Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Celebrity Mum

One of the parents at my daughter’s school is an honest-to-God celebrity.

She co-hosts a highly-rated prime-time talk show. It’s in Finnish, of course, so I don’t understand an awful lot of it, but even my husband (harsh and snide tv critic) watches the show avidly, commenting that it’s clever and funny.

The first time I met Celebrity Mum, I had absolutely no idea she was famous. We were picking our respective children up from a birthday party, and we got chatting. I innocently asked her, “So, what do you do?”

She looked at me with confusion – I guess she doesn’t get that question very often. Suddenly her face softened into understanding. She grinned broadly and with obvious relief, realising that I genuinely had no idea who she was.

CM: “I’m a…journalist.”
Me: “Oh, really? Do you work for a newspaper?”
CM: “Actually, I’m in tv.”

I'm ON tv, to be exact. A few questions later I finally caught on, realising that she was a “journalist” in the same way that Barack Obama is a “public servant”.

I didn’t realize quite how famous she was until one afternoon when my daughter had a few friends over for a playdate. CM came to pick up her little girl right at the same time as another mum friend of mine, S (whose child goes to a different school). I could see an instant glimmer of recognition in S’s eyes, but she said nothing and just chatted warmly with CM. Later, though, she called me.

“Oh my God. Is that who I think it was? You do know, don’t you, that she is about as famous as a person can possibly be in Finland?”

And then, at my daughter’s birthday party, my 13-year-old niece saw CM dropping off her daughter, and literally freaked out. Go and say hello, I said. She’s so nice! But my niece was completely star-struck and overcome, and could only gaze at CM, slack-jawed and in awe, from a safe distance.

I like CM. She is warm and friendly. She is cheerful and funny; self-deprecating and real. At our girls’ recent Christmas concert, she was the mum who landed a seat in the very back row, and with quiet eagerness stood up on her chair for a better view of her daughter. I asked her once, in all seriousness, if she uses some special product to keep her daughter’s hair shiny and tangle-free (no joke, this kid has perfect hair, even at pick-up time, when my own daughter’s is frizzy, bedraggled and hopelessly knotted). CM almost killed herself laughing – big, stomach-grabbing guffaws! – finally exclaiming how funny it was to hear me say that, seeing as it was a miracle if she even brushed F’s hair every day.  

She’s just so genuine and personable.

And yet, at every school concert and every birthday party, CM is the mum sitting by herself, without anyone to talk to. Everyone who knows Who She Is apparently feels too intimidated to approach her, and she seems somehow shy and withdrawn in these big social situations. If I’m the Mum who rushes around waving and hugging people, and talking excitedly (and just that little bit too loudly), CM is the mum who stands by quietly; smiling in a friendly way but remaining on the outer; giving other people the limelight.

It must be strange to be in her position. As a star with a huge fan base to protect and nurture, you would want to be friendly and social wherever you go. At the same time, you would have to be so careful (especially with Finns) not to paint yourself as a show-off who always seeks the limelight. People might behave awkwardly around you, feeling tongue-tied or awestruck because you’re that lady who’s on national tv. People might watch you with intent, waiting for you to do or say something stupid that they could report to the media. People might try to misuse photos they’d taken of you or your daughter.

She is famous and successful and widely loved and admired, and yet she is a virtual outsider within her own peer group.

That must really suck.

I had always thought it would be fantastic to achieve that level of stardom – to be a national figure. And yet, in many ways, wouldn’t it be awful?

I’m an ordinary person; unknown outside my immediate circle of friends and family; just another mum.  I blend comfortably into the crowd. People treat me like one of themselves. 

I never before realized what a great thing that really is.  

I'd really like to hear your opinion, so please leave me a comment. If you're interested in reading more of my posts, please scroll up and subscribe to my blog, or follow me by email to get new posts sent to your inbox. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Praise of Nerds

I have lived outside Australia for almost 13 years of my adult life, in two different countries. Both my adopted homes (Japan and Finland) are full of people who speak excellent English, but rarely as a first language.

Over the years I have become so tolerant of quirks in non-native speakers' English pronunciation and grammar that as long as I can understand the intended meaning, I literally don’t notice mistakes any more. I even find myself absorbing errors unconsciously into my own speech (“We’re leaving now. Do you come with us?”),and I’ve started to second-guess myself on basic grammatical points (“If I was rich”? “If I were rich”?)

All this has raised interesting questions inside my head. What is the purpose of the English language in today’s day and age? Has it actually become THE universal language? Given the different versions of English spoken in Australia, America, England, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, India, and countless other communities worldwide, how hard should we try to find and maintain certain basic standards of grammar, usage, and pronunciation? Is it actually possible - or even necessary - to keep the English language pure, and free from errors and laxity and rule-breaking (deliberate or otherwise)?

I have always been a bit of a purist in matters of English language usage. If I’m nonchalant to the point of over-generosity in allowing non-native speakers to make mistakes, I am absolutely the opposite when it comes to my own English and that of my native speaker friends. I cannot help but cringe inwardly when well-educated friends (even people with close to 20 years’ formal education in Australia or America) write things like this, not even realising that they've made an error:

“Your kind words meant a lot to Tom and I.” 

“Here are some photo’s for you!”

Naturally, I’m not going to correct my friends’ usage. My inner purist generally leads a softly-spoken and subdued existence, and is mindful of one friend’s excellent observation: “There’s a fine line between being grammatically correct and being a tosser.”

Besides, it’s not easy to be an English purist in today’s world.

