The 1% Rule And Working On A Life Well-Lived

So, true confession time. I am an avid voyeur of other people’s lives. I like to watch other people work through this thing called life. I admire their accomplishments. I feel pain at their roadblocks. I am inspired by their ideas.

I like my life too. I like to try out everything. Dream about better days. Make this day beautiful. I hope that I, too, live a life that piques the interest of others (intentionally or not!)  

My wandering eye has taken me across the terrain of many of the mothers I am lucky enough to know. I see the worlds they create for themselves and their children. And invariably, they seem like they are holding things FAR more together than me. They are more efficient. More organized. More in the know. Better decorators. Prompt texters.

I would love to be a little more like each of them. But it’s cool. I am me. They are them. We all dazzle a little differently.

Yet there are some aspects of my life - the ones that have to do with motherhood  - that I can’t quite let myself off the hook for. I feel like these are parts of me that it is unacceptable to NOT be good at - because, to me, they sum the basic nuts and bolts of what I want to leave my children remembering about their lives years from now.

These are the things I have to get right.

They’re going to be different for each of us. And I won’t tell you my top three because I don’t want to bias yours. But before you read any further, take a moment to think about the three factors in your life you really want to excel at in order to feel like you are nailing this motherhood game.

What do you want your children to remember years from now?

Got’ em? Good.

Now that we’ve focused on what’s important, let’s take a look at what might help us get us far better at it.

The answer, according to British Olympic Cycling coach Sir David Brailsford, is to aim for a 1% improvement in whatever it is you are aiming for. That’s right, just 1%. And then, when you’ve mastered that 1%. Try to aim a little higher. Give yourself another 1%. And so on.

As it turns out, this actually works. 1% better can change everything.

It’s a celebrated approach to performance that resulted in the British cycling team wiping the floor with their competitors in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Brailsford summed up his team’s success to believing in the power of many small, incremental (1%) improvements. Known technically as ‘the aggregate of marginal gains’, Sir Dave promoted the idea that making small improvements in everything you do  - from the way you sleep to the way you eat, to the way you think - can add up to significant advantage in the long run. In the experience of Team GB - this approach resulted in a lot of gold medals.

In exploring this theory more deeply, it seems that many people committed to exceptional performance (from the theory’s origination in the world of competitive chess to innovators in medicine and patient care) see the value of many small changes adding up to large improvements in the end.  

This theory is appealing to us at WMM because, let’s face it, we don’t exactly have a lot of time or resources. But we’ve probably got 1% in us somewhere.  

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. How can we use this 1% strategy to get better at the things that matter? The things we really want to be good at. The things the kids will remember us for.

  1. What does ‘1% better’ look like? 1% is not a magazine-worthy life. 1% is coming in from work to a messy kitchen, an empty fridge, homework to finish, an equally exhausted family and digging just a little bit deeper to improve on the one part of this equation that matters the most to you. Then, you keep repeating that 1% improvement until it feels normal. When you don’t feel like this is a push, you repeat the whole process and extend yourself another 1%.

  2. Don’t just take your word for it: Ask your kids. Ask your partner. What would ‘slightly better’ in any of your big-ticket areas look like? You might be surprised to learn that everything is just fine. Or, you might pick up on some interesting insights you hadn’t expected.

  3. Build your 1% team: Sometimes it takes a village. But you knew that. Get the whole family involved in the 1% process. Tell them you are constantly on the lookout for little ways to make a difference in that parts of your life that matter. Make it fun. Get everyone on board and making suggestions. There’s no reason that the whole family can’t improve right along with Mum.   

  4. Stay committed: When you’re run down or discouraged it can be hard to envision a better anything. Yet that’s where the beauty of 1% better kicks in. There’s always something you can do, right now, that’s bite-sized and moves you in the right direction. And when that little victory is won, next comes a little boost in your mood. For today, you will have told the world you are moving forward, not backwards. 1% is possible. And habit forming!

When it comes to motherhood, certain things just matter way more than others. These things deserve your attention. By utilizing the marginal gains approach, you can keep your priorities on the horizon, and not feel like they are depleting you. A little bit, over time, adds up to a lot. Try it out today and see what you find out about what’s possible.

Supporting Resources:

Durrand, J. W., Batterham, A. M. and Danjoux, G. R. (2014), Pre-habilitation (i): aggregation of marginal gains. Anaesthesia, 69: 403–406. doi:10.1111/anae.12666

Slater S. Olympics cycling: marginal gains underpin Team GB dominance, 8th August 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/19174302 (accessed 11/08/2017)

Birthing Of The Well Made Mama

Once upon a time, a young woman in a big city welcomed a tiny child into her world.

In the early weeks of their acquaintance, she spent her days trying to get the child what it seemed to need. She offered food, warmth and a place to sleep. She had never met the child before, so she set about getting to know her in the same way she might try to learn about any new friend. On the very deepest level, she tried to help the child understand it was loved, it was protected, and that things would be fine. She had so many dreams for them both.

Before the child was born, the young woman had moved very far away from the people who had mothered her. And so, she searched for teachers. Someone who could help her learn about how to care for the child. She found a few books. And a few other mothers. There were doctors and nurses and midwives. She picked up some good advice that made sense to her, balanced it with her own inner voice, and kept going.

As the weeks progressed into months, despite getting better at giving the child what she needed, she started to realize that the world didn’t always make it easy. Life was sometimes hard. People weren’t always as kind as they could be. Her body was different. Her relationships had changed. And the world could seem so hazardous. Sometimes she felt unsure, depleted or off-balance. There were other days when she felt downright scared, sad, and exhausted. Some days she wondered how she would get through until tomorrow.

It was then that she realized she wasn’t just in the middle of a difficult change. This was a change that had rocked everything.  Right down to her most elemental core. Because, since becoming a mother, it felt like even her mind was different. And the teachers she had depended on up until now hadn’t really talked about that.  

Yet here’s what never changed: She was still courageous, she was still curious, and she had a deep, human desire to feel better.  

So she made a choice. Either she could keep being worn down, or she could change what she could, inside of herself, to build herself up. She decided to strengthen who she was on the inside to better deal with the world outside. She turned to science to learn about the role her amazing maternal mind was playing in her experience as a modern parent. She researched strong and healthy habits and started to practice them. She argued with her darkest fears. She made room for new perspectives. And she let go of the world that ‘was supposed to be’ for the one that was - here and now.

She also took a long, hard look at what it was about her world that made it hard to be a parent. She changed what she could. Some were big changes, some were small. And for those things that couldn’t be changed, she set to work out ways to live peaceably.

She did this because she knew, down to her roots, that when she felt well, in her mind and her body, she was able to be well. A stronger, wiser, happier mother.  And so our Well-Made Mama was born.

The Well-Made Mama is a woman who strengthens herself (her head, her heart and her hands) with healthy, science backed practices that help her meet modern parenthood head on. She recognizes the strength that lies within her, understands the science of a well-made life, and dives deep into the art of its practice. She is in each of us, waiting with a hello, a high five, a super-hero cape, and a “Wow - who knew I was that strong?”

Discovering Inner Strength

Fatima’s story truly touched me. She was presenting at a working mums expo in Adelaide and I was just in awe of how candidly she shared her life story.  She opened up, guts and all, why? “My hope and prayer is that it encourages or inspires other mumma bears or mumma bears to be", she explained.  We reached out to Fatima because she is a model of a true survivor, discovering her inner strength one challenge at a time.

Fatima recounts, “I grew up with 4 adorable (sometimes not so adorable!) younger sisters and a dedicated and loving mother.  Growing up I witnessed and lived with the effects of domestic violence at the hands of men from a very young age. I always vowed never to live that life when I was an adult.  As a young girl I dreamed of getting married, having children and living happily ever after…I believed in fairy tales. I held on to this desire although, having been in an abusive 15 year relationship with my husband and father of my 3 gorgeous little boys, I knew I had to get out.

At 30 I had what I call an epiphany – I saw myself at 50, with a husband still treating me badly and three children that became grown men…grown men that believed it was normal, or even worse, that is was acceptable to treat the women in their lives the way they had witnessed me being treated. Then I saw them having their own children, Sons that would continue this unacceptable behaviour and Daughters that would expect or accept this type of treatment by their own partners. The ripple effect was enormous.

It was at this moment I made the decision to save my life and that of my boys from the fate I had so clearly seen for us should something not change.  This decision to save our lives is the one that very nearly cost me my life. My husband took his own life and almost ended mine.

Five months later I moved away from the place I had called home all of my life, I left my family, my friends, my support network and everything that had been safe and comfortable to me for so long. That environment had become toxic to me and I could see no way that I would recover, heal and be able to find peace and happiness.  I often asked myself what terrible thing must I have done to have all this happen to me?  One day along my journey I decided that I would no longer be a victim, I chose to be a survivor.  I chose not to live my life as a victim being angry, revengeful and blaming the world for my situation, obstacles and challenges that seemed to never stop and were relentlessly happening to ME.

I discovered FAITH, FITNESS and FOOD…I learnt the awesome power of using these 3 F’s as tools in my life & discovered my true inner strength.

I became the handy-woman of the most valuable house I would ever live in – my mind, body and soul...setting about fixing, mending, repairing, ripping down walls, digging up foundations and rebuilding my life.

My children and love for them gave me the strength to set off on the journey I have been on since my husband took his own life.  I started to invest in myself and my physical, mental and emotional well-being. I became stronger on a mental & physical level by  incorporating fitness into my daily life, learning and understanding the connection between my mind and mental state with the movement of my body; choosing what to feed my physical body (food/nutrients) and mind (prayer/personal development).

My sons are the most important people in the world to me. I came to a very confronting realisation that if I did not care for myself physically, mentally and emotionally and happened to become unwell with a disease or depression or simply felt low in energy and regularly unhappy, I would be no good to my children, the most important thing in the world to me.  Like most mums I had always put my children, husband, home, work and everything else before me (there was never any time left for me).

