Human First, Male or Female Second

I couldn't put it better than it's expressed on these T Shirts

I had been thinking about doing the November blog on gender as a sort of finale to the couples focus over the last couple of months, but aft a trip to ‘Toys R Us’ I completely want to change the orientation of the blog – to our young. I’m not sure if you can read the slogans on these (I think) ‘Kmart’ T shirts – but the boy one says brave and strong and the girl one says happy and smiley.

As my granddaughter’s first birthday approached I’d been thinking about an appropriate gift. I’d looked in the local toy shops but didn’t feel inspired by anything, so I thought a trip to the mega ‘Toys R Us’ was warranted. My children were a little too old when ‘Toys R Us’ first landed in Australia, so I’m not sure if it’s always been like this, or if the gender narrowing of: what’s for boys and what’s for girls, has tightened over the years.

I was so shocked I felt immobilised – even the tricycles were pink or blue! I had decided I’d like some sort of contraption that my granddaughter could race up and down the deck on, enjoying the summer – if it ever arrives. Half an hour later I still hadn’t chosen anything. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy a pink one, and was worried about imposing my ideas on her by buying a blue one.

In the end I found a lion tricycle, I was delighted – it looked gender neutral to me. It had wheels of gender neutral?different colours including one blue and one pink. When I went to wrap it I noticed, oddly, that there were pictures of 3 ethnically different children but they were  all boys. This just seemed so odd.

It sent my mind spinning. When did this happen? I remember parenting in the 1980s where the embedded cultural parents voices of do’s and don’ts, was to keep things as gender neutral as possible. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to protect our children from the socialised subjugation process of gender for as long as possible.

I liked that theory then and I still do now. I remember dressing my children in gender neutral clothes, of which there were plenty. And mothers buying their boys dolls and their girls tip trucks.

This followed on from research done in the 70s, which sadly is still appropriate, identifying that we respond differently to babies once we knew their gender.

 Now that we often know the gender before birth there is never a time when a child is just a human, it’s always gender classified.

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Obviously there are differences between the genders and even in our attempts to not stereotype I do remember many conversations with parents sharing stories of how their boy might have dissected their doll and their girl might make the back of the tip truck into a dolls bed – but this wasn’t the point. The point was choice, potential role extension and letting the child decide.

I can’t help but wonder if the current gender rigidity is directly contributing to what seems to be an increasing number of our youth wanting to transgender. If you don’t fit into the gender classification of birth, maybe it currently feels easier to want to be the other gender rather than stretch the boundaries of your birth gender. Whether this is a variable who knows but I do believe the underlying issue is about belonging and identity, regardless of our gender. Gender should be just one of the variables that, I believe, should come into play of it’s own accord – not imposed by the marketing machines of large multinationals.

So back to the fundamentals of humanness and Humberto Maturana’s work. Regardless of gender we are love dependent mammals, who live in communally, hence the quality of our relationships significantly influence our wellbeing whether we’re males or females.

Strangely even though males receive more than their fair share of the economic wealth. (full time gender pay gap is still 17.3%. ABS(2016) Average Weekly Earnings, Australia Nov 2015, cat.no 6302.2). They manage to kill themselves off more regularly ‘Males have higher age-specific death rates than females in all age groups from 15-19 years, ranging from one and a half times to more than double those of females.’ (ABS Gender Indicators, Australia, Feb 2016 Cat no 4125.0).

After my encounter with the toy industry, I think it’s time to put how we are educating our kids about gender, back under the microscope. There is something weird going on and we seem to be going backwards where gender rigidity is concerned. Add to the mix the number of women who voted for Trump. I find this so worrying – what are they conveying to their children about what it means to be a ‘good man’. Whilst it would be nice to blame misogynistic men for the ills of the world and they certainly make a significant contribution, sadly there are lots of women who support them.

  Men generally fare very badly on their own and tend to repartner quickly after separation. Because men as little boys have often been trained to be disconnected from pain and discomfort, both physically and emotionally – we don’t want a “mummy’s boy”, they need a women to tell them when they need to go to the doctor, or to work less, or exercise more! The result is often women are classified as ‘nags’, setting a gender based battle within the relationship.

I know I’m making generalisations but women tend to be more relationally connected. We have been socialised to be able to express love and kindness without worrying about being whimpy.

These ways of being have been socialised into us from birth and are linked to cultural gender stereotypes. These are not hormonal induced givens: there are plenty of very nurturing men and plenty of very aggressive women. Whilst hormones definitely play a part we still are making culturally informed, gendered choices everyday – through what we buy, how we respond, what we reward and punish.

