Complications

Most families have complications now and then. There are always skeletons in the closet – some large, some tiny and frail. One family I know of is so complicated that they no longer talk to each other, or even acknowledge each others’ existence. It’s an all too familiar story. Things have got so difficult that it is easier to ignore each other completely than to try to cross the vast chasm of pain and trauma that lies between them. When they are forced to interact, they pretend that nothing has ever happened, and the intense pain between them is a huge elephant in the room.

It’s sad, being outside such a conflict and able to view it somewhat objectively, to hear what both sides are saying – particularly as they are singing the same, age-old song: “There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve done nothing wrong, but they have been so cruel and hurtful to me. I don’t understand it.” Both sides are saying this. Both sides have a list of grievances a mile long. Neither side discussed the grievances when they happened. Both sides nursed each grievance like tiny, vicious puppies until they grew into huge Doberman pinschers that guard the sides of the chasm, ensuring that no-one even tries to make the leap of faith to the other side.

Closer to home, my six year old finds it very difficult, when she feels wronged, to look past her own grievance and try to see how the other party might be feeling. And although I get very frustrated with her when she can’t see someone else’s point of view, the truth is that I sometimes find it pretty difficult myself. It’s a natural human reaction, when you feel hurt, to dig trenches, erect impenetrable walls, and snuggle down safely, cuddling your resentment like a teddy bear.

Recently, when I was incredibly hurt by a friend’s actions, I really wanted to throw a huge tantrum and tell him I never wanted to see him again. Instead, I learned from some very wise friends, took a deep breath, and asked him if I could come over to explain how I was feeling. To his eternal credit, he said yes, although he must have felt as though he was inviting an unexploded hand grenade into his home.
When I got there, I took care to tell him how I was feeling, rather than to criticize what he had done.

In doing so, I felt incredibly exposed and vulnerable. I felt as though I had pulled my beating heart out of my chest and handed it to him, together with a choice of weapons. I felt naked and defenceless. But the friendship was important to me, and I saw it as a choice between throwing the friendship away or trying to fix a recurring problem. As is so often the case, the problem was more with my feelings than with his behaviour, so I thought that bringing my feelings out into the open and explaining why I reacted the way I did might defuse them a little.

The wonderful thing is, it worked. He handled my heart very gently, and helped me tuck it safely back into my chest, and we finished the conversation with a better understanding of each other than we had at the start.
Sadly, taking that approach requires a high level of trust that the other party will respect your openness, or at least the ability to accept the consequences if they do not. Solving conflict requires a willingness to compromise on both sides, and the ability to move beyond the wrongs and hurts of the past. Above all, it requires both sides to stop looking for reasons to prolong the conflict. And it may be that when the trauma reaches a certain level, pain is all that you can see.

Sometimes all it takes is for one party to be open and say “You know what? I miss you. Any chance we can try to be friends?” But I think it does require that openness. Trying to pretend that nothing has ever happened leaves the elephant in the room free to trample you all over again.
Perspective is a funny beast. When you go looking for reasons to be upset or offended, you will almost certainly find them. Yet, by the same token, when you go looking for reasons to be uplifted and heartened, you will find those, too. What a shame we can’t buy rose coloured glasses for our relationships, and learn to take the optimistic view. Are your relationships half full, or half empty?

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Busy as a bee

If it takes one person 10 hours to dig a trench, how long does it take 10 people? Potentially 10 times as long, but it’ll be a lot more fun in the process! It does, of course, depend on how many lunch/coffee/beer breaks there are in the process. And the time taken is probably directly proportional to the amount of chatting, bird watching, tickling, and pushing of other people into the trench.

Many jobs are seriously hard yakka when you tackle them yourself, but more of a party when you tackle them in a group. So why do we insist on doing everything ourselves?

I learnt years ago that it is very difficult to ask for help. I also learnt that it is truly important. When I had chronic fatigue syndrome, some jobs were literally beyond me. Being housebound so much, and for so long, I became very isolated and went extremely crazy (hard to believe, I know, but take my word for it!). So I had to ask for help. I needed people to visit. Our friends were crucial in helping my husband with the daunting task of keeping me from disappearing totally inside my navel, as well as helping us get stuff done occasionally.

