How Sweet It Is

If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that it takes 28 days to change addictive behaviours. You know the scene: Loveable F***-Up has cleaned up his act after a stint in rehab, and is being seen off into the sunset by his warm and fuzzy mentor, to live a happy life free of booze/drugs/sex/whatever.

It’s not my intention to make light of struggles that can be devastatingly real, but I’m pondering addiction today as I’m trying to kick my own sweet habit. Yes, I’m an addict. Admitting it is the first step, right? I’m fully addicted to a substance that society not only sanctions but throws in our faces with almost every bite of packaged food we take. That substance is SUGAR.

As a kid, I was always on the bony side, and never had a huge appetite. I remember feeling stuffed after eating pretty minimal meals, but I also remember always somehow finding room for dessert. Like most of us, I had a sweet tooth, but my eating habits were controlled by my parents, who didn’t stock tonnes of treats in the house.

On into the teens and twenties, I didn’t have healthy eating habits, but they weren’t fast-food-daily-horrendous either. I think. It’s hard to remember at this point. Back then I wasn’t so worried about sugar, firstly because I had no clue how damaging it is as a substance, but also because I smoked like a fiend, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry. After many, many attempts over many years, I finally managed to quit smoking permanently nine years ago. Smoking now has no place in my busy life with small children, and most of the time, when I encounter people smoking, which isn’t that often, I think, Ugh, can you smoke that thing somewhere else? However, there are STILL times when smoking seems like a good idea. (Hello, wine!) On the occasions over the years that I’ve given in to the impulse to have a cigarette, I’ve seen the reality of looming addiction again. Nicotine is so addictive, that after all this time, I could potentially slide back down that slope. Obviously, I won’t. I no more want to be a smoker than I want to be a rhinoceros.

Despite the difficulty that quitting smoking posed, it’s pretty easy for me to remain a non-smoker. As in, it’s not hard to refrain from a habit that makes one a stinky social pariah. However, my sugar addiction is a different story. Sugar is food and it’s in so much of it, that it’s increasingly hard to avoid, especially when it arrives in disguise. I needed to be making better choices.

Six years ago, shortly after my son’s diagnosis, I read a truly inspiring book called Anticancer: A New Way of LifeThe book gives solid, evidence-based advice on diet and lifestyle changes to make when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis. There were many recommendations that were revealing, but the thing I found most sobering was the information on sugar. Basically, the suggestion here is to avoid sugar like the plague. I’m sure we’ve all been aware for some time of the role sugar plays in obesity, diabetes and other conditions – but cancer? I thought that as a family we were pretty healthy, and we were, but I needed to go deeper.

These were not just changes I had to make for myself, but for my kids’ habits too. The first step was an easy change: drinks. I was never much of a pop drinker so soft drinks were no hardship to give up completely. Next up, juice. On the rare occasion, we will buy juice or juice boxes, but it’s as I say, rare, as in a couple of times a year. Taking a hard look in the mirror though, I realized that I was putting a teaspoon of sugar in every cup of coffee and tea that I had. The WHO’s daily recommendation for sugar intake is no more than 50 g. That’s 12 teaspoons a day. Sounds like a lot, right? Except that they then amend that to: actually it would be even better if you only had 25 g – 6 teaspoons. If you’re drinking 3 hot drinks a day and putting a teaspoon of sugar in each time, that’s half your daily dose. I cut that out. Easy.

Then, that’s when I had to really start reading ingredients, double-checking the labels on my bread and crackers and yoghurt.

I eventually gave up buying almost all children’s snack food, and almost all packaged foods except for a few acceptable brands. Why? Because, all of those cute, individually-packaged things that are so easy to throw in your kid’s lunch pack an insane amount of sugar – organic or not. Yoghurt tubes, granola bars and fruit chews masquerade as healthy options, but many yoghurt cups have as much as 26 grams of sugar per serving. The whole daily allotment in one go, and as much sugar as there is in a Twinkie. Sadly, the cheapest foods are the worst foods, which makes good choices even harder for many families.

I wanted to know when we were eating sugar and do it consciously, as when we go to our local ice cream shop for a cone, pick up a cookie from the bakery, or have a piece of birthday cake.