A language used so differently in so many different countries in a fast-moving world is, by definition, going to need to be dynamic; arguably, this is one of those situations where substance is much more important than form. And besides, English speakers have no real equivalent of the “L'Académie française” language police agency that exists in France, telling people definitively what the rules are and how they should be followed. Today, you can consult the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s, and the Macquarie Dictionary, only to find three conflicting opinions as to what is correct, what is archaic or literary but not necessarily incorrect, and what is just plain wrong.

I have to ask myself – should I just let it go, and let people use English in whichever way they choose? If I understand what they’re saying, why should it matter if they misplace apostrophes, take liberties with spelling and grammar, write in run-on sentences, or use text-ese in emails? Writers (especially bloggers) write to be heard, and their message is what's important here. And besides, let's face it, many people my age were never actually taught English grammar at school; their teachers very likely didn't even know the rules well enough to correct mistakes effectively.

And yet, I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of solid, well-written English. Last night, in my Facebook status update, I noted idly that suddenly everyone suddenly seemed to be using the word “whilst”, and wondered whether I was alone in my cluelessness about the difference between that word and “while”. There are 20 comments in that thread so far, and while this may merely reflect the fact that I am a nerd who has lots of nerdy friends, when one friend commented gleefully how much she enjoyed this kind of debate, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly.

My conclusion is that the English language today has two very different and distinct existences.

One “English”is the common language we use to get by in the world today. We speak and write to be understood. We tolerate mistakes (both our own and those of others). We become familiar with different “dialects” without insisting that people necessarily conform to our own linguistic idiosyncrasies. This English is the language of the internet, and the default language of the world media. We need this English to bridge divides of language and culture and to bring people closer together. We don’t – can’t –sweat the technicalities.

The other “English” is the English of classic literature; of good, satisfying grammatical debates; of spelling bees; of people who seek elegant turns of phrase and the beautifully correct use of difficult grammatical structures, and who delight in sharing their journey with others. We might break the rules sometimes, but we still want and need to know what those rules are, and we delight in arguing with like-minded people about linguistic grey areas.

My observation is that it’s become socially acceptable (even for native English speakers) to opt out of learning the second kind of English.

And maybe that’s perfectly ok.

Learning any language properly is a difficult, time-consuming task, and it’s arguable that in today’s world it is not strictly necessary to apply oneself to this task – it’s entirely possible to get by, and even do extremely well in life, without perfect grammar or spelling.

On the other hand, those who opt out of mastering their native language to a high level of accuracy will miss out on something - unquestionably. They will miss out on the thrill and satisfaction of mastering a difficult skill, and the sense of quiet pride that comes with the pursuit of accuracy and elegance. Excellence is, by definition, very difficult to attain, but investing time and effort in striving hard for excellence is one of the most fulfilling things a human being can do.

For their own sakes, I hope that in opting out of language mastery, people do not opt out of mastery per se. I sincerely hope that the time and effort that is saved is re-directed into pursuing excellence at something else. There are too many rush-jobs and corners cut and too much “winging it” in the overwhelming busy-ness of today’s world. The English language aside, everyone should know the quiet joy and satisfaction of being a nerd and a purist.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Lately, some of my Mum friends have tried to sell me on the merits of iPad - not for myself, but as a toy for my 2 year old. The perfect, portable, kid-friendly, multi-dimensional entertainment system, that keeps toddlers quiet at the supermarket, at restaurants, while waiting in line, when Mum is busy with a sibling, or when Mum is exhausted and all out of patience and just does not have it in her to engage, patiently and smilingly, for one more second.

Don’t get me wrong - I understand completely why so many people are hooked on iPad-As-Talented-Babysitter. I sympathize absolutely and wholeheartedly with the desire for a quick and easy fix when you’re struggling to entertain your kids, and I don’t deny that iPad certainly does deliver.

This doesn’t mean I agree that giving iPads to small children is a good idea. Not only do I disagree, but in the privacy of my own mind I disagree with a passion that surprises me. Here’s why:

- It’s not a Magna Doodle. It’s a several-hundred-euro piece of high-tech machinery. It’s a bit much to rely on a 2 year old to be consistently “gentle” and “careful”. I would prefer not to see several hundred euros hurled at the floor or drowned in the toilet.

- iPad may be more interactive than a DVD, but it’s still “screen time”, and very attractive screen time at that. How easy is it, really, to restrict a child’s use of this fascinating toy to isolated 10- or 20-minute periods? How quickly does that screen time stretch into an hour or more?  Many of us (myself included) often turn a deaf ear to experts' warnings about screen time. It seems like such
a lot of work - too much work - to keep children occupied without DVDs or iPads. But I've realised over time that, ironically, those wonderful pockets of silence tend to come at a surprisingly high price. Periods of DVD-watching seem to make my children tired, irritable and difficult. The same amount of time spent on craft, puzzles, book-reading, or drawing seems to make them happy and energized. I know which result I prefer.

- iPad is easy for small children to use, and that worries me. The whole idea of things like crayons, puzzles, Duplo, etc., is that they seem simple, but are in fact highly challenging to small children. Trying and trying and finally managing to draw a circle, stick together two legos, or similar, children feel immensely satisfied, not to mention builds their dexterity and intelligence at a rate of knots.

- Small children need and want other human beings (preferably parents) to play with them, or at least to be a nearby, comforting presence who is ready to engage as needed. iPad doesn’t give them this.


I know that many (or most) mums are exhausted, strung out, and operating way beyond the limits of their own resources, and I don’t want to take away their coping mechanisms. At the same time, I know that deep down it’s not just me who senses, uneasily and perhaps without knowing exactly why, that iPads are not the right answer to our stressed-parent dreams.

