Check the label

Attention: Food labelling is very important. Particularly in times such as these when food allergies and sensitivities to common ingredients abound. I count myself lucky that, although I am allergic to things such as pollen, dust mites, and (of all things) horses, I have never had any food-related reactions. I did poison myself with under-cooked chicken once, but that doesn’t count. At times, however, the warnings on food labels can seem to go a bit too far – for example, the milk in my fridge doesn’t pretend to be anything other than dairy milk. Its ingredients list consists of only milk. Yet still, tucked away near the storage instructions is the official allergy advice: CONTAINS MILK. I feel like this has less to do with the intelligence of the average milk consumer, and more to do with the corporation’s healthy respect of an increasingly litigious society, but still… a tad excessive, perhaps. Even so, they didn’t go as far as the set of magic tricks my brother had as a child. The set contained a wand, a top hat, and several magic tricks, and the box was adorned with images of a little boy demonstrating how fun they all were. The fine print on three sides said ‘Instructions included’. The fourth side instead had the words, ‘Little boy not included’.

It is one of my chief delights in life when things don’t take themselves too seriously.

But there is another kind of labelling that can be hard not to take seriously. This is the kind that we apply to ourselves and others. I’m not referring here to conference name-tags, or that time I took my daughter to work and she plastered me with stick-it notes that said ‘park’ (she really wanted to go to the park, alright?). Literal labelling I can, for the most part, get on board with. It’s social labelling that I find a bit more difficult to swallow.

I have been thinking about this recently as I reflect on where I am in life, and how different it is to anything I could have expected ten years ago. I would never have imagined, for example, that any of the following terms might apply to me:

  • single mother
  • mentally ill
  • ex-wife
  • bisexual
  • divorcee
  • lover

Now, these are all terms that could be applied to me, but they aren’t necessarily terms I apply to myself. Not because of any negative association but because, for a range of reasons, I don’t necessarily identify with all of them. For some, it’s because of my preconceptions about what these things look like: in my mind, I still see a divorcee as a glamorous, Bacall-esque woman, drinking a martini brought by her butler, while staring out over an empty swimming pool (don’t even ask). For others, it’s because I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to wear the label: do flings, crushes and trysts ‘qualify’ me to be called bi, when I’ve never had to deal with phobic reactions? Does my anxiety ‘count’ as mental illness, when I’ve managed thus far without prescription medication? And for still others, I feel like the label does apply, but others have disagreed: someone once challenged me on whether I was a ‘single mother’, based on the fact that my daughter’s dad and I share care arrangements. That person conceptualised single mothers as those with zero support/involvement from the child’s father. Being single and a mother wasn’t enough, in his eyes, to make me a ‘single mother’.

I could go on, picking apart my by-no-means-exhaustive list. But the point is, the labels that could be applied to me by others, and the labels I apply to myself, aren’t necessarily the same. Or they might be the same, but have a subtly different meaning. And the lesson is, there is an element of arbitrary compartmentalisation that comes with social labelling, so we don’t need to take it too seriously after all. Much like walking out of an office labelled as a ‘park’.

The labels I have mentioned so far have been based on circumstance, so while there is an emotive element to them, they are relatively ‘objective’. Certain other labels we apply are grounded in value judgements, and they are far more insidious – particularly when we apply them to ourselves. These are often simple adjectives, and can start out as self-deprecating: “Oh, I’m such an idiot!”; “Ha, I’m such a clutz!”. Over time, however, these comments become part of our self-talk and can really have an impact on our self-esteem. I have noticed my daughter, at the ripe old age of seven, starting to say things like, “I’m so bad at drawing”. She isn’t, she’s just comparing herself to the adults around her who have had twenty-five more years than her to work on their fine motor skills. I will be so sad if she convinces herself that she’s ‘bad’ at drawing, when it’s something she loves to do.

These labels, like those on certain jam jars, can be very hard to remove once applied. And even ‘positive’ labels can cause a sticky mess. I carry a massive fear of failure from being told as a kid I would achieve great things, and I could be whatever I wanted. Somehow, my younger self turned these encouragements into a crippling terror of letting everybody down, to the point where it was easier for me not to try anything new or challenging. Because if you don’t try, you can’t fail. This is something I have overcome substantially in the last couple of years, but it still feeds my epic procrastination skills.

Social labelling is a useful tool. It helps us circumscribe our identities and allows us to identify with and against others. But, like any other tool, it should be used thoughtfully. We should strive to use social labelling, of ourselves and of others, like food labelling: with the aim to prevent harm, not to inflict it.