The question for all of us is – are the decisions and choices we are making for ourselves and our loved ones contributing to making us human beings who are capable of kindness, empathy and respect regardless of gender. Or is what is considered to be ‘right for a girl’ and ‘right for a boy’  driving decision making.

Much simpler being a duck
Much simpler being a duck

More on Couples

I’ve decided to do another blog on couples for this month, mainly because I’ve had lots of good feedback on the last two and so thought this month I’ll try and pull them together in a sort of overview of my thinking around couples work.

A relationship is a little like a trip to Luna Park - You never quite know what you're in for.
A relationship is a little like a trip to Luna Park – You never quite know what you’re in for.

The pressure on a couple is ongoing and relentless as they move through the life cycle. Throw into the mix – work, children, extended family, friends and what ever else happens along the way. Consequently it’s often easy to lose sight of your partner and hard to remember what attracted you to him or her in the first place. This is often step one in relationship work. What are the shared core values? Do you both want the same things currently and for the future? Is there enough that is shared to help you through the tough times? Is there enough respect for difference? Or is everything a battle? Every long term relationship is a team event – what sort of team is it?

The relationship rituals both identify and preserve the quality of the team. Relationship rituals can only work when there are sufficient individual rituals. It’s a bit of an irony but you can only be safe as a couple if you’re able to stabilise your own emotions as individuals.

When your partner is distracted it's good to find a way to occupy yourself.
When your partner is distracted it’s good to find a way to occupy yourself.

The total reliance on your partner for your emotional wellbeing is dangerous. For starters it’s too much for one person to carry and secondly that level of reliance on one person fuels anxiety. How can anyone feel calm if they inherently know that they are completely dependent and vulnerable to the actions and will of another. Or have someone completely dependent on them.

The inability to trust your own ability to comfort yourself and so the reliance on a  partner or friends is one of the areas I always focus on. I believe it’s incredibly important because it means a relationship that is more or less equal, will not be possible. The reliance on others for self regulation will always result in a skewed hierarchy and potential misuse of power. This could be by either partner depending on the dynamics of the relationship.

The pelicans in the foreground believe they should get all the food
The pelicans in the foreground believe they should get all the food

As we struggle to create relationships that are equal and fair – we are all a bit in the dark. This is something else that I work with all the time. This sense that we are all pioneers, trying to do relationships in which gender doesn’t define the power distribution. Back to relationship rituals – the sorts of things that couples like to do together, have embedded within the all the significant elements of their relationship. Whether it’s going out for a meal, a walk, having sex,  sitting and having a chat and a drink at the end of the day – whatever couples like to do together builds and maintains the connections between them.

What is considered to be fair, varies not only from person to person, but also at different life stages. So it’s important not to think of fairness as a static phenomenon, but as something that shifts according to the current demands.

As a general fairness guide it should incorporate occasions when  the pleasure is equally shared, or each have times of initiating, or compromising – recognising and appreciating when sacrifices are being made by your partner.

This acknowledgement of when you partner compromises, is an act of kindness. Both are potentially acts of love – the compromise and the acknowledgement of the compromise. In many ways small acts of kindness are my relationship assessment guide.

Is there a sensitivity to the other that is reinforced by small acts of kindness: things like making your partner a cup of tea, or doing something helpful when they are tired, are acts of goodwill and love. These small acts are much more important than the grand gestures and are often overlooked in the busyness of everyday life.

No relationship is perfect, everyone has their ups and downs.  The question: what can you live with? determines whether one stays or goes. Living in a mean spirited relationship is a very lonely place. This is also a factor that I always consider. Having the choice to stay or go is a privilege of our time, but it can also tempt us to have unrealistic expectations of what our relationship can give us.

Always consider: ” Is what I want reasonable?”

The fairy tale ending of living happily ever after - is a terrible cultural trick
The fairy tale ending of living happily ever after – is a terrible cultural trick

Couples, Couples, Couples.

At the moment I seem to be drowning in couples work. Even a local resident kookaburra is having relationship issues. He looks very cute in the photo but his behaviour has caused him the loss of at least 3 relationships. This has been, literally, due to a reflected sense of self as David Schnarch might say. When ever it sees itself reflected in a window it assumes it’s another male and so spends the rest of the day wrestling with it. Very annoying, but it does bring to mind the importance of the ability to self regulate especially when in a relationship and so avoid becoming too other focused.

