Here we go again

In honour of #HurrahForGin’s classic cartoon (and if you don’t want to marry her, what is WRONG with you?!) I’m dubbing the time between Christmas and New Year’s, “Cheese Week”.

I mean, I’m perpetually confused; I only know what day of the week it is in term and even that’s hardly reliable. And it’s probably fair to say I’m usually more full of cheese than I should be.

But during Cheese Week? Phew.

The house is trashed, full of boxes and packaging and proudly-displayed new Lego builds; we’ve been out too much for me to have time to tidy any of it up and where will the new stuff even go? Everyone’s sleep has gone to shit in various ways. And nobody knows what we’re doing at any given time but it always seems to involve crisps, friends we haven’t seen for ages, and board games, so everyone’s constantly either over-excited, over-tired, bored, elated, hungry, disappointed, or all of them at once.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time to try and get one’s shit together.

And yet, you can’t help it, can you?

I mean, it’s a New Year, and all that crap.

Even I cannot resist. Sure, resolutions are just setting yourself up for failure, and yes, I still come over all snarky around motivational words.

Nevertheless, I’ve spent large chunks of the week unravelling our finances in the hopes of finally figuring out where the reins are and grasping them. In between I was reading “writer’s life” type articles, pondering writing and financial goals. With nothing in the calendar and hubby home to keep on top of the laundry, I determined that *this* year, dammit, I would DEFINITELY start with A Plan.

Needless to say, that didn’t work out.

Instead, a beloved pet became very ill and I spent three solid days finding help, supporting the kids, and then dealing with all the grief once she’d passed away. I forgot we had the pest control guy booked and dear friends we rarely see found an unexpected opening in their diary. The week cost us damn near a thousand bucks.

So we’ve arrived in 2021 our usual way: tired, papers all over the table, my screen open to my novel, dirty dishes in the sink, and I can’t find my glasses.

And yet, I’m okay with that – it’s just life, after all. Of course nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

The trick, as Neil Gaiman put it so beautifully, is to just keep walking towards your mountain.

Gaiman’s genius – unlike SMART goals, five-year plans or any of that protestant-capitalist bullshit – is acknowledging that we don’t have control. Because the universe unfolds according to its own, profoundly unknowable plan, we cannot see the whole road ahead. Bulldozing one will likely end up in the Fire Swamp.

Ditching a set route lets you respond to opportunities as they arise, rather than fighting to stick to the path, despite them.

Ditching the time limit allows you to slow down for fellow travellers, or because it’s dark. It allows you to stop and smell the flowers. It acknowledges that despite the best-laid plans, sometimes the Fire Swamp opens up right there under your feet.

By keeping the mountain centred in your field of vision, you can still find your way.

We may have left 2020 behind, but we are still in the Fire Swamp, and the R.O.U.Ses are still in charge. All we can ask of ourselves is to keep fit – eat salad, exercise, ablute, sleep – and keep walking.

Anything else is a bonus. Be grateful.

Backstory

One TL;DR version of my autobiography could go something like this:

Identified as a gifted kid by two different American school systems, I grew up knowing I was smart and struggling with the expectation of academic excellence. I mean, I could get top marks fairly easily – except at math – and I generally did, although the margin of achievement diminished as I got older.

Besides, after year six, no one ever mentioned my giftedness again. Perhaps it had worn off.

By the time I got to University, studying science, I was miserable and so were my grades. The first thing I ever failed, I was expecting – I’d skipped all the tutorials and most of the lectures, and after trying to cram the whole subject the night before, found on the day I couldn’t answer a single exam question. Fair enough – but what bothered me was, why had I skipped everything in the first place? Venomous and Poisonous Animals should have been an interesting subject, it wasn’t even remotely difficult, and I’d known what the consequences for not attending would be; why couldn’t I make myself go to classes?

Then I failed something I’d kinda enjoyed and worked for, with no idea why. (The lecturer, who’d gone on sabbatical, was unavailable to provide feedback.) And there were some subjects I wasn’t even game to try. Clearly, I was getting stupider with every passing year.

Things improved dramatically when I moved into the Humanities – my grades shot back to the expected level and I found great joy in my field – but I still felt a glass wall between me and my colleagues, a feeling that increased when I went on to further study at a more prestigious institution, and which still exists around my few remaining academic friends. These people are smart, funny, interesting, shared similar politics, interests, and tastes, and yet… there was some difference I just couldn’t put my finger on. They were thriving, but the longer I stayed, the worse I felt.

Eventually I tapped out of academia, exhausted by feeling that I struggled with and resented what everyone around me enjoyed; feeling that the monoculture of it was killing me, without even being able to articulate what I meant by that. I wanted to start a family and that was impossible while putting so much energy into a career which, anyway, still wasn’t meeting some vague, unformed needs. The split was as painful and bewildering as a divorce. Where had the joy gone? Where was the love?

It wasn’t until I started learning about giftedness in my forties that this disconnect began to make sense. My kids’ version of giftedness is all about the emotions, the creativity, and the recalcitrance. Though they are bright, they flat out refuse to achieve academically. And now that I understand why, I understand myself so much better. Achieving well academically was a byproduct of interest; without interest, I had nothing. As Jacob Maslow put it,

“Gifted children…are primarily motivated cognitively. When they achieve excellent grades in a certain subject, it’s because their intellectual curiosity was sufficiently fired by the material provided.”

Maslow, 26/10/2018, retrieved 27/12/20

Ah. Yes. That sentence explains my whole history. I could achieve well, when I had my cognitive hooks into something; without that, a grade, a publication, or a promotion, were never enough to motivate me.

Figuring out that that’s how I am, has been like taking off a too-tight pair of pants I’ve worn my whole life.