I understood that in order to raise my sons to be well rounded, healthy, loving and grounded members of the community I needed to first prioritise my own well-being, I learnt to ditch the "mum guilt" first of all; Mums prioritising themselves is not selfish it is actually selfless and I am passionate about sharing this message with mums, helping them become empowered to put themselves first and start living a VIBRANT, ENERGETIC life.

I am Fatima Ingles, and I am just like you…

A daughter

A sister

A wife

A mother

A widow

A friend

A survivor

An empowerment warrior

And a Freedom Fit crusader.

Our Well Made Mama community is truly inspiring, and we thank Fatima for sharing her story with us. Learn more about what Fatima is up to here on Instagram and on her website.

Resilience Training For Mums And Trying Something New

Outside of the suffering that is brought by illness, modern parenting introduces a whole range of challenges to new mothers that can be upsetting, frustrating, surprising and sometimes painful. The outcome of these experiences may not be an illness specifically, but can make the process of adjusting to this new stage more challenging than anticipated (6). As a result, we want to talk about building resilience for Mum and why we need to try something new when it comes to preparing for Motherhood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Psychological Association, a new mother has anywhere from an 12%-14% likelihood of developing postpartum depression after the arrival of her child. (1,2) New mothers are five times more likely to develop obsessive compulsive disorder than women in the rest of the population (3). (To put this risk in perspective, smoking cigarettes makes you 3-6 times as likely to have a stroke (4).

These statistics become more alarming when one notes than only 15% of women who suffer from postpartum mental health concerns receive treatment. The remainder, for reasons of lack of access, inadequate screening and detection, or concern about the stigma attached with a diagnosis, continue to suffer while they work to raise their children.

At Well Made Mama, these statistics leave us with so many questions. Why, in an age when we have so much data amassed on human behavior, do we not work to improve the postpartum lexicon around the mind and its health? Why, when the statistics show that 1 in 7 of us will suffer from Postpartum Depression (2), are women given so little information about the mental and emotional transition to motherhood, risk factors for illness, health promoting practices, what is normal, what isn’t, and how and where to seek help if it is required?

If you could do something to reduce your risk ahead of time, wouldn’t you?

We would.  And sometimes inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. In this case, the United States Army.

In 2008, fighting a war in two theaters, and realizing the enormous potential for trauma and resulting post-traumatic stress that modern combat brings, the army anticipated at least 150,000 soldiers per year could be expected to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their combat experiences. Suicides in returning soldiers were at an all time high. Combat carried tremendous physical risks, yet the emotional scars sustained could threaten veterans lives’ for years to come following the fighting. The US Army decided it was no longer going to sit and wait for its soldiers to suffer. It was time to act. (7)

The Army created a training program for soldiers that aimed to help them be as psychologically fit as they were physically and technically fit. (7) Since then, millions of US soldiers have been provided skill training that can help them better cope with the emotional trauma of war.   

Here are two quotes from a primary review of the program we find compelling:

‘The program is not meant to replace existing efforts to diagnose and treat mental health problems. Rather, it is proactive, providing soldiers the skills needed to be more resilient in the face of adversity. (7, p.6)

Waiting for illness or injury to occur is not the way commanders in the U.S. Army approach high-risk actions; and it is not the way we should approach high psychological risk activities. In any other area—whether it is risk of a mosquito-borne illness or risk of injury from an IED (improvised explosive device) exploding— commanders follow three basic steps: assess risk, mitigate risk at the unit level, then mitigate risk at the individual level.’ (7, p.5)

We don’t know about you, but in a world that can sometimes behave as if mental health is an afterthought, we find the US Army’s acknowledgement of its criticality for performance encouraging.

Now of course, the proof is in the pudding. This program has been subject to a fair amount of criticism - as any healthy scientific endeavor should be (8). It’s still experimental, and was implemented on a massive scale very quickly. The benefits to soldiers, as tracked, are in the right direction, but small (9). Much has still to be learned. Yet crucially (in our opinion) they are trying.  

Where does this leave us, as mothers? What can we learn from the experience of these soldiers, whose job descriptions are so fundamentally different from our own?

For starters, here’s our take:

  1. New motherhood is both beautiful and profoundly changing. It requires adjustment and coping and a return to baseline. As a result, some individuals adjust well. And some individuals find it harder.

  2. Adjustment can be helped with specific coping skills. Some of these are the skills the US Army seeks to impart to its recruits, but they aren’t specific to soldiers. When life becomes stressful, unpredictable, or downright bewildering, there are a wide array of techniques that have been documented to help people work through them with more success. Crucially, may of these techniques are trainable (13).

  3. Predicting an individual mother’s adjustment to her new life with a baby seems about as difficult as predicting an individual soldier’s experience of war. The amount of individual and situational variables to take into account appear infinite. Yet in both situations, it is agreed that preparation is crucial to increasing the chances of a successful outcome.

  4. Based on data around mental health outcomes, both motherhood and warfare can introduce challenges to emotional well-being (1, 2, 7). The US Army has added psychological preparedness to its tasks for new recruits. Why not try something similar for new mothers?

Of course, Motherhood is not warfare. As mothers, we are tasked with protecting the welfare of our children. Our motivation is love, not war. Yet what gets us there? How notable is the overlap between what strengths and talents a mother and a soldier might rely on? Courage. Discipline. Perseverance. Loyalty. Resilience. Different objectives. But the same, deep requirements for exceptional performance.

So here are where the uncharted waters begin. At Well Made Mama, we believe new mothers deserve better information on the part of mothering that happens in their minds. Yet to get there, we need to start here. In a world that has some answers, but needs more research on what works best for mothers. To date, there could be a lot more.

So while we will always endeavor to bring you good information, we don’t position ourselves as having all the answers. We are trying to change things for the better. But this is new. And good practice will continued to be informed by good research.   

We’re trying. We’ll keep trying. For you.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/depression/

  2. http://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-depression.aspx

  3. http://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/sites/asher-center/mood-disorders/postpartum-ocd.html

  4. https://www.stroke.org.uk/sites/default/files/smoking_and_the_risk_of_stroke.pdf

  5. http://postpartumprogress.org/the-facts-about-postpartum-depression/.

  6. Figes, K. (2008) Life After Birth. Virago Press. London.  

  7. Cornum, R., Matthews, M., & Seligman, M. (2011) Comprehensive soldier fitness. Building resilience in a challenging institutional context. American Psychologist. 66, p. 4-9.

  8. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=pdharm

  9. Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Chapter 6: Resilience, post-traumatic growth and positive aging. In Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. UK: McGraw Hill.

  10. Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Chapter 4: Eudaimonic wellbeing and Chapter 6: Resilience, post-traumatic growth and positive aging. In Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. UK: McGraw Hill.

  11. Tedeschi, R.G. and Calhoun, L.G. (2006) Foundations of post-traumatic growth. In R.G. Tedeschi and L.G. Calhoun (eds) Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth (pp. 3-23) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  12. Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press. New York.

  13. Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press. New York.

The Secret Fears Of New Mothers

I still remember the moment, my 6-pound, 4-day old child wrapped up next to my chest, standing in a dark, damp tunnel filled with strangers, that I first felt that fear.

I was doing what I had been told to do by my midwife. A medical professional who cared about us. Travel to a breastfeeding ‘cafe’ in a neighbouring borough in London. There she would be on hand with some needed coaching and advice. I told her I didn’t drive. She said public transportation would be absolutely fine for the baby due to all of the antibodies in my breast milk.  

I entered the lift to take me down to the platform of the Underground station. While I was waiting people started to notice us. They were the kind comments of well meaning strangers. Nevertheless, I started to wonder if this was really a good idea. Walking through the tunnels, to my platform, I could feel the cold mist in my lungs. Damp. Dickensian. Far down the platform from me, I heard a man cough. I froze. And turned around. And went right back up to street level. There was no way I was going back in that tunnel with my newborn.

I arrived home in tears. I rang the midwife, explained the situation, apologised. I was too nervous. She said it was fine. Probably just my ‘progesterone’. She would see me the next day.

Nevertheless, I felt like a failure. No one told me there would be days like this.

Our question at WMM is: Why Not?

In more than one study of how well antenatal education classes (those classes you take to help prepare you for your baby’s arrival) prepare new parents for parenthood, attendees have noted that, while the information provided on the birth itself was extensive, they would have appreciated more information on the time after baby has arrived. Specifically, tactical concerns such as how to care for the baby, but also social and emotional concerns, such as adapting to life as a parent.

You could add us to that list. We had a lot of information about the birth of the child. Almost no information about our new lives as mothers. And so at WMM, we are working to change that for the world’s mothers. Because we believe it is a crucial, yet typically overlooked, component of your preparation.

We are approaching our task scientifically, by first understanding what type of information can help mothers adapt to their roles. And based on that, trying to either improve on existing designs or help make proven models more widely available to new mothers.

Depending on what study you look at, antenatal training does - and doesn’t - set out to do what it intends to.  It doesn’t actually reduce the pain of labour or the number of epidurals requested. But it does help mothers feel more informed about the birthing process, and possibly more in control. As long as the advice given is followed, it does appear to be helpful for certain health-related behaviours, such as reducing smoking, attending doctor’s appointments and the follow-on impact of reducing the incidence of low-birth weight babies.

Yet what ‘antenatal training’ is can vary. There is no one set standard antenatal curriculum. As a result, tracking ‘its’ impact on the outcomes of new parents is difficult to do, unless one is very specific about exactly what outcome they are tracking. For our purposes, let’s dive into the available research on those training sessions that expressly set out to improve a mother’s mental adaptation to her role. (Resulting in less anxiety, less depression, more confidence, improved relationships, etc.)

