Midlife Misery

Perhaps it’s the weather, the stresses of parenting, Brexit, or my steadily expanding waistline, but this autumn I’ve been feeling a little glum. What’s there to look forward to, I moan to myself as I get out of bed in the morning, shouting at my offspring to do the same. When even an episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah fails to lift my spirits, something is definitely not right.

Is it a midlife crisis, I wonder and as if the universe has conspired against me in that very moment an email arrives from the Swedish publishing house that pays my meagre salary: they’ve got a book for me to read asap. The topic of the book: midlife!

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But rewind a few days: last week I went to see an ear, nose and throat consultant to find out if anything could be done about my poor hearing and breathing difficulties, both issues arising from having been born with a cleft lip and palate. I’ve got my hearing aids of course, which I regularly ‘forget’ to use because they make my ears itch, but I’d read somewhere that surgical intervention might be able to restore some of my lost hearing.

Dr H was a lovely, slightly awkward doctor in his late fifties and though he was most charming to me, the manner in which he spoke about my past cleft-related surgeries made me feel less like a woman and more like an object. Shining a torch into my wide-open mouth, he remarked, “ah, they did a good job repairing your palate I must say. Not bad, not bad at all.” I smiled uncertainly, not sure whether to take his comment as a compliment or as an insult.

Peering into my nostrils he then sighed, “nothing can be done to improve the nasal passage, I’m afraid. Rhinoplasty on cleft patients is a tricky matter and if you’ve done it once you don’t want to try again or your nose could end up looking like this,” he said and pressed his nose down with a finger. “Besides,” he continued in a more upbeat tone, “the shape of your nose matches your face nicely.” Right, I thought, my wonky nose suits my wonky face, what’s not to like?

But seriously, why is it that doctors, whether or not they’re specialist in anything cleft-related, never think twice about how they address appearance-related issues with me? I was born with a cleft, sure, but I am also a 45-year-old woman with feelings, sensitivities, ego (and possibly a midlife crisis). I am not a specimen to be studied, prodded and evaluated, except that’s exactly how I begin to feel in the presence of these kinds of doctors.

I had a similar experience last month when visiting the hospital for an appointment with a gastrointestinal surgeon. I’d been referred to him because of recent problems stemming from an oesophageal birth defect. On meeting me, the elderly doctor’s face lit up like that of a little child who’s just received his dream present at Christmas. The present, of course, was me, a middle-aged woman with a history of oesophageal atresia with long-term complications. A perfect candidate for his research study, in other words. Not that I necessarily mind being part of a larger medical research project if it can be of any benefit to future patients, but please treat me like a human being and not as a thing.

And as for my present state of midlife gloom, I take comfort from the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ assertion that life is “nasty, brutish and short,” not from any of the positive psychology, self-help, learn-to-be-happy books lining my bookshelf. I own my misery, damn it!

Ps: to prove that I’m not THAT old, here’s a hashtag:

#patientsarealsohumanbeings

Never Give Up On Your Dreams…

With neither of my children expected home before six this evening, and not a single item on my agenda for today I am presented with an entire day all to myself. That kind of luxury doesn’t fall in my lap often so how to spend this glorious day? I could use the time to catch up on my reading (I’ve got a shelf full of books that need to be read by the end of November). I could pop down to the gym and do a much-needed workout, something I’ve not managed for at least six months. Or I could use this time to get cracking on my next writing project. Come to think of it I have enough time on my hands to do all of these things today.

So how have I spent my day thus far? Sleeping of course, as those who know me best will already have guessed. It’s been many years since I could manage on less than six hours of sleep without sacrificing my sanity. Age, a history of ill health, an unfortunate tendency to wake up at 4 am for a loo visit, and two daughters with hot temperaments and clashing wills, leave me feeling depleted before the end of the day. It also means I absolutely must have seven hours of shuteye and a daily nap, or I’ll become intolerably grumpy, if not outright aggressive. Just ask my family. sleeping-690429_1280

Francesca Martinez, my comedic heroine, also likes to sleep a lot. She even suggests that if people had more sleep, there would be less trouble in the world. Just look at Margaret Thatcher who reportedly slept only four hours a night while prime minister. Says Martinez, “Maybe that was why her politics were so inhumane – she was just cranky all the time. Perhaps right-wingers would be more empathetic if they spent more of their lives asleep.” Given that Donald Trump boasts of sleeping as little as 4-5 hours a night since becoming president, I think Martinez is definitely on to something.

