A pox on our house (or: anti-vaxxers, you SUCK)

Here’s the imaginary conversation I had with an anti-vaxxer every night at 2am during the week we nursed Finn through chicken pox, which was two weeks ago. Last week we were still in recovery (still scabbing, still social pariahs), and this week we are tackling hand, foot and mouth disease, because childcare is the gift that keeps giving when it comes to illnesses. So yeah, lots of time to sit in the rocking chair with a crying baby and imagine what I’d say to whoever it was who didn’t vaccinate their kid and it ended up in our childcare infecting all the little ones too young for their own vaccination.

ME: Ohhhh, why us? Why our little baby? This is shit! He’d be immune in six months, after his shots. Just six months and this would have been avoided! I hate everything!

ANTI-VAXXER: But, aren’t you pleased he’s been immunised NATURALLY? This is the way nature intended!

ME: Oh yeah, a totally uncontrolled dose way before his little body is able to handle it! It’s natural the way bushfires and cancer are natural! Everything sucks!

ANTI-VAXXER: You need to get over yourself! Chicken pox is a MILD CHILDHOOD ILLNESS!

ME: I know it is, usually. But not always, as I discovered when I made the mistake of consulting Dr Google. And Finn’s has gotten infected, his temperature’s out of control, last night I slept on the floor next to his cot because his breathing wasn’t right and the home visit doctor couldn’t send anyone out to check on him and I was too worried to leave him alone. And now he needs antibiotics, which is the last thing anyone needs, let alone a baby. Wahhh!

A-V: You know, we all had chicken pox when we were kids. And we’re all FINE!

ME: I know! I had it when I was 14, it was unpleasant and I scratched myself to bits but mostly I remember watching Sister Act every day with my sister, who was quarantined with the same illness. And more to the point, I knew what was happening to me! Finn has no idea! He just knows he feels really, really shit. And why should a baby feel that way, especially for a preventable illness? Why should he have to suffer? This is not character building! This is not teaching him an important life lesson. This is something he shouldn’t have to deal with. A suffering baby is the worst thing in the world. How do parents of truly sick children cope with this? Day in, day out? How do you live with yourself, knowing your unscientific views lead to this kind of suffering – unpleasant, but short-lived with no long-term consequences, despite my histrionics – but also much, much worse?

A-V: Because vaccines are mostly a conspiracy between government and pharmaceutical companies.

ME: Dr House already explained that. Also, I work for the government and trust me when I say we are not organised enough for a conspiracy.

A-V: You know vaccines cause autism, right?

ME: OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE

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Reclaiming ordinary

My mum saw a blackboard outside a café once (I think that’s what it was) that made her mad. If it were me, a misplaced or missing apostrophe is what would get my goat. But mum? Mum was mad that the hand written sign was imploring her to live an extraordinary life.

‘What’s wrong with an ordinary life?’ she huffed.

I’ve grown up surrounded by messages to be extraordinary, so I think I’m a bit immune. Is this a recent thing? I feel like once upon a time, there was maybe more value placed on just living an ordinary, good life. Apart from the fact there was no internet to make you think there was something wrong with your life, I suspect most people just couldn’t afford to imagine anything much different to working and raising a family – and that’s if you were lucky. There were also different social norms that came with certain expectations around what was considered “normal”, which was not necessarily a good thing. I might be romanticising the past, of course. Readers older than me (uncle John) please feel free to set me right.

I’m talking about messages like: Do one thing each day that scares you. A life lived in fear is a life half lived. Do something you love and never work a day in your life. Every single meme in my Facebook feed. Sunrises and seascapes and triumphant people wearing expensive hiking clothes standing on clifftops with their arms in the air, all encouraging me to be extraordinary, to live my dreams, to hope, to believe. The signs on the walls at Emma’s gymbaroo class, imploring me to feel joy, every moment of every day of my beautiful life. Girls at the gym wearing singlets telling me to run faster, jump higher, dance like nobody’s watching. Entire sections of the bookshop dedicated to living a life less ordinary, to taking the road less travelled, to feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Inspiring articles everywhere I look about people who left the corporate rat race to sell jewellery or make natural cleaning products or grow their own kale. Yoga teachers who spend the meditation telling me I’m amazing and haven’t yet discovered my own potential, when they don’t even know me or my potential. Tony Robbins and all the people like him – an industry that’s popped up encouraging us to want to be extraordinary, a whole industry, an actual job called motivational speaker. I barely notice it anymore. The whole (Western) world is one big pep talk.