When the content of the training is targeted at reducing postpartum distress in new mothers, by offering information that raises awareness of the emotional experiences to be expected and how to cope with them, antenatal training does appear to be able achieve these goals. Across three studies that looked at training designed specifically to strengthen a new mother’s psycho-social skills, mothers reported stronger feelings of confidence, greater internal resources for coping, better moods, and stronger social support than the groups of mothers they were compared to who had not received the training.

It is possible, it seems, to train mothers to be more emotionally resilient in the face of the many ups and downs they may experience after the arrival of a child. This is in line with other recent research that establishes that resilience, can, indeed, be trained. Feeling like one is having a harder time than one would like doesn’t have to be chalked up to a personal deficit. Coping and bouncing back in life is a skill that can be learned - and honed - over time.  

Would this training have helped me to have a better experience that day on the train?

It’s possible, if one is realistic. It’s unlikely any antenatal class would have prevented my mind from worrying. Yet it could have prepared me for this heightened sense of vigilance. It could have offered me coping strategies. It could have made me aware that I was not a failure because I couldn’t do something I did with ease a week prior. That instead, I was a new mother undergoing tremendous biological change. I was normal.

The question then, is where to access this training? Our answer is to watch this space. We are currently working on a resilience training course for new mothers that we plan to launch at the end of 2017. In the meantime, we encourage you to make the most of the content on our site. Engage in your own research on you. Spend time acknowledging the fantastic transition that both your body and your mind are undertaking.  

Modern motherhood happens in the mind. It’s about time those miraculous minds get the attention they so rightly deserve.

Academic Sources:

Lepin, A. et al. (2014) The efficacy of resilience training programs: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. PLos One, 2014, 9. retrieved: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4210242/

Matthay S (2004). Prevention of postnatal distress of depression: an evaluation of preparation for parenthood classes. Journal of Affective Disorders; 79: 113-126.

McMillan, A.S., Barlow, J. & Redshaw, M. (2009) Birth and beyond: A review of the evidence about antenatal training. Warwick Infant and Family Wellbeing Unit, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick. Retreived: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130107105354/http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/@dh/@en/documents/digitalasset/dh_110371.pdf

Schachman K, Lee R, Lederman P (2004). Baby Boot Camp: Facilitating maternal role adaptation among military wives. Nursing Research, 54(2),107-115.

Svensson J, Barclay L, Cooke M (2009). Randomised-controlled trial of two antenatal education programmes. Midwifery, 25(2),114-25.

How To Find Yourself When You Are Feeling Lost

One morning, not so long ago, as I accompanied my son into his classroom, he marked his arrival by proudly announcing to all who could hear  “MY MUM LOST HER JOB!”

My..Mum..Lost..Her..Job.

Ouch. Like the bandages I so gingerly pull off my children’s scraped knees to trade quick pain for prolonged … the phrase stung. And there was no one nearby to kiss me and make it all better.  

I swallowed my breath, dug around in my proverbial handbag for my brave, big girl face, and attempted to smile. It didn’t work. I welled up instead.

I was sad, of course, to have lost a position I had worked hard for. I was also filled with emotion at his innocence. As I wiped back a few tears, and knelt to say good-bye, he gave me a hug and apologised for making me sad. I told him there was absolutely nothing to apologise for. Everything was ok. Mummy was resilient.

I was? The occurrences of the past month (unexpected expenses, medical bills, redundancy) had made me feel like I had been punched in the gut. The surprises, in succession, had been hard. They had hurt.

Yet, on the whole, I also didn’t feel that bad. My focus was sharpening daily on a plan for our next steps. My son’s innocent announcement had only caught me off guard. In an instant I knew what to say because I knew it was true. I am resilient. I will bounce back from this.   

And I think I know why. It’s because I have heroes.

I come from Italian grandparents who left post-war Italy with one suitcase, saying goodbye to their parents forever, for opportunities in foreign lands. “I didn’t even have 2 dollars for a cup of coffee, but I had your Grandmother’, my Nonno would always say.

Growing up, I was always reminded of how the sacrifices that were made by the generations that preceded us made it possible for my brother and I to grow up without strife. My grandparents were ordinary people who were shown, by life, that they were capable of extraordinary strength. Their trials and triumphs became our legends.

In our home, my Mother always had a can do attitude. She let me throw myself at any experience I could whilst growing up. She taught me that messing up was worth the life’s lesson learned, and was necessary for growth. She knew that life twisted and turned, and that I needed to learn to get up again, dust myself off and get back in the saddle.

My partner lost his parents early on in life and had to grow up quickly. He succeeded wildly beyond expectations for a young country kid from the deep south of New Zealand. This was due in large part to perseverance, stubbornness and a keen drive for survival.

From my grandparents, I had legends. From my mother, I had lessons. From my partner, I had proof, that when life demands strength from us, we will find what needs to be delivered.

These people are my heroes. What I have learned from their adversities is that, even if I don’t know exactly what to do in a given moment, I know I will see it through. Because these people are mine. And they taught me that triumph is possible.

And so, now it’s my turn to be a hero.

One day, my children and I will recount the story of the time Mummy lost her job. I don’t know yet how this legend will end. But I have confidence our hero will, eventually, save the day. After all, I  come from a long line of every-day, in your face, never, ever, ever give up, stare-it-right-down warriors. I am fierce. And exceedingly well-trained in the ways of trying again. It’s a lock. 

And do you know how I’ll know I’ve won? When this little twist in the road becomes a new legend. For my own heroes-in-training. Because one day, they’ll be able to draw their own strength from my story. So what if I lost my job? I have been given an opportunity to show them what I, and one day they, are truly capable of.  I am teaching them to be fierce.

And so, as I take stock of my past month, I am left with a new lesson. Resilience isn’t part of the story. Resilience is the story. As families, as tribes, as people, we progress. We make use of the extraordinary examples we have seen in our loved ones as they tackle their ordinary days. We honor these heroes with our own, every day bravery.  We learn. We take stock. We move on.

Here’s to all of our heroes, and the heroes in all of us.  

Resilience: Ordinary Magic For The Mind

The world we inhabit is changeable. As a species, over the millennia, we’ve learned to roll with this.

The story of humanity, and our survival, has been honed by shifting circumstances. There have been many times, during our long human story, that the proverbial winds have changed. When we have found ourselves needing to focus, stand strong and fight through. Our survival success demonstrates that we are wired to work through these challenges. As a species, it’s arguably one of our signature strengths.

The ability to bounce back from life’s challenges is called resilience. Resilience is the antidote to life’s big punches. It's the elastic band in our being that lets us absorb a shock and then recover our previous level of functioning. Sometimes, we even become stronger as the result of our experience.

Yet, like most traits, resilience exists on a continuum. Some of us are able to work through unpleasantness with more ease than others. This variability has caught the interest of researchers: Why do some people seem better equipped than others to recover from the challenges life throws at them? And if resilience does vary in each of us, is it possible to help people develop more of it over time?

The short answer is, yes, resilience is something we can each create for ourselves. This is because resilience is not so much a fixed trait one is born with as it is a process of calling up resources when times become trying.

Resilience isn’t unusual or special. It’s a typical and adaptive response to stress. The “ordinary magic” of the human mind, as noted by Susan Masten, one of the first researchers to study its processes.

It is argued that anyone can become more resilient when they start to pay attention to their resources. Resources that take time, commitment and planning to build up.

Some of these resources are in the people around you. Those people that you can call on for advice, confidence and support. A few of these resources are in your mind, like the lessons of past experiences, realistic optimism, hope, goals and courage. Some reside in your body, in the form of strength, good nutrition and exercise. Some can also reside in your environment in the form of accessible green spaces, safety, and opportunity.

So, what does the evidence suggest is a good starting point? Where does the cultivation of resilience begin?

Here are a few take-aways from the literature:

Connections with others: Connections with others refuel us, help us make sense of the world and can provide some needed respite during a stressful time. Take stock of your relationships. The ones that nourish you are the ones that should be paid attention to and kept strong.

In unusually trying times, meeting other parents in a similar position can also be very helpful. Professionally led groups that bring parents together who are working through similar issues have been shown to be particularly supportive.

Our own research has demonstrated that new mothers often cite their friendships with other new mothers as a key element in their ability to adapt to the the demands of their new roles. Many new mothers view their friendships with other mothers are powerful coping mechanisms in their own right.

When it comes to building up resilience, attention to your connections with others is ‘job one.’ A kindred spirit or two can offer a little light relief on a heavy day. A larger social network of like-minded people can provide helpful resources when needed. “The village” is a bona fide requirement for mothers. Keep searching for yours. You’ll soon know when you have found it.  

Experience: The more experiences we collect in life, the more likely we are to believe in our ability to handle what’s next. Every time we try something new, our brains grow and strengthen, creating deeper and richer connections than before. Over time, our growing archive of evidence that we can master new situations provides a deep well of confidence to draw from.

As it's possible, make some space for a few manageable, stretch goals in your days. Learn something new. Tackle a problem you’ve been putting off for a while.  As we make progress in these areas, we learn about ourselves and our capacity to both problem solve and keep moving. We aren’t just working through things. We are building up experiences that can give us additional strength, confidence and resilience in the future.

Helpful outlook: Realistic optimism, hope, courage and a growth mindset are all habits of mind that can help you work back from a setback. The trick is not to have a blanket policy of rose-tinted glasses, but instead to realistically appraise the possibility in a situation, and dispute negative thinking when the evidence does not support it.

In the midst of uncertainty, the brain can prefer to dwell on the negative. Yet your outlook sets the course of your actions. A helpful outlook is going to be the one where you can see progress as both possible and worthwhile. To strengthen your brain’s ability to do this, practice acknowledging the many ways you can make improvements, either big or small, in any situation. Work to note both the good and the bad in your day. Push back on your inner critic whenever you can.     

