Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life on Planet Mother - a chapter from Wits' End Before Breakfast

Four months after Ellie's birth, it had just gone three

o'clock one morning when it occurred to me that I

was hooked on the latest in mechanical breast expres-

sion equipment. I mean literally — I was plugged into

this machine like a prize cow on a rotalactor ...

But nothing much was coming out. Hardly a drop,

in fact. 'What's wrong with this thing?' I fumed. I

reread the instruction booklet and leaned forward a bit

to see if gravity would do the trick — but nothing.

Total yield from both sides? Less than ten millilitres.

Pain level on a scale of one to ten? A conservative


The machine sucked — in every sense of the word.

It also made alarming noises, emitting a hybrid 'moo-

honk' with every agonising pulse. At the best of times,

it's disconcerting to watch your nipple being vacuumed

into an unforgiving plastic funnel — much worse when

there's almost nothing to show for it.

I consulted the 228-page manual on the simplicity

of breastfeeding. You're meant to look at the baby to

stimulate the let-down reflex, so I tried that. Ellie was

red-faced and screaming with hunger in the rocker

and I thought, 'Yes, I do feel a trifle let down ...'

Not by her, of course. By myself. She hadn't put on

any weight in three weeks. The Nipple Nazis from the

baby clinic told me to hang in there and forbade me

to complement her feeds with formula because it

would 'ruin the milk supply'. Could this be a case of

shutting the proverbial gate, I wondered, after the

horse had well and truly bolted?

As a new mum (albeit second time around) I took

the nurses' advice. I'd breastfed Matilda for twelve

months quite happily — surely I could manage a

repeat performance? Breast is — (as we all know ...

say the mantra with me) — BEST. I'd experienced it

like that, too: flourishing infant guzzling softly, milk

over-flowing from the corners of her satisfied little

mouth, little fingers grasping mine, tiny eyelids blink-

ing in contentment ...

But the reality is that the experience can also be

difficult bordering on impossible sometimes, despite

the best of intentions — and it messes with your com-

mon sense. (Not that there are any posters to this

effect displayed in maternity wards or early-childhood


Apparently the more stimulation you get, the more

milk you make. This didn't say much for the program

on offer in the dark, mastitis-afflicted months of

Elbe's troubled infancy, when our days went some-

thing like this: Five o'clock in the morning Ellie

wakes, crying for food. I give her all I have (which is

never enough). She continues crying — screaming,

actually — for the next fourteen hours. Nothing

placates her. I try to express some milk. Matilda sits

beside me, engrossed in the process but not so inter-

ested that she forgets her request for help with the

Cookie Monster jigsaw puzzle. At this point it's

beyond me. And by that I mean everything is beyond

me, not just the puzzle ...

On one such morning I switched the pump off to

answer the phone. It was the clinic sister attempting

to wax lyrical (and repetitive) on the subject of 'breast

is best' over the competing screams of a starving baby.

She told me in no uncertain terms not to resort to

'artificial feeding'. I glanced around the room at the

array of electrical cords, plastic tubes and bottles in

various degrees of sterilisation, and wondered how

much more artificial this process could get. She then

offered the services of a mobile lactation consultant. I

accepted graciously, hung up, and hooked myself up

to the pump again. Matilda glanced from the contrap-

tion to my breast and said, 'Right Mummy, where

were we up to?' It was like having a two-year-old life


Delivering another half a drop of milk into the

bottle, I pressed the pause button when the phone

rang again. It was Mum, wanting to know whether

that poor child was still crying and asking why on

earth I didn't just give her some formula. Rachel and

I were partly raised on the stuff and, according to

Mum, we 'turned out okay'. I started to think that

maybe she was right ...

But before I could organise things, the lactation

consultant arrived and embarked on half an hour of

note taking and manhandling, after which Ellie was

still ravenous and I was drinking a witch's brew of

molasses and fenugreek. The mention of formula was

about as taboo as the idea of settling the baby to sleep

on her stomach. I was firmly convinced, again, that

breastfeeding was the right thing to do.