But mum’s right, of course, as she almost always is. There’s nothing wrong with an ordinary life, and thank goodness for that, because it’s what most of us end up living. We might have glimpses of the extraordinary – even mum’s been 4WD-ing in East Timor, after all – but wherever we are, whatever we do with our days, whoever we spend them with, most of it is utterly, relatively ordinary. And I think it’s time to reclaim that. To see the dignity and value in it. It’s enough to be good enough, to be a good enough partner and parent and friend and colleague. It’s enough to work – in fact for most of us, “doing what we love” is a privilege we can’t afford or just don’t have. It’s enough to have a hobby that everyone else has (cycling if you’re a man aged over 30) or no one else has (yes I’m still enjoying jazzercise classes), and to spend time with people you like, and to have the occasional holiday. It’s enough to feel sad some days, and joyful other days, and to take your family and health for granted sometimes, and be overcome with gratitude other times. It’s enough to eat good food sometimes, and crap food other times, and watch good TV sometimes, and crap TV other times, and read the books you want to read even though you know they’re also crap. It’s all enough, and we should never feel that it isn’t. Indeed, if this is your life, you are already incredibly privileged and to think there should be any more than that – or else there is something wrong with you, or the life you are living – is almost perverse.

I have friends who live by inspiring Facebook memes and I love those friends. I love how they approach life and I come away from our conversations feeling inspired and interested in everything, which is exactly how friends should make you feel. And I would never want people who naturally gravitate towards this sort of philosophy – or who want to – to rein it in. I want them to keep posting sunsets and cute baby gorillas and inspiring quotes from historical figures in fancy font. All I’m doing – for myself, for my sanity – is reclaiming the word ‘ordinary’. And if your Facebook feed and all the blackboards outside cafes are making you feel like the ordinary life you’re pretty happy with is actually something you should be ashamed of – something that needs fixing – then feel free to join me. Because it’s not. You, in your ordinariness, are perfectly fine. Ordinary is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice if it’s what you want. Even if it will never spawn an aspirational lifestyle website a la Gwyneth or earn you a book deal. I hope to enjoy a long, healthy life as a decent human being and if I can achieve that, that’s extraordinary enough for me.

Oh so quiet

I come from a family of introverts and we are currently passing around my sister’s copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Is it too dramatic to say it’s changing our lives, as my sister said? Probably. In any case it is changing the way we are thinking of ourselves, and our place in an extrovert’s world.

I’ve always known I was an introvert, but I kind of thought all it really meant was the way I recharge my batteries – to fuel my social and work life – was to be alone. After a weekend visiting rellies when we were kids, our family would all retreat to our bedrooms or other nooks in the house and not speak to each other for hours. We loved seeing our family and friends but we got ‘peopled out’ as mum and dad called it, and needed that time alone. That’s what I thought being an introvert meant. And it is.

But it’s so much more. Oh so much more. Here is a list of stuff I don’t like, and/or feel a deep discomfort about, which apparently can also be explained by my introversion.

Meetings. (Oh, how I hate meetings. The bigger they are, the more I hate them.)

Group brainstorm sessions. (Nothing kills creativity like butcher’s paper and a scribe.)

Open plan offices. (I love a gossip as much as the next person, but my favourite desk ever was the one where I was tucked away and no one knew if I was there or not. It helped that I’m 5 foot 1 of course, you could probably see a taller person.)

Team sports. (I’d rather do just about anything else.)

Any kind of conflict or confrontation. (Even if it’s fairly minor, even if it doesn’t involve me. I can’t even watch Q&A without squirming and usually have to turn it off.)

Any religion that involves hundreds or thousands of people being really loud – Hillsong I’m looking at you. (Not just a family of introverts, but a family of Catholics, a religious tradition with a greater focus on solitude and quiet reflection.)

