Parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’

It infuriates me the number of times I’ve heard people express in public discourse that parenting is ‘a lifestyle choice’.   The implication is, of course, that parents have no right to expect consideration, adjustments or support from society as a whole and that non-parents have no obligation to make financial contributions, through taxes, to support parents directly or indirectly.  It infuriates me further how few times I’ve heard a position so obviously ludicrous pass unquestioned.  Parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’…

A mere ‘lifestyle choice’ is an action or a series of actions that you make for personal reasons and – here’s the crucial bit – a mere ‘lifestyle choice’ makes no contribution to society as a whole.  In liberal democracies we generally hold that people should be free to make whatever ‘lifestyle choices’ they wish, so long as their choices don’t harm others.  We also don’t usually see ‘lifestyle choices’ as warranting public support.  But parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’…  Yes, the decision to become a parent is a deeply personal one and yes, it changes your lifestyle.  The actions taken as a parent, everyday, are taken for deeply personal reasons.  But, parenting makes an enormous contribution to society as a whole. 

Compare parenting to surfing and providing healthcare, for example.  Surfing is a lifestyle choice.  Imagine I had a magical wand and I instantly removed all desire to surf from the entire population of the world at once.  People just stopped turning up at beaches to surf. What would happen?  Some specific businesses would collapse (i.e. businesses that make or sell surfboards) but pretty much life would just go on.  In contrast, imagine what would happen if I instantly removed all desire to provide healthcare from the entire population of the world.  All currently registered nurses and doctors instantly resigned and refused to work, all nursing and medical students dropped out and no one lined up to replace them.  Our hospitals would instantly be in chaos!  Our governments would declare an international health emergency overnight and untold numbers of people would die.   Choosing to become a nurse or doctor is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’.  Of course, people choose to become a nurse or a doctor for personal reasons, that choose impacts on their lifestyle and many doctors and nurses find their work deeply fulfilling and rewarding.  But the fact that some people make that choice benefits us all.  Society as a whole has a stake in some of us becoming nurses and doctors.  Further, society as a whole has a stake in doctors and nurses having the resources and support that they need to practise with professionalism, the latest scientific knowledge and care.   Now imagine if I instantly removed all desire to parent from the entire population of the world.  Existing children were abandoned and people simply stopped reproducing.  What would happen?  Society would be in utter chaos.   If we managed to survive the initial chaos, our economies would collapse.  With no new children born, as the population aged, one by one each and every business would lose their customers and their workforce.  Our species would, quite literally, die out.  If our economies, our societies, our very survival as a species depends upon a segment of the population making the choice to be parents, and putting their time and effort into parenting for many years, how can that be called a mere ‘lifestyle choice’?  Not only that but parenting quality impacts greatly upon the kind of society we live in.  How well the average parent parents changes the next generation for better or worse, for all of us.  It changes everything from crime rates, to rates of divorce, from the intelligence of the population, to the capacity for compassion.  And we all must live in the world that parents are creating.  Parenting makes an enormous contribution to the economy and to society.  And that means that providing societal support for parenting is both sensible and just.  Ensuring that parents have the resources and support to parent well benefits us all.  We all have a stake in it.

Apply it to your life:  I think that by parenting you are making a great contribution to our society and I think that entitles you to the support that you need to parent well.  Importantly, I don’t think this support is charity, I think justice demands it and I think we all benefit from societal investment in parenting.  What do you think?

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The trick isn’t what you do; it is knowing what has to be done

One of my Lecturers during my clinical training at UQ, Prof Tian Oei, told us this joke.  A company was struggling with productivity.  Nothing they tried could fix the problem.  It was looking like their factory would have to be closed.  They called in an expert consultant to help fix the problem.  The consultant toured the factory, observed the workers, drilled the managers with detailed questions and examined every machine in detail.  Eventually, the consultant reached her conclusion.  “I know how to fix your problem” she said.  She took out a spanner and tightened a single screw on one of the machines and instantly productivity soared.  The company was saved.  But initially, the managers weren’t happy, “But that was too easy!” they cried, “Anyone could have tightened that screw.  You don’t deserve to be paid for that.”  The expert consultant shook her head, “You aren’t paying me for tightening the screw.  You are paying me for knowing that tightening that screw was what had to be done.”  The job of a psychologist, remarked Tian, is the same as that expert consultant.  The actual strategies within a psychologist’s toolbox are pretty simple (in fact, I think he made a comment about trained monkeys), but what most people find hard, what psychologists specialise in, is knowing what has to be done to change behaviour.  The strategies of behaviour change are pretty simple stuff and easy to learn how to implement, it is knowing what has to be done, with a particular behaviour of a particular person in a particular context, where all the magic happens.  That is the true key. 