No sooner was the mammary evangelist down the

driveway than Mum arrived bearing a large tin of

S26 and a microwavable steam steriliser. Ellie was

bawling. I was bawling. Matilda was bawling. Five

minutes in our company and Mum was also bawling.

There was nothing for it but to phone the local

family-care hospital and turn myself in.

Pretty soon I was beamed into the Mother Ship. It

was refreshing to find that all the other inmates

required about as much help as I did — for sleep dep-

rivation, post-natal depression, feeding problems or a

demoralising combination of them all.

The rooms were sunny and the babies were gor-

geous. No one had enjoyed a wink of decent sleep in

several months and yet we sat together drinking hot

toddies and talking long after the babies were settled,

into the early hours of the morning.

As individuals, the only thing we had in com-

mon was a mutual feeling of desperation. One of

the women was a softly-spoken grandmother with

custody of her two young granddaughters. She did

shift work to support the family and was exhausted.

Another was a drug addict whose baby had foetal

alcohol syndrome. There was also a young woman

whose soldier-husband had been on operations for

months while she battled something equally tough

and arguably more isolating.

And then there was me. In all probability I will

never see those women again, but I'll never forget

their friendship during a handful of days when our

difficult paths crossed at rock bottom.

The paediatrician who saw Ellie during our stay

had said, 'The nurses push breastfeeding but you have

a choice. Do you want a healthy child or don't you?

If this continues much longer it will damage her

organs.' Ellie emerged from the experience 250 grams

heavier and I was a full bottle on formula feeding.

Ill-advice from the experts notwithstanding, I

thought if that was the calibre of mistake I was

capable of making while consciously trying to do the

best thing by my child, I was scared to think of the

accidental havoc I could wreak when I wasn't paying

attention. I can no longer hear a newborn crying

without my heart sinking.

I continued to breastfeed Ellie after that, but only

as a comfort thing — after I'd properly nourished

her first. She thrived from that point onwards and

bloomed into the kind of chuckling, smiley-faced

angel who stops the blue-rinse traffic in bank queues

and supermarket checkouts. Looking at her, no one

could guess that her first few months were worse than

miserable for all concerned. As far as she knew, she'd

simply arrived in the world and that was all there was

to it.

It took a little longer to turn myself around.

Wits' End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum was published in 2005.  An e-Book version is available on our website.

Are you paying attention?

Author Winifred Gallagher claims that there are two distinct types of attention.

'Bottom-up' attention is evolutionary (we notice bad smells or loud noises and get distracted easily).

'Top-down' attention is what we choose to focus on (including work and pleasure). This controls the quality of our lives and the progress we make on tasks.

The sense of being pulled in many directions at once gives us a lack of focus. We're easily distracted by 'bottom-up' demands, including technological distractions.

We sit down to work and the phone rings, or pings a new SMS, someone tweets, facebook emails an update, someone asks us to have a coffee (or we just smell coffee), and suddenly we've developed a series of little rituals.

'I'll just have a coffee, check email, check my phone, then get started on this project...' (Or, 'I'll just put a load of washing on, stack the dishwasher, have a coffee, check email, then get started on my tax return...'

Start today

Take a minute or two to list your biggest 'bottom-up' distractions. What causes you to glance up from the task at hand and go off on a tangent? What little rituals have you created that take your focus away from what you set out to achieve?

Scientists have identified that the human brain has an optimum focus time of 90 minutes for one task.

Isolate one 90-minute block of time when you will eliminate your favourite distractions (including the distractions of easier work tasks) and give the priority task some 'top-down' focus.

Measure how much more you accomplish this way - and how much better you feel because of this - and you will start building your attention 'muscle'.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Where's the passion gone?

Think of a time when you felt totally loved.

What convinced you of it?

Was it a certain look you were given? A particular touch? Was it that you were taken out to special restaurants or spoilt with gifts?

Were you told you were loved in words? Did the other person do things to help you? Did they listen to you in a certain way during conversations?

We all have our own 'love strategy' - the blueprint that 'works' for us and convinces us that we are loved.

Early in a relationship, all of the possible 'love strategies' are usually firing off at once. Special looks, frequent touches, hugs, beautiful 'dates', long conversations, gifts, attention and more. It's no wonder we're swept off our feet!