In sum: A twig that gets nudged in the forest might bend. Or, it might break.  If the tree it belongs to is fed, watered, and healthy it’s likely the twig will be elastic enough to bounce back. If conditions have been hot, dry, or otherwise depleting, the twig will be fragile.

Whether or not the twig breaks depends on the conditions it has experienced beforehand. Resilience is less a matter of the tree’s traits as it is a matter of the tree’s nourishment - the sum total of the resources it was able to call on to keep itself strong.  

As mothers, our ability to bounce back from challenges, big and small, is a core element in our performance as parents. It is hard to know how we’ll work through a challenge until we are presented with it. Yet by strengthening the resources we have in place, we are stacking conditions in our favour, making it more likely that we will bend, not break, when life twists and turns.

The regular practice of maintaining these resources just might be the “ordinary magic” of motherhood.

Resources:

American Psychological Association. (2014). The Road to Resilience.

Cochran, M., Larner, D., Riley, D., Gunnerson, L. and Henderson, C.R. (1990) Extending Families: The Social Networks of Parents and Their Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Chandra, S and Leong, F. (2016) A diversified portfolio model of adaptability, American Psychologist, 71 (9). 847-862.

Gavidia-Payne, S. et al. (2015) Parental resilience: A neglected construct in resilience research. Clinical Psychologist, 19, 3, p. 111-121

Ghate, D. and Hazel, N. (2002) Parenting in Poor Environments. London: Jessica Kingsley

Hill, M., Stafford, A., Seaman, P.,, Ross, N., Daniel, B. (2001) Parenting and Resilience. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/parenting-resilience-children.pdf

Masten, S (2001) Ordinary magic. Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 227-238.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind and Your Life. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Werner, E., & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: high risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

World Health Organization. Urban Green Spaces and Health: A Review of Evidence. Retrieved: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/321971/Urban-green-spaces-and-health-review-evidence.pdf?ua=1

Zolli, A. & Healy, A.  (2012) Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. Simon and Schuster.

Finding Strength in the Borderlands

As anyone who has headed out at night, without the benefit of streetlights knows - the darkness can be tough.  Without the light to show us what’s ahead, we are left in the recesses of our imaginations. Fears await in the shadows. Twisted ankles whisper “I’m waiting”. We fumble around slowly and clumsily, ever mindful of the cliff drop just ahead that we didn’t see coming.

Motherhood is filled with these brief sojourns into dimly lit borders. Where you are moving on from one life stage but haven’t yet arrived at your destination. Our first steps into these borderlands of motherhood are tenuous, shaky and uncertain.  The terrain ahead is not yet lit by the light of day, We can literally feel ‘in the dark’ for a while.

From a psychological perspective, it’s likely we don’t like the dark because our brain’s favourite thing to do - recognise a pattern and stick with it - isn’t possible. Human beings are creatures of habit because our habits and patterns, once learned, take very little brain energy to execute. Our efficient brains get a lot of value out of them.

When we are in the dark, we are starved of pattern. Every move is a new move. A strange path. A venture into the unknown. We literally can’t see a single thing that helps our brain say, “Hey, I know where we are and how to get out of here.” Starved of the routine that makes daily living possible, our brains cry out. “Turn the light on! This is hard!!”

But - these dimly lit borderlands between one phase and another exist for a reason.

They mark progress.

Any new phase of life you find yourself in can feel dimly lit because, cognitively speaking, it is unknown. Yet it is also a sign that we are growing beyond our comfortable pastures. We are evolving into something new. Someone wiser, stronger, and imminently more experienced than the person we were before. On the other side of this clumsy sojourn is growth, mastery and pride at who we have become and how far we have travelled.

We just can’t get there without spending a little time in the in-between.  

Of all of the borderlands we will travel through as mothers, perhaps few are going to be quite as transformative as the very first. The first weeks, months and years as a parent are filled with intense emotions, swift changes in identity and physically intense responsibilities. We can feel tired, challenged, unsure and ineffective, over and over again, with every new wave of our children’s development.

Of all of the borderlands the early days of motherhood can also feel like the most erroneously represented. Magazines show us images of new mothers glowing with energy, organization and contentment. Society informs us that we’ll be ready to bounce back into our jeans and our jobs in six weeks. We can all be forgiven for feeling surprised by the reality of the feeding complications, sleep challenges, relationship changes, new emotions and general upheaval of confidence that can come with the arrivals we thought we had prepared for.

One of the things to remember about transition is that, despite it being a sign we are moving and growing, it can also feel uncertain, unnerving and downright weird. In these instances, when the brain is starved of predictability, it can be tempting to pull right back; to stick our heels in and pause in our journey. This can look like a nostalgia for the way things were. It can also look like worry, defensiveness and frustration. When nothing feels normal any more the mind has its ways of crying out in high alert that its beloved patterns are shifting.

Yet these initial feelings don't need to define your journey.    

When the changes of new motherhood make us feel far from daylight, there are things we can do to help make our journey a more peaceable one. With time, the sun will rise. Your passport will be stamped. You’ll confidently stride forward into your destination.

In the meantime, it might be helpful to think about the following:

Connect: Your connections with other people (especially other new mothers) during the early days of parenthood are essential to a good journey. Other mothers will make the this new world make sense for you. They will listen to your stories, celebrate your victories and help soften the landing of any stumbles. Talk to as many women as you can. Connect with them over your shared experiences. Hang on to and nurture the connections that bring you joy. Friendships with new mothers can be your shelter, you navigation system, and your fuel as you learn about your new terrain.

Take in the whole horizon: Any journey will have rough spots, yet on balance, you may find just as many (or many more!) pleasant surprises awaiting you. Remember that the outlook you choose to take on any given day should be based on evidence.

When your world feels a little upside down, it can be tempting to feel sceptical, uncertain or a little sad. Remember, your mind is processing a lot of new information. It can be easy to avoid seeing all of the new experiences, lessons and opportunities present in your day. Yet they are there, and are just as important to notice as your challenges. Take time to savour, and remember, the happy, the restful and the humorous moments in your day. Take a look at the ratio of good to bad, in balance, and then decide how to make up your mind on how things are going.

Re-affirm: Before you set out on any journey, it’s essential to carry documentation delineating who you are. It’s no different on our journey into motherhood. We each need to take the time to remember who we are, what fuels us, and what makes us so downright fantastic. Each of us has strengths, values, virtues and talents that are unique. Remind yourself of them regularly. When we regularly re-affirm who we are and what we value, we are less likely to feel threatened when the road twists and turns. You may be a brand new mother. You are also still the courageous, humorous, smart, adventurous, loving gal you always were. While life can feel very different after the birth of a child, its always possible to check-in with the parts of ourselves we know to be constant.                                                                                          

Practice: With a new baby, you are at the very beginning of a very long journey of learning. As soon as we learn the ropes of one phase, a new phase is introduced. And there we are - back at the beginning again. With so much information to absorb and so many new behaviours to learn it is very easy to lack confidence. And without confidence, it is also easy to feel anxious, low or frustrated. The antidote? Practice. Practice, day in, day out, in the art and science of parenthood. You will get better at figuring out your child’s needs and meeting them because you will keep doing it. Every day, every night, until it doesn’t feel so new anymore.  

To veer away from a habit and to figure out something new requires us to carve a brand new path in our grey matter. This uses up expensive brain energy, and is not the brain’s preferred approach to daily living.  Yet it is nevertheless one of the most important paths to confidence and well being as new parents. Whenever you can, give yourself the space and compassion to keep practising and to get better. Practice is the only difference between you and veteran parents. You’ll get there before you know it.  

So  if you find yourself in the midst of change, and it feels hard and dimly lit, remember that the arrivals hall is only the beginning. The borderlands are real, yet they are only the very first page of a long-awaited adventure. As you work through your earliest days in a new land, remember that strength and wisdom are rarely far behind you.  

Any first step feels wobbly. Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the first step.

Travel happy Mamas!

Academic sources:

Furnham, A., & Bochner, S. (1986). Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments.

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Edge. Oxford University Press.

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K.  and Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?. Psychological Bulletin 140.3, 846.

Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.

Back To School: The Borderlands Of Motherhood

Life transitions don’t typically happen overnight. Your ticket might say you have arrived, but the emotional work of adjustment does not have a time and date.

Back to school can be a particularly trying time because of its ability surface, in one concentrated week or two, all the many ways parenthood can both fill us with pleasure and wear us down.  It can be so exciting to see a brand new school year begin. Yet, if you’re feeling a little unsteady in this period of transition, you’d hardly be alone.

The back to school period, like childbirth (or any major life transition) is a liminal one. This means that for a while, we sit in the ‘in between’, straddling two life phases. One foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

It can be exciting. We are marking a new life phase and a new accomplishment, both for our children and for ourselves.  Yet in the midst of so much anticipation and hope, things can also feel a little unknown. And downright raw.

Welcome to the what we call the ‘borderlands’ of motherhood. Those periods of transition where the promise of your destination awaits, but your passport still needs to be stamped, the guards don’t smile, you’re a little homesick, and your luggage might be missing. You’re travelling forward. But you haven’t arrived just yet.

This time of year, many of us find ourselves in a brief - but trying -  part of these borderlands: The ‘back to school’ weeks. While you’re there, here’s what you might find:

Tough Feelings: Parenthood can make us joyful. It can also make us worried, anxious, frustrated and sad, depending on the day and what we are managing. The new school year is filled with possibilities for these feelings. We can worry about how our children will make friends or get along with their teachers. We can worry we haven’t remembered all of the crucial calendar dates. We can be frustrated our children won’t wake up on time. We can be a little sad to see them move on, one step closer to the fantastic, grown people they promise to become.    

That little goodbye at the school gate can feel every bit as emotional as the day they arrived into the world. In an instant, they, and you, are in a new life stage. The awe and intensity of that realisation can make the most steely of us a little less so.   