So, I find it interesting how much parents, keen to make changes in their own or in their child’s behaviour, focus on strategies.  They are almost always convinced that their lack of success so far is because they don’t yet have the right tool.  They are almost always keen to skip straight to hearing what tools I can teach them to manage their child’s misbehaviour.  In fact, the tools that work are all really simple stuff, and they are all based within a straightforward principle: stop reinforcing the misbehaviour, start reinforcing alternative behaviours and if your child has no alternative behaviours then teach them some.  The tricky bit, the bit where the magic happens is knowing how to apply that principle to the specific behaviour of your child, given the context in which that behaviour occurs.  The good news is you can get better, not just at strategies and tools, but at knowing what has to be done.  And here’s how:

  • Pick a particular behaviour to focus on and, for the next week, monitor that behaviour. In an ideal world, you would be recording every instance of the behaviour, either by taking a tally (for a discrete behaviour like hitting), recording the duration of the behaviour (for a behaviour where duration not occurrence is the focus like independent play), or noting whether the behaviour has or has not occurred at regular intervals, such as every 30 minutes (for behaviours with blurry boundaries like whinging).  I don’t want to discourage you from doing that, but I know that this isn’t an ideal world and most people aren’t that meticulous.  So, you can also set aside time at the end of each day for a week and ask yourself: did that behaviour happen a lot today or a little?  Did it happen more at particular times?  Was there any pattern to when and where it happened?
  • Now think about a specific episode of the behaviour. Pick one that seemed fairly typical.  What seemed to trigger the behaviour?  That is, what was happening immediately before the behaviour?  What, do you think, could be reinforcing (i.e. strengthening) the behaviour?   What happened immediately after?  What was happening when the behaviour stopped?  What happened next?  Remember your attention could be a reinforcer even it was negative attention!
  • Again, think about the situations in which the behaviour occurs. If you are focussing on a misbehaviour, a behaviour you’d like to see decrease, you need to ask yourself, what could your child do instead?  In the particular situations in which your child misbehaves, given their age and skills, what could they do instead?  Does your child have alternative behaviours or do you need to teach them?  If your child does have alternative behaviours, are those reinforced (e.g. by your attention, by your child getting what they are after)?
  • If you are focusing on a behaviour that you’d like to see increase, you need to ask yourself, can your child actually do that? Is it realistic given their age and skills?  Do you need to teach them how or make the task easier in some way?
  • If you like, talk through your ideas with your partner or a friend or relative. Do they have any insights to offer?

By the end of this process, you should have some ideas about what it is that needs to be done.  The next step is to try those ideas out and see what happens, continuing to monitor the behaviour.  You’ll know your ideas are right if the frequency or duration of the behaviour changes over time, in the direction you were aiming for.  Remember to be realistic and to take your child’s age and individual personality into account. Sometimes it is better to simply be more patient yourself!

It is ideal to cultivate the habit of asking these questions, figuring out what is to be done, in your daily life.  I guarantee that becoming more skilled at working out what is to be done will be more helpful than learning yet another tool.   Oh, and if you are really stuck you could always call in that expert consultant, a psychologist, to point out which screw needs tightening…  It is after all, what we are good at…

Apply it to your life:  You can become more skilled at knowing what has to be done. Remember: What triggered that behaviour?  What might be reinforcing it?  What can my child do instead?

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Knowing the people who matter most

‘It’s not who you’ve known,

but who you’re knowing’

Who are you ‘knowing’? Who do you spend time listening to?  Who do you make efforts to understand?  Who do you treasure learning little details about? Who are you aware of?  Who are you insightful about?  Who do you share living with?

Work colleagues, acquaintances, celebrities, no one?

Friends, family, your partner, your children, yourself?

Right now, today, who have you spent time and energy ‘knowing’?  Pause and actually answer the question to yourself. 