“All right, Smug Annoying Parent”, I can hear you thinking. “What’s your answer, then? What do I do with my toddler or preschooler when I’m waiting in a 30-minute queue at the post office or at a doctor’s office? Or when we’re eating lunch at a restaurant and I’d like to enjoy even a few minutes’ quiet conversation with my adult friends? Or when we are at Older Sibling’s gym/ballet/music lesson and I have to keep Younger Sibling quiet and entertained in a restricted space?”

I am ready to put my money where my mouth is on this one. Here are a few ideas (personally tried and tested on my own children):

Low-tech, highly portable ways to keep your 2- or 3- year old quietly and happily amused in a small space:

- Plain white paper and crayons

- A 20-piece jigsaw puzzle (kept in a ziplock bag)

- One or more mandarins (make the child peel them by him or herself!)

- A pack of raisins

- A sheet of cheap stickers and paper to stick them onto

- A padlock and keys (try a few different-sized padlocks for added challenge)

- 10 Duplo lego squares and a few lego men/animals

- Maisy Mouse or other compact & light paperback picture books (I like to entertain myself by reading Maisy to my kids in a shockingly terrible imitation of Neil Morrissey)

- A pack of cards (preferably kids’ “memory” or “match” cards) for playing snap or the memory game

- One of those laminated cards with sticky plastic pictures that can be repeatedly stuck on and re-used (airlines often give them out)

- Shoelace-sewing cards, if your child can manage these

- Finger puppets

- I am sure you have lots of other ideas – please share them in the comments section!


I have a small bag pre-packed with several of these items. I’ve found that, on a good day, the first three alone can be enough to last the entire hour of Big Sister’s kung fu class. Obviously, some of these require more adult assistance than others, at least initially, but it’s worth putting in that upfront effort, since often once small children get the hang of something they will happily and proudly and do the same thing all by themselves, over and over again (e.g. my almost-3 year old, having mastered a particular jigsaw puzzle, will usually pull it apart again and re-do it, quietly and with great satisfaction, even 4 or 5 times in a row!)

We CAN keep our children happy and occupied, AND do it without going crazy, AND without relying on iPad. Steve Jobs was a genius and a visionary, but I respectfully decline his help in looking after my children.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Living in HEL

I am getting just the teensiest bit sick of my expat friends’ new nickname for my newest home city. Their tweets and FB status updates are full of it.

“Our holiday is over, and I’m back in HEL!”

“Made double-choc-fudge brownies. A little slice of heaven here in HEL.”

“8:30 am and it is still pitch black here in HEL.”

And so on, and so on. My teeth are gritted behind my forced smile.

Anywhere as far north as Helsinki is GRIM in November and December, sure. It’s freezing, it’s dark, and it’s the time of year when homesick expats are (quite understandably) thinking longingly of the warmer, brighter cities they left behind them.

All the same, this Helsinki-bashing is really starting to tick me off.

Yes, it’s cold. Yes, daylight is limited to 6+ hours a day, and many of those hours have been dismally cloudy lately. But you know what?


Far from being hell on earth, Helsinki is a seriously great place to live. If you honestly believe this is a shitty place to be, you are a spoiled brat who deserves a stint in some city that truly IS god-forsaken and hellish – somewhere that not only fails to provide you with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Hershey’s Kisses, but also forces you to pee into a hole in the ground, drink water that gives you the runs, deny your children the gift of education and put them to work at age 10 instead, and watch as people get sick and die from malaria or cholera.

Things I love about Helsinki:

1. The government takes care of you. Full-time public childcare (staffed by well-trained and competent people) costs 250 euros per month. Medical care is free, or so heavily subsidized that it might as well be free. Recently I had a badly-sliced finger glued miraculously back together at the emergency room. I waited less than 15 minutes to see a doctor. I paid 25 euros.

2. Everything is so easy with kids. If you have a child in a stroller, you and your child can take public transport free of charge. There are parks and kids’ play centres absolutely everywhere. These parks are used heavily by Helsinki families. It was a breeze to make friends when we first moved here.

3. This is the land of educational excellence. School teachers in Finland are required to have the minimum of a Masters’ degree, and Finnish school children are among the best performers world-wide (see HERE for further raving on that subject). Many people speak English to a level of excellence that will blow your mind.

4. Helsinki is not very big, so you can get to know it pretty well in a surprisingly short time. Despite its compact size, it has plenty of decent shopping, Michelin-starred restaurants, and world-class entertainment (U2, Maroon 5 and Britney Spears have all performed here in the past year or so).

5. No matter what people may have told you about Finns being shy/retiring/grumpy/anti-social, it just isn’t true. I have found Finns to be warm and welcoming, with a wry sense of humour. And, despite their (often excellent) fluency in English, they still have endless patience for foreigners’ train-wreck attempts at the Finnish language.

6. In the summer, the sun shines endlessly, and it’s never properly dark, even at 11 pm.

Do I really need to go on?

Helsinki does have a few less-than-lovable sides, but so does every single other fricking city in this world, no exceptions. The longer I live here, though, the more convinced I am that it really might be the world’s most livable city.

To those whining expats among my friends, who apparently have forgotten everything they ever disliked about their home city, and who clearly don’t know when they are onto a good thing, I have only one thing to say:

Stop your whining, or go to hell.

* Since I first posted this, it has been pointed out to me that I was unnecessarily angry/judgmental in my rantings. I tend to agree. See here for something on the same subject, but a tad more thoughtful and empathetic.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fat and happy?

It is December, and just like last year, suddenly my bathroom scale is insisting that I’ve put on nearly three kilos since the summer ended.

I would pretend that it happened due to forces beyond my control, were it not for certain damning evidence to the contrary.