Sleep Disturbance and Fatigue: Back to school brings with it a change in rest patterns. The low key schedules of school holidays are over. You might be staying up later than usual trying to get clothes and lunches packed. You might be up earlier trying to set the stage for your new school year routine. You might not be sleeping very well at all given all of the worries that a new school year can bring.

And then there is the physical and emotional strain of trying to adjust to so many new roles, activities and responsibilities. Yes, your children are the ones completing the activities. But you are the one making sure they get there, get back, and get everything done. This work takes it toll.

Relationship Stress: For many reasons, the work of raising children can stress your relationship with your partner. These fault lines  can come into vivid color during the back to school period.

It’s possible your partner shares in the many to-do’s a school year brings. It’s also possible that they don’t. It’s possible your partner does not see eye to eye with you on the school your child will attend, the routines you adhere to, or the priorities you each place on activities. It’s possible they don’t share the same worries, concerns or frustrations you do with specific aspects of the school experience. You are two different human beings. The possibilities for different worldviews are infinite. So are the stresses and disagreements these differences can introduce.

Financial Strain: Kids are expensive. Especially this time of year. Whether you are paying a hefty tuition bill or handing over large sums for new school supplies, clothes and after school activities, this time of year can be pricey. Its no secret that bills can also impact all the factors discussed above. Worry, lost sleep, and relationship stress can all stem from uncertainty or disagreements over money. Education costs a lot. So, it seems,  does everything else these days. It can be especially hard this time of year to feel like things are balanced financially.

Mourning the loss of the old: With all new beginnings must come a goodbye. A goodbye to the old year. A goodbye to the smaller clothes. A goodbye to the sweet artwork of last year.  And with goodbyes can come sadness. Completely normal sadness.  When we lose something we have held dear, like an old identity, old role, or old relationship, we can feel grief. You might miss the warmth of last year’s teacher. You might miss the nurturing embrace of a school for younger children. You or your child might be missing old friends.

The years that have led up to this point may have been wonderful ones. Even if they weren’t particularly notable saying goodbye to them can bring a twinge of regret. With a new school year, we have to leave one life stage and step into the next one. While hello’s can be exciting, it can be harder to relish a farewell.

Losing support networks: On the subject of loss, one change that can be felt acutely this time of year is the loss of a prior support or care-giving arrangement. Many families have care-giving arrangements for their children that are designed to end when school begins. This means that a human being who provided support and love to your family moves on to another employment arrangement. The intersection between care, love, and finances can feel stark this time of year.

“The village” is a bona fide requirement for parenting. Today, with so many families living away from extended support networks, early childhood caregivers can become a vital part of the village we create. They listen to our stories, provide perspective and wisdom, and reassure us that things will be just fine. Sure, your children are adjusting to their days away from you at school. But you, too, can be adjusting to your new days away from your own sense of support. Having to say goodbye to people who have provided such essential care and friendship to our families is not easy.

Culture Shock: Make no mistake, a school is a living terrain unto itself. It may as well have a geographical border. It will have its own, unspoken ‘way’ of doing things. It will have a social order, which lives and breathes in both in the parents and the students. It has a culture all its own. And, if you are new, the learning curve can be both steep and surprisingly difficult to acclimate to in the beginning.

Culture shock is a well-documented response in travellers that occurs when one must adjust to a new culture quickly. It can manifest itself in many ways, but principally take its toll on the emotional health of the newcomer. Not understanding the invisible ‘rules’ of a new place can feel disorienting, confusing, and downright exhausting.

Your notably social brain does not like its familiar rules to change up. Don’t be surprised if it puts up a fight and you feel a little lonely, tired or down for a while. Your brain has a lot of new learning to do. Things should feel better eventually.

If any of the above this rings true, giving yourself enough space, time and self-acceptance to acknowledge the impact on your wellbeing is important.  Motherhood’s borderlands are real. We all travel through them. Yet this doesn’t mean we can’t do everything we can to travel a little more comfortably.

Expertise: With a new year, comes new list of never-before-seen hurdles you must work through. Having to feel like we don’t really know what we are doing (again!!) can be disheartening. Especially when we see so many veteran parents at the school gate making it all look so easy. Remember, not a single parent out there was given an instruction manual. The only difference between you and the parent who seems to have it all together is practice.

Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Mess up. Experiment. Try again. And then keep trying. Pay attention to the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself as you do get better at practically anything you want to get better at.

Connection: Remember those new mama friends you couldn’t have lived without after your baby was born? Birth was a borderland time and they acted as your fellow travellers.

In the back to school version, you need these relationships again, yet this time with parents of school-age children. These relationships will serve the same powerful purpose as those early motherhood friendships. They will help you make sense of the world. They will provide some comic relief. They will offer a sense of shelter and belonging in the midst of unknown terrain.

For mothers, friendships are big magic, and big medicine. By taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance in these times of transition. It’s not a vanity. Its crucial. Keep trying to find a kindred spirit ot two.

Outlook: If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook.

A new school, or a new year, can be filled with uncertainty. When the brain feels unsure, it can be tempting to withdraw into scepticism or weariness. Yet a new school year is also filled with possibilities. There are rewarding new relationships that have yet to be made for both you and your child. There are as yet untapped wonders, challenges, joys, curiosities and accomplishments to look forward to.

Remember that the borderlands are only the beginning, They look nothing like the green and pleasant land ahead. When you feel unsure or negative, remind yourself to try and take in the full picture (of both the strains and the possibilities) as you make up your mind about today.  

There’s so much possibility on the horizon. Welcome to the new school year and its promise. You’ll be a seasoned traveller before you know it.  

 

Academic sources:

Furnham, A., & Bochner, S. (1986). Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments.

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Edge. Oxford University Press.

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K.  and Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?. Psychological Bulletin 140.3, 846.

Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.

Well Made Teacher: Thriving In And Out Of The Classroom

We tip our hat to teachers this week, especially those that have their own family to nurture as well. Meet Sarah, primary years teacher at an International Baccalaureate School where my children attend.

When you walk into Sarah’s classroom it’s unlike any other you’ve ever been in. Picture flowers or plants on each child’s desk, Mona Lisa framed on a bookshelf, the soundtrack from Amelie playing...you may even find a lizard visiting and helping the children with their maths, sitting on their desk, or in their lap. Her way with the children is almost majestic.

She also works with a student committee called, ‘World Wide Voice’, which gives students aged 5 to 11 the chance to make a difference in someone’s life and to learn the invaluable lessons of gratitude and selflessness, with complete autonomy. The children recently raised $400 for a drinking well and immunisations, through an international charity working with at-risk kids, families and communities.

A little bit heroic? Ya, we think so.

What inspires you about your role as a teacher?

I really believe in the Reggio Emilia way of thinking in regard to the environment as the third teacher. No environment can be too beautiful for children, which is why I try the best I can to keep the room full of flowers and plants!

Fostering an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is so important for the children as well, that's why books like James Mollison's 'Where Children Sleep' is my favourite to share this year. Our weekly gratitude walks are so special too.

I also believe that International Baccalaureate brings together the children's way of seeing the world with their learning. My own girls go to an IB school and their conceptual understanding is broadened through each Unit of Inquiry and built on in future units. It is meaningful learning.

How do you find the time to go the extra mile with your students, your family and the greater community?

I am in bed by 8pm with the girls every night without fail. The major challenge for me is not enough hours in the day and sheer exhaustion! My house always looks like a tornado has run through it, (with the exception of the days my cleaner comes) and I just have to be ok with that.

My girls Eliza 7 and Bel 11, do a lot of work within the house though. They wash and hang out clothes, fold, mop, put away, cook and organise themselves and their belongings. They are really independent and all these life skills will help them when they live alone one day.

There are a few things I do though, to help me manage the busy balance juggling act. The thing that is most effective is being highly organised! I make meals during the holidays and fill up my freezer for term time. I make 6 lunch boxes on a Sunday night, so I don’t have to think about the girls’ lunch until Wednesday night. I have the world’s most enormous calendar with all girls extra curricular activities- weekends are full of parties and sport and drama rehearsals...there is never a spare second!

As well as having a system for managing the day to day needs of your young family, we also think it’s important for us working mums (and mums in general) to carve out some space for ourselves. How do you manage that?

For me, exercise is the most effective way of keeping sane. I go to the gym before work in the morning most days. I make sure I am reading a novel at all times, not just educational literature for work. I try to stay up late at least one night a week and watch a foreign film as it transports me into another country.

I use ‘HEADSPACE’ to keep myself balanced and I make sure I spend a little time in my garden each day, preferably lying on the grass and watching the birds bellies as they fly over. Hand weeding is my favourite past time, when my hands are in the earth my feet are on the ground.

What makes me the happiest? Being patient with my girls even when I have run out of puff. Taking time to read with them even if my eyelids feel like they need match sticks to stay up and letting them do one more show, or tell me one more funny story before bed.

We thank Sarah for taking the time to chat with us and share with our WMM Community!

The Science Of Unbelievable You

Stop and think about it. You are AMAZING.

You are a member of the most intellectually advanced, ecologically successful species on the planet. You spend roughly 20-25% of your energy in a day keeping your big, giant brain burning bright. You experience emotion, learn rapidly, let language trip from your tongue, and pay attention to intricate social detail. You are a very, very clever animal. Your mind - and its physical shell, the brain -  are worthy and then some, of a few high fives.    

And that’s how the field of Psychology began, with curious researchers who were interested in understanding how our species'’ greatest survival asset - our minds and our behaviour - worked. Were there patterns within our thinking? Did we perceive the world in the same ways? To answer these questions, early psychologists observed humans doing what we do and took careful notes and observations. After a while, they started to learn a thing or two about the mind and its wonders.  

