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

Self-Care

Self-care.

It’s one of those irritating Internet buzzwords that’s been making the rounds in the world of health and wellness for the last few years. Every time I read another article encouraging me to make time for me, I end in feeling ever-so-slightly down, as I contemplate how I’m possibly not only failing my children and family in the care department, but clearly, I’m also disappointing myself, by never getting going on that daily yoga practice. (Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way.)

In a world of endless tasks and to-do lists, self-care feels like yet another thing to worry about completing. From what I understand, the argument goes that unless we take time out for ourselves, we won’t have the energy or motivation to care properly for others, with the knock-on effect being that we won’t perform as well at work or at home with the kids.

That sounds reasonable, but it also seems that there’s this pervasive feeling in our culture that we must be able to do it all: create and maintain a wonderful, fulfilling career; be the perfect Pinterest-parent, with an orderly, crafty home full of fresh baked goods; sustain a loving and affectionate relationship with our partners; and nurture our friendships so as to retain some semblance of a social life.

Then, on top of all those things, if you aren’t tired from just reading that list, you’re supposed to invest the rest of your free time (ha!) in taking care of yourself; with, I dunno, daily meditation sessions, green smoothies and luxurious trips to the spa fortnightly.

Forget about the long, solo walks in the woods and wellness retreats. Let’s start with the basics: eating and sleeping. I’m definitely eating. Well? Not so much. As for so many parents to young ones, sleep continues to elude me. There are two reasons for this, the first of which is my own bad habit of staying up too late. Judging by conversations that I’ve had with friends, this is a pretty common problem. The comment I hear over and over is, I stay up too late because I just want some time to myself at the end of the day. This may be true, but it’s also true that many of us end up in a Netflix vortex as we binge-watch our latest favourite until far past an appropriate bed-time. The second reason that I fail to sleep enough is that my darling girl still wakes in the night, and then thinks 5:30 is a pretty good hour to get cracking. At both ends of the night, not to mention the middle, I’m not clocking enough hours in my bed.

My main issue with this self-care business is time. Generally, I despise the lame excuse of I don’t have enough time to do that.  Yes, we are all insanely busy, but often how we spend our time is about making choices, right? Yes, but. There is also the truth that when you spend your days with small children, you don’t get to choose how you spend your time. Well, I mean you can try to squeeze in those extra me-moments, but you may find that a very vocal little person has differing opinions. Hands up if you’ve ever tried to buy jeans with the kids in tow? It’s okay, I know how entirely impossible item-specific shopping is. Getting stuff done with a super sidekick or two is just fraught with difficulty, so, if you’re like me, you end in deferring many tasks until the kids are asleep, when you can tackle them in peace and quiet.

Let’s return to our self-care basics. Showering. Bathing is a essential human right – isn’t it in there in the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or something? I have to say though, that in a life with littles, a daily shower starts to feel ambitious. This is because my toddler doesn’t want to be separated from me for the eternity of 10 minutes whilst I practice normal human hygiene. The usual scene at my house is me frantically rinsing shampoo out of my hair while my daughter cries and bangs on the glass shower door saying, “All done, mummy, all done.” At that point, my son decides this is a good time to come in and talk to me about something that is very important to him. Meanwhile, I’m in there like, “What? Hon, I can’t hear… okay baby, two more minutes…” I don’t know where my husband is while all this is going on, but I can tell you that the kids are nowhere to be seen while he’s in the shower. It’s a calm oasis of pixie dust and unicorns for him.

When fundamental grooming tasks start to feel like a luxury, forget about the waxing and facials.

Apart from time, the other spanner in the works is my old buddy, guilt. If I actually slot that yoga class into the schedule, going off to do it care-free poses problems, as I have to leave my toddler sobbing at the door and screaming, “Mama!” at the top of her lungs. It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes I want to turn around and go back. Like most mums, I tend to put my kids’ needs first, and my own on the back burner – the back burner of a stove-top that is 1 sq km in area. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t had my hair done in 4 months.

This is exactly the point of all these self-care fanatics though, that we should be doing what we need to do to feel recharged, without the guilt or panic for time lost. I guess there’s something to it.

So from this day forth, I intend to care for myself as much as humanly possible. You won’t believe the amount of self-care that’ll be going on around here. I’ll be eating, sleeping and showering with the best of them. That weekly yoga class is happening. Who knows? I might even sneak in a hair appointment. Shoot for the stars, right?

What’s at the top of your self-care list? Feel free to comment.

 

The Lapsed Vegetarians

Here’s a story:

Long ago when we were wild young things, my husband and I went travelling in Peru. One evening, we were eating dinner in a restaurant on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It sounds rather more exotic than it was. We were with a group of travellers that we’d fallen in with. We ordered the fish, as almost everyone did, with the promise that it was fresh-caught daily. We were all served identical-looking plates, with a breaded slice of something on it. Craig took a bite of his food and a weird look flitted across his face.“Taste this,” he said. So I did. It tasted like chicken.“Is that chicken?” he said. I said I thought it was. He grimaced and put down his knife and fork.

Continue reading “The Lapsed Vegetarians”

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.

Steps

The other night, I was walking out of my garage into our back lane, when I ran into my neighbour, coming out of his garage.

I had Lark in the carrier, as I often do.

“I didn’t know you guys walked”, he said, joking.

“Sorry?” I said, startled. Unable to hide my defensive tone, I said, “Only every day.”