So now I let it all hang out. Smart enough, I guess: also creative, empathic, and curious, a dabbler, happy doing a whole lot of things not very well, far more motivated by wonder than by anything else. Trying to figure out if I can do that, then changing tack once I can – this is what gifted looks like.

Silly season

©careerusinterruptus

So, we have barely finished school – in Australia, the academic and calendar years align – and Christmas is upon us.

After 674 weeks of classes, the kids and I are beyond poopered.

I especially am over people. As a social introvert, I find people both irresistible and exhausting, so having happily chatted my way through all our classes, activities, and appointments, I am now DONE. One more interaction will be the after-dinner mint that explodes me. The boys are the same. Even CraftyFish, who normally swears she’ll DIE if she has to spend two consecutive days at home, is ready for a break.

Add to that, it’s summer: stinking hot and 9000% humidity, which not only defies physics but melts the few neurons I have left and saps my will to live.

What we really don’t need at this time of year is a logistical challenge wrapped in a shit-ton of emotional triggers and tied with a big red social bow.

And yet, here we are. Thanks, Romans!

The thing is, we all love this ridiculous, over-blown, pitfall-strewn gelt-fest, so ignoring it isn’t an option. Having started counting down in September, by December 1 the kids are REVVED. That means a month of silly, loud, playful, hyper-creative. Also, sigh, sensitive, sensory, over-thinky, anxious, argumentative, and sleepless. Such a crucible makes for some big developmental leaps, because WHY NOT? Asynchronous highs and lows are coming prestissimo, faster than mama can mix mojitos.

So we do traditional Christmas with some twists to accommodate both the heat and the over-tired, over-socialised, people who come to the party with fingers on the meltdown button.

December is the month of after-dinner swims, the activity burning off some of that noise while the dark and the cool soothe and settle.

Everyone likes the festive look, though some find the process of decorating too chaotic and noisy. That’s okay. No one has to join in anything. They can find other ways to help, same as any other chore.

We have a rule against music, too, since volume is an issue (hearing-impaired mama, bat-eared children) and none of us like the same tunes. Alone in the car I blast Hooked on Christmas, but the rest of the time we stick to the regular soundtrack of wailing and gnashing teeth.

We do bake, which suggests my brain has already gone as soft as the gingerbread will be by morning. Still, it’s lovely to do with Mum, and then CraftyFish goes nuts with the icing.

@careerusinterruptus

I still over-think gifts, having utterly exhausted my ability to put a pin in anything and say “that’ll do”, despite knowing full well there’s no grades for good gift-giving. At least I’ve stopped trying to make stuff for everyone. Baby steps!

I have, however, completely abandoned Christmas dinner, on the grounds that cooking is for people with air-con. Instead we have a picnic: bread and cold meats, lots of veggies, fancy cheese and fruit. Nothing that requires the application of heat.

And then there are the socials: Family, other family, and friends from interstate, who we adore and want to see. Ideally, without tears.

When the kids were younger we crammed it all into one day, which led to a lot of meltdowns. Mostly mine.

Now we spread the load, seeing each group on different days. With slower starts, less stimulation, and less pressure, each day leans a little further from the point where excitement topples into grief. There’s time for reading and building our gifts, time to express all the big emotions, time to decompress on our screens and beds and back in the pool. By spreading Christmas over at least three days, we can refocus from the day itself to the important part: happy time with the people we love.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point. The Skeptic and I both come from places where snow falls, from conservative families who put on the whole Coca-Cola show even when they moved south. Pulling back, a little, so that we could manage genuine smiles for the photographs, took some determination. (And, okay, a few tantrums.) I doubt anyone really gets why we do it this way; they’ve just had to accept it.

The more I read, however, and write, the better I see the reality of who we are and what we need. This is the first year I’ve really embraced the slack approach and the space it gives us, to relax and to enjoy each other. May you find the same peace.

The peri-menopause is a PITA post

One day about a year ago, when my GP asked at the end of a visit if there was anything else she could do for me, I asked for a brain transplant. Exhibit A: the three times I’d been in to see her THAT WEEK, because I kept forgetting stuff, even (sigh) when it was written down.

Instead, she said something unexpected: “Yeahhhh, that might be a bit extreme; I think we’ll try you on some HRT. I reckon you’re in peri-menopause.”

Of course, I argued. (Regular readers may notice a pattern.) Exhibit B: Clockwork periods, no heavier than ever, zero hot flushes.

But my GP raised her eyebrows very high, and said, through curiously tight lips, “Trust me, I am a *bit* of an expert on these matters, these days.” Then she printed me off a list of symptoms.

Ah. Forgetfulness. Tick.

Um. Central adiposity, the fancy medical term for the spare tyre round my middle, as tough and resilient as the ones on my car. Tick.

Oh. Difficulty sleeping. I put my hand up to that one, fast. It was weird, too – not just difficulty getting to sleep, like when I’m anxious, or early waking, like in depression, but the whole bloody trifecta: difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking early.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s it.”

WHO THE FUCK KNEW?!

So we tried the HRT, and it was AWESOME.

By around New Year’s, I could sleep and when I woke I didn’t feel dead and some days I even got shit done without crashing the car. (I crashed the car, um, three times in 2019.) I WAS SUPERWOMAN.

But, you know, like all gifties, I’m a giant pain in my own ass, sometimes.

We’d run the blood tests – which is stupid, because as my doctor said, that shows what my hormone levels were like at that hour of that morning, nothing else – but it did also show (surprise, surprise) low iron, which I’ve never had before. So we tried HRT and iron supplements.

That’s right. We adjusted TWO VARIABLES.

What can I say? Apparently neither of us was at our finest, that day.

As soon as I was back to feeling like a human being, I remembered SCIENCE and quit the HRT. Because it might not be that, right?