For most of the 20th century, much of the attention of psychological research focused on helping people overcome illness. This goal of improving mental health was pursued with great success, yet also left room to grow for Psychology’s remaining goals of learning more about how humans make the most of their extraordinary talents. Enter the call to the field at the turn of the millennium made by a leading researcher in depression - Dr. Martin Seligman, the head of the American Psychological Association at the time - that ‘psychology as usual’ was altogether too negative. In its desire to alleviate suffering, the field was behaving as if suffering was all there was to the human experience.  And as anyone who has heard a baby laugh for the first time knows - there is so much more to our story than that.

The field of Positive Psychology has taken flight since then. As a specialty, it focuses on learning more about what happens when things go right with people. Creativity, joy, purpose, gratitude, courage and hope. All of these subjects have received more attention. As a result, psychologists know quite a bit more about why we have these experiences and what benefits they confer upon us.

The raising of offspring from pregnancy to adulthood could be one of the most energetically expensive task of our lives. It calls on every talent, every strength, every resource in our well-stocked minds. It swings us through every emotion the brain is wired to experience, and can introduce them in combinations never before imagined. It is the Olympic Marathon Time Trials of mental functioning.

As a mother, we believe you can benefit from learning about the findings of psychology not just because you might battle an illness, but because you are the most behaviourally advanced creature on the planet, engaging in one of the most  complex and important tasks you might ever be tasked with, and you do it REALLY WELL.

Science needs to know way more about you. And you deserve to know more about you. Like how you adapt and adjust, how you bounce back, and what you need to stay strong.

So, as you read through much of the psychology we review on our pages, celebrate the positive slant. After all, if psychologists are looking for examples of what’s going right in the world, they can’t get much better than it’s Mothers.

Is The World A Healthy Place To Give Birth In?

The way we view it, modern motherhood can be divided into two categories: The parts you can see, and the parts you have to sense. The parts you can see include your changing body and your growing child. These aspects are pretty well covered by books, your caregivers, the web, and the world at large. The parts you have to sense include your emotions, your sense of fit in the world you inhabit, your connections with others, your confidence, and your grit. These can be a little tougher to describe, and much tougher to find information on. Nevertheless, they make or break your experience.  

And so, the purpose of Well Made Mama is to help women develop the everyday skills needed for resilience in the face of the inevitable challenges that can accompany the gratitude, wonder, awe and happiness new babies bring with them. Our goal is to help mothers realise that building resilience is essential to their and their families’ well-being, and is as crucial a skill as the more traditional “mothering skills” of delivering, feeding, caring for and socialising new babies.  

Resilience is the ability to survive, bounce back from, learn and even thrive from challenges and twists and turns in the road. It is essential to the role of motherhood, as “overnight” we are faced with the round-the-clock responsibilities of caring for our new children while still caring for our families and (sometimes) ourselves - leaving little room for succumbing to stress. Mothers are “on stage” everyday. The show must go on, irrespective of our fears, our tiredness or life’s changes. Without the ability to adapt to and grow from changing circumstances, we can become drained, depleted, even anxious and depressed.

While the innate ability to bounce back quickly from challenges can vary from person to person, resilience isn’t magic, and can be learned by anyone to build resources that will help them flourish within the unpredictable new role they are now in.

In terms of understanding the BIG PICTURE of where you now sit as a mother: How the culture and society you inhabit can impact your wellbeing, how your brain has undergone as many profound changes as your body, how humans as a species have evolved strategies for helping a mother feel energetic enough to tackle the tasks of motherhood in a way that helps her feel well, full of purpose, energy and direction - we have yet to see them become part of the postpartum lexicon.

Your well-being does matter. And we are here to give it its due.

The Benefits Of Being Happy

The year is 1930. You’re a young nun in the Midwestern United States, looking forward to taking your final vows. Your Mother Superior has asked you to write a short autobiography of your life to date. Nothing too long. Just a review of your early schooling, your parents, and any notable events in your life leading up to this event.

Now here’s the twist: If you write an essay that conveys a lot of positive emotion (happiness, interest, love, hope, gratitude, contentment, etc.) you get to live (on average) 10 years longer than if you write just a regular essay. Yes, that’s right. The happiest essays get awarded with an extra ten years of life.

So you get to work. What type of an essay would you write?

This is not the fanciful start of a Hollywood film, but suggestive of a real-life, longitudinal study of an order of Catholic nuns (all born before 1917), the purpose of which is to study (among other things) ageing and health. An enormous benefit of this research is that the sisters, unlike regular study participants, all lived together and had very similar life factors. As a result, any differences found between them that could be linked to longevity could be just that - without researchers having to chalk the difference up to other factors, such as a difference in what the nuns ate, what their healthcare was like, or what they did for a living.

At one point, researchers discovered a collection of autobiographical essays written by the nuns in the study, from their very early days in the convent. These essays were wonderful snapshots of each nun at the start of her career. They were uniformly forward-looking and positive in nature. Nevertheless, the researchers noted that some of the essays had a much more cheerful tone than others.

Researchers put each essay into one of four categories of ‘cheerfulness’. And what they found, over time, was that those nuns’ whose essays were in the highest category outlived their less expressive sisters by an average of 10 years. What was going on?

The researchers summed the findings up as validation of a process other psychologists had also been noting. This was that, when bad things happen, we become stressed and our heart rates and adrenaline rise. If this happens too often, the body can become worn down. Yet if we can approach a problem with an optimistic or cheerful attitude, the positive emotions this brings forth can ‘un-do’ the damaging effect of stress on the body. Over time, this ‘un-doing’ benefit of positive emotion can add up in far less stress-related wear and tear and, theoretically, a longer life.

In the Nun’s writings, we can see a snapshot of how readily available positive emotions were to each writer through the experiences and images they conjure up. Some of the young Nuns were quick to reference more joy, contentment and gratitude than were there more matter-of-fact counterparts. And it was these young Nuns who ended up living longer.

Of course, the study is based on a 300-word assignment, not a complete life. The essays do not describe how each nun worked through the trials life introduced. But they do suggest that for those with more positive emotion on their radar, SOMETHING happened that translated into better health outcomes.

Our take? While the study isn’t a definitive answer, as far as longitudinal studies go, this one comes pretty close. So, when it’s time to get to work..which essay would you write?

Academic References:

Danner, D., Snowden, D., & Friesen, W. (2001) Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.

Fredrickson, B., Mancuso, R., Branigan, C., Tugade, M. (2000) The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24 (4), 237-258

 

 

Raising Children And Performance: Parenting Down To A Science

Positive psychology is one of the fastest growing fields within the science of human behaviour. With its focus on the sunnier side of life in much of its discourse, it's easy to believe that is is a science reserved solely for those individuals who are..for lack of a better word..happy.

Despite being a field in psychology with the word ‘positive’ in it, it’s important to understand  that for us at Well Made Mama, positive psychology’s value is not just in positive experiences per se, but more about helping mothers understand how all experiences, positive and negative, can combine to help an individual grow, fight, and flourish.

The growing appeal of positive psychology, and part of what attracts us to its application, is an appreciation that there is more to human experience than suffering. That north of illness, north of just getting by, are an entire range of human experiences, such as strength, meaning, growth, engagement, pleasure, creativity and resilience, We see this as a crucial contribution to a complete science of human behaviour.

Yet just as illness is not hoped to be a regular or consistent experience of a life, it seems unreasonable to expect an individual to be perpetually positive. Life ebbs and flows. It is filled with challenges and trials. Each us has a complete range of emotions, ranging from anger to joy, that we can engage with on a daily basis. The science of positive psychology can not - and does not - deny that negative experiences are an ever present part of a regular, healthy human life.

So, at Well Made Mama, what do we believe is important for mothers to be able to take away from positive psychology’s contributions?  We see the findings being generated by this new science as useful for mothers because they clarify that, in the midst of great change, humans can engage with their trials, adapt, kick butt, find meaning and even grow. That, in addition to sadness, anger and fear, humans are also capable of joy, courage, and forbearance. And that these experiences are not just ‘a nice to have’ - that they have purpose and utility for survival.  

Motherhood, as we see it, is performance. Round the clock, unrelenting activity and demands on your mind and your body. We can not think of a single human endeavour that requires us to dig deeper, aim higher, or go longer than the raising of a child. Positive psychology maps not just the ‘happy’ - but the extraordinary that is in each of us. And it is the ‘extraordinary’ that motherhood demands. The more we understand of its mechanisms, the more we know about what supports it, and what can stand in its way, the better chance we have of putting the extraordinary to use.

You’re not a sugar-coated cupcake. You don’t need sugar-coated science. You’re the greatest super hero there ever was, and we don’t take your need for information lightly.

Positive Psychology is gaining interest and momentum because it tells us about what is right with us. That part of us that we can call up to get through what life has in store for us. We see its findings as an excellent ally in helping mothers to celebrate the good, work through the ick, and revel in the realisation of “Whoa..I had no idea I was this strong.’

Here’s to a positive science..of us!!

 

The Flow Of Motherhood

On our lesser days, we are either a little bored or a little stressed out. As you can imagine, boredom and stress do not fill us with delight. They deplete us. Slow our motivation down to a grinding zero. We do not wish to experience them regularly.

Yet on some days, our best days, we are focused. Absorbed. Energised and totally enjoying the task at hand.  We are the captains at the helm of a thrilling adventure and are most certainly not watching the clock. We barely notice how much time has passed since breakfast.

The difference? Informally known as being ‘in the zone’, is Flow.  

Flow is the state we find ourselves in when we are totally immersed in the task at hand, and loving it. A flow state can happen when we are so absorbed in an activity that we forget all about the world around us. It happens when we are doing something cool, consider it challenging enough to keep our interest, and most importantly, know how to do it well.  