My Crazy KookaburraFollowing on from last month’s blog in which I wrote about our thresholds for not getting what we want, I’m not sure if I emphasised enough – that in a sense – both parties need to have a turn at more or less equally winning and losing. This balance is an important counter to the build up of powerless  resentment, or the will for power going underground – so to speak.

Part of this balance is gained through having a collection of individual practises that comfort us when all does not go well. These are generally simple things like going for a run, gardening, watching a favourite TV program, or going for a walk. The list is endless but the aim is to restabilise  oneself before tackling the current relationship issue. Whilst it can be great sport to have a rant with your partner, rarely is there any resolution when you’re both angry. This is one of the reasons couples come into counselling, so that they can have a conversation with a therapist who keeps the escalation in check.

Partner King ParrotsCommonly, couples make the mistake of moving onto trying to participate in a relationship ritual before they have stabilised themselves with their own personal soothing practises or rituals. This places too much pressure on the relationship as the fix all. It invites that very tempting utopian idea that another can fix our lives for us. It’s such a lovely thought, the idea of a soul mate who can mind read our every need.

Even the city of love has lost some of it's magic.
Even the city of love has lost some of it’s magic.

This is a particularly problematic relationship mindset for a number of reasons: firstly, there’s the potential of exclusion of friends and extended family who are often very important sources of love and comfort; secondly, it keeps us focused on what our partner is doing and trying to change them, even though we do not have the power to do this. This, in turn, keeps disappointment alive seeding resentment and discontent.

So assuming we are regularly doing the things we need to do to keep ourselves more or less emotionally stable, then it’s onto relationship rituals – these define and feed the richness of the relationship. They can range from sharing the same likes in food, sport, sex, beverages and leisure to sharing similar ideas about lifestyle and philosophical values. It doesn’t matter which of these are present or the activities that are woven around them, but there needs to be enough that is shared to define the couple as an entity in their own right. These activities and values bond a couple and become the phenomenon that both feeds and buffers the couple from the trials of life. But this all takes time.

Time is becoming a significant relationship issue. Technology isn’t helping – it steals time with its instant emails, text, gaming and social media. All this makes it incredibly hard for a couple to put a boundary around themselves. Whether it’s trying to have a conversation or trying to enjoy and intimate or peaceful moment, the mobile phone in particular, will often interrupt. It feels like every couple has 2 lovers in their relationship, and like actual lovers, it erodes the intimacy and quality of the connection between the couple. I’m beginning to wonder whether as part of the relationship building questions like – do you want to have children? Where would you like to live? etc etc. We need to include the question – what is your level of skill at ignoring and/or turning off your mobile phone! The answer to this might determine the future of the relationship.

We'd all like a knight in shining armour - pre mobile phones!
We’d all like a knight in shining armour – pre mobile phones!

Relationships – they’re hard work!

Most of my counselling work is helping people manage the disappointments with their relationships. I know I have a distorted view of the world, but it does feel as if seriously entrenched relationship issues are endemic, and for many, unresolvable. When dividing practises (as talked about in the July Blog) have become the dominant relationship dynamic and your partner has become the enemy –  you’re in trouble. This creates an unhealthy environment for all concerned and would be a time when I would argue that divorce is emotionally advantageous to the children.

Luckily, for most couples, it’s not that extreme. The majority of divorces are the result of chronic low grade misery, that one or both get sick of, and so leads them to the solution of divorce. Whilst personally I have found this to be a wonderful solution, I know this is not the case for everyone and definitely, in the main, not ideal for children.

With 46,498 divorces granted in Australia in 2014 (ABS Divorces and Marriages in Australia, 2014 , cat.no 3310.0) it’s certainly common! I do believe that once there are shared children, if you can keep the relationship going, life is easier, but it’s impossible to generalise. The unique dynamics of each couple and the impact of these on all the people involved is what determines whether one can stay or go.

Sometimes people can’t work this out. A question that might help is: Do you want your children to have relationships with the same emotional qualities that are in your own? The answer to this can guide if there is enough to work on. Unfortunately one of life’s lessons that I’ve learnt the hard way is our children don’t tend to do as we say but do as we do. It’s pretty awful watching your adult children struggle with variations of your worst relationship dynamics.

One of the central issues for most couples is the process of how decisions are made. This process  is interesting to draw out in a circle – Who does what, when?

If one partner – lets say a male comes home after work and asks: “Whats for dinner?” And his partner for example a female snaps back: “Nothing!” If this is a common occurrence it’s a fixed repetitive pattern that indicates a lack of mutual sensitivity. But if it’s unusual and there is a relationship based on love the male may respond with: “Had a bad day, what can I do to help.”