When a relationship deepens and becomes more comfortable, many couples drop the dating pattern and each partner settles into using just a few of these strategies to show their partner they love them. But are they matching the blueprint?

If you're 'touchy feely' and your partner stops hugging you, how do you feel? What if your partner likes hearing you say 'I love you' and you stop doing that? People ask where the passion goes. Sometimes it's as simple as one or both partners having dropped the key actions that connect them deeply with the other person.

Start today

Work out specifically what causes you to feel loved and articulate this to your partner when you can. Find out what convinces your partner that you love them and deliver a lot of that.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Feeling overwhelmed? Stop it!

Here's a 5-minute exercise to help you deal well with pressure as we move into the swing of 2010.

Step one:

Think of times when you have felt really stressed and haven't handled it well.

Step two:

When you're really under pressure, what does your typical response look like?

Do you cry, scream, run away, flap around, get angry, depressed, sick or fearful? Do you head for the refrigerator? Do you not eat? Do you panic, freeze, stick your head in the sand, or blow your stack?

Take a few seconds to create a list of words that describe your existing 'stress antics'.

Step three:

Look at the words you've written down and be honest. How is this strategy working for you?

Is it successfully reducing your stress levels? Is it putting you in the best frame of mind to overcome your challenges? Or is it making problems worse?

Step four:

What can you choose to do in the future that will serve you better? Think of a time when you handled pressure well. What did you do differently then?

For each of your 'stress antics', come up with a 'stress fix'. Head straight for food? Go for a walk. Run away? Chunk the problem into baby steps. Flap? Breathe!

Start today

We all have a choice in how we respond to the challenges in our lives.

Next time something happens, stop for a few seconds and ask yourself: 'what simple next step can I take, right now, that is going to move me away from this stress?'

What's happening this week at WorkLifeBliss?

• We're putting together a series of brand new courses for 2010
• We're providing 18-page reports in response to our Life Balance Survey (see what the reports include here).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to after-school activities - how much is too much?

Are you about to complicate your life and/or overwhelm your children with too many extra-curricular activities?  With a bit of planning, you can strike exactly the right balance so that everybody is happy and stimulated.  Here are our top tips:

• If your child is starting school for the first time, let them settle in to their changed routine before taking on extra activities.

• Find something they’re passionate about – don’t ‘flog a dead horse’ if they’re really not keen on practising that instrument or learning those Irish Dancing steps.

• Choose activities you can maintain as they get older – it’s cute to enrol a five-year-old in ballet, but make sure you’re comfortable with the increasing expenses and time commitment for upper levels to avoid disappointment later.

• Buy equipment and uniforms second-hand until you’re sure they’re going to stick at it. Young children like having a go at a variety of activities.

• Try to find a balance between physical activity and musical, artistic or dramatic or other pursuits.

• Be led by your child’s interests – avoid the temptation to re-live your childhood, or to assume that they’ll love something, just because their older sibling is great at it.

• Adopt a ‘fun’ mindset from the start and remove pressure to perform – remember that their prowess or otherwise is not a reflection on you, but your performance on the sidelines will reflect on them.

• Look carefully at the proposed schedule for the week. Does it work? Can you afford it? Is there plenty of ‘down-time’ for the children to rest, play and fit in homework? Is there space in the schedule for you and your interests? Families thrive when everyone is catered for.

For more tips on balancing work and family, including a free report on the ‘Top 5 mistakes women make when balancing work and family’, visit

Monday, January 11, 2010

Get me the Epidural! - A chapter from Wits' End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum

Childbirth is a beautiful thing, apparently.

I can’t quite see it myself. First time around the baby was upside down. Or right way up, in other words. Matilda was born feet-first via Caesarean section a fortnight early and before the sucking reflex had kicked in, so she was tube-fed. I spent the first twenty-four hours of her life staring at my newborn in euphoric disbelief, self-administering morphine and wondering if I’d ever get feeling back in my legs.