[The prosecution exhibits to the jury a large pile of crumpled chocolate wrappers and one tiny wedge of brie remaining out of a festive 3-pack of massive cheesy wheels…The jurors recoil in horror, sickened at such gluttony. The defendant jumps to her feet, pleading dramatically “No! Don’t show them any more! I confess! I am guilty as charged!”]

Last year (my first year of living in Finland) I got mildly panicky right about now. I couldn’t stop comfort-eating. I couldn’t stop gaining weight. I could actually feel my fat cells plumping themselves to a round succulence. Long-suffering Nordic-boy husband got a tearful earful.  He listened patiently. He looked genuinely baffled. He finally said, “But…everyone puts on weight in winter.”

No! Why would they? It is unhealthy and unnatural for one’s weight to fluctuate with the seasons, surely. I was convinced that the extra fat was there to stay, and all because of my complete lack of self-control during this season of hot chocolate and over-availability of luscious festive fare.

But oddly, apart from the fact that I actually needed to go out and buy Fat Jeans in a whole size larger (which was demoralizing and a hugely depressing blow to my vanity) gaining weight actually felt… [scared to admit this]… well, quite good! I felt somehow happier, calmer, more content.

And no one was more surprised at I was when, in the summery warmth of July, I suddenly noticed that this extra fat had miraculously vanished again.

This leads me to propose an outrageous hypothesis. Said outrageous hypothesis assumes the following propositions:

1. In Finland, the summers are as endlessly bright and sunny and glorious; the winters are endlessly dark and gloomy and grim.

2. Summer makes you feel happy and winter makes you feel sad.

3. Summer makes you thinner and winter makes you fatter.

My theory, which links these statements with highly dubious yet somehow irrefutable logic, is:

We get fatter during the winter because the sun is gone, we feel depressed, and extra kilos help us replenish our happiness deficit. In other words, body fat actually promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. A fatter person is a happier person!

“A seriously misguided and laughable theory! You can’t possibly be serious!” you scoff. I see the picture in your mind – of me, a Bridget Jones-esque figure, grasping at fallacious arguments with one hand while using the other to stuff a Mars Bars into her mouth. On one level, I agree with you. I mean, except for those rare people (highly envied by the likes of me) who can eat like a horse and still remain underweight, most of us don’t want to put on extra weight, ever.

Or do we? - maybe not "want" to, but "need" to? Could it be that, physiologically, people with a certain threshold level of body fat are in fact objectively happier than thinner people? Could it be that fighting to keep our fat levels down, in response to societal messages that thinner is better, is actually making us unhappy?

We want to be thin, but actually it’s bad for us -?

This was such a comforting theory that I couldn’t let it go without a fight. I even started feeling mildly curious – what if I’d unintentionally proven some well-known scientific fact, or even (gasp!) innocently made some earth-shattering medical breakthrough, despite having no medical training whatsoever, and only the most tenuous of grasps on basic human biology, chemistry, or well, science in general.

Imagine my elation at discovering, within just a few mouse clicks, that my theory was supported by none other than James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner!  Watson has apparently been researching how the release of leptin (made in fat cells) simulates the release of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), which in turn impacts the body’s production of feel-good endorphins. Watson suggests: “…do people who are fat produce more endorphins? Could this explain why Father Christmas is cheery and fat? And why high profile fashion models may be unhappy and turn to drugs to stimulate their internal endorphins?”

“Content people have weight on them. That is why we hire thin people because they are discontent and will work harder. Heavier people are more mellow and less successful. Thin people, on the other hand, are so driven by the need to find that elusive happiness that they become overachievers. So worldly success may well come more easily to the slender.”

He has also noted that since MSH can also be affected by sun, happiness could depend on either being in the sun or being fat.


[Note: I later discovered that Watson apparently also said the following:

"[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

“Stupidity is a disease and the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be cured.”

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

This made me suspect that he is a miserable jerk, which would actually support his own happiness theory, based on the fact that he looks quite thin and gaunt in recent photos!]

Another article noted that, among other things, high levels of leptin increase endorphins and suppress appetite. Low leptin levels cause the opposite effects. The tricky thing is that while leptin is produced in our fat cells, high leptin levels cause the burning of fat cells, which in turn reduces leptin levels. This says to me that one easy way to keep endorphin levels high would be to keep our leptin levels high, i.e., by constantly replacing lost fat cells through voracious eating of delicious food items.

You may be amazed to learn, though, that not all scientists advocate obesity as a sure-fire road to happiness.

"On a short-term basis, a high fat diet makes you pleasant and lethargic. You eat a nice big dessert, you feel good, you want to lie down and go to sleep," says Joseph Dunbar, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, in this article. "But it's very difficult to agree with anyone who is promoting obesity as a way of feeling good. There are so many higher health risks including hypertension and diabetes."

Worse, though, apparently inhaling chocolate religiously and maintaining a high level of body fat does not guarantee you a constant endorphin high: "In obesity, we see an increase in endorphin levels, but also a decrease in sensitivity to endorphins," says Dunbar.


I’m still going to go with my gut feeling on this one. My unfashionably cellulite-y winter coat feels good. Maybe that’s because keeping it on actually is doing me good by making me fatter and happier. Maybe I’ve just let myself become convinced of that. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Nordic winters call for extreme survival techniques, and until someone teaches me how to hibernate, I will continue to reach for my medicinal chocolate instead.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What happiness isn't

I want to be happy, really and truly I do. However, I am starting to realize that happiness is not what I thought it was.

I am starting to suspect, with a sense of horror, that deep down I honestly WANT life to be just that bit too hard for me.