Another example could be one partner saying: “I want a new lounge suite.” and the other replies: “What a stupid waste of money.” There is no curiosity and no kindness, no will to understand the position of the other. The partner has become the enemy.

Embedded in most couples interactions are fixed repetitive ways of dealing with each other – whether the decision is about new furniture or what you want for dinner, or something more important, like do we want to have children? The process is the same. The clarity around the interaction enables clarity around where your power lies and it’s not with changing your partner. It always lies with shifting your own position. Holding in mind the question: What can you live with?

This clarity around the pattern is important as it leads to what I believe is equally important – an individual’s threshold for not getting their own way. And when they don’t  how do they soothe their disappointment? Or when they do get their way how do they appreciate and acknowledge the position of their partner who has conceded their wants.

We all want to have things go our way.  But when we don’t get our way – How do we cope? What do we do? Is our concession valued by our partner? If so this is love. A simple “thank you” can go a long way. Or is our partner gloating? Or didn’t even notice the concessions made. This is not love.

But in the end we are all responsible for finding emotional stabilising personal rituals that help to soothe the distress of loosing – so to speak. Knowing we can survive not getting our way all the time, is one of the building blocks of resilience in all of our relationships.

The grace with which we can compromise and how we comfort ourselves is incredibly important for successful relationships – assuming the same person isn’t always compromising to the will of others. We all need a balance between the ebb and flow of winning some, losing some.

Dividing Practises – the cause of so much human unhappiness

I’ve been surprised about how disappointed I feel about Britain’s decision to exit the E.U. At first I thought it was just about my own selfish pleasure. I love the feeling of getting to Europe, putting my passport away and then moving freely around all those countries that 70 years ago were busy killing each other.

Both my parents embedded in me a fear of war and cultural dividing practises – being Maltese and living through the WW11 they definitely understood the impact of misuse of power expressed as racism.

So when Marijo asked if I would write something on racism and family therapy for my July blog, initially I felt I needed more time, but as I listened to what was going on in Britain since their exit vote, I thought it timely.  Especially when I caught myself saying to a friend: “Those dumb Poms, how can they be so stupid?” Currently I do feel hostile towards them, even though I know so many also disagree with what’s happened. If the media is to be believed many Brits are  now realising, too late, that they had fallen under the voice of fear and racism, voiced through the  pedalling of  a simple solution – “lets get out of the E.U and all will be well.”

So let’s start with a definition of racism from the Macquarie Dictionary – 1. the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.

This style of thinking applies to more than race, it also commonly happens within any group of humans where one person believes they are in someway superior to another and so they should get the right to impose their will on others. These same people usually believe that personality is a fixed phenomena, for example; little Johnny is always bad.

The theories utilised by family therapists help us work with shifting this idea of a fixed identity. We believe that identity is created through our significant relationships. It’s the quality of our relationships that define our current characteristics, regardless of culture or race. With this thinking it’s impossible to make generalisations. Consequently everything becomes more complex – and this, I think, is a major problem – if a person has trouble managing complexity then they fall victim to simple solutions.

Obviously a group of muslim's but we can make no other assumptions about who they are.
All these different people – we can make no assumptions about them even though they’re all in Melbourne.

 

Whether it’s a family who is scapegoating a child, or an individual blaming a whole race, or a country blaming a cultural subgroup – the process of thinking is the same. To some extent the content is irrelevant, it’s the problem solving mechanism that is dangerous. This is because it denies the right of another to be acknowledged on their own merit. In effect, who you are disappears, oppressed by the description that another has stuck onto you. If they are in a position of power and can recruit others to support their view then something fundamental to our wellbeing has been lost. There is no acceptance of another to being valid being in their own right – there is an absence of acceptance and in turn love. Instead there is hatred and fear, and if this becomes a fixed state chronically high levels of cortisol will be produced, jeopardising empathy and abstract thought.

Does this bird have a right to exist and enjoy the sun on a winters day?
Does this bird have a right to exist and enjoy the sun on a winters day?

Every culture has good and bad people within it. Likewise every family. We all have problems and struggles. It’s what we do with these issues that defines us. If hate and fear are the emotions underpinning our actions then we end up with policies like our current shameful refugee policy.

To help us think about how come we do what we do, I’m going to draw on the work of pioneer family therapist,  Murray Bowen. He gave family therapists concepts that still very much influence our work. In particular The Genogram – a tool for clarifying the different patterns of behaviour being handed down through the generations, it’s like a family  emotional map. One of the aims for doing this is to enhance differentiation. By this I mean – the ability to respond to situations in our  own right, thinking and feeling what is right for us and recognising that does not mean it’s right for everyone else.