Once I got better, though, I slipped back into that old habit of not asking for help. Asking for help is a very vulnerable thing to do – you feel exposed, and in our society, asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness and inability to cope. We soldier on, we do it tough, we man the barricades and don’t let anyone see us cry. It’s really very sad.

So I have a new idea. I am going to start a working bee club. Anyone who has a big job to do, or a tedious job, or simply a job they think would be more fun in company, can sign up and post their job on the group calendar. Anyone in the group who is free that day can show up to help with the work. And when the helpers have jobs of their own to do, what goes around will come around and they will be helped in their turn.

Help could be anything from providing food for the workers, babysitting ofchildren too young to help, or actually doing the job – everyone helps out according to their skills and interests. Heck, with the really boring jobs you can show up and play a guitar to keep us entertained, or read from a particularly good book, or stand on your head to keep the kids entertained, if that’s your idea of fun.

I think this is an idea with great potential. Potential to make difficult jobs easier. Potential to create a sense of community. Potential to connect people who might otherwise be isolated.  Potential to be a lot of fun.

I don’t know if it will work. But it will certainly be interesting! So if this sounds like a good idea, why not sign up to my working bee club (email me), or start one of your own?

Fair Trade Primer

These days I live, eat, and wear fair trade. I am so used to buying from fair trade suppliers that I had forgotten, until recently, that it was only a few years ago that I didn’t even know what Fair Trade was. So for the benefit of those of you who would love to be part of fair trade, if only you had the faintest idea what it was and how to get involved, I have written this introduction to fair trade. Welcome to Fair Trade 101.

The basic idea behind fair trade is simple: Growers should get a fair price for their produce. Ordinarily the price of produce such as coffee, tea, cocoa beans, cotton and rice is dependent on market forces, and susceptible to the machiavellian machinations of big companies who are keen to push the price as low as it can go. The profit from your tea, coffee and chocolate generally goes into the pockets of big companies and their share holders, while farmers often live on, or below, the poverty line.  Fair Trade certification guarantees that the farmers who produced the food have been paid a fair price for it.

On top of that, fair trade certification adds a “fair trade premium” to the price, that the community then uses for health, education, basic sanitation, or whatever their highest priorities are. Fair trade farmers have to be organised into some sort of collective, and they must be self-determined – in other words, the farmers and their community decide what to spend the fair trade premium on. It’s not imposed on them from outside.

Fair trade certification also guarantees minimum sustainability standards – farmers must farm in a sustainable way that does no long term damage to the environment. It’s not necessarily organic, but it is a big step up from conventional farming practices, and farmers that do choose to go organic get paid an extra premium for it.

Sadly there is a bigger issue, that pushed me into fair trade in the first place, which is that non fair trade certified goods are often produced with child labour, forced labour, and even slave labour. Workers (many of them children) are sometimes forced to apply pesticides with no protective equipment, and any costs that can be cut will be, regardless of the health and safety of the workforce. I can’t justify drinking tea produced with slave labour, so that’s why I only drink fair trade tea and coffee, and eat fair trade chocolate.

The good news is that fair trade products are getting easier to find. Mainstream supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths usually stock fair trade tea, coffee and chocolate as a matter of course these days. Cocolo and Alter-Eco are very tasty chocolate brands that are easily available, and even Cadbury’s is introducing Fair Trade chocolate, by sourcing all of its “dairy milk” range  from fair trade certified suppliers (that hasn’t happened yet, but it is in the process of happening – keep an eye out for the Fair Trade logo!). Supporting Fair Trade is as simple as buying fair trade certified products during your usual supermarket shop.

You can also buy a huge range of fair trade gifts from places like The Oxfam Shop . For more info on fair trade, check out The Fair Trade Association of Australia & NZ, and they have a great page showing where to buy Fair Trade.

The other big thing you can do is ask your favourite cafe whether their tea, coffee and chocolate is fair trade. Just asking the question can motivate them to look into fair trade, and maybe support it. The more people ask the question, the faster and wider fair trade will spread. The bottom line is that fair trade means better living standards, better health and education, and a fairer, more sustainable world. What could be better?

Hold that thought.

In the past week I have seen some awesome things. Truly awe inspiring. Things I never wanted to have to see or know about, and things I feel privileged to be a part of. And I have been on a rollercoaster ride through my own past and feelings. I have been left uplifted, humbled and devastated by what I have seen.