Looking back on my life, it appears that I’ve consistently done my darndest to engineer situations of high challenge, high stress, tight deadlines; beyond-my-comfort-zone difficulty left right and centre.

My schoolgirl self was a high academic achiever. I was also on high school teams for cricket, netball, rhythmic gymnastics, athletics, and debating. I also played in the school orchestra and sang in two different choirs. I also participated in public speaking competitions and won a national speech contest. When I write it all down, I am incredulous at how I did it all, but looking back with honest eyes, I remember loving school life.

After leaving school I threw myself into a student exchange in a small town in Japan; I felt that I was in over my head and that I couldn't last the distance, but stubbornly I refused to give up, to the point of borderline anorexia.

During university I worked two full days a week, while taking a full course load in law and Japanese. Since that apparently wasn’t enough, I also tutored in Japanese and did an associate diploma in Speech and Drama on the side. The mother of my then-boyfriend took me to task for not making more time for her son; while she had some nerve, I am frankly amazed I found any time to spend with that poor sweet guy.

I dropped out of law and went to work in Japan, where I got a job as a bilingual Legal Assistant and worked anything from 10 to 24 hour days. It was so exciting at the time; I remember bouncing off the walls in the middle of a deal, full of energy even late at night, humming the Indiana Jones soundtrack as my own personal theme song, cheering and exasperating my colleagues in equal measure. Once, for a whole week I finished work at 5am every morning and was back at my desk by 9am. I remember the day I finished work at 5:30am and raced home to start packing for a scuba-diving holiday; I made it onto the 7:30 am airport train literally by the skin of my teeth.

Later I went back and finished my law degree and got what by all objective standards was a great job at a top foreign law firm in Tokyo. I started work the week I found out I was pregnant with my first baby. That poor kid was dragged in utero to business trips in America and China, through endless late-night conference calls, and through high-pressure working days that went on and on and on.

I didn’t give up on this lifestyle even after she, and subsequently her little sister, were born, but already after a few years of trying to combine parenthood and full-time work I suddenly realized it was bloody hard, that suddenly I was very unhappy, and that I was barely holding it together any more. The lifestyle I had once thrived on was suddenly killing me.

I stubbornly ploughed on until my husband gave me the out I needed, by suggesting we relocate to Finland.

I tried my hand at being a stay-at-home mum, convinced that it was all I’d ever wanted to do and that I craved time with my kids above all else. After a year I discovered that, if anything, I was even more tired and beaten down than before.

Fed up, and exhausted beyond belief, I decided to embark on an "oxygen mask" quest for happiness. I would try to change and simplify my life for once and be kind to myself by getting rid of as many responsibilities and self-imposed burdens as possible. I would write a blog when and if I felt like it. I would exercise as the mood took me. I would dip into my Finnish textbook now and then. I would still have all afternoon and evening to enjoy and care for my children and husband, while having every morning all to myself… OMG, I would be enjoying that elusive, almost luxurious thing sought by so many women - *me time*!!

I assumed that this lifestyle change would make me feel happy, at peace, well-balanced, calmed and re-charged, and all that good stuff.

I am pleased to report that I no longer feel stressed or stretched too thin or operating at the limits of my own resources. On the other hand, I also feel flat. Restless. Anxious. Turns out that life within the four corners of my own comfort zone is a calm place, but also dull beyond belief.

Stress and self-imposed high expectations are gone, but those bastards went and took all of life’s bling with them.

It took me a while to work out that ironically, I really miss challenge and achievement. What's more, I can’t seem to manage without a bit of pressure. Without hard goals, time pressure, or self-imposed stress, I get very little done and feel crap about it, because I know I am capable of so much more. The stubborn S.O.B. within me WANTS to set difficult goals, to try and succeed at hard things, and to get recognition for effort.

And yet, part of me just does not want to take on any more challenges AT ALL. I feel so tired just thinking about doing difficult things. I really want to be happy just lying on the sofa, alone with my thoughts, writing a bit while drinking a lovely hot cup of coffee.

I think about going back to paid work, and instantly memories of my hectic life in Tokyo come rushing back at me with epic force, like a wall of dirty flood water – superiors and clients lined up in a row demanding agreement re-drafts, comments lists, spreadsheets, issues charts, timesheets, conference calls, talking points, meeting summaries, and all by 9am tomorrow; panic and anxiety a constant dead weight in the pit of my stomach; heart aching and eyes stinging with tears at missing my kids’ bedtime yet again; every nerve dreading telling hubby that yet again I would have to work over the weekend; head aching and whole body aching to lie down and sleep, preferably for about 3 solid days; running down to buy myself a hot chocolate and iced cupcake at the Starbucks in my building and trying to convince myself what a lovely treat it was and how it would completely fix my exhaustion, stress, and happiness deficit.  

I so don’t want that life back.

And yet, telling myself to kick back and do nothing is not being kind to myself; it’s actually doing me a disservice.

Oh crap.

Stay tuned while I try and figure out what to do; how to find a happy medium. At least now I know what happiness ISN’T.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

I loved Allison Pearson’s book I Don’t Know How She Does It. I discovered it when I was pregnant for the first time, and was wondering how on earth I was going to balance a demanding job with the realities of parenthood. Over the years and the two children that followed, I re-read it countless times, reaching for the book when I felt overwhelmed and in danger of dropping every last one of my Working Mum juggling balls, and dipping into it when I needed comfort that someone else knew what I was going through. The book spoke to me; it was as though Allison Pearson had read my innermost thoughts and used them to create Kate Reddy.

The recent movie of the same name, starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate Reddy, claims to have been based on Pearson’s book. To be honest, so many details have been changed, so many characters eliminated or merged together, so much left out, that it is really only the essential spirit of Kate Reddy that remains from the book.