Racist thinking or the belief that you know what’s right for everyone, is generally a way of operating in the world that has been handed down from our family of origin. Likewise, if there has been enough love, there might be a belief about accepting difference.  Most families pass down a complex mix of emotional heirlooms and ways of doing things. Our history does influence us. This may be either directly, and so people do the same as in the past; or as a guide on what not to do, and so people try and do something different to what has gone before

Learning to self regulate is a significant key to remaining differentiated, this is when we are able to be responsive and not reactive to hate and fear. Bearing in mind that these emotions are contagious but so is love and kindness. If we have grown in a family that is fearful and blaming it’s hard for us to find a way comfort our selves and trust in the world and so easy for us to fall victim to simple good/bad solutions and misuse of power.

If we have been raised with enough love and so more or less trust in the world and our own intuition, it’s confusing when others see threat that you can’t see. With enough love we can be grateful for what we have and respect the position of others. With fear – comes hate and resentment the expectation that someone else is responsible for making our life work.

Cosmopolitan Melbourne. How lucky are we to be here.
Cosmopolitan Melbourne. How lucky are we to be here.

Inciting fear is a tried and true mechanism of gaining control. It also sells things whether it’s fear of bacteria lurking on the kitchen bench or being the victim of someones dangerous behaviour and so the need for extra security . One could argue fear is good for our economy!  It’s no wonder racism and misuse of power are alive and well.

Mothering a Shared Responsibility

Whenever we talk about parenting or mothering the focus, in the main, is on those who biologically created the child. No amount of feminism seems to have shifted that women are the ones doing the bulk of the work at home and fortunately or unfortunately has added the pressure and right to keep a career also ticking along.  The outcome of this is a bit of a pressure cooker for mums.

By culturally keeping the focus on mothers ‘mothering’ we can hide other influences. I would like to see an extended definition of ‘mothering’ to be a multi layering of relationships starting with the personal and usually biological connection, but to also include community, cultural and political influences.

everyone wants attention from mum
everyone wants attention from mum

Anne Hollonds the director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies wrote in the current issue (no.97) of Family Matters wrote an article titled Why do Families Matter for our Future she writes: There are a plethora of research reports re-examining and re-reporting extensive evidence on the importance of the early years on later life outcomes. If this is the case, as a community, shouldn’t we be doing everything to support the ‘mothering process’ and not cook our mums? 

Through my grandmother eyes I watch my daughter’s generation facing pressure to work and earn – I don’t remember having this imposed on me as a mother. “Jobs and growth” as the number one national imperative was something I never remember hearing when I was a new mum.

What has shocked me into making this the topic for my June blog was my daughter’s casual comment – that out of the thirteen people in her mothers group, only 2 are not back at work. Their babies are only 6 months old for f..k sake! What sort of society are we? Our mums can’t even have their twelve months allocated leave?

Oxytocin ++
Oxytocin ++

I felt very distressed about this, especially when my daughter added, that because of waiting lists in childcare not all these mums who had returned to work were happy with the quality of the childcare that they felt forced to accept.

There are so many layers to this scenario and I don’t want to add to any mum’s mounting guilt. This is a social problem.  The outcome of government policy, whether we like it or not we voted for it. The erosion of  child support, the cost of tertiary education – many would still be paying for their education, and the cost of housing. These are just 3 variables that I can think of, I could also add the fear of needing to trust the integrity of your partner, and the family law act. If you let your career suffer and the marriage doesn’t last what then… the list can go on and on. Grandparents still working full time because the pension age is now 67 and many grandmothers, myself included, struggling to recoup income after a divorce in my 50s

Another variable – the impact of interrupted sleep on health and general functioning. Another article from the current Institute of Family Studies magazine Family Matters (No 97) Doing Gender Overnight? Parenthood, gender and sleep quantity and quality in Australia by Stefanie Plage, Francisco Perales and Janeen Baxter.

I’m going to just pluck out some quotes from this excellent paper.

In Australia, the annual direct and indirect costs of poor sleep amount to over $5 billion (Hillman & Lack, 2013.)

While, on average, women sleep more than men, once they become mothers (and men fathers) the pattern reverses… These gender inequities in sleep, whereby mothers sleep less and worse than fathers, have been referred to as women’s “fourth shift” (Venn, Arber, Meadows , & Hislop, 2008)…

our findings are important and provide first-time evidence that the sleep quantity and quality of parents of young children, particularly mothers, are a cause for concern in contemporary Australia

In case you’re wondering, yes I’ve finally been getting around to doing some serious reading. That’s because I’m practising working part time – next year I want to be included in the ‘mothering’ team.