It was that.

Oh, my god, it was that.

Pretty soon I was back to feeling like a dried-up booger stuck to the bathroom wall.

So I filled another prescription and began religiously taking the HRT.

No, I didn’t.

Get real.

My brain was AWOL, right? That means I was utterly incapable of remembering to rub some gel on my arm in the morning and swallow a capsule at night, let alone take any of the supplements the doctor had also suggested. Good lord.

What kind of idiot cannot remember to take three medicines every day, FFS?

Which is why I’m also on an anti-depressant.

Which I also regularly forgot.

Which is bizarre, since forgetting to take them pretty much instantly makes me feel like there’s a full-size pissed-off grizzly bear perched on my head, clinging with all twenty claws and occasionally teeth as well. You’d think that’d be sufficient negative conditioning to trigger change.

Nope. I’ve spent most of this year fucking it up: forgetting to take, running out, forgetting to fill scripts for days on end, headachey, tired, and miserable, completely unable to sort myself out.

Eventually – after my smarty-pants cousin said, “Oh I just keep mine near my toothbrush,” (thanks, smarty-pants cuz) – I built a routine: Out of bed, wee, water, gel, anti-depressant, hearing aids. THEN move further into the house, where all the distractions live.

Yep. At 51 years old, I needed someone to tell me that. And people think gifted means smart.

So I guess it was September when I finally got on top of it, enough hormone in my system regularly enough to fill some of the holes, and to be honest it has been nothing short of miraculous. I have turned into a weird evangelist trying to share the good news of HRT* with every woman within five years of my age.

And then this week – phew. Following Toemageddon last Saturday, Tuesday saw me smash a hearing aid using the exact same sequence of mis-steps as back in May, and Thursday saw me… prang the fucking car. Also, the exact same way I did earlier this year.

Only this time, I have some connected neurons, so I wondered: does peri-menopause make you clumsy?

Turns out, it does.

WELL FUCK.

And it turns out that all of this – sleep, memory, clumsiness, weight-gain, anxiety, and depression – is hideously inter-connected.

Oestrogen and progesterone are meant to balance each other. When they’re playing nicely, you get nice, regular ups and downs and a nice, regular cycle.

Once you hit this delightful stage in life, though, your desiccating ovaries reduce oestrogen production. Freaking out, your body seeks alternative ways to get its fix, which it does by laying down fat like a bastard – fat can make oestrogen – and this causes your oestrogen levels bounce around like the Cat in the Hat on his ball with his cups, the milk and a cake, the books, and the poor bloody fish on the rake.

Meanwhile, progesterone just slowly slopes off out of the room, completely abandoning its balancing duties.

The resulting wobbles amplify and enhance each other, both physiologically and psychologically:

Not sleeping? Gain weight! Gaining weight? Feel stressed! Feeling stressed? Crash into stuff! Crashing into stuff? Feel anxious! Feeling anxious? Sleep less! Sleeping less? Eat more! Eating more? Gain weight! Gaining weight? Diet! Wait … what was that thing, you were supposed to be doing? LIE AWAKE WONDERING. Lying awake wondering? HAVE A SNACK.

And because it is wobbly, not linear, what was working back in September may not work by January. And, because it’s “just” women, and it’s both highly complicated and highly variable, the whole issue is clouded in medical confusion and non-medical misinformation.

I saw one doctor’s comment that this is nature’s way of trying to “kill us off” once we’re no longer reproducing, and it’s pretty hard not to feel he’s right, especially when you’re waiting in 32-degree heat for roadside assistance because you hit the kerb. (Although he then earned idiot status for going on to wonder whether “we” should just “accept Mother Nature’s design for us”. Fuck off, Dr Dick.)

The shortest average period of this hormonal pandemonium I saw cited, was four years. (My GP said, seven.) Bloody freaking hell.

Can I just say, this is not one of the things they ever cover in those stupidly optimistic news stories about the advantages of late parenthood?

Because, yes, just as my hormones are going on the fritz, the kids are well and truly ramping up theirs. And I thought the pre-school years had been full of yelling, tears, and door-slamming.

Really, the only thing needed to top off this giant endocrine-palooza, is helping care for Mum through her dementia, a condition strongly linked to … yep, you guessed it: The years-long brain fart that is menopause. (Two-thirds of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women, more than can be explained by our longevity relative to men’s.) Something to think about, while lying awake.

There may be an out, of course. It is exercise. (EXACTLY what you feel like doing, when you’ve been awake half the night. Even more, I should imagine, if like a friend of mine, you’re cracking 50+ hot flushes a day. Or, like me, your local climate is exactly like living a hot flush for half the year.)

It must be said, that although it is far and away the most consistent advice given, the evidence that exercise mitigates menopausal symptoms, is far from clear.

I’m gonna do it, though.

If it means I stand any chance of staving off the Alzheimer’s or any of the other heritable diseases I know are risks in my family, then clearly I owe it to myself and to the kids, to pull on my (very) big-girl pants, sort out my back, and get my (rather large) arse into gear.

Who knows? I might even regrow my brain.

* = I know, it’s not called that any more. But these days I’m too dappy to remember what it is called. And since many doctors have not yet cottoned on to the new lingo, I don’t feel too bad about it. Cheers.

Feeling the feels

View from Point Lookout, North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) ©careerusinterruptus

I was having SUCH a great day, Friday. The Christmas tree went up, the kids did a ton of chores, I was crossing things off my list like a boss, I had plans for everyone’s favourite dinner, a peaceful evening writing, and a lovely, relaxed Sunday with more writing.

Needless to say, the universe hates that shit, so when I got the big glass jar of icing sugar out of the cupboard at 5pm, it jerked out of my hands and right onto my big toe. All 2.4kgs of it.

