way that they would not choose. We will punish what we perceive to be inappropriate behaviour, even when our child feels strongly that such punishment is grossly unfair. We will micromanage their lives, dictating bedtimes, activities, consumption and language. Although we may know and explain to them that we are doing all of this for their benefit, our children are unlikely to see it this way every time.

The parent / child relationship is always going to be unbalanced. I would not expect my children to feel the overpowering and never ending love and concern that I feel for them. It can, however, be hard to deal with being treated as a provider without feelings. I cannot help the fact that I am human and events around me will affect my mood and behaviour. Now that they are older, I wonder if it is too much of an ask to expect empathy from teenagers.

It seems at times that my children do not understand the value of something that they do not have to pay for themselves. In our effort to equip them with the necessary skills to cope with modern life, my husband and I agreed to assist them in their desire to learn to drive a car. This is expensive. My daughter was given a block of ten lessons for her seventeenth birthday and, when she is capable of safely controlling a vehicle, we will insure my car for her that she may practice her newly learned skills. She seemed keen to learn and we were willing to assist.

Why is it then that she does not ensure that she is ready for each lesson? At £50 a time I am eager for her to make maximum use of every minute. She tells me that my desire to get her out the door as soon as I spot his car in our driveway is stressing her. She is under so much stress at the moment, as she prepares for important exams next month, this accusation makes me feel incredibly guilty. Am I valuing these lessons too highly simply because they cost so much? Is this a valid reason? I cannot help but wonder how she would approach the lessons if she were the one footing the bill.

Spring has well and truly sprung in the UK. The field behind our house is alive with little lambs, the trees and hedges are turning green as their leaves unfurl in the sunshine, and we have colour in abundance as the borders and shrubs flower, enticing bees to busily buzz around collecting their bounty.

The good weather has also seen the return of a painter who is to smarten up the outside of our home. With a run of good weather forecast he decided that he would get started on a job we commissioned him to do at the end of last year. Over the weekend we ensured that the pots of thick, wall paint that he requires were ordered and delivered. This morning I was up before 6am, ready to greet the guys who were to erect scaffolding around our house first thing. Five hours later and they have still not arrived.

The painter is doing his best. Despite the fact that his assistant answered neither door nor phone this morning he has turned up ready to start on his own. Despite the fact that the promised scaffolding is not in place, he has taken up his brush and is currently working from a ladder. He has been let down but is doing what he can to get on with the job. I am frustrated by these failures to fulfil obligations, but as much for the painter as for me. I want the job to be completed as quickly as possible; I know that he is doing his best.

Unfortunately my frustration overflowed with my daughter. As she is currently off school for the Easter break she is having her driving lessons on a Monday morning. Last week she forgot to set her alarm and, by the time I realised that she was still asleep, barely had time to shower and gulp down a cup of tea before her instructor arrived. This week I woke her earlier and assumed she would get herself ready. She did not. For reasons unknown, she thought that she could complete a piece of work on her computer, which she then refused to leave when her instructor arrived. I got cross, she got stressed, I felt guilty.

I find it hard to understand my children’s often lackadaisical approach to time keeping. I intensely dislike being late and almost fear keeping anyone waiting; my desire not to inconvenience borders on paranoia. Whilst I do not wish to instil such an extreme approach to time keeping in my children, I do think that they would benefit from a little more concern for others. I cannot be sure though if this is an issue for me more than them; if my approach to time keeping is more of a problem than theirs.

It would be interesting to be able to observe how my children behave around others. The house painter is doing all that he can to provide the service that he promised. The driving instructor turns up on time and is unfailingly cheerful. I wonder if my children find it easier to rein in their reactions when it is not parents they have to deal with. Does our unique position in their lives mean that we will never be treated as they would almost everyone else?

Parenting can be tough but then so can growing up. Having spent so many years telling my children what to do, how to do it, punishing them if they do not behave as instructed and limiting what they are given for fear of spoiling them; perhaps it is inevitable that I should be treated differently from all others in their lives.

My role is not to be their friend, but there are times, like today, when a more friendly treatment would be most welcome.