The privilege of being a grandmother - mothering without all the cultural stressors
The privilege of being a grandmother – mothering without all the cultural stressors

Hawaii – The 2016 International Family Therapy Conference

The Kona Hilton has to be seen to be believed
The Kona Hilton has to be seen to be believed

On Monday 28th March I flew, along with a planeload of coughing and sniffling Australians, to Hawaii. Luckily, I also was coughing and sniffling, because if you weren’t sick before getting on that plane you surely would have been when you got off.

It’s the first time I’ve flown to the US and so the first time I’ve experienced the same day twice. My two Monday’s were equally disastrous. Both involving almost missing flights – not due to my own poor time management, but to a delayed flight to Sydney and then the collapse of the Honolulu Airport computer system. Finally, exhausted I arrive on Big Island and then through lunar lava landscape, to Kona.

For me this was a ‘bucket list’ event. I have always wanted to go and see what was happening on the world family therapy stage. I wasn’t disappointed and came home with lots to think about. The first was adjusting to the venue. The Kona Hilton was beyond belief. It was so huge there was a train service. Luckily the conference was close to the entrance and easy to find.  Once inside the conference centre, it was like any other,  so quickly it became all about the presentations.

Looking at the right hand side of the Hilton
Looking at the right hand side of the Hilton

It was exciting to hear so many papers from different countries. All sharing their research about the importance of family relationships. Whether it was: bullying, couples, sibling relationships, abuse, ADHD, racial discrimination – all more or less reached the same conclusions. The way parents manage life, and their relationship with their context are important variables. So, given it seems for this evidence based world there is mountains of evidence to prove family relationships are important, how come family therapy isn’t the number one treatment of choice for everything from trauma to racial discrimination?

I’ve come home with the belief that evidence based practice is only valid if it has a marketing arm to aggressively promote it. Unfortunately, I suspect that most people who define themselves as family therapists are interested in clinical practise and so not interested in political/power lobbying. I would also add that we see evidence of family therapy working most days and so are less inclined to worry about proving it to others.

With this realisation I have become clearer about my frustration with conferences and professional development that are dominated by academics presenting their current research. Whilst this is often very interesting, I yearn for the playing with ideas. I think I have a vague memory of this, once upon a time. being very much present in both education and professional development.

Luckily, there were a few papers that did play with ideas and aspects of everyday clinical practise. Both Keynotes –  Dr Takeshi Tamura from Japan gave us a lovely snapshot of some of the dilemmas facing Japanese families. And Karl Tomm from Canada,  talked about his own theoretical influences and how they translated into the counselling room. I was absolutely delighted when he put up two of his major influences as Gregory Bateson and Humberto Maturana. Very validating for me!

The Australian Contingent
The Australian Contingent

There were three papers from Australia and they all, I’m pleased to say, included playing with ideas. And I’m even more pleased to say – two were by past students.

David Allen and Rebecca Codrington, from NSW were the first to present their paper titled Using Relationship Counselling to Address Trauma. They raised the question about including ‘the other’ to witness the trauma work of their partner. In a sense reclassifying trauma within the individual as a relationship issue

David and Rebecca
David and Rebecca

Then Lucinda Willshire from Melbourne presented her paper on Male Breadwinners, Trailing Wives and Third Culture Kids: Expat Families What Lies Beneath. This paper was built on Lucinda’s personal experience of living the ‘expats life’ for more than 25 years, expelling quite a few myths about expat lifestyle and the impact on families when cultural identity starts to get muddled.

Lucinda Willshire relieved after her presentation
Lucinda relieved after her presentation

And finally, on the last morning Karen Walters presented her paper A Small Foster Care Program Making a Big Difference to Kids in Care. This paper drew attention to the actual ‘doing’ of the attachment work. Through a case example Karen gave lots of ideas like brushing a prickly adolescent’s hair, in a regular rhythmic way. She highlighted the importance of keeping both the carers and workers regulated and responsive. All the carers in this program participate in trauma training, and most of the workers have family therapy training. Karen reminded us of the simplicity, of keeping an eye to the quality of relationship – something that is so often lost.