I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds very pious, right? I’m going to stop cantering around on my moral high horse for a moment.

I made all of these great changes. The meals that we eat as a family are on the extreme side of healthy. But am still a complete junkie who goes to sugar when I’m tired or cranky. When I’ve had a bad day. Or had a good day.

Whilst I’m in confessional mode – when it comes to eating sugar, I don’t have an off switch. I’ve been guilty of buying one of those large Lindt chocolate bars, and eating the whole thing. In one go. On autopilot. I’ll buy ice cream, eat a bowl of it, and then think, That’s unbelievably delicious! and then go back for ANOTHER one. Who needs two bowls of ice cream? Certainly not my liver. I seemed to be giving myself free rein in the sugar department because I was eating so well all the rest of the time. Clearly, this kind of logic isn’t working for me, or for my family, as the repercussion is that I expose my kids to more sugar as I feed my own demons. My 19-month old has recently discovered the joy of ice cream, and asks for it with appalling regularity. I don’t want my kids to never get to indulge in a treat, but reasonable limits must be set, not just for them but for myself.

Of late I’ve felt the need to make more changes, but half-hearted efforts always seemed to end in a binge of some kind after a couple of days. So let’s loop back to the beginning. I’m currently in the middle of my own 28-day program. I’m on Day 8 of no sugar, caffeine or alcohol and I feel great. I needed something totally prescriptive, to help me out of the what’s-for-dinner vicious circle and to break my unhealthy evening sugar-binge ritual. I am really enjoying being told what to do for once.

Will I ever eat sugar again? I would say that it’s likely. It just feels really good to take a break from things for awhile and press the reset button. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you updated.

 

For more information on the evils of sugar, check out these documentaries:

That Sugar Film – by Damien Gameau

Sugar Coated by Michele Hozer

The Baby Brain

They come crying into the world, little and helpless. Human babies are amongst the most helpless newborns of all animals living, unable even to lift up their own heads, relying on their parents for all the basic necessities of life. The newborn period is often terrifying to newly-hatched parents, most of whom, these days, have little experience with the neonate. You mean, we gasp, we are expected to keep this little being alive all by ourselves? Are you sure we don’t require any further supervision?

Luckily, though, the small ones have their own ways of surviving. With a wave of their tiny baby wands, they put us under their spell. They enchant us with the fragrance of delicious baby, their wee fingers and toes, and their sleepy-dreamy faces, so that we adore them unabashedly and find their every move charming. We quickly learn the ins and outs of newborn-care, which isn’t so complicated after all. We snuggle up and hold them, and watch their expressions as they doze, and observe them processing and processing some more. Soon the eyes begin to focus, and the head isn’t quite so alarmingly floppy on its neck. We think we detect a smile, playing around the corners of their mouths. But this business of growing is still rather exhausting, and they spend a large portion of their time eating, sleeping and eliminating.

Before we know it, the busy days of the 4th trimester have flown past and baby is now an infant, embarking on the long journey to becoming a fully-realized little person.

Which is how I find myself suddenly and swiftly here, with a 17-month-old, musing on the amazing process that begins prior to birth and continues throughout childhood, the incredible period of brain development that occurs in all humans to make us who we are. The years of baby-brain neurons firing and wiring, and adding more and more layers to our memories, knowledge and ability.

In baby’s first year, the accomplishments are many. Holding up that heavy head. Rolling and kicking, to sitting up and grasping toys. Smiling and laughing, mouthing objects, listening to music, clapping. Eating. Eating is a whole crazy thing. Growing teeth! And hair! (Well. Sometimes.) Cooing and then babbling. Nodding yes and shaking head no, using baby sign to indicate wants, and graduating to first words. Crawling, standing, and taking those first tentative steps. Waving hello and goodbye.  Using a cup and spoon. In addition to all those things are the other very cultural-specific achievements; high-fiving or fist-bumping or even (yes, guilty!) swiping images on an iPhone.

The toddler stage, as any parent can tell you, is wonderful, challenging and sweet.

Wonderful because my newborn blob is now motoring around the house under her own steam, exploring and discovering.

Challenging because my little one wants to assert some new-found independence, and does so with high-pitched screams of NO and wails of frustration. (As yesterday when I wouldn’t let her eat some week-old Veggie Straw bits that she found at the bottom of a friend’s toy box.)