 

Perfection Pending

This post is part of a parenting blog hop hosted by Perfection Pending

School Uniform

It is common in this country for children to be required to wear a prescribed uniform to school. Although I object to having to pay over the odds for a polycotton sweatshirt merely because it has a school logo sewn on, it does save me money in the end as my kids can get away with wearing the same couple of pairs of trousers and sweatshirts day in, day out until the clothes are outgrown or fall apart. Pupils still manage to express their individuality through the way they wear the clothes, the accessories they choose and the style of their hair; but a uniform removes the need to vary clothing on a daily basis.

The school that my children attend does not currently prescribe a uniform for sixth formers. There is a dress code, but it offers plenty of scope for individual choice, thus helping the emerging young adults to prepare for the choices they will make regarding personal presentation when they leave. As with the younger pupils who shorten their uniform skirts, dye their hair or plaster on the make up (supposedly not allowed), there are a few sixth formers who do not abide by the stated code. They are in the minority.

Yesterday I received an email informing me that there is a proposal to change the sixth form dress code. Although this stated that the proposal has been drawn up by a ‘working party of students’, it was news to all pupils and parents that I have been in contact with.

For anyone interested, the details are here: Sheldon School – DRESS CODE.

The gist of the new code is that ‘Your clothing should be smart and appropriate for the professional work place’. It then goes on to suggest such items as chinos or tailored trousers, polo shirts, cardigans or suits. They appear to be trying to dress sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds like members of an elite golf club.

Work places vary enormously in their dress codes. Some have a uniform (banks, shops, restaurants), others demand smart business suits, but there are a great many that allow employees to wear jeans and t-shirts or variations on that theme. Employers now recognise that personal comfort can improve the quality of an employees work.

But we are not talking about the professional work place here, we are talking about school. From sixth form a great many pupils will go on to university where they will be able to wear whatever they choose. These young people do not need to be trained at sixteen to wear a certain type of clothing suitable for just one potential future.

I feel angry about this proposal for a number of reasons:

  1. Schools exist to educate pupils. Whilst the definition of education is broadening alarmingly, it is still a place of learning. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt is not going to affect a pupil’s ability to learn.
  2. This change suggests that the school does not trust it’s young adults to make appropriate choices. When I visit the school I struggle to differentiate between sixth formers and the young teachers. This suggests that most of the pupils are already dressing in a manner that suits this place of work.
  3. By prescribing what is effectively a sixth form uniform, clothing will need to be purchased that will not be worn by many outside of school. This added cost comes at a time when the looming cost of attending university is a serious issue. If school wishes to dress it’s sixth formers in a uniform, stick to the one that they have worn since they were eleven. I would object to this change but at least it would be cheaper.
  4. The existing dress code already demands modesty and common sense (e.g. no beach wear). If a few individuals are not abiding by the rules then enforce them. It is not just the sixth formers who wear extremely short skirts or trousers that allow a display of underwear. A uniform will not, in itself, enforce tidy presentation.
  5. Throughout sixth form exams and important decisions about the future are omnipresent. Students are stressed enough without being made to dress in a way that does not suit their emerging sense of self. The school appears to be trying to turn the pupils into a homogeneous mass at a time when they should be exploring their individuality and where they wish to go in life.
  6. Many pupils already have part time jobs and will understand the need to present themselves differently depending on their environment.
  7. Pupils learn better when they feel positive and focused. This sort of policy breeds resentment.
  8. The proposed change is unnecessary. The stated aim of the exercise can be achieved by enforcing the existing dress code.

The popular perception of teenagers as a bunch of moody neanderthals who are slaves to their hormones is not borne out in the young people that I meet through my children. Many of them show more empathy, acceptance and common sense than the middle aged and elderly that I encounter. Just like the adults I know, sometimes they do daft stuff, but dressing them for a last century country club is not going to turn them into the sort of people we need to improve our country.

The email from school arrived in my in box yesterday and I thought at first that it was an April Fool’s joke so ridiculous did it seem. If the school wishes to tidy up pupil appearance they can do so without banning jeans and t-shirts or hoodies. Those who wish to break the rules will do so from whatever base they are starting from; the appearance of certain members of the uniformed lower school proves this point.

I am hoping that this proposal is not a fait accompli. I will be contacting the school to pass on my views and can only trust that they will be considered.