Karen Walters being invited to come an talk in Paris
Karen being invited to go and talk in Paris

Which takes me to Big Island itself. Living with volcanoes is a phenomenon that was different to anything I have experienced. Impermanence is part of everyday life. The volcanoes dictate and people live around them. There’s no trying to tame or control nature – such an embedded Australian mindset it was almost impossible to hear that gentle resignation that towns will disappear, and roads will no longer be accessible. The volcanoes and lava flows dominate.  There was something very liberating about this.

walking over the top of a volcano was pretty amazing
walking over the top of a volcano was pretty amazing

 

The importance of play

This month I’ve been thinking about the importance of play. I’m especially interested in it as an ongoing monitor of both our emotional and physical health.

All mammals play and of course humans are no exception, it’s the most heart breaking phenomenon to be working with children who don’t play. Very quickly there is recognition that something fundamental to their being, is absent.

the quality of our play tells us a lot about who we are
the quality of our play tells us a lot about who we are

My granddaughter has started to giggle and whilst I’m yet to witness this, I do see a process of research taking place in her parents as they try to determine what she currently finds worth a giggle.

It feels like a very significant attachment step, and another important step in attunement. One that could easily be trivialised by someone, who themselves has a ‘play disability’. In other words someone who values serious learning over useless peekaboo, or what ever else engages the baby. Given that we’re currently into ticking boxes the move to interactive laughing could be seen as a big tick in the step 1 attachment box.

When we are able to be playful we are well enough loved. Through playfulness we learn about abstract thinking which provides the foundation for empathy. When we play we are teaching babies about metaphor, the distinction between the actual and the illusion, an essential concept to embed for successful navigation of our world.  In turn observing the quality of play tells us something about the relationship to self and other. Play builds neuroplasticity. We all need individual and relational play. What this looks like will vary across the life cycle.

I’m currently at the International Family Therapy Conference and there isn’t too much play happening here. It’s all very serious research. The play of ideas, and creative thinking, is almost completely absent – but more about that later. I’ll do a conference blog in the next couple of weeks.

Easter egg hunt
Easter egg hunt

Play is an ongoing part of daily life – it’s fragile.  Recently I had the virus that has been going around Melbourne. As I coughed my way to health I realised I’d lost my sense of humour and consequently my playfulness. The return of my humour announced the return of my health. This is pretty simple stuff to tune in to, and yet we don’t.

When someone is depressed tracking a history of what makes/made them laugh or what activates their playfulness is not as difficult to access as one might think.Often something inconsequential can happen in a session that will make them smile, this is often a good place to start.

making a cubby under the table
making a cubby under the table

Becoming a Parent – A Step on the Path to Who Knows Where!

In this blog I am focused on babies who arrive wanted and who have parents that are full of hope for the future. In some ways it’s this group of parents that get so knocked about by cultural and political forces.

From the minute that pregnancy is confirmed, the first step is taken to who knows where.
From the minute that pregnancy is confirmed, the first step is taken to who knows where.

I’m going to ignore all the fear introduced during pregnancy about what you might be doing to your unborn child and jump straight to birth.

The minute that baby is born due to funding policy and the economic rationalist mind set – that money is all that matters. The medical team is under pressure to get that mother and baby discharged.  This is coupled with a requirement to impart compulsory knowledge. This has less impact with subsequent babies, but with the first it feels like one has just landed in a pressure cooker. With conflicting information being tossed at you and then you’re discharge into the world. It’s completely irrelevant whether you know what you’re doing, have support, or are physically ready.

I’m aware many people feel ready to leave at the 4 day mark, but I sometimes feel that this is to escape the pressure of panicked nurses, not because the new parents feels ready. Being the last of a generation who could stay 10 days with my first – hospital felt like a calm time when I could both rest and build confidence. To chuck a mother out before her milk has come in, feels like a cruel social and economic policy.

Out you go into the wilds of life - whether you sink or swim is irrelevant to religion of economic rationalism
Out you go into the wilds of life – whether you sink or swim is irrelevant to the religion of economic rationalism.

From here on all support is tokenistic and disconnected. The only thing that seems clear to me is get the primary carer – even that word rather than parent – back to work. The national maternity leave scheme is linked to the assumption that the parent who is primarily responsible for consistent love – returns to work within 12 months. What has happened to our community that we no longer want our taxes to support families with young children?

And get that baby booked into child care because…. As  I did some research I noticed that 1. You may need to actually pay to go on a waiting list. 2. There are now companies that will search for places for you.(Childcare and Education – Choice 2016) What sort of society does this to people – fleece them at their most vulnerable.

At the same time there has been a shift in the policy around when the aged pension can be accessed – the age is now 67 which means many grandparents are still working, which limits the support that they can offer their own children and grandchildren. It feels safe to assume this would have a direct result on the shortage of child care places. So even if a grandparent would like to care for a grandchild they may not be able to afford to.