Recent studies on sleep also confirm what some of us have suspected for a long time: lack of sleep poses a real threat to our long-term health. It undermines our immune system and leaves us at much higher risk of heart disease, cognitive impairment, depression and anxiety and much more. Not only did Margaret Thatcher’s restrictive sleep routine leave her grumpy and bellicose, according to sleep scientist Matthew Walker lack of sleep has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, of which Thatcher suffered. “Sleep alone will not be the magic bullet that eradicates dementia,” Walker admits, but “prioritising sleep across the lifespan is clearly becoming a significant factor for lowering Alzheimer’s disease risk.”

Until a few years ago I still managed to push through with my daily obligations in spite of an almost debilitating lack of sleep, but since recovering from acute pulmonary embolism in 2015, I’m just not capable of that. My body will decidedly prevent me from any meaningful physical and mental activity unless I’ve had at least seven hours’ sleep. After decades of ignoring a multitude of warning signals coming my way, I’ve finally learnt to listen to my body. When in need of sleep, I sleep. In doing so, not only am I looking after my health, I’m also contributing to world peace.

Goodnight.never_give_up_dreams_funny_quote_classic_round_sticker-r16c4bc96376d415daf39ad71abe1ad38_v9wth_8byvr_324

 

A Room Full of Smile Makers

A few months ago, I was asked by Smile Train UK if I’d be willing to make a presentation about the charity to a primary school that was planning a fundraiser in the autumn, and I readily accepted. In the intervening months, a lot of other things kept me preoccupied, so I almost forgot about the presentation until last week when I frantically began to put it together.

smiley-face-1My talk was scheduled to coincide with the school’s upcoming celebration of World Smile Day (Friday, October 6th), a day devoted to smiles and acts of kindness.

I must admit I’d never heard of World Smile Day before and I assumed it was a Smile Train invention. As I discovered, however, the concept was initially introduced by Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist best known as the creator of the smiley face and has nothing to do with cleft kids per se.

If I wasn’t already nervous, I became very much so when I entered the school hall and was met by an ocean of red school jumpers. On the floor sat at least a hundred, if not more, boys and girls, waiting for me to begin. At that moment, I silently thanked my 7-year old daughter who in the days before had proven a skilled, and unforgiving critic as I practised my presentation at home with her as my only audience.

“‘Vision’ is kind of a tricky word, mummy,” she said, “could you swap it for an easier one?”

“Goal,” I suggested.

“You need more pictures, as well” she advised, “and tell them about your trip Guatemala.”

Since she represented the age group to which I was aiming my presentation, I took her advice.

The pupils turned out to be a curious and empathic lot. When I asked them to imagine what it might be like for a child living with an untreated cleft, they were spot on:

“Lonely”

“Hard to make friends.”

“Bullied at school.”

“Difficult to eat.”

When I showed them pictures from my trip to Guatemala last year and told them a little about my own experience being born with a cleft, their arms shot up, eager to ask me questions.

“Did it hurt?”

“How old were you when you had your first operation?”

“Did you feel sad?”

“Were you scared when you went to the hospital?”

And some of them offered their own stories of broken legs, sprained ankles, and tummy aches.

Throughout my presentation I showed pictures of children with clefts, some treated others not, and I was struck by how accepting the pupils were of the facial differences displayed on the screen in front of them.

They didn’t find it scary, disgusting or weird and their curious yet sensitive and empathic response reinforced my belief that children are naturally accepting of appearance-based differences but unfortunately as they grow up they are taught by society to recognise and discriminate against others who look different.

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In celebration of World Smile Day, I’ve set up a fundraising page to help children with clefts in the developing world get the help they need. Please consider becoming a smile maker by making a donation. Thank you!