There are also many of my own behaviours and habits which I thought were just that, but perhaps many of these too can be explained by introversion.

For example, I thought my well-tuned sense of guilt was a result of the aforementioned Catholic upbringing, but it appears to be an introvert’s trait as well. If I think I might have upset or offended someone with a careless comment, it haunts me for days or weeks. Even years later I might think of it and feel a sudden rush of shame.

If I feel ashamed like that, when I feel I’ve done or said something wrong, I tend to retreat into myself. I often can’t even bring myself to say ‘sorry’, not right away anyway, because I’m so withdrawn and I find it difficult to initiate contact in that state. This is why you might get an apology from me a year after the fact – it’s not that I wasn’t sorry before, it’s just it sometimes takes me that long to get over the shame, to stop withdrawing, and then plan out what I want to say and when.

On the lighter side, I also suddenly understand why I might actually like running despite years of claiming and believing I hated it, why I like parties but need to have decent one-on-one conversations while I’m at them or else I come away feeling frazzled and drained, why I’ve had the same hobby since I was 10 and yet have never been able to get competitive about it, and why I’m not too nervous about public speaking but come across as incredibly nervous when I do it.

Another random example is that sometimes I feel like I’ve shared some private information with someone too soon – we might consider ourselves friends, or on the way to moving from acquaintances to friends, but then I share some kind of personal information and I often see the surprise in their faces. I am a pretty boring person with a boring life so it’s never anything particularly juicy, and to me it doesn’t feel like a big deal, and I don’t know how else you can become real friends other than sharing personal details, but later when I think about it I realise they have never told me anything like that about themselves or their life. I’ve never really known what that was about, because it’s never anything scandalous or awkward, but now I get it.

I feel somehow liberated by the fact that all these quirks of mine – some of them seemingly at odds with each other like enjoying running and the gym but despising team sports – can be explained by introversion. The book argues that once you understand your quirks and how they fit into your life, you can start arranging your life – how you spend your time, and how you organise your physical space – in order to keep yourself at your best and happiest. She talks about ‘restorative niches’ that give you this time and space, whether they be physical spaces (like hiding in the bathroom at work), time (like avoiding Sunday socialising if you know you have a big Monday at work, or something else (like sitting in the corner at meetings so you can observe rather than sit in the middle of all the action). I love the phrase ‘restorative niche’ and so now if I cancel a date with you with a flimsy reason it’s not because I don’t love you, it’s just I’m seeking out a ‘restorative niche’ so I can be a better friend the next time I see you.

I love how the book argues that introversion is not something you should hide in order to be successful at whatever it is you do. Introversion comes with lots of positive traits that should help in whatever you do, even if your field is not one traditionally known for its introverts – for example being a great listener can help you be a great salesperson. You might need to put on an ‘act’ at times, but as long as you’re carving out your restorative niches and being fundamentally true to yourself, you’ll be fine.

I also love how the book made me realise that the world is built for extroverts – it’s not that I’m not built for the world and there is something ‘wrong’ with me because I am happy to spend a day doing team-building exercises but then I’d love to just not talk to anyone after that. So many things we take for granted are perfect for extroverts, and are aimed at building skills and achieving goals we think are important because it’s an extrovert’s world. Making school children sit in little groups rather than in rows or at individual desks. Group assignments at uni counting for massive chunks of your grade. Open place office space, face to face meetings, public speaking, roundtables, forums, conferences, networking dinners, meet and greets, support groups. It all assumes we all love to be with each other, all the time.

And many of us introverts assume these are necessary evils in the world that we must just put up with. They reflect a world, as the book’s subtitle says, ‘that can’t stop talking’. The habits and traits that are supported and celebrated by these activities have come to be seen as desirable, if not vital. We know this because parents worry about how their shy children will fare at school or in the workplace, even if their children seem perfectly happy and intelligent and otherwise normal. Even as adults many of us probably assume that if we don’t want to chair a meeting or give a talk or go to whatever obligatory fun has been organised that we won’t get very far in our careers. But we shouldn’t assume that – instead we should work on our restorative niches so we can do what we need to at work to get to where we want to be.