Chicken Soup: delicious healer, wise teacher

My daughter is not generally a fussy eater. In order to maintain this, when I notice her turning her nose up at certain foods, I try to mix things up a little and get her involved in the whole food provision process. Last time this happened was early in the year when we were both on holidays. I noticed some resistance to my usual no-fuss dinners, and thought I’d take the break as an opportunity to try something different. A week or so beforehand I had been unwell, and a lovely human had brought me chicken soup to make me feel better. I asked my dear progeny if she would like to help make chicken soup, and – being a fan of both chicken and soup – she eagerly agreed. We spent some time looking at recipes online, chose a a good one and worked out what ingredients we would need. We trundled down to the shops, and daughter took great delight in going off on her own to find ingredients in the supermarket (she is a big girl, after all). When we got home, my helper washed veggies and lugged the big pot out of the cupboard, then went off to play while I did the dangerous sharp and hot bits. She would reappear occasionally to steal some bits of carrot and dry noodles and to have a stir, and we would tell each other how good it all smelled. At last, it was ready. There was heaps. I filled old takeaway containers and tupperware and lined them up on the bench to cool – and there was still enough in the pot for dinner and lunch the next day. It was a balmy evening and we sat outside on the back step to eat. The soup was delicious and all was idyllic… until, after a few mouthfuls, daughter spoke.

“I don’t really like this.”

Needless to say, I was a bit sad. All that effort! All that excitement! All that soup!!

She had a good try and managed to get through half a bowl (mainly by eating the noodles), but I’m not a fan of forcing the poor thing to eat stuff she genuinely doesn’t like, so I eventually relented and made her a vegemite sandwich.

The lesson I took away from this little episode was about expectation. We form expectations about all kinds of things, big and small. But life so rarely delivers on them – and it’s easy to be left feeling deflated, disappointed and/or pissed off. I know some people who try to avoid all expectation as a way of practising detachment, but that doesn’t work for me. I end up expecting myself to not have expectations (oh, the irony!), and getting frustrated when I inevitably fail. Instead, I try to acknowledge and manage my expectations. They aren’t always realistic, and if (when!) something falls short, I am able to see that maybe the problem was with my expectation, rather than an error or shortcoming of the person/event/food involved. This isn’t a mechanism to enable self-blame. Instead, it’s a way of keeping things in perspective, and of taking ownership of what’s going on in my head rather than externalising responsibility.

This is one of those life lessons I have learned repeatedly, and will continue to forget and learn again and again. Like my chicken soups, the lesson is slightly different each time. And, if I’m lucky, the end products of both will be increasingly delicious.

Comfort Food

I must confess, I am a comfort eater.

When stressed out or upset, in the throes of PMS, or just plain bored I can eat an inordinate amount of chocolate, doughnuts, or any other delight full of sugar and grease. I have eaten half my weight in peanut m&ms, and not batted an eyelid. I once melted butter, mixed in brown sugar, called it ‘caramel’ and ate it on a slice of bread. I have been known to literally eat a spoonful of sugar to cheer myself up – good ol’ Mary Poppins was not wrong. I have a snickers bar in my pocket right now. True story. I acknowledge that carbohydrates and saturated fat are not a healthy way of dealing with difficult situations. I have also come to accept the fact that this is a coping mechanism I am not ready to relinquish just yet.

This week saw ‘R U OK Day’ providing a national reminder to enquire meaningfully as to how the people around us are coping with life. Although geared specifically towards suicide prevention, asking with genuine care how someone is going can open real conversations about mental and emotional health; it can provide a space for people to speak out before things reach crisis point. It’s important to remember that answering ‘no’ to the question ‘are you ok?’ is not a sign of weakness.

This week, I didn’t go out of my way to ask others ‘R U OK?’. I do this in the course of my everyday interactions with people, and my intuition often allows me to know the answer without needing to ask. Instead, I turned the question inward and asked it of myself. And the answer was, quite simply, no.

Lately, despite consuming vast amounts of rum n raisin chocolate, I have not really been ok.

I have been physically, mentally and emotionally stretched, further than at just about any other point in my life. I am a mother-wife-daughter-sister-colleague-student-writer-friend, and I often feel that I fall short of expectations in all of these roles. I can’t seem to manage one without letting the others slide. But let me be very clear – I’m talking about my own expectations here. This is not about how I am seen from the outside, by my wonderful and amazing network of family and friends, with their rather generous opinions of me. Rather, it is about how I perceive myself, what I expect of myself. And I expect a lot.

But don’t worry! Being able to admit (to myself, let alone to you, my adoring public!) to not-ok-ness is a huge step forward. Acknowledging the fact that I often feel overwhelmed, swamped, all at sea, completely scattered and amply less-able than I used to be is, for me, an important step in the road back to sanity. Some days I am not ok. But I always know that I will be. And that is such an important distinction. Because when someone loses their confidence in the future, their conviction that things will get better, that is when we need to worry.

A couple of months ago, I started seeing a psychologist. This is something I haven’t exactly kept a secret, but it’s not something I have broadly advertised, either… until now, I guess! I felt that things around me were spiralling out of control, that I was losing my grip and my ability to cope, and that this had the potential to seriously impact important aspects of my life – my family, study, work and friendships.