Then there is the social policy of having children later and so often this is reflected in a personal rigidity that can cause a lot of distress. Once in our 30s many of us have had some years of being established in a particular way of being.  Consequently the deconstruction process that occurs with the birth of a child can be monumental. The falling apart of established day-to-day practises, becomes the fodder for anxiety and depression. Whilst we know this is not good for the baby – or the new parents – there is a total lack of kindness around this. Unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a support network that can stand beside, not criticise or offer unwanted advice, you’re on your own with the medical model and the drug companies.

The shock and trauma of deconstruction of our being, at any critical life stage, is rarely talked about. Having a baby is, I think, the number one deconstruction experience. And to add insult, of course, people have been having babies successfully forever.  What’s missing from this comment, whilst yes, that’s true. Is I think it’s probably unique to our era that financial wealth has been pretty much universally swamped the importance of emotional wealth. Good luck – its a harsh environment to be a parent. And remember if something goes wrong it’s your fault – is the icing of fear on an already distressing cake.  The idea that sometimes things go wrong does not sit well in a culture that likes to believe it and control and prevent any adversity.

love and kindness has no economic value

Becoming a Grandmother: Attachment Revisited

IMG_1525Becoming a grandmother for the first time has been the most wonderful life cycle rite of passage. It marks so many transitions – offspring to parent, siblings to aunts and uncles, parents to grandparents and if they are still alive, grandparents to great grandparents.

Speaking as a new grandmother, I have enjoyed being able to love without the day-to-day responsibility. What is most wonderful about this is it’s easier to avoid that terrible muddling of love and control. I am defining love as the ability to accept one another as valid beings. This includes parenting decisions made by your offspring that you might not like, or agree with. Unfortunately, what is often misread as love is  compliance to the will of another, this is actually control. Someone oppressing their own beliefs or actions to get approval,confusingly defined as love. In the extreme this becomes emotionally abusive.

We all muddle love and control at times, it’s when it becomes the dominant pattern that it becomes problematic.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying the wish to impose our will on another is wrong – we all do this all the time. It’s when it’s mislabelled as an act of love that it becomes troublesome.

And then there's knitting a very grandmotherly thing to do!
And then there’s knitting a very grandmotherly thing to do!

Often in my work I hear that a grandparent has been able to provide a loving relationship with a grandchild that they could never have provided for their own biological children. The removal of day-to-day responsibility, and being no longer dominated by the anxiety and fear of, am I doing the right thing, enables a connection that is often not possible when everyday worries are present.

I feel immensely sorry for the increasing number of grandparents who end up full time carers of their grandchildren – both miss an important developmental opportunity.

Through my grandmother eyes the attachment process has become a clear, and in essence, simple process. To scale it down to the barest bones: a baby makes a demand and an adult responds with kindness. Preferably the same group of adults and ideally a mother. This is true of all mammals – we are no exception. If this process is, mainly, repetitive and predictable a loving, oxytocin producing, relationship is developed enabling age appropriate neural development. Relational trust, in and between, both the significant adults and baby develops. Just the simple act of playing a game on a mobile phone whilst feeding, if this is what mostly happens, can interfere with this process – hence training the baby in relational disconnection.

And then there's cooking with Grandma
And then there’s cooking with Grandma

Attachment is a relational process. The adults wait for the demand from the baby, when young via crying, and then it’s the adults job to work out what action to take in response to this cry. Adults deciding when a baby should be fed so waking it to meet the needs of the adult, is interfering with the attachment process. Of course, I hope it goes without saying, that I’m talking about healthy infants, and what is commonly practised. We all have our days when we may need to interrupt this attachment process and impose on the baby.

Over time the baby gains trust that the adults in his or her world will respond to their needs appropriately, simultaneously the adults also gain trust and confidence in their relationship with their child. This will, when the time comes, help a parent so ‘no’ with confidence. Not fearing that the loving relationship with their child will be jeopardised – in fact being able to hold the what is reasonable line is an act of love and a significant aspect of attachment. I believe it also helps parents stay emotionally present with their child, often a hard call I know, especially when they are inconsolable for whatever reason. Confidence in our attachment also helps soothe the distress in the adults – especially is something goes wrong and the distress of the infant is not able to be soothed.

What I haven’t looked at in this blog but will next month is the impact of cultural beliefs and political policy on our new mums and the attachment process. These external factors play a significant, often not helpful, role.