He quickly changed the subject and we parted amicably. But I was, shall we say, nettled. As happens so often when we have an emotional reaction to something, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so irritated.

We live in a neighbourhood that rates a 91 on Walk Score. This means that you can do all of your daily errands and shopping on foot. All schools, shops, and restaurants are within easy walking distance.

Let me also add, that this particular person and his family do not own a car and pride themselves on getting everywhere on foot, bike or transit. They occasionally rent a car for long journeys.

When Craig and I first bought our house, we took transit to work every day and walked the neighbourhood on weekends, only getting the car out of the garage for road trips or specific errands, like a Home Depot run. This fell in line nicely with our personal beliefs. We were reducing our environmental impact by driving less and transiting more.

After I had my son in 2008, it was a joy to explore our neighbourhood on foot, with epic stroller tours, naps and fun activities to take him to. When he got a little bit older, I bought a Chariot bicycle trailer and began to pull him behind me in the spring of 2010. He loved going for a bike ride and usually fell asleep in the trailer on the way home.

But then he got sick.

Our life, for over a year, was a long series of back and forths to the children’s hospital, often racing the clock in the middle of the night to get to the ER. There was no question of walking, or biking or transit. It was car and car only. As much as I hated it from an environmental standpoint, I accepted the necessity of it. Actually, I remember entering into this curious mental state of “these rules don’t apply to me” as I cut corners and disobeyed traffic laws, all in an attempt to hurry, hurry and get to the next appointment on time. Such is the mindset of one living in a constant state of high alert.

As 5 years have passed from then to now, I’ve attempted to pull back from my incessant car use and retake our former walking lifestyle. It hasn’t been easy. My life with my son continued to be one, long trip to an appointment at hospital or various locales scattered across the city. The emergency scenarios didn’t decrease, and again there were many tense rides to ER with my little buddy listless and pale in the back seat, throwing up.

On our “good” days, when I attempted to walk Bean to school, the 1 km walk would stretch to 25 minutes and beyond. His long illness and continued poor health meant a huge decrease in stamina compared to other children his age. He would need to stop many times on the way to school to “rest my legs.” Each of these stops was frustrating, as the clock ticked onwards, making it more likely that he would be late, and more likely that he would suffer stress, so even more likely that he would then be ill. Emotional outbursts were prevalent.

On most days, I ended up just chucking him in the car when I thought the walk would prove to be too much. After the arrival of Lark last year, this frazzled mama was barely getting out of the house dressed, with kid and newborn in tow, squealing up to morning drop-off with only a moment to spare. Often the open door of the school would close in our faces as the last child trooped in. Which then meant getting the babe out of the car in the -20° weather and marching down to the other end of the school to deliver the kid through the western door. The result of all of this early morning frazz? Ring, ring. Ring, ring. An hour later. “Bean’s not feeling well and throwing up, you’ll have to come collect him.” Baby back in the car. Here we go again!

Here’s the turnaround point. Last March, Bean’s new medication kicked in, which has meant continued wellness for periods of more than one or two weeks. It has meant a huge increase in stamina and general well-being, and less anxiety and stress. He began to be able to walk the 1 km to school without complaint or multiple rest stops. As a result, our behaviour as a family has changed.

With the start of this school year, Bean and I agreed that we would try to walk to school every day, unless there is some compelling reason to take the car. We have stuck to that agreement since September. He has walked to school and then home, and then most often walked to his after-school activities or friends’ houses for playdates. I have been tracking my steps with the Health app on my phone. Each day, I’m walking roughly 5 kilometres, with a daily average of about 8,000 steps. On record days, I’ve clocked over 17,000 steps, or about 12 kilometers. Bean and I have been quite pleased with ourselves for sticking to our pact and leaving the car at home. Naturally, Lark has been along for the ride, either in the stroller or carrier.

You can understand then, maybe, why I was annoyed with my neighbour for his offhand remark.

I guess the problem here is that humans make judgements based on what we see. It’s almost impossible for us to make perceptive calls of other people’s behaviour based on what we don’t see. If, the majority of the time, my neighbour encounters me exiting our house through the garage, then he will assume that I most often drive. He doesn’t see me bumping the stroller down our porch stairs every morning. And, as stated above, we did use to drive pretty much everywhere, so at one point in time, his comment would’ve been accurate. Though, in truth, our reason for driving everywhere was painful.

Unfortunately, for me and the rest of us, we use these kinds of judgement calls all the time. Let’s say, for example, you have a friend who is trying to lose weight. You don’t witness the entire previous month that they have subsisted on kale smoothies, but you do see the big piece of cake, eaten as a treat at the birthday party. Your conclusion? Your friend isn’t working very hard at this so-called diet.

It can be disheartening when we work hard to change a certain behaviour, but our efforts go unrecognized by those around us. This is especially true when dealing with those closest to us, our intimate friends and family members. We like to keep our loved ones in the cozy pigeonholes we’ve crafted for them. As for acquaintances and strangers, we have no problem forming blanket opinions based on a small exchange or observation.

The moral of the story is the trite but true, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Sometimes these hard battles shape our behaviours in ways we wish they wouldn’t. We can only be forgiving, and attempt to stretch our brains to imagine the behind-the-scenes story, the battle that we can’t see.

As for me, it’s time to wrap this up now – I’ve still got 8,000 steps to take today.