Incidentally, the quote comes from the Eels song ‘I like the way this is going’.  The song is a beautiful romantic love song, but most of the lyrics work perfectly for a love song from parent to child.  And in case you are getting hooked by grand ideas of what this ‘knowing’ might involve, the song includes the lines:

‘I like to watch TV with you,

there’s really nothing that I would rather do

Then maybe we can go to bed,

and get up and do it all again.’

Who do you sit in comfortable acceptance with?  Who do you share, actually share, the everyday realities of your life with?  Who shares the mundane realities of their life with you?  And… can you take joy in that?  Can you dwell within the everyday moment?  Can you live that so ordinary day and live it fully, really being with the people you are with whether they be friends, family, your partner, your children or even just yourself?  Can you pause, dwell in the ordinary moment and say, ‘there’s really nothing that I would rather do’?

‘It’s not who you’ve known,

but who you’re knowing

I like the way this is going’ the Eels

Apply it to your life:  Who are you knowing?  Dwell in that ordinary moment with the people that matter in your life.

I like the way this is going 

The Eels website

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Building parental responsiveness from the ground up

Responsive parenting series part 3

This post is the third of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

We’ve seen how parental responsiveness is the way that humans do parental care and why it is vital not just for emotional development and psychological health but also for cognitive development.  Convinced parental responsiveness matters but unsure of how to get there?  Here are some simple tips to tune in and be responsive:

  • Start with your own heart. Like, really, start there.  What matters most to you about parenting?  If you could secretly listen to your child, in twenty or thirty years’ time, completing the sentence, ‘I’m lucky I had the parents I had because….’  What would you love, absolutely love, to hear your child say?  I’m guessing it isn’t ‘they had me toilet trained in a single weekend!’ No, it is something about being loving, or being kind, or just plain being there, isn’t it?  Listen to your heart…
  • Be present psychologically. Your child exists in this very moment, in the here and now.  If you aren’t psychologically in the here and now too, if you are daydreaming or worried about the future or caught up in memories of the past, you are missing your child as he or she is right now.  And you are probably missing your child’s signals.  If being present is a challenge for you, consider practising mindfulness.  In fact, practise mindfulness of your child as you interact.  Pause and just notice your child, as he or she is in the here and now again and again. 
  • Wonder about your child’s perspective. Many, many times a day pause and just wonder: How does my child feel?  What is my child thinking?  What is my child seeing?  Take these insights into account and notice what happens.  Wonder again.
  • Loosen up a bit. Be creative.    Being a responsive parent isn’t something that you either achieve… or not.  It is a process, a process of continual adjustment and experimentation.  Even incredibly responsive parents are often off-cue.  When you notice you’ve gotten it wrong, gently experiment with a different approach. 
  • Find your own joy in connection. Responsive interactions are often playful, relaxed and fun for both parents and children.  Find your own joy in getting to know your child, in understanding your child’s perspective, and meeting your child’s needs.  At times being responsive can be tough.  Listen to your heart at these times.  Find the sweet satisfaction that comes from doing what matters, even when life is tough.

Apply it to your life:  Experiment with this responsiveness recipe.  Which aspects worked for you?

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Responsive parenting fuels cognitive and neurodevelopment

Responsive parenting series part 2

This post is the second of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

The psychological and emotional benefits of responsive parenting are often the first benefits that we think of.  But the benefits of responsive parenting don’t end there.  Responsive parenting is the fuel for the fire of cognitive and neurodevelopment.  Want smart kids?  Be responsive! 

Our children may be born developmentally immature but, by the end of their first year of life, just as they are starting to resemble a newborn precocial mammal in terms of mobility, they have already begun to do something that no other species on this planet can do.  They have begun to talk…  At their first birthday language is still rudimentary, but at around eighteen months language acquisition will take off bigtime, a phenomenon called the naming explosion.  In several short years our children become verbal humans.  They learn to live, like us, not just in a physical world but in a symbolic world. 

This involves, first of all, learning to relate stimuli.  Learning language means learning that a sound is equivalent to, or represents a physical object.  For example, learning that the sound ‘kitty’ represents an actual cat.  Our children learn that sounds, gestures and, in time, even squiggles on a page, can stand in for physical objects psychologically.  Our children will learn many different relations including equivalence, opposition, temporal relations (before, after), and even deictic relations (you, me).  And they will learn literally millions of specific instances of relations between stimuli.  This relational learning is foundational to intelligence, language and all complex human cognition.  Repeated responsive interactions with verbal humans is necessary for this relational learning to occur. 