If pupils wish to dress according to this new code then they should be free to do so, just as others should be free to dress as suits them within the existing boundaries. By all means insist that pupils and teachers alike dress in a clean, tidy and modest manner, but this can be achieved without such absurd diktats.

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A square peg in a round hole

I am currently feeling alone within my family. Throughout life we are all constantly changing; recently I have come to feel that I have diverged from the place that my family has moved to. It seems at times that I no longer fit comfortably and easily within my own family unit.

It could be an age thing. It is said that age is just a number, that we are only as old as we feel. If this is the case then I have reached my dotage. Such a view could be partly a result of living with teenagers who regularly berate me; who ask me about the pet mammoth I had when I was a child. More than that though, it is the ache in my bones and in my soul.

The media tries to convince us that we are young for longer now that life expectancy has increased. I have no wish to be young again. Youth was a painful time filled with insecurity, pressure to conform and a need to be seen to succeed. I could never be all of the things that those who cared wished me to be, despite how much I tried back then. Age has given me the confidence to be myself, the experience to realise that there are many routes to achievement. I have learned that success is a subjective concept.

Preoccupation with youth is not new. I think of Dorian Grey, fictional but still someone to whom many can relate. History and literature recount many examples of powerful, old men who took younger and younger women to their beds in an attempt to feel young again themselves. How many marriages break down for just such a reason, and not one that is only confined to men?

Ageing is not something that I fear. I watch others as they try to hold back the years with cosmetics, procedures and clever tricks of concealment. It is not what is on the outside that makes me feel old, it is the person in the mirror who stares back at me through my tired eyes, weary from never being quite enough for those around me. It is the being that I am inside rather than the body that carries it around.

I feel as though I have lived through several lifetimes already, and am now expected to find the strength to demurely live through more. I do not claim to have had a hard life. Always there will be those who have had things much worse and somehow come through. This knowledge does not invalidate how I feel, although it does add an element of guilt.

Do I sound self pitying? I do not feel sorry for myself and do not expect anyone else to. I wish to be supportive of those I love, but the principle reason for my existence is not to sit at the bottom of a pile pushing them ever upwards. The expectation that I will always put up and shut up is crushing my spirit.

This Lent I have been taking the time to consider my well being, both physical and mental. I have enjoyed walks in the fresh air, beautiful views of the countryside around my home. I have visited the gym, taken long swims that offer me thinking time, been mindful of my consumption. Left to my own devices I can easily work with my body and mind to improve my health.

What I cannot work out is how to change the way I am treated. I do not know how to persuade others to act more gently or kindly towards me. I retreat into myself as an escape from the hurt that they inflict when they mock and deride me.

As with most personal blog posts this is a snapshot of a detail, not a panorama. It is a particular issue in a life filled with variety. For now this has bubbled to the surface, but it will sink again if other aspects of my life distract. I find it sad though that I am currently at my happiest when I am alone. My family has moved to a space where I do not feel that I am welcome.

I created this family, have held it together; perhaps that is why I feel so despondent when I see that I have diverged from their path. I need to work out a way to carve out a space for myself, to return to their fold.

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Not an island

A simple opinion knocked me for six this weekend when, after a busy day, my fifteen year old son informed me that I do not manage my time well; and his Dad promptly agreed with him. I am still trying to gather the scattered thoughts that this has generated. They are churning around inside me, refusing to be tied down in any meaningful way.

I tried to talk it through with them at the time. I remained calm and rational, but the result was not positive. My husband gleefully warned his son that women are bundles of hormones to be treated with caution. This made me want to lash out at him, an act that would only have served to reinforce his point.

I wonder if this is how toddlers feel when they throw a tantrum. The small world that they inhabit does something that they feel is grossly unfair and they do not know how to deal with it. They scream and kick and cry because they know of no other way to handle what is going on inside their heads.

It can be hard to find the words to adequately convey the multitude of emotions that conspire to overwhelm when a flippant or critical remark hits a nerve. I do not fully understand why I was so hurt by what was said. I have been judged by my son’s standards and found wanting before, yet been able to shake it off. Timing is crucial.

I found it hard when my children started judging me. For so many years they looked up to me for love and guidance, believing the answers that I gave to the many questions that they asked. As they grew older they came to realise that there are people in the world who do not hold the same point of view, that their parents may not always be right. As they learned to think for themselves, to question what they had been told, they started to pass judgement.