Of course, sweet needs no explanation. Sweet because I’ll now come upon her, playing intently and humming a little song to herself, and just watch her for a few minutes, awed and in love. Sweet because she runs to the door shrieking, “Dada!!” when Craig comes home from work. Sweet because one of her favourite things to do is feed her beloved Dolly pretend oatmeal.

Knowing that she is my last baby, I find myself wishing that that I could just put us on pause for a couple of weeks and catch my breath. Time is hurtling past me and Lark makes tremendous leaps on a daily basis. Being a second child, I haven’t worried myself much about the dreaded baby milestones. Actually, I’ve been fairly serene, secure in the knowledge that she’ll get there eventually, as most of them do. She didn’t start walking fully until 14-15 months, but once on her feet she didn’t look back, rather she began dancing almost immediately.

Every baby has their own idiosyncrasies, habits, likes and dislikes. Lark’s are vastly entertaining and naturally, extremely cute.

She’s a chatty baby, which makes life easier because she’s so good at telling me what she wants. I haven’t bothered to count her words, as her word-list morphs day by day, but she’s got dozens. Granted, some of her words you’d be hard put to work out if you didn’t know the context. She swaps out her hard sounds for t’s, so somewhere along the way her word for coffee has become “totta.” Is it telling that one of my babe’s first words is for mum’s cherished caffeinated beverage? And that she has known how to press the button on the espresso machine for months now? Other difficult-to-decipher phrases include: tow for couch, na for snack, and no for both no and nose.

Then, of course, she has words of her own coining that no stranger could figure out. For reasons she’s not sharing, breastmilk is called “yow.” Yow is called for with every bump and every time a bedtime-stalling tactic is required. Mummy, yow? she says plaintively. If I ignore her or put her off, the yow demands increase in both volume and frequency, until I cave.

Babies in our culture have an awful lot to wrap their heads around when it comes to technology. Lark is obsessed with the phone, which she calls “hellwo.” She already knows how to use FaceTime and doesn’t find it strange that her auntie and cousin are talking to her through this mysterious device. She knows how a remote-control works, can use the above-mentioned espresso machine and is fascinated by our iPad, though she’s rarely been permitted to touch it.

The amazing thing is that the next year and a half will also be a period of intense, explosive growth. My little toddler will soon become my preschool child, developing more personality and independence every day, talking in full sentences and creating friendships of her own.

Today, though, she’s still calling herself Baby.

The next 6 months is a very critical period for children with Lark’s genetic mutation. Children who develop brain tumours after the age of 2 have a much, much greater chance of survival. Also, after the age of 2, the likelihood of developing a tumour at all goes down drastically. Because of this we are holding our breath and praying that the beast passes us by.

Solo Parenting

This is both an ode to single parents everywhere and a love letter to my husband.
The low-gas light on the dash was persistently, annoyingly yellow. The baby was crying. My son hovered between complaint and fear. Siri was issuing useless commands, directing me to a service station 12 km away. We’d been hurtling down the highway, in a rush to get to the ski hill on time. I’d packed the car, the kid, the supplies, the baby. I’d forgotten the gas. In a quiet panic, I pulled off and started scanning the horizon for Essos.

“Are we going to run out of gas?” Bean asked, worried eyes watching me in the rearview mirror.

“No!” I responded with cheerful scorn.

Actually, as the car juddered, I thought, “Eff! We are going to run out of gas. And this is all on me.”

It was a frazzling parenting moment that had me on the verge of tears. I was lost in the winter-wild burbs of Toronto, with both of my kids in the car, and my husband 15,500 kilometres away in Australia. This would never have happened to him. He would’ve ensured that the tank was topped up before embarking on a long highway drive to his son’s ski lesson. He would not have taken a “fingers crossed” approach to a rapidly-emptying gas tank.

Craig had been, sadly, called home to Sydney to attend his grandmother’s funeral. There was no question of all of us going. It would’ve been too disruptive to expose the kids to that next-level jet lag for a week-long journey. Craig went to support and share memories with his family, and I stayed to hold down the fort while he was gone.