I walked in determined to hate the movie; ready to pick it, brutally, to pieces. And yet, in spite of myself, I enjoyed it – a lot.

I won’t turn this into a spoiler. I will say this much - the movie ends differently from the book, and your first reaction might be to walk away in an indignant huff.

On reflection, though, I do think the movie was ultimately true to Pearson’s Kate Reddy and her battle cries:

  1. Being a working mother is like holding the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle in your head. The number of pieces and even the picture you’re trying to create change constantly, and often beyond your control. Some people (read: spouse) watch you trying to do it but don't help you nearly as much as you wish they would (and tend to get all sulky and difficult when you suggest they help more). Other people do help you with bits of it. Sometimes you or they fumble, and a whole section of the puzzle falls apart. Sometimes, unasked, they jump in and finish your bits of the puzzle, and while you know you should feel grateful, instead you feel a horrible pang of "That was my job; I could have handled that (couldn’t I?)" or, worse, "I wanted to do that myself, even though I also had 50 other things to do."

  1. Being a working mother (whether your work is in an office or at home with your baby) is Hard.Work. It is even harder if you have the kind of office job that requires you to work long, unpredictable hours and keep one eye on your Blackberry at all times of the day and night. It is frustrating beyond belief not having control over your own schedule, and not knowing from day to day whether your work will call you away at a moment’s notice, forcing you to endlessly re-neg on even the most tentative evening/weekend/holiday plans with spouse and children, and meaning that you can never confidently promise your children that you will be there for them at any given time. That kind of job means avoiding ever saying, reassuringly, that Mummy will be home by bedtime, or Mummy will make a snowman with you tomorrow; it is more than likely you will end up disappointing your poor kids, who will find it harder and harder to forgive you. Your spouse, meanwhile, is probably already so beaten down with accumulated disappointment that he doesn’t know what to say any more, and has resigned himself to the fact that this is the way things are.

  1. If you work in a high-powered, highly competitive environment, there is always someone else at the office ready to jump in and do your job at a moment’s notice – to take your credit, steal your thunder, and make you, ultimately, redundant (literally and metaphorically). If you are determined to stay in the game, you basically have to take the crap that the job deals out, otherwise you will be sidelined. The very rare exception is if you are a person who has already worked her arse off and has achieved results so stellar that she has proved herself indispensable, or at least worth keeping happy enough that she will not jump ship to a competitor. Even such people, though, cannot rest on their laurels. They may have earned the right to demand that others cut them a teeny bit of slack. They may be finally able to orchestrate the work-related crap somewhat, so that it ruins the rest of life a little less. However, they still have to keep achieving stellar results, and in order to do that it’s still necessary to work long and hard and make frequent sacrifices on the home front. Some jobs are just like that and there is no way around it.  

  1. If you are going to do a job like Kate Reddy’s, you had better love what you do with a passion so great that it consumes you. Otherwise, you will not have the heart to stick with it, or you will stick with it but end up so bitter and jaded that you would have been better off quitting.

There were parts of the movie that got me right in the heart.

The scene where Kate has just come back from a business trip, and has to leave almost immediately for another one. She says a heartfelt goodbye to her children, leaves the house, and starts walking down the road, tiredly dragging her carry-on luggage behind her. Her shoulders start to shake and she bursts into incontrollable sobs, distraught and at that moment not caring who sees her.

The scene where Kate is at dinner with her boss Jack, and something reminds her of a game her family always plays. Without thinking, she starts telling Jack about it, artlessly and with her whole face lit up. Suddenly she stops and catches herself in the act, and shuts herself down, with an anguished look on her face that says, “I can’t let him see how much I miss my family.”

The scene where Kate and her boss are working late (again), and Kate excuses herself to use the restroom. We see her on her cellphone in the lobby, singing a bedtime song softly and sweetly into the phone; oblivious to all around her; lovingly, completely connected to her little ones (“I love you, a bushel and a peck...”) It broke me up completely. As the movie went on I kept remembering that scene and breaking up all over again. I remember sneaking out to make that phone call so many times myself... Knowing I wouldn’t make it home by bedtime, phoning my replacement as a mother our nanny just so I could hear my older girl’s little voice on the phone, singing softly into the phone, missing her and her baby sister so desperately that my heart hurt, wanting just to be there all snuggled up with my sweet little people. At times like that, I vividly remember thinking, What on earth am I doing here? Sometimes a meeting would run so late that I would miss that Bedtime Window. I would get back to my office to find a voicemail message from my tiny big girl, saying goodnight to her absent Mummy. I have several of those messages saved. I can’t bring myself to listen to them.

This movie brought back a lot of difficult memories and made me recall many moments of personal anguish. At the same time, it also made me feel happy and relieved, as it confirmed something I’ve been suspecting for a while now - that although there were things I loved about my job and that nowadays I miss, there is much, much more about that world and that life that I absolutely don’t miss. It is a world that some people - even some working mothers - thrive on. I now know for sure that I am not one of those women (at least, not right now).

I want to have the time and space to treat my husband as my best friend, not just my partner in panicked daily logistics and the person I end up bullying for help with my jigsaw. I want to have time to be alone with my own thoughts sometimes. But most of all, I want and need time with my children that is not just snatched moments and fleeting bedtime kisses. Although they drive me crazy sometimes, I really, really love them. A bushel and a peck. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Alex P. Keaton and the death of my teaching career

Until I was 12 years old, my number one career goal was to become a teacher. This was hardly surprising. My primary school teachers were legendary, and I still hold them in the highest esteem (Miss Nuttall, Mrs Catchpole, Mr Holmes, Mrs Kenny—I’m thinking of you).

