An unexpected fork in the road

I am not a careful, planning type of person. A recent strengths assessment found that I am simultaneously strong in curiosity and weak in self-regulation. As a result, I’m a bit like that dog, Doug, in the movie Up, who was constantly chasing after squirrels and other shiny things. I relish the excitement of the new and the thrill of the chase.

On the other hand, I am also not very brave. In fact, bravery is at the very bottom of my list of strengths. It is a true weakness of mine. I would rather poke my eyes out with sticks than jump out of a plane. I am terrified of getting something wrong, getting injured, losing loved ones, going broke, becoming homeless and many other myriad, visceral fears. As you can imagine, this creates significant tension between the part of me that wants to go exploring new pathways and the part of me that would rather hide under my doona with a book and a nice cup of tea.

Now picture this: you have a 7 month old baby. Motherhood is not the blissful bubble you thought it would be. You’ve been diagnosed with postnatal depression and generalised anxiety disorder. You’re living in your mother’s small house with your husband, who’s in his first year of teaching. You go to a therapist and start to work your way through the maelstrom in your head and feel like you’re seeing progress. And then, suddenly, you find out you’re pregnant again.

On the list of unexpected things, an unplanned pregnancy is pretty epic. Especially when you’re already struggling.

Fast forward 9 months, and the baby is a non-stop screamer. She’s tiny and miserably unhappy and she doesn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time, day or night. Chronic sleep deprivation becomes your new normal. You enter yet another extremely steep learning curve on this motherhood journey; one filled with medical diagnoses, gastroenterologists, elimination diets and a very supportive reflux community.

Unexpected events can be terrifying when you feel like you have no control, and it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed by circumstance. Sometimes, everywhere you look there’s evidence piling up that life is shit and going downhill fast. In these moments you have to try to remember that you always have choices, even when you think you have none.

I returned to work when reflux babe was 10 months old, to a role where I had previously been valued as a hard worker and strategic thinker and given exciting projects to undertake. I hadn’t changed (apart from aging exponentially and growing and birthing two babies), but the way I was treated was dramatically different. Exciting projects were withheld from me because I was ‘only three days’. I was left out of meetings, and left to my own devices. I was bored shitless.

It was around this time I found out that an organisation like mine had something called a ‘Women’s Network’, to advocate for, empower and celebrate the women who worked there. I thought it sounded amazing, and I wanted one where I worked. So I started one myself, with the help of some fearless friends and colleagues. It wasn’t easy and we experienced almost constant pushback, but we kept building connections and gathering momentum until we had a network of nearly 300 women, divided into four activity streams, with a full 12 month calendar of events and initiatives, and two senior executive champions.

Once the network was up and running, I started to notice my mental health declining again, which seems to happen when I feel like I’m in a psychological cul-de-sac. And those rhetorical questions start going around and around: ‘What does it all mean? What’s my purpose? What do I really want out of life?’

I was lucky enough to get some pro-bono life coaching through a friend. While we were discussing the things that were most important to me, I mentioned that singing brings me huge amounts of joy. We explored some of the ways I might be able to indulge my singing and I said that I wished there was a choir where we all just sang indie pop songs in three part harmony. She said, ‘Why don’t you start one?’ and I laughed and laughed! How could someone like me start a choir? I have no formal training, no credentials and absolutely zero capital to invest.

The idea really got under my skin though, and started to percolate. I had already proved to myself that I could start something where nothing previously existed and that I was good at bringing people together for a common cause. I started researching and talking to people. I found a co-conspirator. I held an info night to test my town’s appetite for an indie pop choir and it was clear that this was something people wanted. So together with my lovely friend and co-founder, we wrote and sourced some arrangements of good indie pop songs, and we ran our first term of Mixtape Chorus. It was fun, and it worked and we continued to build it up until we had between 70 and 100 singers turning up every week, and several gigs organised.

In both of these situations, however, I reached a tipping point where I’d had enough. I became mentally and physically exhausted with the huge and ever-expanding operational requirements of both of these creations, and they brought me correspondingly less joy.

I felt terribly guilty for handing over and stepping down in both cases, but what I have since come to terms with is that I’m a maker, not an operator. It’s actually better for me to hand over my creations because once I’ve got them up and off the ground there are people out there who can take them and run them far more efficiently and effectively than me. And that is okay.

I’ve learned many lessons along the way, and I’d like to share three of them with you.

1. Know your strengths and use them. I am very good at enthusiastically convincing people to get on board my bus, but I am completely awful at navigating or planning the trip. I’m also not at all brave, but gosh I’m curious! When I find something challenging that requires me to work from a place of weakness, I now try to leverage my strengths. I use my curiosity to help me be brave.