Teenagers can come across as abrupt, appearing to believe that the opinions they have formed are always correct, and those who disagree are wrong. Some adults of my acquaintance have never grown out of this stage, but most gain life experience and recognise that few issues are black and whit; they understand the varying shades of grey. This is a lesson that I try to pass on to my children, that they need to listen and try to empathise even if they do not agree.

Perhaps I have expected too much empathy. What is important to me, how I choose to spend my time, appears incomprehensible to my son; and also, it would now seem, to my husband.

I felt angry that I was not being granted the autonomy to decide for myself how I would spend each day. Of course, there are tasks that I must complete; as housewife and mother I have certain responsibilities. Beyond this though I had assumed that I was free to choose for myself.

Perhaps the real hurt came because what I had been doing revolved around my writing. I had believed that they realised how important this activity has become for me, and accepted that it is a time consuming process. They do not need to share my passion for it to be valid.

I spent much of Sunday off line, working hard in the garden in an attempt to drive the demons out of my head through sheer exhaustion. It did not succeed, although at least I now have a tidier garden.

As time passes the issue fades into the background, superceded by other, more pertinent matters. What is left is my disappointment that I do not have the support that I had taken for granted. This hurts, that in their eyes my personal enjoyment and satisfaction are not justification enough.

A part of me wants to ignore what they think but I cannot deny that their perception of me matters. It is hard to be considered foolish by those we love.

I suspect that they would prefer me to spend less time writing and more time doing the things that they see as worthwhile. Changing my behaviour to please others in this way goes against so much of what I encourage my children to do, to be themselves.

I have a busy week ahead so time management will matter. Do I compromise, capitulate; or do I ignore their views? I wish to live peacefully with them, but also with myself.

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21 things…

A little bit of fun for the end of the week. This post was inspired by Erika at Tipsy Lit and Dawn at Tales from the Motherland.

May I present, 21 Things I Irrationally Hate.

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  1. Finding a stack of unwashed pans on my stove first thing in the morning, because I couldn’t be bothered to wash up the night before.
  2. Wearing gym clothes on most days, then pulling them on again because they are so comfy and I might just get to the gym later.
  3. Going without all the food that I really want to eat for 24 hours, and finding that I still can’t fit into my smart black trousers.
  4. Going to the fridge for a glass of crisply chilled, white wine and finding none, because I drank it yesterday then forgot to replace the bottle.
  5. Having to organise yet another family member’s birthday when they had one just a year ago.
  6. Starting a daily routine of visiting the gym, only to wake up after the first day aching so much that I cannot cope with moving, except to the fridge.
  7. Discovering that there is no chocolate in the house after I told my son that I was trying to consume less junk, so he ate it all for me.
  8. Not feeling rested when I wake up the morning after finishing that bottle of wine.
  9. Buttons. And collars. And having to wear anything tight or constricting.
  10. Not having enough hours in the day to pointlessly scroll through my numerous social media feeds.
  11. Matching the seemingly endless pairs of black socks from the clean laundry pile after black socks were discounted at the store and I bought everyone multipacks.
  12. Never having a thing to wear when I go out because I plan to lose weight rather than buy bigger clothes.
  13. Feeling too tired to read the book I am eager to get back to after spending my evening pointlessly scrolling through my numerous social media feeds.
  14. Always having to walk or cycle uphill to get home because we chose a house with a fabulous view and I dislike driving.
  15. Not seeing enough of my friends because I procrastinate instead of arranging to meet up.
  16. Ironing,
  17. Forgetting to complete that important task because I was too lazy to get up and add it to my list when asked.
  18. The shape of my legs, especially in gym clothes.
  19. Being the butt of the family joke, especially when I know I am in the wrong.
  20. Not having applied the wisdom gleaned from raising my three children while I was raising them.
  21. Feeling obliged to practice what I preach.

What would you put on your list of irrational hates?

Lent: what can I do, not what can I do without

I woke up to blue skies and sunshine on Saturday, the first day of Spring. I have a vase full of freshly cut daffodils from my garden brightening up my kitchen; there are signs of buds and leaves emerging from the bare, woody plants in my garden.


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New life, a promise of warmth, a chance to relax and enjoy the view from the back of my house as the seemingly endless grey skies of recent months finally lift.