Teaching is also ingrained in my gene pool—my mother and two of my grandparents were teachers, and my brother and sister carried on the tradition.

I am the odd one out; the one who became a lawyer instead.

I can remember the exact moment that I started questioning my long-held teaching ambitions. I was 12, and our Year 7 class was having one of those “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up” discussions. I announced proudly that I was going to be a teacher.

Later, I was waylaid by the class upstart. For the purposes of this story, I will call him Alex, because at the time he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Alex P. Keaton character from Family Ties (the one played by a young Michael J. Fox) – sleek hairdo, smart talker, entrepreneurial tendencies already clearly in evidence. Alex demanded, quite seriously, “You are the smartest kid in this class. Why do you want to be a teacher? You can do better than that.”

It was the first time I’d heard anyone suggest that teaching was not the highest calling; the be-all-and-end-all of brilliant jobs. Alex explained to me that other professions could earn me more money, and that the smartest people never became teachers because there were much better jobs out there.*

I know now that Alex was talking out of his arse, or at the very least was just repeating something he’d heard from some misguided, money-grubbing adult. Shame on me for listening to him.

Although I abandoned my own teaching career before it even began, I have never stopped being a fan of great teachers. As a parent, I have started to grasp the enormity of how hard it is to be an educator. Explaining something in clear and simple terms is a skill that is grossly underrated. Being consistently patient, kind but fair, level-headed, intelligent, calm and reasonable, is even more difficult, in my opinion—and most days I am only dealing with two children at a time. Imagine the challenge of being a primary school teacher—exercising all the skills I listed above, but in addition having to adjust your approach at will to suit the vast range of ability levels, moods, temperaments and tiredness levels that you might encounter at any time in a group of twenty 6-year-olds. Someone who can pull that off is nothing short of a genius.

Why is it, then, that teachers are so grossly under-appreciated in so many countries? I don’t doubt that many people look back and remember, with fondness and appreciation, their favourite/best teachers. Teachers’ paychecks, however, do not reflect this at all (on this one point, Alex was right on the money). As a first-year lawyer, with the ink still drying on my law school diploma, I got a job at a U.S. law firm in Tokyo. My annual compensation was literally three times that of my highly-experienced-Australian-high-school-teacher mother’s (and let me point out that my mother worked in the private system, so her salary was probably higher than that of the average Australian teacher of her age and experience). It was embarrassing. It was wrong. It surprised no one.

My 6-year-old started preschool this year—the first level of compulsory education in Finland. I love her teachers. They are highly experienced. They have Masters’ degrees in education. They speak fluent English. They are lovely, kind-but-will-take-bullshit-from-no-one people. When my daughter first started preschool, I went around telling anyone who would listen how lucky we were to have found such a great school.

It wasn’t long before Finns started informing me, gently but firmly, that probably our school and its teachers are not the lucky find I thought they were--not because they aren't fantastic, but because the teaching profession in Finland is full of similarly fantastic people. Finland boasts high standards for the admission of graduates to the teaching profession (including a Masters'-level university degree). Teachers are highly educated and highly respected. No one here would dare say that teaching is the kind of profession you choose because you are incapable of doing anything else.

In my early 20s, when I lived in Japan (before I went back and finished my initially-abandoned law degree and got a “better job”) I walked into a part-time teaching job armed with my Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and a diploma in Speech and Drama. Had I studied theory of education? Did I have extensive practical teaching skills? Did I have specialist pedagogical knowledge? Um, nope, none of the above! No one cared. No one even asked. Here in Finland, none of the fancy letters after my name would get me anywhere near a teaching job. By law, I would be required to undertake further study and get practical experience before being allowed to get a paid teaching position. In my opinion, this is exactly as it should be, and this is the perhaps the biggest reason that Finland scores consistently stellar results in the OECD’s PISA testing of 15 year olds’ ability in reading, science and mathematics. In 2009, Finnish students’ scores were 3rd, 2nd and 6th in the world in those respective areas. Australian students’ scores were 9th, 10th and 15th in the world. American students’ were 16th, 22nd and 35th.

(if you’re interested, see for complete results).

Cheered at this rosy picture of wonderful Finnish educators and the strong results being achieved by their students, I went looking for data about Finnish teacher’s salaries, fairly sure the higher status of and greater respect for teachers here was reflected in much better salaries than in other countries. I was absolutely shocked to find out that (according to 2005 figures I found here) Finnish teachers are in fact paid less—significantly less—than their counterparts in America, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom. They do earn more than teachers in Italy, Eastern Europe, Thailand and South America. Oh, what a relief [cough].

How is it that, while we want our children to have a high-quality, unparalleled education, we as a society aren’t prepared to pay more than bargain basement prices for that privilege? Maybe we are, in idealistic theory, but when push comes to shove, no one wants to put their hard-earned money into an investment whose returns, though vitally important to society in the long run, are unlikely to come back to the original investor in monetary form.

Lawyers and money-market dealers earn big money because that’s what the market is willing to pay for their services; a market with deep pockets that are kept full thanks to the work of said lawyers and money-market dealers.  Teachers, on the other hand, do nothing but take on and fulfill the responsibility of educating our children in every aspect of the school curriculum and in countless other aspects of life—ethics, social skills, physical fitness, psychology, you name it.

I mean, really. Why would we waste our money on something like that?


* Irrelevant but interesting: Alex went on to an expensive private secondary school, got a high enough score to get into law school, and abandoned the profession after a very short time. Now, in his mid-30s, he is a long-haired, would-be rock star who hasn’t quite made it. True story.