I’ve done weeks of solo parenting before, but they’ve always been vacation-y, like going to the cottage for a week with many grandparent helping hands around. Those don’t count.

This was the first time that I was responsible for both kids without other adult input. I had 8 nights of dinners and bedtimes to tackle alone. Plus school drops and ferrying to activities. Plus just trying to keep on top of the mountain of household chores that seems to loom over us all, at all times. Plus having a very active and curious toddler tearing the place apart in all her waking hours. And waking in her sleeping hours.

Before my husband’s departure, I kept groaning about how hard it was going to be. Until he got annoyed and told me to cut it out. He was right. I was being overly dramatic, not to mention unfair to the millions of people who manage to solo parent with grace and style, for like, their children’s whole lives and not just one piddly week.

The thing is, if roles could be reversed, my husband would make a much better house-parent than me. He’s just good at gettin’ s*** done. He’s orderly and methodical. He always remembers to take the garbage out and he alwaysmakes our oatmeal in the morning. I had to remind myself ten times to take the garbage out and managed to let the oatmeal pot overflow. On two separate occasions. And then I didn’t wash the crusty pot until night-time. He’s domestic. I’m barely domesticated. Unfortunately, his earning power dwarfs mine, so he’s got to be the bacon-bringer and I have to be the bacon-cooker. But then I get distracted and let it burn.

I see some of you rolling your eyes. Week in and week out, you manage to get the job done, I know. I decided to take a leaf out of your book. I wasn’t going to do it alone, though.

A lesson I have finally, finally learned in life – though it took years to sink in – is that if you want help, you have to ask for it. You have to really, quite specifically, ask for it. The world is full of wonderful people, but there are very few who are going to telepathically intuit exactly what you need, and swoop in to give it to you. There have been many occasions over the last six years in which people have offered me help. Through pride, ego and inertia, I’ve rarely accepted these offers of assistance. I’ve found myself, struggling alone, often in very difficult circumstance. The other piece of the Help Lesson is that if you want help, you have to say yes when people offer it. Two things:

1. Ask.

2. Say yes.

Simple, no?

My best friend offered to have us over for Sunday dinner. Yes.

I asked Bean’s uncle and auntie to take him to his skating lesson on Monday. Ask.

I asked my good friend – a full-time solo parent – if we could have pizza dinner together on Wednesday evening. Ask.

I engaged the services of our caregiver extraordinaire on Friday. Ask.

My other best friend, also running a solo gig, offered to come over and keep us company. Yes. I asked her to join us for a dinner which I would purchase, not cook. Ask.

I created a friend barricade and felt blessed. There were challenges: missed appointments and social events, a sore throat, some sleepless nights. The biggest difficulty lay in finding alone time for my son, when Lark’s bedtime demands stretched on for hours. I’m afraid that Bean spent a lot of quality time with the iPad over the week. He missed having his usual undivided parental attention at bedtime. He missed his Dad as he tearfully told me about how his friends at school weren’t interested in the Wallabies jersey he wore for Australia Day. I missed my husband as our baby clutched my phone and talked to him on Skype, “Hi!!!! Dada.” Pause. “Hi!! Dada.” Pause, repeat.

I didn’t run out of gas. I made it to the service station just in time, no thanks to Siri, that incompetent nitwit. Bean got to go to his ski lesson – only ten minutes late!

We welcomed Craig/Daddy/Dada back with fresh perspective and renewed gratitude. For making the oatmeal. For the garbage. For filling up the car. For all the thankless tasks that keep us on the rails, week in and week out.

Dedicated with love to Craig’s Nan – may she rest in peace.

The Days are Long but the Years are Short

Are there more grown-ups or kids in the world? – Bean

My son asked me that a few days ago, and I spent a couple of minutes explaining that there are more grown-ups in the world, simply because we all spend far more of our lives being adults than we do being children. Plus, we’re all living longer than we used to, say, 100 years ago. I guess that made sense to him, because he left it there, and moved on to other things.

It brought home to me though, how very fleeting childhood is. In our society, we are considered “children” until the age of 18. The true end of kidhood though, seems to hover somewhere around the age of 12, with most teens hurtling out of adolescence as quickly as they can, ready to brush off the pixie dust and pick up the reins of their adult lives.