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D is not for Disaster

My 7-year old has just started year 3, and as she attends a British school, her schoolwork is now graded. When I was her age, in contrast, I had barely begun my first year of school in Sweden and I was 13 or 14 before I even got my first grades. That may have been a bit late some will argue, but what’s the point of giving grades to 7-year old kids who would rather play than memorise times tables?

Meanwhile, my 11-year old is in her last year of primary school, and there’s a huge focus on exams and getting into her preferred secondary school. I’m anything but a chilled-out person in normal circumstances so this autumn I’m having to make a gargantuan effort to stay calm in the face of the secondary school frenzy that’s descended upon us.

There is more to life than exams and grades I tell my children, but they don’t seem to believe me.shutterstock_316684445

“Did you ever get a C in school?” my 11-year old asked me a while back.

“Of course, and I got the odd D as well,” I replied.

She looked at me aghast, “You got a D? What happened?”

Nothing, other than that I realised I probably wasn’t meant to be an engineer or electrician as the D was the outcome of my 14-year old self’s inability to strip a wire without breaking it. My tech teacher even gave me two metres of wire to strip as homework, yet I never managed to get the hang of it.

There have been other Ds as well, in Maths in particular, and I never got more than a C in P.E. and Music. But, so what? I still sing in the shower. The only C I feel remotely bad about is the one I got in a class on modern fiction when studying at an American college. I come from a family of book publishers and reading is practically in my blood. Even so, I never got more than a B in any literature class; for while I loved reading stories and poems, I found it excruciatingly boring and somewhat meaningless having to analyse them. It just spoiled the fun of reading.

My point is, neither your school grades nor your university grades will have much bearing on your life in the longer term. No one has paid any attention to my grades since I was in graduate school twenty years ago and in order to write this blog, I had to dig out my old transcripts to find out what my grades were. I’d completely forgotten.

Know this: A C-grade doesn’t mean you’re stupid, and a D-grade isn’t a disaster.

Grades are not a true representation of someone’s abilities and rather than asking students to work harder for the sake of school ratings, the focus ought to be on the teaching side.  An excellent teacher who appreciates that not everyone learns the same way and who reflects that understanding in their teaching methodology, is key to students doing well.

I know this first-hand because for much of my middle school years I had a young, arrogant maths teacher who disparaged any child who didn’t get it the first time. I did poorly as a result, and at the time I thought it meant I was stupid. When I moved on to high school, however, my maths grades went from Ds to Bs in one term, and it was all down to the teaching. My new maths teacher believed I could do maths and she took her time to explain anything I didn’t understand. As a result, I started to believe in myself.

So, let’s not get too caught up in grade-mania, because it’s not worth the stress, worry, sleepless nights, expensive tutoring, and exhausted, tearful children.

On a side note, I had completely forgotten that I got two As in Beginning Badminton and Intermediate Badminton while studying for my undergraduate degree in politics. Those A-grades more than make up for my C in statistics and B- in economic analysis II. Perhaps I got my career choice all wrong…

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Sex Education

shutterstock_29772169It was bedtime for my seven-year-old, and I’d just finished reading a few pages from her favourite book and was about to say goodnight when she asked,

“Mummy, how exactly ARE babies made?”

Oh no, I thought, not now.

“Can we talk about this tomorrow,” I pleaded, hoping to postpone the conversation. “It’s a bit complicated.”

“Come on, mummy, how complicated can it be?” my daughter snapped, “you must know how babies are made since you made two with daddy!” Continue reading

Cleft Gorgeous?

A week into the school term the good news is that my TV consumption is under control, and I’m finally getting some reading and writing done.

4321D32A00000578-4778646-image-a-1_1502384172235There is one drama series on BBC, however, that I’m not quite willing to give up and it’s not because it’s particularly good because it isn’t. No, I am watching Strike, based on the novels by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling, solely for its lead actor, Tom Burke.

Burke stars as Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private detective, and he is gorgeous to look at. I’d previously seen him in other TV productions, including BBC’s adaptation of War & Peace, and knew him to be a fine actor as well.