Friends, the PAIN.

And, because we are a houseful of anxious empaths who I absolutely could not support at that time, the HOLDING IT IN.

Actually I didn’t do that last bit so well. When I could finally breathe again and was pretty sure I wasn’t going to barf, I began to sob and the kids heard. In a moment I was surrounded by loving care: CraftyFish on the floor, holding and soothing me, tasking Mr Pixel with fetching painkillers, ice, water, tissues, my phone. Then she looked up pictures of puppies and kittens for me to look at.

Eventually, as the toe turned blue and I still felt sick, I rang my sister, who turned up and carted us off to ER for an X-ray, because big toes are essential to balance. It’s fine.

Me, less so. Once the stupid floodgates were open, it turned out I had quite a bit of crying to do. 24 hours later, tears still feel perilously close. What a mare’s nest – an absolute gallimaufry of emotions.

Sheer bloody pain. Disappointment at such a rude end to a great day. Stress, trying not to scare the kids, who are particularly terrified of anything happening to Mama. Frustration at having my plans thwarted. Embarrassment at the accident’s cartoonish stupidity. Chagrin at having to interrupt my lovely sister’s evening and <choke> ask for help. (I don’t want help! I’M The Carer, dammit!) Embarrassment at being such a big cry-baby. Fear because even after paracetamol, ibuprofen, and two layers of ice, I could still feel that sucker throbbing. How would I manage? (Naturally, these things only happen when one’s partner is interstate.) Judging by how badly I wanted to go to sleep around the time we got to the takeaway, I guess shock eventually kicked in, too.

It wasn’t even all bad, of course. I also felt buckets of gratitude and love for my sister, who was not only genuinely happy to help, she made us all laugh as she drove us around for proper painkillers and takeaway, afterwards. Relief that we were in and out so fast, that medical care here is free, and there was no break. Grateful that we could afford unexpected takeout. Awe at my kids being so damn amazing, even though CraftyFish, bless her, was really clear that her outward calm masked a massive internal freakout.

Aaalllll that within two hours, dialled up to 11 because – sigh – my kids didn’t get their emotional intensity and their empathy from nowhere, no ma’am. We are like three badly positioned funhouse mirrors, endlessly reflecting everything back at each other BIGGER.

Stupid giant emotions. Stupid eight-track brains. Stupid empathy.

And then, there’s that wretched SAF gene. Even when I know perfectly well that resting and accepting help are the only sensible options, a bit of me wants to fight on through. A big bit of me. The bit impatient with tears because really, what do I have to cry about? And the bit that just plain hates crying. I know it’s normal and yes, even beneficial, blah blah, but I just hate it. Blocks your nose, gives you a massive stinking headache, and makes you look awful. Got no time for it. Or resting. I don’t wanna rest! I’m a busy woman! I wanna do all the things!!

Ahem.

My parents never shamed me for crying, but ‘being good’ was certainly their favourite trait, so I learned early on not to fuss. (Pity I never got graded on this; I’m AWESOME at it.) It’s not all their fault, though. Cultures built on the Protestant work ethic have zero tolerance for pain, and even less for big, complicated emotions, let alone their aftermath, even though these can be as exhausting and incapacitating as the injury itself. To see the black circles under my eyes today, you’d think I’d dropped the bloody thing on my face.

So when CraftyFish, watching me hobble down the hallway, said, “No more soccer for you, Mum,” (the little smarty-pants) she reminded me that my job is modelling the hard stuff.

“Nope,” I said. “Gonna have to spend tomorrow on my butt with my foot up, dammit.”

“Mummy!” she exclaimed. “You’re supposed to say, ‘I can if I want!'”

Which would be the traditional answer.

But one thing I’ve learned is that emotions don’t go away just because you keep yourself busy, do they? And if fighting through is going to bring you more pain and more exhaustion, then it’s a dumb idea, regardless of your internal monologue. So we had a long de-brief before bed, going through it all, and today I’ve sat around nursing my fetchingly blue toe. And the hangover. And while I sat there letting the sad and sorry flow through, I practiced saying to myself the things I would say to the kids.

I sneaked in a little Christmas shopping because I’m not very good at this, but I also took a nap when I needed it (two in two weeks; must be getting old) and I allowed myself to only read fluff instead of catching up on various thread of inquiry.

Baby steps. Baby steps.

Gold star and a hippo stamp

©careerusinterruptus

Yesterday, I received the greatest, most precious gift of all: Time alone, at home.

Alone time is rare enough; our situation is such that I used to only get two hours a week when I went to the library to write. COVID stopped that and although it’s now pretty safe here, I haven’t got back into the habit.

Especially after a week like the one just gone, where I’ve been OUT OUT OUT SOCIAL SOCIAL SOCIAL from first thing to late afternoon, every day: driving all around town for homeschool classes, looking after mum, piano lessons, shopping, appointments, spending a day with a friend. Come Sunday, I find myself thoroughly begrudging the idea of getting dressed and going out in the hot and the public, AGAIN.

Yep. Even if it means forfeiting the only two hours off duty I’m likely to get.

But as it happened, the off-duty time came to me. And four hours, not two.

All I had to do, was decide how best to use it.

I mean, a treat like that, you really want to make the most of it. Maxiumum benefit.

SO MUCH PRESSURE.

SUCH A CONUNDRUM.

What to do? How best to use all this glorious FREE TIME??

I’d written lots during the week, sitting in the corner of the homeschool class and during TV o’clock, so although writing is always my first three favourite things to do, it wasn’t exactly burning with urgency.

On the other hand, lots of other stuff, was.