I have seen catastrophic tragedy unfold, and I have seen the incredible compassion of professionals and community enfolding a shattered family. I have learnt a little more about shock and grief, and I have seen a diverse school community rally around with breathtaking empathy and practical support.

On Sunday one of the dads at our school working bee collapsed and died. It turned out that he had a massive embolism – a ticking time bomb that no-one could have foreseen or averted. It was a profoundly shocking event. One moment I was working beside this man, the next moment he was inside, obviously unwell, then suddenly ambulances were being summoned and cpr was being performed. There was an intense unreality about sitting outside that room, trying to comfort his children, and not knowing precisely what was happening inside, but knowing that it wasn’t good. For those of us who were there, the tragedy will reverberate through our lives for some time to come. It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed with grief for the family, as we imagine what they will go through, now and in the future, in coping with their loss and moving on with life.

At the same time, it is uplifting to see the school community respond to the tragedy in every possible practical, positive, and empathic way. They have swung into action providing meals, transport, washing, and anything they can think of to be of some use, to show their solidarity and support in concrete ways.

One ambulance, two MICA (mobile intensive care ambulance) units and one fire engine showed up at the scene, and they worked tirelessly for as long as there seemed a chance of saving a life. People at the working bee, and from the church that was meeting in the school hall, simply did what needed to be done – from calling ambulances to administering CPR, from standing by the family in their unbearable need to cleaning up afterwards. Waiting outside, knowing a life hung in the balance, and that the thread by which it hung must be incredibly thin, was intensely traumatic, although the impact of it didn’t fully hit home until later.

The upside of this wave of grief that has swept our school has been seeing our community strengthened and united in its love and compassion. I now know that my own grief has practical application in helping me to help others who are facing shattering grief, and I have been reminded of the amazing everyday heroism, both of our incredible emergency services personnel and of the people who leapt into the breach and did what needed to be done. The world is full of good, loving, compassionate people. Hold that thought.

Change Management

Despite all my best intentions to go with positive parenting and construct our own little participatory democracy in our home, I have become a grumpy old nag monster. What disturbs me the most is that, in those moments when I have run out of options and tempers are beyond boiling point – when we have hit flashover, in fact – my toolbox is empty and a little voice in my head is saying “Smack her! She deserves it!”

I don’t believe that hitting children is ever a good solution. There is no good message to be extracted from resorting to violence. I have twice hit my 6 year old on exceptionally bad days, and although I didn’t hit hard, I hate the fact that I did it, because I was out of control, and I was teaching her to deal with stress by lashing out. This is not the role model I want to be, to put it mildly. In my ideal world I would be modelling (and hence teaching my daughters) positive, effective ways of coping with stress. In my experience, dealing with stress by lashing out increases the stress exponentially. Yet there are, I am ashamed to admit, holes in our walls from some days that really scraped the bottle of the barrel, quality-wise.

Although some days flashover happens all too easily, in most cases it is reached via a staircase of escalating drama, and it often begins with me being a nag monster.  Yet nagging is not only useless, it is actually counterproductive. “Sit up straight. Use your knife and fork, not your fingers. Don’t leave your towel on the floor. Bring your jacket home from school. Always put your jacket back in your bag, never put it down anywhere else. Where is your jacket?” (Yes, I am in severe danger of becoming jacket obsessed.)

This sets up a most pernicious feedback loop – she ignores me, I get grumpy, I nag, she gets grumpy, I get even grumpier, she ignores me some more, BOOM! It doesn’t result in her doing what I want her to do more often, but it most certainly does result in me going BOOM on a regular basis.

Despite our best intentions, this kind of feedback loop happens incredibly easily in parenting. We simply don’t have time to stop and reflect on every single strategy or tactic we use. Self-reflection is a luxury that only other people have time for. But sometimes we are lucky and have a flash of insight. Recently my husband got fed up with nagging our 6 year old to sit up, eat over her plate, use her knife and fork, and generally eat like a civilised being. So he got out 20 5c counts, representing her pocket money for the week. Every time she did the wrong thing, he would take away 5c. To our intense astonishment, she has finished the week with 90c.

I have mixed feelings about this. Knowing the right thing to do, and being told the right thing to do, have very little effect. But threaten to take away her pocket money and she is a glowing beacon of goodness. I must admit there is something rather irritating about that. But it also seems like a very negative, punitive technique, although my husband couched it as helping her to break a few bad habits, which does have an appealing ring to it.