Burke also happens to be born with a cleft lip, which is quite visible on the screen. Continue reading

No Longer a ‘Good Girl’

My lovely daughters finally went back to school yesterday, having enjoyed an eight-week long summer holiday. That’s about four weeks too long in my opinion, and there’s no doubt about which one of us was the happiest about school starting again: Me!

Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughters to the end of the universe and back, but family life can be exhausting, especially with two strong-willed, authority-defying daughters, so it was a relief to be able to hand over responsibility for their well-being to their teachers, if only temporarily.

bare-1985858_1280I may not have a high-flying career, but I am most definitely more than a mother, and with the girls at school, I finally have some breathing space, as well as the time to do what matters to me.

So how did I spend my first day of freedom? I’d love to say I threw myself into creative work, writing, reading, planning a Smile Train presentation due next month, etc., but the truth is, I watched the last few episodes of my latest TV addiction.

Oh well, yesterday was just a warm-up; today I’ve sat down straight away to write this blog post. That’s progress, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, I was a highly disciplined, hard-working young woman with lofty ambitions and a great sense of responsibility, but that person is long gone. And I don’t miss her at all. Nowadays I make a point of allowing myself regular playtime.

Perhaps it’s because I’m older and a tad wiser that I no longer feel I have to prove myself to the world. Besides, I know first-hand what stress can do to one’s health: in my case, it culminated in at least two incidences of stroke before I was even 35.

Whereas in the past I would push through when tired, challenging myself to complete a task no matter how exhausted, I’m neither willing nor physically able to do that anymore. Diagnosed with acute pulmonary embolism a few years ago, I finally learned to listen to my body: when tired, take a break, rest, go outside and enjoy a bit of nature, take a nap, read a good book. Do whatever takes your fancy.

There are those, of course, who thrive on a high-octane life, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them. As for me, however, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m no superwoman. And that’s ok.

That’s not to say I’m happy spending my days watching Netflix; far from it. But at the ripe age of 45, I care less about what other people think of me, and that gives me greater freedom to do something I genuinely care about rather than what I think I should. I’m done being a good girl!

Nuku’s Story

Every 2.5 minute a baby with cleft lip/palate is born somewhere in the world, making it one of the most common birth defects worldwide. Cleft babies in developed countries typically have their cleft repaired soon after birth and benefit from a comprehensive cleft care package that includes a series of surgeries as well as dental treatment and speech therapy.

For the more than 170,000 cleft babies born every year in the developing world, however, such treatment is far from given. Where cleft treatment is available, it is often too costly for a family to afford. While poverty is the most important factor preventing cleft babies in developing countries from receiving the necessary treatment, cultural and societal preconceptions about disfigurement also play a role.

In some communities, a baby born with cleft is considered cursed and rejected by its family and community. Children with an un-repaired cleft are often stigmatised and hidden away out of shame. Sometimes the mother of a cleft affected child is accused of having done something wrong for her child to be born with a cleft. Prejudice, superstition and cultural myths die hard, which is why a recent feature film by Ghanaian filmmaker Priscilla Anany is so important.  Continue reading

Unyummy Mummy

s-l300When I announced I was pregnant with my firstborn, my parents exclaimed:

“Who would have thought you would have children, you’re not exactly the maternal type.”

And when I eventually married the father of my children, they were equally astounded,

“We didn’t think you were the marrying kind.”

To be fair, I’d never openly expressed a desire for either motherhood or marriage, but without getting too sentimental about my love for my children and my husband, let me state for the record, that I am very happy I did become a mother and wife…even though I don’t have quite what it takes to be either:  Continue reading

Breathing Your Way to Wholeness

happiness-1866081_640Breathing, the most fundamental function of the human body, has never come easily to me.

My cleft lip and palate meant that I also had an impaired nasal airway and while subsequent rhinoplasty left me with a somewhat less wonky nose, it did little to improve my ability to breathe through it.

As is common with children born with cleft, I developed a habit of breathing through my mouth, and despite numerous attempts in recent years, by yoga instructors, personal trainers, and meditation coaches to teach me to breathe through my nose, I’m still a mouth breather.

For a long time, I didn’t pay much attention to my breath, until about two years ago when three blood clots lodged themselves in my lungs, making it very painful to breathe at all. Continue reading