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After my few days away over half term I came back wanting to write, yet found that I was too busy with chores and children, mess and disorganisation. When I eventually sat myself down to put words into my computer they poured out of me like a flood. I found time for little else until the need to create abated. Flitting from one extreme to the other in this way creates rush and stress, I need to find balance.

With Lent approaching I have been considering how I can improve. I do not plan to give anything up, to fast, but instead I will try to focus on the meditative side of Christ’s retreat. I am thinking about what I can do in order to become a better wife, mother, friend, person; what can I do rather than what can I do without.

With the advent of Spring comes an increase in family activity and additional demands on my time. If I am to become the person that I wish to be then I need to look after myself better, to be mindful of my own well being. This is not about navel gazing but rather of searching out ways to improve my health and thereby my ability to give.

My hens are starting to lay more eggs after their long, winter rest. This evening, Shrove Tuesday, we will use their bounty and feast on pancakes.

pancakes

My husband will take up duty at the stove, heating and tossing the batter, while I try to persuade my children to choose the savoury fillings before moving on to the lemon and sugar, sticky syrup or chocolate banana that they favour. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, I will begin yet another quest for self improvement.

As with many new beginnings, my desire is strong. Unfortunately, in recent months, my resolve in these matters has proven to be disappointingly weak. All that I can do is to keep trying; moving forward is the only option, time travel only goes one way.

This Lent I will be trying to establish a daily routine that enables me to restore balance to my life. I have not been making best use of my time and the knock on effect has been heightened stress as I have been unable to maintain standards in certain areas that matter to me. I have also been neglecting my health which has drained my energy levels. I will be looking at this little graphic and reminding myself that each of these areas requires attention, not just the one that appears the most desirable at a given time.

balance-wheel

There are so many things that I wish to do, but if I am to tread gently through this life then I must ensure that I remain mindful of both myself and others. We reflect and absorb what goes on around us, affecting all by how we live.

I feel that I am in a better place now than I was a year ago. I am learning to avoid damaging situations, even when others do not understand why I must act as I do. I am learning to stand up for my right to be me.

This Lent I will try to use the inner strength that I am building on to quietly offer more to those I care about. Small steps, mindfully taken.

‘Tread gently and remember that we are both inhabitants and stewards of nature in our neighbourhoods.’ 

Being a mum to teens

I am taking part in Perfection Pending‘s weekly Blog Hop

Perfection Pending

It is said that we humans are creatures of habit. I tend to have a daily routine, but only when my day works out as I would wish. This happens more often now that I am mother to teens rather than having to deal with the varied needs of young children. These days I am less in demand so have the luxury of organising my day with a reasonable certainty that things will go to plan. At least that is how it would be if I was less of a pushover.

There are still simple tasks that I complete for my children because I am an awesome mummy if I didn’t do them then they wouldn’t get done. I suspect that this would bother nobody except me. For example, I prefer lights to be switched off during the day, curtains to be opened, beds to be made, pyjamas shaken out and rooms aired. I am not convinced that the three teen caves in our house would be habitable if I did not open the windows from time to time.

Whilst tiptoeing carefully through the detritus of their teenage lives, most of which seems to reside on their bedroom floors, I come across the used mugs, plates, bowls and wrappers that suggest I do not feed them. Funny that. If I piled their plates higher at mealtimes their food would spill over onto the table. Perhaps this is the answer; perhaps I need a large, table sized trough permanently topped up with pasta, noodles or other salt laden delights for them to forage in when they feel the need. My insistence on cutlery, crockery, healthy food and sociable eating times is just so last year.

Each weekday morning, having made sure that all three children have set off for school, I return the house to some semblance of order and then start my own day. Unless of course somebody has forgotten something. Today, for example, younger son remembered to pack his PE kit, he even remembered to take it with him when he left the house. It did not, however, make it into school with him but was instead abandoned in the hallway of a friend’s house as they waited for their lift. This is an improvement on the number of times PE kits have been left at bus stops, but still meant that my first task today was to carry out a delivery that had not been a part of my planned agenda.