I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for my choices. I don’t like to indulge in self-pity or wallow in regret. I realised that in this, as in all things, I had a choice – not about the circumstances I was experiencing, but about how I reacted to them. I could passively watch my life unravel, becoming a victim of circumstance, or I could take steps to understand what was going on, to carefully deconstruct my life and piece it back together in a manageable way. I chose the latter, and booked myself in to see a psychologist. His name is Woolfie – he is a softly spoken German who looks a little like John Malkovich. Whatever stereotype you are imagining, you’re probably not far wrong. Seeing Woolfie isn’t easy. He doesn’t shy away from questions I hesitate to ask myself. We explore the mysteries of my subconscious using a metaphorical landscape – my inner cynic rolls her eyes at how corny it all is, but I know it’s doing me good, so I just give her the finger, placate her with the promise of malteasers, and push on.

So I guess that, after all, I am ok. Not great; not terrible. Ok. I’m firmly on the middle ground where things could go either way, depending on the moment. But actually, I’m more than ok – in the sense that I am on my way to a better way of being. I’m looking after myself (apart from my little sugar addiction… one little step at a time!), and that in turn will allow me to continue looking after those around me. In recent times I have well and truly bitten off more life than I can chew – but that doesn’t mean I’m choking. Instead I’m spitting it all out and starting over. And while I sort through the slimy, semi-masticated, uglyfood mess of my inner self, I take comfort in the delicious, hearty, warm and cosy sustenance afforded by the wonderful people around me… and also the confectionary aisle.

Egg on one’s face

I have lived out of home for well over a decade, and I have been making meals for more than half my life. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many omelettes I have made in my time, particularly over the last few years of having a small child and part-time work. Some nights creating even the most humble of omelettes is almost more than I can manage! You would think that this would be the kind of meal I could make with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back and yet sometimes (perhaps more regularly than I would like to admit) they turn out looking like the mess above. This is not the only area in my life where I should know what I’m doing and yet regularly make an apparent hash of things.

I am consistently 10-15 minutes late for work. This is because I always hit snooze on my alarm one too many times, because I have always stayed up just a little bit too late (or had a little too much wine) the night before. On the odd occasion when I do get to bed at a respectable hour, make it through a night of unbroken sleep and get up when the alarm first rings, everything else just falls into place – we get ready BEFORE we leave the house, we make it to the bus without running, we get to creche without drama, I get to work on time, I leave work on time, we get home in time for a proper dinner (not just an ugly omelette), we go to bed at our respective bedtimes ready to do it all again tomorrow. It seems so easy. TOO easy. Yet I have never managed to do it on two consecutive days. I have never managed to do it twice in the same week! Why haven’t I learned?

Similarly with parenting. I am newer to being a parent than I am to most things in my life. Still, I have close to 5 years of experience and by now I really should know the basics. In fact, I do know the basics – don’t let your child get overtired &/or very hungry; don’t get mad at your child if she’s playing up because she’s overtired &/or very hungry; have realistic, age-appropriate expectations of your child, especially when she’s overtired &/or very hungry. I know the basics, I just don’t live the basics. Time and again I will find myself engaged in a loud verbal battle with my near-hysterical daughter, having fixated on some minor misdemeanor of hers (snatching, not saying please, etc) whilst having conveniently neglected to remind myself that she is only 4years old, she had half a cruskit dipped in yoghurt for dinner, she has gone all day without a rest and it is now 8pm. Why. Haven’t. I. Learned??

Well, the truth is, I have learned. I’ve learned an awful lot, and I am still learning. I have learned that there are patterns of behaviour that are ingrained, whether through nature or nurture, that are extremely difficult to change – but there are ways around them. For instance, I remember being unfairly scolded as a child – but I don’t ever remember being apologised to for it. I have learned to be mindful of my reactions to my daughter’s behavior, and when I overreact I apologise and explain to her that sometimes I get tired and cranky too. I am learning to stop and think before I snap – I am, after all, the adult in the situation. I have the ability to apply self-control, even if I sometimes forget to.

I have learned that, while punctuality is important, there are other things in my life that I value more highly than being at my desk by 8:45am – things like sharing a glass of cheeky red and a long talk with my housemate; my husband reading aloud to me late at night, putting on silly voices to make me giggle; sitting by our daughter’s bed in the wee hours, soothing her back to sleep after a bad dream. These are the things that carry meaning in my life, small things, memories that I treasure.

I have learned to be kinder to myself, especially when I don’t meet my own expectations.

And I have learned that I know how to make delicious omelettes. They may not always look like they should, but they are quick, easy, tasty and nutritious. And, like so many things in life, the wonky bits can always be hidden under a layer of cheese…