The final thing I’m taking away from the book is that next time I’m at a conference, instead of being overwhelmed by all the people at morning tea and thinking to myself “I must network” and getting really stressed about the fact that I’ve been paid to go to this really interesting thing and now I’m not even going to meet anyone, I’ll happily take up those conversations started by others and focus on those. They are probably introverts too, with more experience than me, who have gotten to the point where they are comfortable to just go up to one other person, to have one ten-minute conversation over a caramel slice and a cup of tea, and that’s the extent of their networking. I can totally do that, and learn how to be the one to initiate it too, while the extroverts stand in groups telling hilarious anecdotes and planning drinks and dinners and swapping business cards.

As you can tell there is a lot I could say about this book, but the short of it is if you’re an introvert, you’ll probably like it and if you do let me know and we can have a one-on-one conversation about it. If you’re an extrovert but you’re married to an introvert or have introverted children or you’re surrounded by introverts at work and you don’t understand why we don’t talk at meetings and prefer reading to team sports and hate it when you invite someone over at short notice when we were planning a nice evening of pad Thai and Mad Men, you also might get something out of it. There’s something for everyone.

Lessons in Humility (Part 6: Love)

This is my last lesson in humility to share about the very animalistic process of becoming a parent. Despite my smugness at being super prepared for having a baby, I was completely kicked in the butt right from the beginning with a pregnancy that gave me 17 kilos, ‘morning’ sickness, sinus issues and dizzy spells, going on to a birth plan that did not go exactly according to plan with a 26-hour drug-free labour that was as fun as it sounds and finally a weeks-long recovery that was much tougher than I could have anticipated. None of this makes me special, in fact it makes me very lucky in the grand scheme of things. But it’s still been a good lesson in how amazing our bodies are, how not in control we are, and how it doesn’t matter how many yoga classes we go to or books we read, nothing can ever prepare us for this process. This final lesson is the biggest, the most important, and the only one that I will never forget because it will be a part of me until the day I die.

Within minutes of Emma being born, while she was still writhing around on my chest, all naked and slippery and screamy while Toby tried to clean up poo with paper towels and the doctor was still busy at the other end of the bed, I had a stark realisation that kept hitting me over and over again, and still does.

This is how mum and dad feel about me.

That realisation was probably the most humbling of the whole experience of becoming a parent. I’m not one of those people who thinks having children is the only way to truly understand life, or the world, or even love, I’m really not. But I’m not sure one could ever fathom a parent’s love without being a parent yourself.

I loved her immediately, not in a lightning bolt kind of way but in an entirely natural, this-is-how-it-was-meant-to-be way. There was nothing she could do or say that would change that. Whether I was gagging at a messy nappy, begging her to stop crying, cursing her for having too short a nap, wishing for time to myself, envying friends’ nights out or overseas trips, I loved her. I missed her immensely when we weren’t in physical contact, even if she was just asleep in the pram while we were shopping. Now she’s older the sounds of her laugh and babbling are pretty much the best things I’ve ever heard. Every day I watch her do something, or even do nothing, and marvel at how utterly perfect she is. When she’s asleep she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. When she’s awake she makes me laugh like nothing else, and my heart leaps now she’s able to recognise me from a distance and her face breaks into a grin and her legs kick in excitement and I still can’t believe she’s ours.

And all the while, I am completely overwhelmed by the knowledge that there are two people who feel exactly the same way about me.

I am lucky, because I know not everyone is in the same boat as me. I’m lucky to feel this way about my baby, and lucky to know, to have always known deep down – even when they were disappointed or angry or tired or busy – that mum and dad loved us to pieces. I’ve always known that, in the way you know the sun will rise and the sky is blue and all those other things you take for granted because that’s the way the world is. But I’ve never understood, not really, even though I love them to pieces as well. But it’s different. Suddenly I understand how they must feel when we move out of home, or miss curfew, or travel around Europe on a motorbike, or have our hearts broken. I get why they tell their friends when we win awards or get new jobs or graduate uni. Even with all our flaws and quirks, they think we’re perfect. And that is a humbling thought.

Because this is how I feel about Emma, I also know now that I don’t have to worry about making anything up to them – they don’t need anything from us, because they would do anything, have done everything, for us. But just in case, I gave them a granddaughter.