I have resolved to try a new approach. I am going to try the old rewards chart trick. Bring home all lunch containers for a week(worse than jackets, I tell you: “Where is the container?” “Um… last time I saw it, it was on the ground outside.” I mean, where do you even start with that??) , and the jacket every day, and there will be a reward – I don’t know what, yet, so I think we will negotiate that one with the plaintiff.

I don’t want to start a pattern of good behaviour only showing up if there is a reward involved, but I like the idea of incentives to change bad habits, or build good ones. Habits are hard to break. Once the behaviour is established, we can make the rewards tougher to earn, and move onto more challenging habits. I think I might need my own reward chart, while we’re at it. Days without shouting, perhaps. Days without swearing. Crumbs! This could be a challenge!

Commonality

Humankind is a very strange species. We have an irresistible tendency to assume that we are the only ones in the world ever to have experienced what we are currently going through. If someone else has obviously been here before, well it couldn’t have been as bad for them, or as intense, or as terrifying. It must be different for me. This trauma, whatever it may be, is unique to me, and me alone, and there is no solution, no solace to be found. We catastrophize and isolate ourselves very effectively in the very times when reaching out and acknowledging our commonality and community could help us most.

In truth there is very little new under the sun, especially in parenting. It is so easy to get caught up in the moment, and fully believe that no other child has been as naughty, as destructive, or as hurtful. No-one else is as bad at listening. No other parent has ever lost control and hit their child in a moment of extreme stress. No-one has overreacted and lost control in the face of tiny provocations on a bad day. Everyone else is a much better parent than I am managing to be, and only I am feeling like a miserable failure of a human being.

Recently I read a truly wonderful blog about a mother and her 5 year old daughter. I won’t blow the punchline for you, suffice to say the 5 year old was having trouble staying on task, and was hurt by her mum’s frustration with this. What ensued was a performance on the part of the 5 year old that outdoes anything Hollywood could possibly offer. It was magnificent. And here’s the thing. Switch “mum” for “mom” and take away the DS, which has not yet darkened our doorway, and it could easily have been written about my family.

For a moment I was stunned – my god! There are two such creatures in the world?? The relief was overwhelming. It’s not just me! It’s not just my daughter! Hang on – maybe this is normal. Perhaps I am not the devil incarnate, such a miserable excuse for a human being that I barely qualify as human at all, and perhaps my daughter’s sole reason for existence is not to torture every brain cell I have into abject submission. Perhaps I am just a mum, and my daughter is simply 6.

I have this revelation to some degree every time I talk to the other parents in my daughter’s class (and yes, we are all in the class just as much as our children are, take it from me – there is a whole heap of learning going on here!). I see it every time I help out in the classroom. Yet when we are at home and it’s mano-a-mano, there is no other family in the world, and no-one else has ever experienced anything like this.

Last year, before my nearly-2-year-old was diagnosed (by me) with silent reflux, we were in a living hell of sleepless screaming. She was waking once an hour (screaming), soothed back to sleep only by breastfeeding, and every specialist I consulted patronised me and told me it was a sleep disorder, or the result of bad parenting. The one thing that kept me from going irretrievably over the edge was the support of a friend whose allergic son was going through very similar things. We emailed each other in the middle of the night, in the midst of our waking nightmares, and reassured each other that we were, in fact, sane. Our mantra was “this, too, will pass”.

That support made it possible for us to work out that it was, in fact, silent reflux, and has got us to the point where we all occasionally sleep through the night. Progress! But we would never have got to this point without that opportunity to relate to someone else who was going through so many of the same things. I used my friend as a sounding board, to make sure I really wasn’t off the deep end this time. Day after day we had conversations like: “hey, when you found X, what did you do?” and “argh! I can’t keep doing this!” and she would often reply with sane, rational ideas, many of which truly saved our bacon over and over again. Other days she would match me scream for scream, and do you know what? That felt wonderful. There is no feeling in the world as good as being deep in the pit of hell and discovering that you have friends in there with you.

Every situation is different, as unique as a fingerprint. And yet, at the same time, many different people have been there, regardless of where “there” is. It is that commonality that can save us, if we can focus on it. You’re not alone. In the beautiful words of REM, everybody cries. Hold that thought!