There’s Christmas, charging at us like a wounded rhino. The kids are super excited and surprisingly this year, I am, too. We’re having three days away mid-December so I’ve set the goal of having it all done and wrapped before we go. (Voice in head: BWAHAHAHAAAA! AS. IF. Other voice in head: Shut up, you.)

I could go shopping, unencumbered, and enjoy some lovely air-conditioning. (Both voices: Although…shopping. UGH.)

I could rootle around online without distraction or fear of anyone asking what I’m looking at and why and here’s another six pages of their wish-list.

I could – ooh, I know what’d be smart – I could unpack the stash and see what, if anything, I’ve already bought, and for whom. Maybe even start wrapping. How great would that be for executive function and forestalling some pressure next month, eh?

Ooh! Or, OR, I could do tidying! I could tackle one of the Epic Messes that are driving me and the Skeptic out of our tiny little minds, and which I haven’t touched all week. I could – be still, my heart – I could THROW STUFF OUT without anyone wailing, reprimanding me for not recognising its intrinsic dearness, and carrying said stuff off to repose peacefully with its mates, on the floor in a different room.

Hell, I could do tidying with loud music. That’s fun! Therapeutic loud singing, sans criticism! And at the end of it there’d be Clear Space! HOW EXCELLENT WOULD THAT BE?!?

Although… One of the kids cleaned their entire room and – wait for it – threw a heap of their own crap out last month, all by themselves, without even crying. (Why is this not a milestone in the development books, eh? It bloody should be.)

In fact, they’re both levelling up. One of them is complaining regularly of boredom while resisting all change. (Hello, anxiety, you miserable bastard.) The other is hell-bent on solving it all by themselves now yesterday faster, but guess what? Also anxious, so SCREAMING.

I have a lot of fucking research to do, getting my head around all that – and if either of them catch me doing it, the consequences will be shitty. So this time would be ideal. Hell, if it reduced my stress at all, I might even be able to sleep. (Voice in head: suuuure. You’ll just magically start sleeping. That’s riiiiight. Other ViH: stink-eyes first ViH)

Orrrr, given that this time is a gift to me, perhaps I could use it to do some more reading about self-publishing. Chat to that lovely writer from the facebook group, who offered any help I could think of. So many questions!

But, god, I felt meh.

I was tired and it’s hot which makes me stupid. I couldn’t find any skerrick of mojo, anywhere. And I suppose there’s just the teensiest, weensiest chance I was over-thinking.

I dithered over the decision for a solid hour before they went, in between collecting and putting away groceries, hanging out laundry, and 999 questions from CraftyFish about Christmas. Once they left, I dithered some more. Two cups of tea didn’t help and the music, on when I started, was too loud. It got turned down, then turned down again, and when it disconnected itself, I didn’t restart it.

Instead I heard a third voice in my head, the quietest one, the one way down deep underneath all the shoulds and coulds, saying, “girl, you need a nap.” I heard it and I heard the ghostly whispers of all the good, smart, women I know, those amazing advocates of self-care, and fuck me, I did it. I pulled the plug on productivity. Took my hearing aids out, put the fan on, and lay down for a nap.

I’m not sure I slept. The shoulds, coulds, what-ifs and what-abouts are so bloody insistent. There are so many of them. And, I’m really not very good at this ‘rest’ business. But I tried. I lay down and shut my eyes and used my precious alone-time to Do Nothing.

And I am very, very proud of myself.

New writing, old tricks

To say I found academic writing difficult is a bit of an understatement.

The trouble is, I’m all heart. I fling myself into things without any much consideration: an idea either lights my rockets – in which case, liftoff is pretty much instantaneous – or it doesn’t, in which case, liftoff will never happen.

A lot of academic work I found pretty combustive. The vast array of ideas is fertile ground for a brain that likes bolting in eight different directions at once. I suspect this is why I ended up in media studies: at 24 frames a second, you can pack in a lot of ideas, even in short, throwaway texts like ads and pop videos. And the more academic work you read, the deeper you see into any given text and the more connections you can make to other texts. This is your classic gifted ‘deep dive’, and my brain threw itself at that stuff like a pig into wallow, gleefully.

But conveying what I saw, in writing, was a whole different story. Academic writing is WHOA, NELLY. Before you even start you must locate your text, choose your theoretical planks, craft them into a sea-worthy vessel, pack supplies, toss extraneous stuff overboard, and then navigate from island to island keeping the passengers from mutiny until you get to the New Land. (Where, yes, some set about slaughtering the inhabitants, though I’m more of a ‘settle peacefully’ kinda gal.) That’s a lot more orderly and restrained than gleeful wallowing, you know?

I struggled to get it. Could not shove my brain onto those rails. When my poor supervisor finally made me begin writing, I sat on the floor of my office surrounded by notes and literally moved scraps of paper around until a structure blossomed. Then I gave a presentation titled, ‘My Thesis Is A Flower’ (with diagrams), which caused her to laugh nervously and left everyone else in the room wondering what had happened to Introduction, Question, Methodology, Results, Conclusion. But it made perfect, theoretical sense to me.

In fact each petal (and in the end there were fourteen of the bastards) was a mini-thesis. Every single one had to cover where we were, how we were travelling, where we were going, what we’d find when we got there. Even once I had that plan, it took months of meticulous outlining to ensure I made each step in order, filled all the holes, and forged links between neighbouring petals. And then I could get to writing.

The whole thing took nine plodding years, and it thoroughly ground my gears. It felt like I’d travelled the whole way in first.

So I was thrilled to finally be freed from academic constraints. Now I could write whatever I wanted, full speed ahead. No references! No argument! No thinking – just writing! EASY! Flinging off the straitjacket, I galloped headlong into my novel about ten minutes after my last full-time contract ended. My glee at being back in the mud can be measured: the first draft was over 270,000 words, and getting it to float has taken 14 years.