Some mums that I talk to can relate to my willingness to indulge these cries for help, despite my frustration. Others suggest that I should just make my kids go without forgotten items. Coping with the trouble that this would cause is supposed to teach them not to do it again, a bit like letting them go to school on a wet and windy day without a coat is supposed to teach them something. This has never worked with my kids. Elder son does not wish to carry a coat around with him all day so leaves it at home whatever the weather. It reminds me of my mother’s insistence that I always carry an umbrella, just in case. I still prefer to go out in the rain bareheaded and cope. I remember my mother’s caring concern as nagging that irritated me intensely. Children do not always hear the intended message.

My kids have their own house keys so I do not need to be home when they return from school in the afternoon. It is rare indeed for this to happen. I enjoy sitting down with them for a cup of tea and a chat, it is one of my favourite parts of the day. When I am caught up in some other task and miss out on their daily banter it can be hard to catch up. Once they are ensconced in their rooms, chatting to their friends on social media, my company becomes an unwelcome diversion.

I have recently written about what I do all day when not dealing with my house and my kids. The days are too short to fit in all the things that I wish to achieve. Perhaps the true reason why I continue to indulge my teens when they are easily capable of sorting themselves out is because this is the easiest way of staying involved in their lives. Their mess and lack of appreciation may get me down at times, but they do still find me useful. I like that.

messy room

Trying to keep moving forward

I feel as if I am fighting myself. On the one side there is the part of me that is feeling totally wiped out. My very bones ache and I so want to just curl up somewhere warm and rest. On the other side is the part of me that firmly believes that a lot of health issues are down to attitude. If I can keep myself going with a positive frame of mind then I will be just fine. I am tired but it is no big deal and I will recover.

I am guessing that my symptoms stem from my daughter’s all night party at the weekend. I have plenty of friends around my age who can regularly party the night away, feel weary the next day but, after a day or two of rest, go about their normal lives without fuss. I hate fuss but it seems that I do not cope well with such excitement.

If I were to mention the way I feel to any family members then I know that I would not get any empathy. I am the one who can lie around all day remember. Husband has work, kids have school and homework, all get a lot less sleep than me due to my unique habit in this house of going to bed early. If I ever dare complain about feeling tired it is speedily pointed out to me how easy my life is compared to theirs.

I take all of this on board and end up berating myself. I still feel exhausted but guilty for doing so. It takes me a long time to recover from a weekend such as the one we have just enjoyed, and I did enjoy it.

I am guessing that this all stems from underlying issues in my life that never really go away. When I was in my twenties I was diagnosed with ME. I was fortunate in that I was not as seriously affected as many, but it did change the way I could live my life. I had to be aware that when I started to feel run down I needed to take action before it got out of hand leaving me bed ridden. This happened quite a few times and was hard to manage, especially as I lived alone.

The doctor who treated me was sympathetic at a time when many thought the illness was imagined. He offered to put me on medication but also pointed me at research suggesting that well controlled diet, exercise and lifestyle choices could be more effective in offering relief. I am so grateful for his advice. Since that time I have been managing my well being by ensuring that I do not allow myself to get over tired, that I sleep and eat well, and stay moderately active.

The flaw in this thinking is how I coped when I had kids. Giving birth to three children in three and a half years meant that I went for at least five years without a decent nights sleep. And I got through because I had no other choice. I then went through a lot more years when I was socialising regularly with other mums; late nights, lots of wine, fun parties. And I coped.

I cannot help but harbour a niggling doubt that the supposed illness was all in my head. I feel guilty because I wonder if my family are right, if I am making the sort of fuss that I despise.

I do seem to need more sleep than most. I feel better when I am taking regular exercise and eating sensibly. None of this is indicative of illness though, it is common sense that a well treated body will function more effectively. I do not know if the extreme tiredness that I feel is typical of someone my age or a recurrence of my former malaise.

I will not be seeking medical advice about this because there is still no cure for chronic fatigue. If that is what this is then I already know how to treat it. Yet still it feels like a first world problem, it feels like a selfish desire for sympathy that I do not deserve.

I guess I will return to my carefully managed diet and exercise, meditation and sleep. Even if I am not properly ill this treatment would be beneficial for anyone.

I wish that I did not feel so pathetic that I am looking to justify feeling unwell when others cope fine with far greater challenges. I wonder why I feel so uncomfortable with being kind to myself.

fatigue