Even more interestingly, another boy in our class, with whom I shared the honour of being dux of our primary school, is now a university lecturer—a teacher.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The essential nature of oxygen

The single most ethically-charged subject I studied at law school was Family Law. It was fascinating and heartbreaking. The law is just not equipped to deal with the emotionally-difficult and fraught human issues that end up before the Family Court.

As our lecturer commented, in the hardest cases the judge makes the best decision he or she can, and hopes that no one dies. Professor P. wasn’t just being dramatic. In Australia, at least one Family Court judge has been killed by a distraught litigant who had hoped for a different decision. Yikes.

At that time, the law stated that in decisions regarding shared parenting, a judge’s paramount consideration was “the best interests of the child”. My classmates and I spent lots of time learning how that phrase had been interpreted by legislatures and judges, and whether or not we agreed. Does “the best interests of the child” mean giving primary custody to the parent with the most stable income, the parent who has spent the most time with the child, or the parent who is the more responsible and dependable? Should we always aim to split custody 50:50, on the assumption that children need both Mum and Dad? Should we try to determine whether an estranged Mum and Dad are in fact being sincere about their respective pleas for custody of their children, or whether (intentionally or not) each is just trying to score points? If a judge’s decision is likely to anger one or both parents, what kind of collateral damage might their children later face?

We were then asked to consider an awkward scenario: what if Mum (primary caregiver) wants to relocate to pursue a positive new job opportunity in a city where she has close family and friends, and wants to take the kids with her; what if this potential destination is hundreds or thousands of kilometres interstate or overseas; what if the children’s father can’t or won’t similarly relocate and insists that his ex-wife stay put? If the issue went to court, should a judge let Mum go ahead and make the move, or command her to stay?  

You can see why Family Court judges (and in fact all those who work in Family Law) have my wholehearted admiration, as well as my heartfelt sympathy.

At the time, my loyalty swung backwards and forwards between that fictional mum and her ex-husband. I read lots of articles, trying doggedly to find the elusive out-of-the-box solution that would be “in the best interests of the child” and still wouldn’t make anyone miserable (I never did find that solution; probably it didn’t exist).

One article I read stayed with me. It drew a compelling analogy between a parent and an airline passenger experiencing a drop in cabin pressure.

Airline safety demonstrations always advise us to ensure our own mask is secured before helping others. The logic behind this is unimpeachable – how can we help our children or others around us if we ourselves run out of oxygen and pass out?

The article argued that securing the best interests of a child meant securing the best interests of his or her primary caregiver – whether those interests are a decent job and financial security, a strong support network of family and friends, remarriage, or other elements that would likely bring happiness and stability (both in concrete terms and emotionally). The article was strongly in favour of making sure the child’s primary caregiver had a fully-functioning oxygen mask in place, and was in the best possible position to care for his or her child. The writer was clearly a supporter of that fictional mum's relocation plans.

I don’t remember whose side I came down on in the end (especially given that our lecturer was a well-known proponent of dads’ rights, and I was not one to let emotion ruin my GPA). However, I found myself thinking of that oxygen-mask article again lately.

How many parents really do stop to consider – daily, weekly, or even at all - whether their own metaphorical “oxygen mask” is in place?  When I became a parent for the first time, I found myself completely absorbed in my baby and lovingly (if annoyingly) anxious about everything that concerned her. At that time, the idea that I might have not just a right, but also a responsibility to continue to act in my own interests was literally beyond my comprehension. I remember noticing articles in parenting books and on blogs that urged me to secure “Me time” and to take care of myself and my own individual needs. Privately, I couldn’t help thinking it was all a load of selfish B.S.

Looking back with wiser eyes, I hereby extend a humble apology for all those slurs I mentally let fly against people who (I now realize) knew better than I did. I now see that I spent much of the first 6 years of my life as a parent over-extended, rapidly burning out, and growing more bitter, jaded and unhappy by the day. It is a saintly person indeed who can focus all his or her time and energy selflessly on other people, especially pint-sized ones – a paragon who can work and cook and mop up puke, patiently feed and soothe a crying baby for hours at a time instead of sleeping, brightly endure entire days with a toddler in the throes of the Terrible Twos, and voluntarily replace all previous leisure activities with trips to the park, Wiggles songs, and Fisher Price toys - and all without feeling exhausted, fraught, or plagued by a tiny inner voice demanding, in a rising crescendo, “What about me?”

In the unlikely case that there was any doubt in your mind, let me confirm that I am not one of those saintly people, and I extend a heartfelt sorry to my kids and my husband for having to live with me at my burnt-out worst. 

My own oxygen mask is still in prototype form and doesn’t always work properly. Persistent user error and residual “I’m FINE, ok?”-type stubbornness hasn’t helped. However, at least I have finally admitted that I need that mask and its reviving oxygen. If you don’t own your own mask, or aren’t using it properly, do something about it. This is not just about your rights as a person; this is about your responsibility to those who depend on you – you need enough oxygen not only to stay alive and conscious, but also to have the physical and emotional energy to stay on top of your parental responsibilities, and even (hopefully) to be the kind of person you’d like to see your own children become.

It isn’t easy to find that source of oxygen if you’ve been doing without it for a long time – you might feel as though you don’t have the time, money or resources to be changing direction career-wise, getting help with home duties/childcare, reading books, exercising, sleeping more, or doing whatever big or small thing is that will revive and energize you – but finding a way to get that personal O2 is a necessity, not an extravagance.

You can’t be the best parent you can be if your own life is suffocating you.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, before I pick up my children I am going to enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of cake – the cake that will be eaten by my kids and my husband as well, but that secretly I made for myself, because it’s my favourite.