To be effective, language exposure must be responsive.  A radio blaring human speech or a parent talking relentlessly without regard for the child will not have the same effect.  The parent must be aware of their child’s perspective, so that the child can pinpoint the correct relations.  For example, a parent may notice their child looking curiously at a dog and respond, ‘Oh that’s a nice doggie, isn’t it?  Look at the doggie!’ allowing their child to connect the sound ‘doggie’ to an actual dog. Human children need many repetitions of responsive verbal interactions.  Everyday verbal interactions between parents and children predict a child’s later intelligence and vocabulary.  All human parents, pretty much, expose their children to some language.  Everyone makes those necessary, functional statements.  ‘Do you want a sandwich?’ or ‘Don’t pull kitty’s tail, be gentle.’  What really makes a difference in terms of later intelligence is how much a child is exposed to that responsive, often joyful, verbal sharing between parent and child.  ‘Oh it is a yummy sandwich, isn’t it?   I can see you are enjoying it. Oh yes, yum yum.  You like vegemite, don’t you?  It is yummy.  I might have a bite too.’ or ‘Isn’t kitty soft?  Doesn’t she have soft fur? Oh, she’s purring.  Can you hear it? Rumble, rumble.  Isn’t it a funny noise?’ Responsive verbal interactions are multiple exemplar training, intensive teaching sessions, that fuel cognitive development, as well as neurodevelopment. 

And so it turns out that our high burden of parental care is the price we’ve paid for our humanity in another sense as well.  Responsive verbal interactions are the pathway that we walk into the symbolic world. 

Wondering how you can become more responsive?  Practical tips in the next post!

Apply it to your life:  Notice joyful, verbal sharing in your relationship with your child. Relish in those interactions, remembering your mutual fun is fuelling your child’s cognitive development.

References:

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the everyday experience of young Americian children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

Coyne, L. W., & Wilson, K. G. (2004). The role of cognitive fusion in impaired parenting: an RFT analysis. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4(3), 469-486.

Eshel, N., Daelmans, B., Cabral de Mello, M., & Martines, J. (2006). Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 84(12), 991-998.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the everyday experience of young Americian children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

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Responsive parenting is the way our species does parental care

Responsive parenting series part 1

This post is the first of a three part series on responsive parenting.  Responsive parenting, in a nutshell, means parenting that is responsive to the signals or cues of your child.  It is warm, caring and on cue.  Responsiveness is often understood within an attachment theory framework (responsive parenting predicts secure attachment styles in children) but I’m not going to go into that here.  In fact, apart from this short introduction, I won’t be mentioning attachment at all.  This isn’t because attachment theory isn’t valuable.  It is because it can be useful to view parental responsiveness from other angles too to get a full and complete picture of responsiveness.

Parental responsiveness is, quite simply, the way that our species provides parental care.  To understand why we need to compare a newborn human with other newborn mammals and to delve into our evolutionary past.  Consider a newborn lamb who within hours of birth is able to walk.  Then consider what a newborn human is like: immobile, neurodevelopmentally immature and with little direct control over their environment.  Parental care is crucial to all mammals and there are two distinct patterns.  Some mammals are precocial, their young are born neurodevelopmentally mature with early mobility, for example sheep.  For precocial mammals, parental care still happens, but the offspring are able to follow or cling to the mother.  Precocial mammals produce a high lactose milk, perfect for a mobile infant who is able to follow the mother and feed frequently and at will.  Singleton birth is the norm.  Other mammals are altricial, their young are born neurodevelopmentally immature, for example, mice.  Altricial mammals typically give birth to litters and nest.  They produce milk with high fat content, allowing the young to survive lengthy periods in between feeds while the mother leaves the nest and forages for food. 

Humans evolved from precocial ancestors and we still have many characteristics typical of prococial mammals.  For example, singleton birth is the norm, human milk is high lactose, and our babies thrive with demand feeding, that is feeding at will, and often frequently, just like prococial mammals (regardless of whether breastmilk or formula is given).  But our babies aren’t prococial.  Far from it…  At birth they can’t even hold up their own massive head…  We are secondarily altricial.  Why?  Well, that massive head is the clue.  A lengthy, dependent childhood is the price we must pay for our large brains.  It has been suggested that we have to give birth to our babies ‘prematurely’, while their huge heads are still small enough to fit through the birth canal.  But it may simply be that supporting the growth of such a large brain to sufficient neurodevelopmental maturity to be precocial simply outstrips the maternal body’s metabolism.  Either way, the price of our large brains is that we are secondarily altricial. 