The second time the baby was the right way around, but took a wrong turn on the way out. This may sound implausible, but I was in labour with Ellie for five days. Yes. Pregnant women often ask me which was worse – the Caesarean or the natural birth. I tell them one way you can’t stand up, the other way you can’t sit down. It’s as simple as that. Or as difficult…

I started having contractions precisely 103 hours before Ellie was born. I know what you’re thinking – Braxton Hicks. This is an obstetric euphemism for ‘false’ contractions, named after the guy who discovered them. Only a man would claim to discover contractions and then downgrade their severity. Hicks notwithstanding, they registered seventy-five on the Richter scale and were strong enough to wake me with relentless monotony every five minutes for four days straight.

Then, on the fourth day, they stopped dead. Had I delivered the baby and not noticed? I sat on the lounge – a large, dormant volcano – reading articles on how to induce your own labour. Acting on the advice contained therein, I consumed vast quantities of raspberry tea and waddled back and forth to the toilet.

Mum stayed with me during this phase and to this day we talk about it as some kind of shared spiritual experience: the calm before the storm. It was a day of stalling off the inevitable, and of long walks, which, together with the raspberry tea, were supposed to do the trick.

At five in the afternoon on the fourth day, I was back on the boil. But it was worse this time. Like, painful.

I was more OK with the pain than a fourth consecutive sleepless night, so I decided to have the baby that evening. Accordingly, I announced to Mark and Auntie Rachel (my sister, who I’d lined up to video the entire thing) that we were getting this show on the road, once and for all. Mum and Dad were summoned to babysit two-year-old Matilda and we piled into the car.

Twenty minutes later, Mark lugged into the hospital the bag I’d packed full of items like Tales of the Wind acoustic relaxation music, massage oil and a tennis ball, which is indispensable for bringing babies into the world (according to parenting magazines). Rachel trotted in after us, video camera at the ready.

‘Hello,’ I said brightly to the receptionist on the front desk. ‘I’d like to have a baby please.’

Forty-five minutes later my request was denied: ‘You’re not in labour. You’re having strong Braxton Hicks contractions. Go home and take two sleeping tablets.’

There was nothing in the magazines about sleeping tablets. By the time we got home the contractions were three minutes apart and much more intense.

‘I’m serious this time,’ I announced. ‘I’m in labour. I think we need to go back.’

I rang the hospital. ‘Hello, it’s me again. The contractions are three minutes apart. I’m just wondering…’

‘Whether or not to take the sleeping tablets? Yes, take them. We’ll see you later on.’

Brushed off? Well! So be it. I took the tablets hoping I wouldn’t sleep through the whole performance and got in the shower.

I’d never taken sedatives before. I can report that you shouldn’t get in the shower after you’ve had two – especially when you’re in labour. The drug tends to hit with the unstoppable force of an avalanche. I grasped the taps, reeled out of the cubicle, partially dried myself and staggered two metres onto Mark’s side of the bed, where I fell into what felt like a coma.

Two minutes later I woke in gripping agony. What new hell was this? Straight after the contraction, I regressed into my drug-induced sleep. Two minutes later I was shattered awake again by pain – a pattern that was to occupy the rest of the evening

I vaguely recall demanding the microwavable wheat pillow and a rocking chair. My husband, God bless him, carried the latter down the corridor from the family room and, with some difficulty, ensconced me in it. There I sat in what I was sure would be a bearable position. And it was, for approximately half a contraction, during which I seized Mark by the scruff of the neck and bit out: ‘Take me to the hospital. NOW! I want PAIN RELIEF?’

This whole ‘natural labour’ malarky was definitely not my thing. For the third time that week (I forgot to mention an earlier ‘false alarm’ on the Tuesday at about midnight), we dragged my parents from their slumber with a piercing phone call and headed for the hospital.

‘Oh! You poor dear!’ the receptionist sympathised upon my pathetic arrival at the desk – swooning one second, wincing the next.

FINALLY! Someone believed me! I was having a baby and this time I would not take ‘no’ for an answer. All I remember was being levered onto a bed atop a hot water bottle, which seemed to me to be the sweetest thing…

‘Do you feel something nice and warm?’ the midwife gently asked.