(How many metaphors have I brought into play so far? That in itself is probably an apt metaphor for how my brain works!)

Quite a lot of that is down to loss of brain function over that time, but some of it was down to the fact that when I started, I knew only that I was headed west-ish. Turned out I was on little more than a raft. It shipped water, ran into countless reefs, someone had smuggled a llama onboard, and I stopped to observe every fish and seagull we passed along the way. I’ve spent easily half those years chucking stuff, reshaping planks, plugging holes, re-rigging, and shifting ballast, so that now I’ve got an actual, working vessel. This last draft cruised into port with the bunting out.

It was a terrific learning process, but for goodness sake, I cannot spend 14 years on each project. They’re light romances, not War and Peace, and I would actually like to sell one or two before I die.

So here I am, six chapters into Number Two and I’ve stopped again. Because I’ve remembered an important fact, dammit: novels have structure, too. (I’ve taught narrative often enough; you’d think I would have remembered and thought to apply it, but no. That’s not how gifted works. Gifted is either all on or all off, and wailing on the floor if you have to work at it.)

And while I am, clearly, 100% a pantser by nature, that really only works if you have sustained or at least regular writing time and a functional brain, one that remembers where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. (That is not my life, and it sure as hell ain’t my brain.)

So even though this book on writing annoyed the hell out of me triggered a giant attack of SAF, I do realise that the author is absolutely correct. If I don’t want to be at sea for another fourteen years, I need to set off knowing which islands we’ll be visiting, who’s on board, and a route that avoids the doldrums.

Alas, it turns out, I still have to do all the prior planning and preparation that prevents piss-poor performance, as my husband puts it so charmingly. I have to do – SIGH – plotting.

Luckily, I have the skills. And a generous supply of coloured pens and paper, tape, and scissors.

Lament for my lost EF

Ahh, Executive Function: the ability to plan, break tasks down into steps, prioritise, execute, and … what’s the last one? Oh yes: finish.

I remember that.

It used to be one of my superpowers. Once upon a time, my life looked like this:

I was enrolled full-time on a Masters degree, coursework plus researching and writing a 30,000-word thesis. I was also working 18hrs/week as a research assistant, collecting and analysing a range of print and video publications for someone else’s project. And I was also working 9hrs/week as a grad teaching assistant. The effortless tidiness of my office attracted colleagues’ admiration.

A few years previously, I’d helped found an animation lobby group, serving as treasurer and producing the newsletter. We were also managing a film project. I had helped obtain and distribute development funding, I’d drawn and submitted my own storyboard, I was helping assess the other proposals.

And that’s not all. In those days, my fella and I lived in a tidy two-story house; we did jiu-jitsu; we saved money; we cooked from scratch and packed our own lunches; we gardened. I had my own room with art and needlepoint supplies in frequent use. We went regularly to the movies and spontaneously invited people to dinner.

That life ticked all my boxes for intellectual stimulation and variety, physical activity, social time and quiet time. I thrived.

Aaaaaand then there’s now.

Now I have one job – homeschooling my kids, which I manage haphazardly – and one hobby that gets any meaningful attention. Even so, I’ve missed the GHF Writers’ EF-themed month, finally starting when by rights I should be excavating a giant pile of Lego, doll clothes, and dust, to find the source of the cat-pee smell.

Meanwhile this week I got to the bakery where I buy the kids’ lunch, only to discover I hadn’t brought my purse, and made an appointment with the hairdresser that I forgot within the hour. I wanted The Skeptic to come to the orthodontist with me because I didn’t feel capable of grasping it all; this was so important that I reminded him repeatedly … of the wrong time. We visited Mum on a day when it wasn’t my turn. And – shh, the kids don’t know this – but I started a small fire by putting a tray lined with baking paper down too close to a gas flame. Twice.

It has been like this for years. Check out this fun facebook memory that cropped up this week:

The playroom rug has never recovered, and my wallet was gone for 32 days, only turning up (in my son’s Lego box, where, fucking hell, I had put it) after I’d driven off without paying for petrol.

Often when I complain about this stuff with other mothers, they laugh it off. Oh sure, they say, giving an example of a goof that didn’t cost anything, waste anyone’s time, put anyone in danger, or ruin anything valuable. That’s parenthood, they say.

But I wonder. I mean, their kids go to school. They hold down jobs and keep fit and their cars don’t smell like they’ve been driving a giant plastic bag of lawn clippings around for a hot summer month. (Must remember to get that out of there today.)

Do they really live in a thick fog of Chronically Lost Things, Missed Appointments, and Forgotten Tasks? Because their nonchalance, their equanimity, suggests to me that perhaps it isn’t quite the same over there in Regular Shower Land.

You see, it isn’t just parenthood that did for my EF: it’s parenting these particular kids, with their screaming and their not-sleeping, their throwing things and their screaming, their mind-blowing questions and their endless bloody screaming, their separation anxiety and their violent school refusal and did I mention the screaming? Additionally, the past 13 years have brought heavy physical and emotional burdens that punched their own enormous holes in my neural networks, quite apart from the children, who will at any rate outgrow most of that stuff. (I hope.)

And I didn’t just lose my ability to get things done. I lost my whole sense of self, which had, rather unfortunately, been built on high – or at least, lots of – achievement. And on being ‘smart’. I don’t feel smart, any more. Where I used to be all about ideas – all the ideas! Big ideas! More ideas! – now I can find myself standing in the kitchen holding a piece of bread, wondering where the toaster is. (Answer: on the bench in front of me, where I put it just before opening the bread-bag.)