So, we give birth to neurodevelopmentally immature, immobile, utterly dependent babies who are primed for the near constant contact, and at-will feeding that prococial mammals easily obtain by simply following or clinging to the mother.  We cannot nest, there is no litter to nest our young with.  And, we feed them high-lactose, easily digested milk, the kind of milk that necessitates frequent at-will feeding patterns (even formula is based on the nutritional properties of human milk and so, although there may be differences between breastmilk and formula, the basic point still applies).  Well, how did evolution solve that one?  I’d argue there is only one solution.  Only one.  The parent must bridge the gap.  The parent must be the one to ensure that their child remains close.  The parent must notice their child’s signals or cues, be aware of their child’s needs, and respond.  The solution is parental responsiveness.  Responsiveness is the way our species does parental care. 

The next time you find yourself mulling about how tough parenting can be, I agree.  In terms of parental care, our species carries a heavy burden.  But that burden is, quite literally, the price we’ve paid, the price we had to pay for humanity.

And there’s another reason for that too… So make sure you return for the next post in this series.

Apply it to your life:  Was our high parenting burden a fair price to pay for humanity?  Does putting parental responsiveness in an evolutionary context help you to understand why it is so important?

References:

Ball, H. (2009). Bed-sharing and co-sleeping: research overview. NCT New Digest, 48, 22-27.  http://dro.dur.ac.uk/6691/1/6691.pdf

Dunsworth, H.M., Warrener, A.G., Deacon, T., Ellison, P.T., & Pontzer, H. (2012).  Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality.  PNAS, 109 (38), 15212-1562.  http://www.pnas.org/content/109/38/15212

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Navigating the grief of miscarriage

Approximately 20% of confirmed pregnancies end in loss.  The most common cause of miscarriage is chromosomal abnormalities, followed by genetic mutations. Combined they cause the overwhelming majority of first trimester miscarriages.  Our species is particularly chromosomally unstable, as many as 70% of all conceptions are not viable.  Many conceptions are lost – the fertilised ovum fails to implant or is actively rejected by the maternal body – before pregnancy is even confirmed. Sometimes the fertilised ovum succeeds in implanting and passing the maternal body’s initial screening process, but is nevertheless not viable.  This is the cause of most miscarriages within the first trimester.  Other common causes of miscarriage include immunological problems, infections, thyroid disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome, exposure to toxins, and an incompetent cervix and some of these factors play a role in second trimester miscarriage in particular. 

Miscarriage can be, and often is, a devastating experience.  I myself have experienced this devastation.  Each pregnancy loss is unique and there is great diversity in the healthy and normal ways that women may react to the experience.  Pregnancy loss, even early pregnancy loss, may trigger a profound sense of grief. 

Understanding grief

The first thing to understand about grief is there is only one rule: there are no rules.  Each person grieves differently.  If you experience pregnancy loss more than once, you may find that you grieve differently each time.  There are many ways to grieve, so grieve in the way that makes sense to you.  Grief doesn’t have stages and there isn’t an endpoint to be reached.  You don’t need to ‘get over it’.  With time, if you honour your grief, the raw intensity of your pain will lessen or will become easier to live with.  This doesn’t mean that the hole in your heart will heal, that your grief will go away.  It does mean that you’ll learn how to live with a hole in your heart.  You’ll find a way to live with this loss, and live a rich, meaningful and happy life too.  This will take time.

Living in limbo

Depending on how your pregnancy loss unfolds you may find yourself living in ‘limbo’ for a time.  That is, you may experience a period of time during which you know are at risk for miscarriage, or even know that miscarriage is highly likely, but the possibility of pregnancy loss is still not certain.  Living with this kind of excruciating ambiguity, even for a short period of time, is an incredibly difficult experience.  While you live in ‘limbo’ your top priority needs to be treating yourself with love and compassion.    Don’t put pressure on yourself to do anything other than live through each day.  At the same time, until miscarriage is confirmed with absolute certainty, it is best to continue to adhere to basic health advice for pregnancy, such as avoiding alcohol.  Stay in regular contact with your doctor and follow your doctor’s advice. 