What was I? A six-year-old with a sub-normal intelligence quotient? ‘Get me pethidine!’ I gasped, ungratefully.

‘Yes, all right then. Roll over!’ she commanded.

Ah-ha! So this was her game. Little did she know I’d been involved in power struggles before. When I was a weekend sales assistant at the local bakery I had to fight the full-time staff for supremacy over the cash register.

‘I can’t roll over,’ I whispered.

‘Well, dear, you’ll have to have the pethidine in two shots – one in each arm!’

Was this meant as some kind of threat? I was in labour for heaven’s sake! I wanted to implode. I could hardly speak. The woman could take to me with a set of steak knives and it would barely register.

The pethidine went nowhere fast.

‘I want an epidural!’ I insisted, desperately.

‘Sorry, dear. You’re not dilating. You might still need a Caesarean and we can’t risk it.’

WHAT? Not dilating! But that’s impossible!

‘Can you have another look?’ I begged.

Hours passed. At one point Mark came near me armed with the massage oil, but I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Or him. Woe betide anyone who came near the black hole on the bed. No one could get near me. I was like a deranged psychopath holding hostages at gunpoint – everyone trying to negotiate with me through a loud-hailer – and not one of them bowing to my demands (like letting me go home, for one thing).

By dawn I wanted to be euthanased. The hospital staff met me half-way with the promise of an epidural. Apparently the old cervix had come to the party at long last and was dilating nicely. Better late than never, I suppose. I found this progress empowering and started asserting myself.

First, I sent Mark to the nurses’ station. I was convinced they were gossiping, instead of rousing the anaesthetist from the dead of sleep with the required level of urgency. Twenty minutes later the anaesthetist walked nonchalantly into the delivery suite. I flashed back to the day I fell head over heels in love with the lead trumpet player in the school orchestra. The doctor was tall. Strong. And, better than that, he was equipped with the little black bag containing the solution to all my problems.

‘Roll over,’ he commanded. And I did.

Within two contractions I was completely pain-free and he was my knight in shining armour. ‘I love you!’ I proclaimed sincerely. ‘Really, I love you!’

I’m sure he thought I was charming – beached on the delivery bed in my blue backless hospital gown and completely delusional after a week without sleep. He explained politely that he’d be a very rich man if he had a gold coin for all the times he’d received amorous advances from women in labour. Nevertheless, I was intent on marrying him, should an opportunity arise.

Finally, we got down to the business end of proceedings: pushing. And I worked out why they call it labour. The midwife was like the Phys. Ed teacher in school who used to holler at us out of the fog from the sidelines of the netball courts. ‘C’mon girl! Use the contraction! Use it!’ she urged. ‘You can do it! PUSH! You won’t come asunder…’ (Rash words, in hindsight.)

After about an hour and a half, with very little to show for my efforts, I decided that no, actually, I couldn’t do it.

‘I can’t!’ I cried. ‘I just can’t’

This seemed a reasonable enough deduction. I’d put in a big effort. Couldn’t I pass the baton to someone else now? Rotate onto the reserve bench for some frozen oranges? Wouldn’t someone rescue me?

And that’s when it hit me. I was entirely on my own. No one else could get me out of this. I had never felt so lonely and overwhelmed. And, as most mothers will testify, that’s when you get your second wind. You demand things of yourself that seemed impossible only a moment before. For the rest of your life that resilience – when you were able to dredge strength out of nowhere – stays with you and works for you in other challenges.

At the eleventh (or, strictly speaking, the sixteenth) hour, the obstetrician sauntered in and perched himself on a front-row seat, poked around a bit, broke the waters and settled back. He folded his arms across his chest and waited with a critical expression plastered to his face while I finished the job and earned him a thousand dollars. I will concede that he very kindly sliced me in half at one point after I’d ripped in several directions anyway.

Ellie entered the world with her hand in the air, shoulder wedged beside her head, cord wrapped around her neck, and desperate for oxygen. She was alarmingly blue – head squashed, eyelids swollen – and generally traumatised-looking. In other words, she was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my entire life … at least since the day two years earlier when her sister was born.