Yet Old Rebecca lingers like a snarky ghost, tutting and rolling her eyes when I’m searching for my keys/sunglasses/hearing aid/that thing I was just carrying that I meant to do something with. Whatever it was. She still counts ‘success’ by the number of things I can cross off the list, whereas New Rebecca is lucky to recall that the list even exists. Also, have you seen my shoes? ‘Useless’, she whispers. ‘FFS.’

It wasn’t until I encountered Jen Merrill’s “Adult-Onset, Child-Induced ADHD” (coined in her book) that I finally felt someone really got it. Then I found some other 2e mums IRL and online, those whose IQs have similarly shot from one end of the bell curve to the other, whose laughter is equally frequent, wry, and a little bit wild. Who celebrate the days we manage to have showers. Yes, that counts as an accomplishment these days. High-fives all round.

They’re awesome, the 2e mums, and I am so grateful to know them. They’re helping me be a better person. Whereas Old Rebecca could be a bit of a bitch, testy with those who couldn’t keep up, New Rebecca has a lot more compassion for those who’ve been trampled by wiring, life, accident or illness. She’ll chuck whatever goals she had for the day to share some cake and listen to your story, so I don’t for a moment regret her appearance.

I just… sometimes, I miss my brain.

The SAF is a PITA post

A few months ago, Mr Pixel very sweetly volunteered to wash up on nights when the Skeptic works late, to save my eczema-cursed fingers. I dry and put away, we chat. Nice, huh?

Except, this is how he stacks dishes.

Early on I said, dude, if you put them upside-down, they drain better. Quicker process. Less waterlogged tea-towels.

He looked at the inverted bowl, then at me, and he shrugged. And I know, from 13 years wrangling this pesky kid, that his thinking was, “that’s your crazy way”.

I’ve mentioned it once, since, and he argued, claiming it takes too long to flip his wrist as he moves a steaming plate from the rinse water to the drainboard. So, he carries on putting things right-side-up, and I carry on turning them over. ANNOYING, MUCH?

Tonight it occurred to me that this illustrates our SAF issues rather perfectly, so I got my phone to photograph it.

Then of course I had to explain what I was doing. While listening, Mr Pixel placed three glasses and two bowls upside down. (!)

But then he processed what I was saying, and he did this. And this, and this. Yeah. He filled the bowls.

That’s not anxiety-based rigidity, people. Trust me, I see PLENTY of that. It’s not Pathological Demand Avoidance, either. He’s just playing with me.

Similarly last year, when my 83yo mum had to go to hospital after hurting her back. Once she was strapped in, I said, regretfully, “No more soccer for a while, eh Mum,” just to see the ambos’ faces when she whipped back, “I can if I want!”

She was grinning. Like my son, Mum enjoys being contrary. (Ask her. She’ll say, “No I don’t!” And then she’ll laugh, gleefully. The trait is so fundamental, it’s surviving the dementia.)

This, my friends, is congenital Stubborn As Fuck.

SAF is so prevalent in my family – affecting every single one of us, to a greater or lesser extent – that my sister and I have long joked about a Nose-Cutting gene. No matter how sensible any of us appear, sooner or later, we crack, and dig in. And my god, can we dig.

Collectively, family members have dug themselves into chronic unemployment, abusive relationships, bad jobs, a breathtaking array of self-harms, addictions, assaults, more broken and damaged relationships, and more near-death experiences than I can count. Mum was being funny, true, but she’d also spent three agonising days clinging to the walls at home before she let me call that ambulance.

Trouble is, we’re all exactly the same. So when, as parents, our kids refuse to cooperate, our strongest instinct is to reach for our shovels.

Mainstream parenting advice reinforces this tendency, right? Be Firm. Boundaries. Consequences. Tough Love. Find Their Currency. You’re The Parent!

So, in we dig. Whatever it takes to alter our progeny’s pigheaded behaviour.

Some of us, sadly, have resorted to cruelty to gain compliance. That works. Kinda.

Others use talking – So. Much. Talking. – and kindness. My generation are especially big on this. Reasoning, patience, validation, empathy, all the good stuff. That works better, obviously.

To a point.

The kids, though. It’s like they can smell our agenda. Soon as they catch a whiff of Their Best Interests, they’re off. With their excavators.

Because no matter how shiny the carrot, how gently and lovingly wielded the stick, no matter how RIGHT we, as parents, are (and we bloody well are), it’s still about getting them to do something that, for whatever reason, they’re not ready for. The gifted know it, and they resent the hell out of it.

And that’s when anxiety really bites, when they think we’re not hearing them, or only listening in order to ‘help’ them do what we want; when they know they’re disappointing us and yet cannot do any different; when they feel abandoned and alone, in their holes.

Once that happens, of course, the show’s over. Everything we do and say is heard as $@#*!! and all they can do is burrow ever deeper.

I really don’t want to teach my kids to fight like that.

It seems to me, to produce adults who are so habituated to not being heard, that we struggle to let go, admit errors, hear advice, accept help, change tack, or hold our damn tongues.

I especially struggle with that last. Keeping schtum when Mr Pixel was filling bowls nearly cost me another molar. I know he just wants to play. But I just want him to do things the easy, sensible way for once in his life, without fucking arguing, OKAY?

Multiply this by a thousand times a day over every imaginable issue (and quite a few unimaginable ones): When he says “don’ wanna” or “not gonna” to things he does wanna, enjoys, is already, for the love of god, doing.

When he says ‘no’, for no reason, to simple chores, especially ones he’s done hundreds of times before. When I know that a little thing like obstreperous dish-stacking is just the cute baby toe of an issue Godzilla-like in its size and destructiveness.

But when we dig in, we teach our kids to dig in. I have three generations’ proof of that coming to Christmas lunch.

I know that it doesn’t really matter how my kid stacks the fricking dishes. And I know that willfully playfully stacking them the WRONG his way, needn’t necessarily lead to a lifetime’s non-compliance and all the terrible consequences that can follow.