Now that Bean is 7, I’m becoming more and more aware that the days in which he will continue to be a child are not many. It’s also been, somewhat sadly, brought home to me that I, myself, am contributing to the end of his little-kid days with my curmudgeonly behaviour.

Back in early December, we went to a family Christmas brunch that we attend every year. There is a Santa photo-op, and each child receives a gift from The Man in Red. Bean has always viewed Santa Claus with an awe close to reverence. At some Santa visits in the past, he’s been so nervous he could barely speak, like a fan-girl getting to meet her favourite celebrity. On this occasion, I urged him forward, and encouraged him to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas. To my surprise, with a tight-lipped grin, he didn’t say anything. Again, I asked him if he wanted to tell Santa, but he just shook his head. I thought he was feeling shy, so I dropped it, and we snapped a few pictures with the jolly old elf before moving on to our bacon and eggs.

The following week, on our walk to school, he was talking about Christmas and what he wanted as gifts. I was only half paying attention, lazily complacent, as he’d already told me what he’d set his heart on, a beautiful art kit in a carrying case, which I intended to get him as his Santa gift. Then he said something that caught my attention,

But there’s one other thing I want Santa to bring mebut I didn’t ask him for it when I saw him.

“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “What is the other thing that you want?”

I’m not telling YOU he responded. Santa knows what I want and you’ll find out on Christmas morning when he brings it to me!

Wow. A shot of amusement-tinged panic went through me.

I reiterated that he had to tell Santa what it was that he wanted though, and he hadn’t told him at the family brunch. Pushing further, I wondered out loud why he hadn’t wanted to tell him. He skirted the issue for a few minutes, before it all finally came tumbling out. He hadn’t told Santa what he wanted because I was there, and he felt sure that his mum would be the epic killjoy that quashed his Christmas dreams, by telling Santa not to bring him what he wanted. Because he knew that I didn’t want him to receive the thing he hankered for.

What, you ask, was this longed-for item?

Why, LEGO, of course.

LEGO, the joy of children everywhere and the bane of a parent’s existence. LEGO underfoot in teensy bits. LEGO to be organized. LEGO getting dusty on every surface of your child’s room. Whole swathes of Pinterest dedicated to ways of keeping it orderly. Ever newer and grander sets required to keep upping the ante each year.

lego

 

Let me just state for the record, that Bean has a fairly insane amount of LEGO, as many members of our family have been very generous to him. My efforts to keep it contained to one area of the house – his room – have been largely successful. I have spent hours sorting bricks and putting mini-figures into little plastic hardware boxes, each with a head and legs, if not their original head or legs. I have also, happily! spent hours putting together sets with him and playing the LEGO role-playing games dear to his heart.

And apparently, I have also complained, ad naseum, about how much LEGO he has, and avowed that NO MORE LEGO will be coming into this house, ever. Ever. I have threatened to “clean up” his LEGO while he’s at school if he doesn’t put it away himself. I have said things like, “Do you really need more LEGO, buddy?” when he’s expressed a yearning for a particular Minecraft set.

You can see why he didn’t want to tell Santa that he wanted LEGO in front of his dear old mummy.

I felt like an evil shrew trying to vacuum up my son’s pixie dust.

With a bit of fast talking, I convinced him to share with me the type of LEGO set he was after, and then made sure that he told Santa at our official Santa-session just before Christmas. On the day, he was overjoyed to receive a set from Santa, along with a couple of other sets from family members, including me.

I had come to the sudden, belated realization, that the years in which he’ll be asking for LEGO are short. At the age of 7, he’s still fully on board with both the parent-perpetuated myth of Santa and the magic of Christmas. I want him to go on believing in its magic for as long as he possibly can. Especially, as so many days of his childhood have been decidedly un-magical. Days of hospital, and drugs, and vomit, and pain, and procedures.

Some day, not too long from now, as a teen or young adult, he’ll decide what to do with the several tonnes of LEGO amassed in our house. For now, though, our home still resounds with Star Wars laser-blasts and the clink, clink, clink of bricks being sorted and assessed. Although all these little plastic bits set off my OCD, I’m okay with that.

I’m more than okay with that. I’m holding on to the magic. Holding on tight with both hands.