The choices

Again, depending on how your pregnancy loss unfolds, you may find yourself needing to choose how you want to manage your miscarriage medically and physically – choices between surgical (D & C, curette) management, medical management (medication to induce miscarriage) or expectant management (waiting for natural miscarriage to begin if it hasn’t already).  There is no one right choice, only the choice that’s right for you.  Talk to your doctor about the options that are available to you where you live and given your exact situation.  Ask your doctor to explain to you clearly the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in your specific situation.  

The physical experience

Physically, the experience of miscarriage varies between feeling similar to a period, to feeling like a particularly painful and heavy period, to feeling more like a ‘mini-birth’, to feeling  similar to giving birth at term, depending on the timing of the miscarriage and the exact circumstances.  You have the right to make informed choices about pain relief options at this time.  Talk to your doctor about the most appropriate pharmacological options in your particular situation and draw upon non-pharmacological options for pain relief too, from hot-water bottles, to abdominal breathing, to mindfulness practices.  Relieve pressure in every other area of your life that you can.  Miscarriage can be not just an emotional ordeal but a physical ordeal as well.  If this is true for you ensure that you take this into account and give yourself the time to rest and recover just as you would from any physical ordeal. 

The emotional crisis

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, again, the top priority must be taking care of yourself.  All you need to do is live through this crisis one day at a time.  In my opinion, in the midst of an immediate crisis, all bets are off.  If you want to stay in bed all day in your pajamas, eat a whole block of chocolate, hurl crockery about your kitchen, or weep for hours on end, go right ahead.  You have every damn right. 

The only caveat I would add to this is that if you have older children do ensure that your children are provided with a loving and emotionally safe space at this time.  It is okay for your children to know that you are feeling sad, even to see you cry, as long as the basic emotional safety of their world doesn’t appear to be at threat.  Make it as easy as possible for yourself as you provide this loving and emotionally safe space by calling in support from family and friends and by making any time you have with your children easier on you while being emotionally safe and enjoyable for your children at the same time.  For example, enjoy movie marathons together, get out favourite activities, and indulge in a bit of takeaway or easy meals.  During the immediate emotional crisis, your goal as a parent to your older children should simply be to maintain that loving, emotionally safe connection.  You can go back to stimulating their cognitive development and encouraging healthy eating next week!

In the aftermath

As soon as that immediate emotional crisis settles it is vital that you focus on good mental health care for yourself.  You are currently at risk of developing depression and it is crucial that you support your mental health at this time.  ‘All bets are off’ has a definite time limit: give yourself no more than two weeks of this, less if possible.  Good mental health care means:

  • Getting regular exercise. If you usually do exercise regularly you’ve probably had a break.  Get back into it now.  If you don’t usually exercise it is important to start.  Regular physical activity supports good mental health.  Find physical activity that fits in your lifestyle and is enjoyable for you.   If fitting regular exercise in is difficult then try exercising flat out as hard as you can for three to five minutes a day (go absolutely flat out as long as you can then bring yourself back to a slow steady pace until you’ve recovered enough to go flat out again).  This will, in minimum time, ensure that you are getting a mental health boosting endorphin hit. 
  • Living a rewarding life. Do things that you enjoy.  Do them whether you feel like it or not.  Read a good book, eat your favourite food, watch a favourite movie, get back into your hobbies, have a romantic night out with your partner or plan a fun family day together.  Build a rich, rewarding life now and feelings of joy will gradually return. 
  • Be social. Connect with your friends, family and partner.  Reach out for support.  Miscarriage is not rare, it is common.  It is highly likely that you already know a kind and compassionate woman who has been in exactly the same situation that you are now so consider sharing your experiences with supportive women in your life.  If that feels too difficult consider accessing support through online chat rooms or by calling pregnancy loss support organisations. 
  • Be kind to yourself. Take care of your mental health and give yourself time to recover.  Allow the thoughts and feelings that you have to come and go.  Don’t pressure yourself into feeling better soon.  It will take time.  Compassionately give yourself this time.
  • Honour your grief. Your grief isn’t a sign of being broken.  It is testament to your strength, your love and your courage.  Don’t fight your grief, instead allow the crashing waves to take you.  Learn to surf them. This is what it feels like to heal. 