I just have to teach him that, strong as the impulse is, we don’t have to dig.

So whatever my kids’re doing, or not doing, however unreasonable it appears, I take a huuuuuge breath and remind myself: They’re doing the best they can in this moment.

They will do better when they can.

If they’ve done better before, and they’re not now, that’s okay. Learning is uneven.

Then I work my arse off modelling the stuff that I know is hardest for us: Listening. Negotiation. Accepting ‘no’. Letting go. Giving it time. Self-compassion. Self-regulation. Shutting my big fat yap.

Because it’s not about what I think they can do, or should do, or when I think they can or should do it. It’s about showing that I trust they’ll get there, however long it takes. (Kinda the point of asynchronous development, yes?) It’s about giving them space to learn how to identify the help they need and learn how to ask for it. It’s about ensuring that they know I’ll be there when they’re ready.

It’s about showing them how to use tools other than their shovels.

SAF may be congenital, but it doesn’t have to be terminal.

Worth doing badly

When I was five, my dad went to Japan on a longish work trip. He didn’t usually call home – in the early 70s he travelled constantly – but this time he did. And, he promised presents for us three girls. (I can peg my age because my brother wasn’t yet born.) He wouldn’t say what they were, only that the presents were all the same but in our favourite colours: yellow for me, green and pink for my sisters.

Naturally, from this I deduced that I would finally get my heart’s greatest desire, the thing I’d not received for either Christmas or my birthday: A SEWING MACHINE. OUR OWN, FAVOURITE-COLOUR SEWING MACHINES.

Never mind that we were five, four, and two years old at the time. Dad was in JAPAN. What else could he POSSIBLY get there?!

Needless to say, it wasn’t sewing machines. It was (and 46 years later it’s still hard to spit this out) matching jacquard towel-and-facecloth sets. Like that even counts as a present, let alone for kids.

It wasn’t until my 40th birthday that I finally got the long-coveted Brother. However, as I had a 17-week-old no-sleep baby at the time as well as a two-year-old, it stayed in the box. For a year.

At some point in my 42nd year, though, I opened it and started learning to sew. That is to say, I bought a 1988 Readers’ Digest Complete Guide to Sewing (ex-library stock), read one or two free online instructions for making pillowcase dresses, and launched my brilliant sewing career.

Child’s pink top

Over the next few years, I made many, many twee, floaty, toddler-sized peasant blouses like this.

CraftyFish won’t wear them – wouldn’t even model them, being neither twee nor floaty. Toddler-sized didn’t last long either. I persisted because I needed the practice.

Truth is, I sew about as well as the chooks.

I’m too distracted, too brain-foggy, and in far too much of a hurry to do it well. I have 37 years’ worth of not-sewing to catch up!

Straight lines and I have never got along, so a craft that involves both cutting and sewing straight lines, was always going to be challenging. (See also, tracing, pinning, seam allowances.) Also, I can’t much be arsed with measuring, even if I could find one of the seventeen measuring tapes we own, which I can’t be bothered looking for. Wasting valuable sewing time! Eyeball it! In fact, who even needs patterns except as a starting point?

Orange-and-yellow striped toddler top

Plus I’m fairly clumsy. I regularly snip through two layers of fabric instead of one, or nick the fabric whilst cutting ends; threads jam, snap and snarl; seams wobble; edges diverge; I’ll iron a seam flat only to stitch it folded a minute later. I broke my first needle sewing through my index finger.

For a while I plotted an online shop where the shittiness of my productions would be the USP. I couldn’t possibly compete with people who can actually sew, so I’d highlight alllll the flaws (this, I’m exceptionally good at) and let buyers call the price. So what if the top only lasts two washes? It would be handmade and cute! I would call the shop, ‘Teach Me To Sew’. Brilliant, eh?

The Skeptic regarded this ‘plan’ … skeptically.

I did, at one point, sell a pair of skirts to a pair of sisters – well, to their Mum, really – that were not only rather gorgeous, but held together and worn for years, since they started long and both girls grew tall rather than out. Another friend commissioned an owl softie for her daughter after she saw the one I made for CraftyFish.

Pair of tiered skirts, blue and purple flowered fabric, ruffles, and rosettes

But I could imagine the blowback if, despite my meticulous descriptions, someone discovered they could fit three of their kids into one of my tops except that the left sleeve was sewn closed, and that brought me to my senses. I no longer dream of selling my creations.

Nevertheless, I continue sewing, and I’m slowly getting better, though that’s not really the point. I just want to make pretty things. Peasant tops, simple frocks, bags, and baggy trousers will do just fine. I’m proudest of the dress I made for my 50th, extrapolating the whole thing from a single bodice pattern piece with made-up neckline, tucks, sleeves, and ruffles. Made from a $5 piece of op-shop fabric, it looked exactly how I wanted it to and it didn’t fall off during the party.

Apparently I’m not very good with selfies, either. And that mirror needs a wash.

The fact is, making stuff – and making stuff up – makes me happy. Joyful. I love learning a new skill, especially one that waited 37 years for attention, but it’s really just about the prettiness of the prints, the colours, the making. As a result, I own cubic meterage of vintage pillowcases and fabric from op-shops. And buttons. And trim.

Oh, my god, how much do I love vintage fabrics and buttons and trim?

SO MUCH.

So much promise in that magical place: my ‘stash’. Like I can open a drawer and conjure an afternoon’s happiness, any time I want. A new skill or three. A pretty thing. Every piece of fabric I’ve bought whispered to me in the shop what it wanted to be, and I’ve never forgotten. I look forward one day to granting their wishes. They will be beautiful.

Just don’t look too closely.