Does this ever happen to you? When you find yourself so absorbed in something that you forget all about the world around you? It happens to us when we are creating something new. Or out and about, exploring some new place. Even putting together flat-pack furniture. In those moments, we are most certainly not bored. We are both too focused and enjoying ourselves to to be worried we’ll mess something up. We are making/fixing/cleaning/exploring/explaining/arranging/analyzing, something. We are making progress. And it feels great.

Flow is an important component of our happiness. When we have the chance to experience it, we get to see ourselves as valuable and talented. We’re progressing. Making an impact. Moving the mountain. That breeds confidence, and with it, a belief that we have something worthwhile to contribute. And it’s fun.

So how do we get more of it?

Flow happens to us when the level of challenge is equal to the level of skill we bring to it. Too little challenge - we get bored. Too much challenge - we become anxious. The sweet spot, where our talents perfectly meet the world’s needs - is Flow. The recipe for ensuring as much flow as possible (according to the concept’s originator Psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi) is simple. If you’re bored..increase the level of challenge. If you’re overwhelmed..increase the level of your skill.

Let’s put this to the real world and begin with skill. When one of our Well Made Mamas brought their newborn home, breastfeeding was not completely smooth. She was spooked. She didn’t believe this was a talent of hers, and it worried her. She started to view it as a chore she had to battle through. Nowhere near the idyllic experience she had read about.

A few days later, she found someone who helped with her technique and got her going. As she practised, as her skill level increased over the weeks and months, things did get better. It was no longer a chore because she started to believe she knew what she was doing. She skilled up, and things became less overwhelming. 

And now boredom. Many parents might admit to finding some moments spent with young children, filling in the time between school, work and dinner, a little boring. And it isn’t because children are dull. They’re fascinating. But, they are young. And they simply don’t have the attention span to follow along for more than a few moments before being distracted.  For the parents of young children, (as expertly reviewed by Jennifer Senior in in her parenting book All Joy and No Fun) a lack of interest and challenge are not the real roadblocks to flow. Its interruption.  

At the end of the day, there isn’t a lot about parenting small children that gets us anywhere near ‘the zone.’ Sometimes its dull. Sometimes we worry we aren’t not doing it right.  It isn’t often we hit that sweet spot.

Yet this doesn’t mean we don’t need flow. Our brains crave it. We want to get lost in a moment. We want to make a little progress. We want to see something better as a result of our efforts. We want to know we are holding back the chaos in some small or big way.

So for now, we accept that sometimes, this will need to come from elsewhere. Our writing. Our research. Trying to piece together our children’s toys after they go to bed. Part of understanding our wellness is accepting that while our children are everything to us - the daily tasks of mothering them might not always provide everything our flow-seeking minds need.

The good news is that as little children grow they also become wiser. They develop greater powers of focus and concentration. And suddenly, one day, you are able to build model airplanes together and get lost in the pleasure and process of it. One day, you’ll all flow together.

But in the mean time..remember to leave a little space in the day for your own projects. For something you know you can start..and finish. For something you know you can do a great job at and captures your interest. Remain mindful of this often-overlooked part of our wellness. Giving our brains the opportunity to flow when its possible, can allow us to be our best when we are..on occasion..interrupted.  

For a some great reading on Flow:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins.  

Seligman, M. (2002) Authentic Happiness. Simon and Schuster.   

Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins.

Finding Purpose In Parenting: The Other Kind Of Happiness

So, how was your day? 

Filled with pleasure? Unbridled joy? Relaxed, comfortable contentment?

Yeah, ours wasn’t either.

From 6am it's been go time. We haven’t stopped putting effort into helping someone or something else get better since then. We are tired. We want to go to sleep most nights at 8pm. One of us has a huge hole in her sweater and it will be a long while before she is near a shop with enough free time or money on her hands to buy anything to replace it.

 As parents we can go days and days and days without a single person saying or doing anything particularly kind for us. We don’t think we are unusual in this respect.

 Parenthood is really hard and can feel not so great some of the time.  And so we are left wondering..rational decision makers that we are meant to be...Why do we keep doing it?  

Why do we become so happy when we hear a friend is expecting? Why do we end every gripe about our days in the trenches with small, irrational people with “oh..but they’re lovely really..” Why do we revel in something that leaves us so depleted, poorer and greyer than when we began?

We put this parenting paradox to you as a way of introducing the second pillar of happiness: Purpose. It's the happiness that can take a while to arrive because you have to work for it. Technically known as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness, this is the hit of wellbeing you get when all of that work finally pays off. You’ve saved your pennies. You’ve finished the marathon. You made a tough decision but stayed true to your beliefs.  

It's the part of well-being that is centered on finding a purpose and serving that purpose, leisure and glee be damned. It's when it feels good to not feel good because you are building something so much larger than momentary pleasure. It is the result of planning and all of the extra brain power our massive cerebral cortex allows. It’s the type of happiness that denotes we are human, intelligent, and different from the animals. We can deny our appetites to serve a higher call. 

This, Mamas, is the type of happiness that parenting serves up in bucketloads. That first smile, first bicycle ride, first race won. These rarer, irregular moments of pride, joy and wonder somehow make the daily grind evaporate. You would walk over hot coals if your child needed you to. And you’d be happy to do so, because the knowledge that they are safe, growing and on their way in the world trumps anything else you might need. 

So, permit us to submit purpose as the answer to our paradox. We enjoy parenting not because it feels good in the moment, but because those a-ha moments, when they arrive, can feel so good.  

The good news about eudaimonic happiness is that, while it doesn’t necessarily feel good in the making, its wellbeing benefits far out last those offered by mere pleasure. Pleasure is available now, but never stays for long. Purpose pays dividends down the road.

So on your hardest days, take heart. These trials really are contributing to an essential part of your wellbeing. Your eudaimonic wellbeing. And that’s where the really good stuff resides.  

You’ve got this.    

Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2010) Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications. Chapter 4: Eudaimonic Wellbeing. McGraw Hill: Open University Press. 

Peterson, C. (2006) A Primer in Positive Psychology. Chapter 4: Happiness. Oxford University Press, 

Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins.

Combating The Stresses of Modern Parenting

This little essay is about the type of happiness that feels fantastic. It’s about pleasure. The stuff that isn’t complicated and puts a smile on your face. It’s about good food, nice weather, and warm socks. It is far from the complete story on happiness, but it’s the part of happiness that most of us most readily equate with it.

Pleasure (technically speaking, hedonic happiness) is what we experience when things are going well. When we are safe and comfortable. It acts as a signal that conditions are, from a survival perspective, going right.

Children are handed joyful moments and know exactly what to do with them. They live in them. They don’t manage their happiness, putting together contingency plans, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They see pleasure for what it is. A gift to be recognized, savored, and jumped into with glee.   

When the fleeting nature of a pleasure is over, children usually seek out more. That’s where our more seasoned adult perspectives come in handy. Experience teaches us that too much pleasure can lead to imbalance. In a world of relative abundance compared to what our forebears would have faced, the brain still treats what would have been luxurious back then (extra salt and fat, rest, new objects, new stories) as rare items worth pursuing, again and again. And too much pleasure can get us into trouble. Obesity, tooth decay, addiction and debt are maladies of an abundant age.

But as mothers, tasked day in day out with the care and provision of our families, are we, as a group, at risk of too much pleasure? When, for so many of us, the proverbial wolf is ever at the door?

The stresses of parenting in the modern age feel icky because they do icky things to our bodies. Prolonged elevated cortisol wears down our systems. We stop healing, digesting, and sleeping.

Pleasure helps the nervous system to repair itself. It offers us a break from the gnawing cycle of worry and “I should be..”. Neurochemically, pleasure unwinds the damage of stress. It gives our bodies the space to heal and recover from the near-constant state of flux so many of us can find ourselves in. Pleasure is a beauty nap for your mind.

It’s a little different for all of us, the experiences that make our minds light up with joy. And for so many of us, it can be boiled down to the three minutes we give ourselves in a day to appreciate the pink sunlight on the pavement, a warm shower, or our head, finally, hitting the pillow. Pleasure comes from knowing we are safe, seeing something beautiful, touching something comfortable, and being reminded we are loved. It needn’t be fancy or expensive. But it will require a moment of acknowledging that, just for now, things are, for the most part, a-ok. And for that, we are grateful.

Pleasure soothes. Pleasure restores. It is a refuge and an armor. In the mothering world, it is a strong, quick, and helpful medicine that can help us exhale. In the right doses, it can, and should be a worthy goal. It won’t solve our problems. It won’t get us moving in the sometimes painful directions we need to in order to grow as we should. But it will give us the momentary lifts we need along the road so that we can keep on keeping on. Pleasure is not the answer we seek. But it is an ally in the quest.

Raising Children: A Mother's Happiness

A recent visit from my grandchildren reminded me of how much fun I had raising my own children.  It was hard juggling home, spouse, work, self and children, but seeing their accomplishments made me glow inside.  I strived to keep them healthy and happy. I strived to clear obstacles in their way like toys when there were little and restrictions and expectations others had of them when they were older.  I watched them grow and I felt an overwhelming love. My children are beautiful, my children are bright, my children are healthy and my children are good people.

Some of my early memories of their accomplishments made my jaw hurt from smiling so much. One I could gush over, the other I had to admire from afar.  They both enjoyed their activities in their own way. The excitement of getting them to Soccer and Baseball training gave me the energy to run home after work, feed them and run to their practices and games (four days a week).  I didn’t have time for myself.  But, holding my breath when the soccer ball was as at my daughter’s feet and seeing her protect her goalie or my son up to bat and holding my breath as the ball reached him, made me forget how tired I was and that I hadn’t eaten yet. It was their accomplishments that made me do it. It was like a drug.  