Create your own meaning

Don’t let your miscarriage be defined in medical terms or by what your loss meant in the eyes of other people.  Find your own personal meaning, drawing on your religious or spiritual beliefs if relevant or your own personal outlook on life.  Create the memories you want to keep and acknowledge your loss in a way that holds meaning to you.  You might like to: name your baby, hold a ceremony, make a keepsake, light a candle or write your baby a letter.  There’s no right or wrong so do what feels right to you. 

Trying again

There is no specific time frame to wait before trying to fall pregnant again.  You and your doctor only have to be confident that you have fully passed the remains of your current pregnancy (your doctor may confirm this with blood tests and/or a scan).   Some doctors advise women to wait one cycle.  Your doctor may have further advice depending upon your exact circumstances.  Trying to fall again, and the timing of this, is your (informed) choice.  In making that choice, do consider your full situation including your immediate emotional state and desires, as well as your age, fertility and life plans.  For some women, waiting a few months before trying again may be the best action emotionally.  However, don’t let other people talk you into waiting if it doesn’t feel right for you.  It isn’t compulsory.  For other women trying again as soon as possible is the best course of action emotionally, and some women may feel (due to age or fertility) that waiting is simply not an option no matter what their emotional state. 

If you suspect that there was more to your miscarriage than a chromosomal abnormality or a genetic mutation, talk this through with your doctor.  If you have experienced three or more consecutive miscarriages (recurrent miscarriage) ask your doctor for a referral to specialist healthcare and support. 

If you want to have a child then every ovulation is a fresh roll of the dice.  Even if you are playing with ‘loaded’ dice: every ovulation is a fresh roll.    Even amongst women who have experienced three consecutive miscarriages, the majority will fall pregnant with a viable pregnancy and successfully carry the baby to term.  As a general rule, sheer persistence, simply continuing to roll that dice, usually results in a living, newborn baby. 

Grief into the future

Remember, you don’t have to ‘get over it’.  You will always be a mother to your lost baby.  You have every right to continue to mother your lost baby in whatever way makes sense to you.  Your baby will always be with you, a part of you and your life’s story. 

Apply it to your life:  Have you experienced a miscarriage?  What helped you to navigate this time?

Resources:

Pregnancy Loss Australia 

Miscarriage Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support SANDS

Miscarriage Association UK 

References:

Larsen, E.C. Christiansen, O. B., Kolte, A.M. & Macklon, N. (2013).  New insights into mechanisms behind miscarriage.  BMC Medicine. 11:154 doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-154

Cowchock, F.S., Gibas, Z., Jackson, L.G. (1993) Chromosome errors as a cause of spontaneous abortion: the relative importance of maternal age and obstetric history.  Fertility and Sterility.  59 (5), 1011-1014.

Brier, N. (2008) Grief following miscarriage: a comprehensive review of the literature.   Journal of Women’s Health. 17(3): 451-464. doi:10.1089/jwh.2007.0505.

To the children we know but briefly and to the parents who love them anyway

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Mindful Parenting

Mindfulness involves practising keeping your awareness in the here and now, with an accepting, compassionate stance towards your own moment to moment experiences.  Regular mindfulness practice has many benefits including lowering stress and preventing and treating depression and anxiety.  You may already be familiar with mindfulness practice as sitting meditation, zazen, yoga or even tai chi.  Fortunately for many time-poor parents, you don’t need to do any of those things to practise mindfulness.  You can practise mindfulness in your everyday life while you are doing absolutely any activity whatsoever.  All you need to do is practice keeping your awareness in the here and now, in an accepting and compassionate way.  In fact, practicing mindfulness while spending time with your child can be an excellent way to boost your own mental health and nourish your relationship with your child at the same time.

So, next time your child initiates an interaction with you, take a deep breath.

Bring yourself fully into the present moment as you respond, letting go of any other thoughts.

Listen to your child; really listen, with full attention.

Let yourself open up to both your own experiences, and the experiences of your child with compassion and acceptance.

Respond to your child from this aware, accepting space.

Allow your interaction to unfold.

Notice your child exactly as he or she is right now, today. 

Savour this moment.

Apply it to your life:  Try practicing mindfulness during an interaction with your child.  What happens?  What do you notice?