I was a trifle the worse for wear in comparison and was sewn back together, speechless with relief and accomplishment and reworking my definition of ‘exhaustion’. I was as ecstatic as it’s possible to be when you have nothing left to feel.

By the time the milk and the third-day blues set in, I was too miserable to get upset. I lay on the bed feeling the way I’m sure a corpse must feel, laid out in the morgue. Everything hurt. I knew if I cried I’d only feel worse. So I didn’t bother.

If only the same could be said for my precious baby daughter, who developed an ovarian cyst and gastric reflux and quite understandably screamed for three months, without drawing breath…

This is a chapter from my book book Wits’ End Before Breakfast: Confessions of a Working Mum, published in 2005 by Lothian Books, Melbourne ( ISBN 0 7344 0830 7) available in bookstores throughout Australia.  SOON TO BE AVAILABLE AS AN eBOOK.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Perfect Couple

I read an article in the Saturday papers that quoted Michelle Obama as saying, "marriage is hard but, going into it, no one ever tells you that. They just say, "do you love him?'"

It's so encouraging when fairytale couples expose themselves as human, isn't it? Particularly if you're having a rather 'human' time of it yourselves.

Have you ever had an argument in the car on the way to a party, then emerged at the venue - a perfectly united front of marital bliss? While you're sitting there at the party - disguised as someone who isn't internally fuming - others are watching you, thinking, 'wish we were as happy as they are.'

It’s Perfect Couple Syndrome, (closely linked to Perfect Parent Syndrome), and it can unnecessarily damage your self-esteem.

Start today

Find something small that you can do today to positively influence your relationship (even if things are going really well).

Rather than ask what's wrong with your relationship, or with your partner (or with your date, if you’re single) make it your goal to come up with at least one thing that you can do this week to be a better partner. It doesn't have to be a big deal. Just a small change that might spark off a chain reaction. It could be as simple as making sure you say 'hello' and 'goodbye' properly each day, or finding ten minutes to sit on the couch talking, or simply thanking your partner for something you’ve been taking for granted, or giving an overdue apology.

Whatever it is, make it a step in the right direction.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Having it all! The top 5 mistakes women make when balancing work and family

A mix of the same issues crops up often when I'm working with clients, so I've put together a special report identifying the top 5 mistakes women make when balancing work and family.  You can access the report for free on the WorkLifeBliss website or email me to receive a copy.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Family Capers

Here's a link to a great parenting website, Family Capers.  The site links family-friendly businesses and employers with parents and offers a heap of forums on a wide variety of parenting topics.  I'll be providing professional advice on work-life balance in their forums - looking forward to it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Mamma Mia

I took my mum, best friend, sister and two daughters (eleven and nine) to see the musical Mamma Mia in Sydney just before New Year (that's me in the hat).

Mum is in her late seventies and thought the show was far too loud and a little raunchy in parts, but otherwise enjoyed herself!

Adorned in my hot pink feather boa - my kids sporting pink and purple cowboy hats with glued on tiaras - I thought I was fairly obsessed, as ABBA fans go. Then l I sat down beside a little old man who had driven up from Bathurst for the show.

‘I’m eighty-nine years old,’ he revealed. ‘I was wounded in action at Bougainville in 1945. I love ABBA! They were the best band I’ve ever known. I used to run a car workshop, and I’d play ABBA all day...

Then he started telling me about a water dam project in Arizona and got a little bit off the track, but when the lights dimmed, he proceeded to clap, tap his feet and sing throughout the show and, as I dragged him to his feet so he could dance with the rest of the audience for the final rendition of Waterloo, it occurred to me that we can learn a lot from his unbridled enthusiasm.

So what if he was the only World War Two veteran in the audience? So what if the men were completely outnumbered? He had a ball!

Is there something you’d love to do, that you’ve been putting off because you’re ‘too old/young/responsible/unfit/busy/etc’?

Does the phrase, ‘what would people think?’ ever get between you and flinging yourself at life ‘like nobody’s watching’?

Think of something that you can do this week to ‘spice up your life’. Then go and do it, no matter how big or small it seems, whether people are watching or not.