As my children grew up, now 34 and 32, I had to change and adapt to their new accomplishments.  They were doing their own thing and there was less physical work but more mental work.  My mind was worrying and working as they were growing.  Did I do the right thing? Was I giving them enough space to grow, or, too much space to get into trouble?  Would they come to me if they needed help? Are they happy?

Their accomplishments always brought me joy. My daughter’s school valedictorian speech is a memory I will never forget.  My son stepping up and taking care of me when my life changed will never be forgotten. They are GOOD and they made me GOOD. A recent conversation with a friend, reminded me that these accomplishments that I had celebrated, were not just my children’s accomplishments, but, “my biggest accomplishment”.

I love them and I am loved.

Written by Sonia Scalfari (pictured with her second grandson)

A Positive Boost For New And Expectant Mothers

Why you need to put a little joy on that baby list...

The average new parent spends over $12,000 in the first year of their child’s life. To date, we haven’t come across any research that points to whether that pricey stroller or premium diaper will make you a better parent. But we can confidently speak to one item that will..and it doesn’t cost a thing. A good mood.

Positive emotions (love, joy, energy, gratitude) are what we feel when we stop to acknowledge what is going right in our world. Historically, they have been seen as a ‘nice to have’ in life, but not taken as seriously for our survival as fear (gets you away from a tiger) anger (helps you move mountains) and sadness (helps you to slow down and regroup when it’s needed).

More recent research has turned the page on this perspective. Positivity, it seems, helps us to do many things that are absolutely essential for survival. As laid out in the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘broaden and build’ theory of positive emotions, good moods make us more likely to connect with others, generate new ideas and be good neighbours.

They power us to build up the very relationships within our families and communities that we need to fall back on when fear, anger or sadness knock on the door. And when too much sadness, fear, or anger depletes us, positive emotions step in to help us replenish and undo the damage. Instead of being an ‘etcetera’ in the brain, Dr. Fredrickson’s research has established that they are the very glue that keep our communities and our energies in place.

Positive emotions are tailor made for the tasks of mothering. Here’s a few of the things they help us do better:

Heal our bodies:  Being in a positive mood has been shown to increase pain thresholds and reduce susceptibility to and improve recover from illness.

Dig deep: A positive frame of mind will increase persistence, motivation and effort. A good mood can help you see just how valuable your goal is, and make it seem more likely that you’ll get there in the end.

See the bigger picture: A positive mood can help you see more than one solution to a problem.

Social support: Being in a good mood makes you more more likely to realise how much you like other people, and helps us be more likely to want to help out and cooperate.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes, if the pursuit of feeling good steers us away from experiences that would help us grow. Yet as long as a balance is maintained between pleasure and responsibility, keep in mind the following take-aways for your day:

  1. Feeling good matters: Positive moods have been established to be crucial to our survival. The new connections, approaches and relationships they help us create can buffer us against the depleting effects of challenging times in our lives.

  2. Positive moods are especially important for Mothers: The evidence has established that positive emotions help us to heal our bodies, solve problems, and persevere in the face of challenges.Given the many benefits a little bit of regular joy can bring to parenthood, why not make it a priority on that list? And it doesn’t need to cost a thing!

Supporting Academic Resources:

 Alden, A.L., Dale, J.A., & DeGood, D.E. (2001) Interactive effects of the affect quality and directional focus of mental imagery on pain analgesia. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26, 117-126.

Barsade, S.G. (2002) The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 644-675.

 Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Turner, R.B., Cuneyt, M.A. and Skonker, D. (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 652-657.

 Cunningham, M.R. (1988) Does happiness mean friendliness? Induces mood and heterosexual self-disclosure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 283-297.

 Erez, A., & Isen, A.M. (2002) The influence of positive affect on the components of expectancy motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 1055-1067.

 Fredrickson, B.L. & Joiner, T. (2002) Positive emotions trigger upward spirals towards emotional wellbeing. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

 Fredrickson B.L. (2003) The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology os coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.

 Kashdan, T.B., & Roberts, J.E. (2004) Trait and state curiosity in the genesis of intimacy: Differentiation from related constructs. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 792-816.

 Isen, A.M. (1970) Success, failure, attention and reaction to others: The warm glow of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15, 294-301

 Madhyastha, T/M., Hanker, E.L., Gottman, J.M. (2011) Investigating spousal influence using moment-to-moment affect data from marital conflict. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 292-300.

 Manucia, G.K. (Baumann, D.J. Cialdini, R.B. (1984) Mood influences in helping: Direct effects or side effects? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 357-364.

National Collaboarting Centre for Primary Care (2006). Post-natal care: Routine post-natal care for women and their babies. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence Guidance. http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG37/Guidance/pdf/English

 Ostir, G.V., Berges, I.M., Ottenbacher, M.E., Clow, A., Ottenbacher, K.J. (2008) Associations between positive emotion and recovery of functional status following stroke. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 404-409.

 Sin. N.L. & Lyubormirsky, S. (2009) Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychological interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65, 467-487.

 Waugh, C.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2006) Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self-other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of a new relationship. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 93-106.

On Your Baby Preparation List: The Village

Up until about 11,000 years ago, most of the world lived in bands of a few dozen members. A large, extended family. Everyone knew everyone. Strangers were rarely encountered. When they were, they were usually avoided. And that was that.

 These days, it’s hardly uncommon for a person to live in a city of more than a million people. In fact, it’s the norm. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population was urban. By 2030, 70% of the world will call a city their home. These are people who, like so many before, have come to accept that the collective efforts and fruits of urban centers may promise more wealth and opportunity than the village they are leaving behind.

Few things strike us as more telling about our general adaptability as a species than our ability to shift from our places of origin to our adopted homes. For millions of years, we more or less stayed together. Our group was our kin. And now, we move. Relentlessly. Our little tribe is no longer defined by blood lines, but instead by street, workplace, school, or place of worship. We are bound to others - strangers - by values, ideas and norms. Nothing more. And yet, in a quickly moving world, these identities become an anchor.. You can take the girl out of the village, but you’ll never take the village out of the girl.

We are drawn to the larger cities for the opportunities they can offer. Yet in seas of faceless millions, we seem to still be driven to create much smaller bands of contacts. Our new friends, our neighbors, our coworkers.The people we see often enough to make the world feel knowable. Without these relationships, we can feel adrift. A handful of people to call on feels like home. Nine million strangers to bump into on the subway does not. This is because the brain still perceives the world through the lens it evolved over millions of years of human experience - not the past hundred years of progress.

And so back to the story of us, way before we started to believe that larger groups meant better living. Customs and cultures evolve for a specific reason. They help a group live a better life. Practices that don’t get discarded. If a practice has remained with humanity over the eons, it seems reasonable to pay attention to the wisdom it offers. Customs that survive are usually the ones that work.

 The best way to try and understand the way we lived thousands of years ago is to study the way groups of people who have had little contact with the modern world live now. In the earth, bones stand the test of time. Social customs do not. So anthropologists need to seek out groups of people who still live traditionally as a fleeting illustration of how things once were for all of us.

As it goes, traditional groups of humans that have been studied by anthropologists do not raise children in the modern, nuclear fashion, where parents form an isolated niche that is entirely self-sufficient. On the contrary, in traditional cultures, parenthood is a community effort. Mothers are helped by others, from birth onwards.

Over millions of years, human groups learned that parenting worked better when it was cooperative. Unique to other primates, early human parenting made use of the assistance of other caregivers in the raising of children. When mothers allowed others to help out, they were freed up to find more resources for their families. Everyone benefited.

 It has been argued that cooperative breeding, over millennia, gave human offspring a long enough chance at survival to grow large, problem-solving brains. And that the human infant’s need to connect with its different caretakers has hard-wired us as a species to be aware of the emotions of others (a trait that has led to generosity, empathy and the sharing of resources for the betterment of all.) It  It has been argued it is the very reason for humanity’s evolutionary success.

Over the millennia of our human journey,  “the village” - a close knit network of supportive individuals who would offer protection, resources and nurturing to a mother and child - is the story of human parenting. To survive the challenges of the natural environment early human mothers needed the support and protection of many families in their group.  Humans need one another. Mothers really need one another.

The Village is nothing new. It’s the story of us. We may not spend a lot of time thinking about it,  but each of us knows it in her bones. The kinship of other mothers is not a luxury. It is the very fabric of our survival in this new and uncharted land. Finding the support of other mothers is an automatic reflex. Like a first breath, our brains recognize it and latch on immediately. We can’t help ourselves. We need to find one another. And we don’t really rest until we do.

So many new mothers today are starting parenthood far away from their village of origin. We were among their numbers. New arrivals in a city of opportunity, we were time zones away from our own mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. While we had carved out a small band of contacts in our adopted homes, there were few people who could be depended on to offer help when it was really needed. And how could we have known it would matter? Every magazine we read told us to go and buy a pram. No one told us to go out and meet other mothers.

Modern motherhood seems to be missing a link. We are so inundated with new research and new advice on baby rearing, that the lessons of our grandmothers can be sidelined. But it seems improbable that the last hundred years of industrial development should outweigh the wisdom of millions of years of opportunity to experiment with the parental set up. Our ancestors already tried our modern version of solitary super-mothering, all on their own, out there on the savannah. They didn’t find it very satisfactory.

So remember, when it comes to preparing for motherhood, there is probably little that can compare to finding a supportive village of friends, relatives, or other well wishers who can offer friendship, perspective, a shoulder to cry on, and a well-needed laugh at the end of a long day. The village is history’s gift to us. You’ll find yours. Or it will find you. There’s a mother out there who needs you just as much as you need her.

Tell her we say hi!

Academic resources:

  1. Diamond, J. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Viking Press. Viking Penguin, USA  

  2. Lambin, E. (2012) An Ecology of Happiness. University of Chicago Press. Chicagohttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/evolution-motherhood.html

  3. Hrdy, S.B. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. Pantheon Books, New York