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Science for preschoolers

As a working scientist, I’m keen for my children to grow up appreciating and understanding the sciences.  I want to do what I can, during my daughter’s preschool years, to encourage a love of science. Whether she considers a career in the sciences or in a related discipline or not, I believe that a life-long love of the sciences is a wonderful strength to encourage.  Here are some ways you can have fun with preschool science:

  • Explore the world with your child. Take your child on trips to the museum, science centre, zoo, or aquarium in your local area.  Explore the natural world around you by taking an interest in plants, animals and insects in parks, beaches, creeks or even in your own backyard. 
  • Start watching documentaries with your child. Quality wildlife documentaries are often enjoyed by children.  Pay attention to the kinds of animals that capture your child’s interest and buy or borrow documentaries on that topic. 
  • Access science-related toys and activities such as preschool chemistry sets, dinosaur figurines or planting a garden together.   
  • Relish in your child’s questions. Preschoolers are naturally good at a key feature of science: curiosity.  So, show delight in your child’s curiosity.  Recognise it as the strength it is and help it to grow. 
  • Reignite your own curiosity.  Really, having children is a remarkable opportunity to shed your crusty, adult cynicism and become excited and curious about the world again.   Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the sciences, try to put that aside and just be interested in the world around you.  See the world with fresh eyes and learn as much as you can, yourself, about whatever is sparking an interest in your child.  Science is about understanding the world, so I guarantee that science touches upon something that you find fascinating. 
  • Make the word hypothesis part of your everyday vocabulary. This is actually easy to do once you get used to it.  For example, ‘I wonder why the biscuits are burnt.  Hmm… my hypothesis is that we had the oven too hot.  What is your hypothesis?’
  • Model a scientific approach to solving problems. This means coming up with ideas and testing to see what works.  So, instead of positioning yourself as the expert who is teaching your child, try to take the approach of, together, testing and discovering what works.  For example, ‘So our hypothesis is that the biscuits were burnt because the oven was too hot.  Let’s test that by turning the oven down and seeing what happens to the next batch.’

Apply it to your life:  Does encouraging a love of science matter to you?  How do you encourage an appreciation and understanding of science in your children?

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Weathering the storm

Has this ever happened to you?  You realise that you need to take a new approach as a parent.  Perhaps you realise that you’ve been accidentally rewarding a particular behaviour with your attention or just that the come has come to be firm about something.  You think through your new approach and you are confident that you’ve figured out a strategy that will work.   Or maybe you’ve heard about using planned ignoring, deliberately not giving attention to challenging behaviours and decide to try it out. You try it and whoa!  Things get a whole lot worse really fast…  The screaming gets louder, the running gets faster, the tantrum gets even more out of control.  So, what happened?  And what should you do next?  What you are experiencing is something psychologists call the extinction burst and it is actually an indication that your new approach is working.  I know, right?  So… the parenting strategy that works will, first of all, trigger a massive storm?  How can that be?

It is absolutely crucial to truly understand the extinction burst otherwise it is very hard to find the strength to persist through the storm.  I’ve found that the best way to understand the extinction burst is to think about a broken vending machine.  So imagine you really, really, want a chocolate (or whatever your weakness is).  You see a vending machine and you know how this works.  You can almost taste the chocolate in your mouth.  You get out your coins, you put them into the machine, you press the button and nothing happens.  There is no chocolate.  In that moment, what do you do?  Be honest, you push the button again, don’t you?  Maybe you push it lots of times, punch it even, yell, or you may even shake the machine?  That is the extinction burst.  You know how to get chocolate from a vending machine and you don’t quit the first time your button pushing doesn’t work.  Your child won’t quit the first time their button pushing doesn’t work either… they’ll push the button rapidly in a panic, punch the button, yell loudly or they may even shake the machine.  But, after the rapid button pushing, the yelling and shaking, then what do you do?  Eventually you accept that the machine is broken, that pushing the button isn’t going to get you the chocolate and you walk away.  That’s exactly what your child will do too if you persist.

Oh, and how can you be sure that your new approach really is working?  You can tell that your new approach is actually working if, after weathering a few storms, the frequency of your child’s challenging behaviour drops. 

Apply it to your life:  Have you noticed the extinction burst in your parenting?  Are you able to weather the storm?

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