2. Find your people. Following on from my previous tip, there will always be people who have strengths that you lack. And there will always be people who believe in you and want to help you bring your dream to life. Find those people to tread the unexpected paths with you. Find the people who can help you navigate and drive your projects. It’s much more fun with company and you’re more likely to reach the end in one piece.

3.Take the leap but don’t jump off the building. If you take the unexpected path, just take it one step at a time. It’s like following the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel (but hopefully you’re rewarded with a giant gingerbread house at the end of the trail instead of a child-eating witch). It’s much easier to step outside your comfort zone if you’re doing it little by little. Before you know it you will have done something you previously thought was not possible.

How about you? Have you ever taken a small leap and just followed the breadcrumbs to something awesome?


Getting through epic sleep deprivation

People kept saying to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it! Where do you get the energy?’ And to be honest, I wasn’t really sure how I was getting through it either. The grinding exhaustion of 20 months of relentless sleep deprivation is an exquisite torture that I never imagined I’d have the pleasure of knowing so intimately. But I did get through it; and relatively unscathed too (if you don’t count the wrinkles and grey hairs). So this post will be about how I did it and some possible options for you to look into if you’re staring down the barrel of yet another sleepless night with your baby or toddler.

First of all let’s examine the idea of resilience and tenacity. Most dictionaries define resilience as ‘the power or ability to return to the original form or position, after being bent, compressed, or stretched.’ Tenacity is defined as ‘holding fast’ or ‘persisting’. So let’s assume that to be both tenacious and resilient you need to be able to hold onto something strongly enough that no matter how much you’re bent or stretched, you’re still able to bounce back at the end.

So what makes some people more tenacious and more resilient than others? In my case it’s hope. I am always hopeful. In my heart of hearts I believe there’s got to be an answer to a problem or a positive outcome from a challenge. I never gave up hope that I would, one day, sleep again or that I would find the reason A was waking all night.

I’ve talked previously about finding my strength through my struggles and I think it’s probably true that I become more tenacious and more resilient the more I go through and overcome. Because the more you overcome, the greater the foundation for your hope the next time it’s challenged.

Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t just grit my teeth and bear it. I complained. Loudly. Frequently. It was cathartic, but it was also useful. Every time I had a public whinge on social media another new lead would open up. Ultimately it was a desperate plea on my Facebook page that resulted in a recommendation for a naturopath who confirmed that multiple ongoing food intolerances were the most likely cause of A’s night wakings.

As A is a reflux baby we’d already been through the ringer with elimination diets, but that was when she was a breastfed baby. This was now a fully weaned toddler. How on earth do you put a 20 month old through a full elimination diet!?

Enter the unproven (but not unscientific) method of food intolerance testing which checks your blood for the presence of food-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies. Unlike IgE antibodies, which occur in abnormally large quantities in people with allergies, IgG antibodies are found in both allergic and non-allergic people. A simple finger-prick test, it is not endorsed by either the medical community or the allergy community. But I was desperate for quick answers so I was willing to take a punt.

The test showed A was reacting moderately to gluten, nuts, rice and legumes. I was pretty skeptical, because gluten was the only one of those we identified when she was a baby, but for the sake of answers and a good night’s sleep I was willing to try eliminating them from her diet.

After three days A was sleeping through the night. I couldn’t believe it. It’s been two weeks now and the change is miraculous! Apart from the odd night where she grizzles about teeth or a cold, she is no longer the screaming banshee we used to deal with night after night. She’s also much more settled during the day. Less hyperactive and frenetic.

Aside from dealing with potential food intolerances to resolve night wakings, here are some other strategies I recommend to help you stay sane and keep you going.

1. Find something you love and that gives you energy and do it!

In my case I found that I could write, and loved it, no matter how tired I was. I also carved out a space for myself at work where I was helping people, and that made me happy too. When you’re doing something that engages and motivates you it gives you energy. So find that thing and do it.

2. Exercise!

I know, it seems completely counterintuitive when you are bone-weary and literally struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I’ve been there. I know; I hear you. But if there’s some form of exercise you used to love pre-baby (for me it’s yoga and swimming) then force yourself to do it. Take baby steps, don’t overdo it. Just go for a walk with the stroller at first, or take a racquet and ball down to the local school and do just a few hits. I promise you will feel better for it. There will be days your entire body is screaming at you but after you exercise (and subsequently take in massive amounts of fresh oxygen) your body will thank you for it.

3. Sleep whenever you can, and call on help to enable it.

Sleep on the bus on the way to work. Take a nap in your lunch break. Go to bed early. Do whatever it takes. Call friends or family to watch your older child/ren while you take a power nap. Sleep deprivation will kill you in the end, after it’s caused you vast physical and psychological damage. Don’t let it.

I hope anyone suffering out there finds the answer to their sleep deprivation woes quickly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy! As always, I love to hear your thoughts below in the comments.