Saturday, 28 March 2015

Once more with feeling

My boss used to have a theory that if I were presented with the opportunity to confront the things that I was afraid of doing, and succeeded in doing them, then I would grow and develop and feel more confident about doing them. It turns out he was wrong. He's stopped trying to send me to conferences and customer sites now.

There was the time I took over at the last minute from a colleague whose wife was going into hospital to have her gall bladder removed. I went to a conference and presented a talk. It went perfectly well, and I only had one of the obligatory conference arseholes who asked a question that was not designed to elicit information from the presenter but was intended to show off how clever the arsehole was. I still don't know (or care) whether my instrument could handle the isobaric interferences of different tomato flavonoids. I was presenting on a new instrumental technique not on a specific application area, arsehole. Nonetheless, despite it going well, I'd still lain awake almost all night beforehand worrying and I'd still rather quit my job than do it again.

Then there was the time, which I mentioned previously, where I sat vomitting with fear in the departure lounge of an airport on my way to a customer site. That was certainly the last overseas customer site I visited.

Then there was the course that I helped to run (at our office) for a group of European PhD students. We were training them in some basic instrumentation diagnostics, electronics and lab practice. (And it still boggles my mind that PhD chemistry students from all over Europe came to our poxy little office and lab to be shown how to use an oscilloscope and they were delighted and impressed, because it wasn't something they'd ever been taught...) Anyway, I digress... Part of the training course was a lecture and practical I gave on ion detection techniques. And it was that lecture that the professor who was accompanying them decided to sit in on. A physics professor. Listening to me talk about physics. Gulp. BUT, it went splendidly, and at the end the professor even told me it had been very good and he'd learnt things he didn't know! Go me! Maybe he was just being nice, but on the other hand, I've heard him talking to bigwigs from the Home Office that it would have paid him to be nice to, and it turns out he has an alarming tendency to speak his mind, so I shall take his praise at face value.

And now? Now we have five engineers visiting from China to be trained on how to use the instrument they've bought. Not just how to use it, but how to maintain, debug and tune it when necessary. So we have four days, divided into 8 sessions, of which I am responsible for 3. The first one is the same ion detection training I've already done, the next is essentially turning the reference manual (that I wrote) into hands-on training, and the last one is basically the "any questions?" session at the end of the fourth day. So I know that I can do the ion detection section, and I even know it's good, as a physics professor told me so. And I literally wrote the book for the hardware section, so it can't be that hard, can it?

So why was I awake at 4:30 this morning, worrying and thinking and thinking and worrying about what I still needed to do, and what if they thought I was a fool, and what if it all went horribly wrong, or what if their English wasn't good enough to follow what I was saying, or what if they already knew it all, or what if... what if... what if...?

Welcome to my world.

A world where doing something you've done before, that you've been told you're good at, still fills you with fear.

A world where you end up so tired and so worried you feel physically sick.

A world where you can only think of all the things that might go wrong.

A world where you can ignore all the evidence before your eyes about your own abilities and your own competence and still believe that you can't do it. That you're a fraud. That someone is about to "see through" you and you'll be found out as an idiot.

And I'll go to work next week, and I'll run the training sessions, and they'll probably be fine, and I'll wonder afterwards what I was so worried about. Until the next time...

I've been awake for just over 16 hours now. And the clocks go forward tonight. I think I might go to bed. And tomorrow I'm going to find my CBT notes about black-and-white thinking and catastrophising and remind myself of the techniques I started to master last year, because it looks as though I've let go of them more than I thought I had.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

What a difference a day makes

The morning after the nightmare drive to work/nursery...

LittleBear woke up before 6 AGAIN, cough, cough, cough, cough. Poor boy. Repetitive, dry cough that neither tixylix nor water soothed. Me and BigBear weren't exactly thrilled, or in fact jolly or perky. But LittleBear was surprisingly chipper. And he ate two croissants with butter and jam for breakfast, which is more than either of us had. Whatever this cough is, it's not hurting his appetite.

Meanwhile, the drive to nursery was with a different child. And, to be honest, a different mother. There were no tears, no raised voices, no contretemps. In fact, we set sail into the wierd and wonderful world of LittleBear's imagination.

We saw some roadworks, where they were using a circular saw to slice into the pavement prior to digging it all up...

LB: Mummy, we can't drive over that road ever!
PB: It's OK sweetheart, after they dig the hole and mend what's underneath, they'll make a new piece of road on top.
LB: What if they fall into the hole? 
LB: How long will there be a hole?
LB: It might be a really, really, really, really <I lost count of the reallies> long time 
PB: I think it'll probably be about 2 weeks actually. 
LB: No Mummy, it will be 29 weeks. No, longer than that, longer than you are Mummy <numbers and age are more or less interchangeable>. What's longer than 40 Mummy? It will be 49 weeks before they mend it Mummy. No, it'll be longer than Grandma and Grandad. Really, really long. What do you think Mummy? 
PB: I think, um, 352 weeks.
<long pause>
LB: Is that a long time Mummy?
PB: Yes, it's got three hundreds in it. Do you think an even longer time than that?
LB: Yes, even longer Mummy. What's longer than that?
PB: How many hundreds would you like? It has to be more than three.
LB: Four hundreds Mummy. Four hundred AND fifty six.
PB: Goodness me, that's a long time. That's nearly nine years.
LB: And then they'll break the whole world, even the trees and the bushes and that wall there. And they'll break the wall on the bridge. And the railing on the wall.
PB: Oh, is that what we'd like to happen?
LB: Yes, because then we can see the river better.
Can't fault his logic on that one. Seeing the river is an important requirement.
PB: Ooh look LittleBear, there's a tractor <major maternal duty is to point out all farm machinery we pass>
LB: It's spraying something. What do you think it's spraying?
PB: I don't know, probably weed killer
LB: What's weed killer?
PB: It's a chemical for killing weeds without killing the crops.
LB: What are weeds?
PB: Weeds are the plant that you don't want. If the farmer is growing wheat, or sweetcorn or sugar beet then he doesn't want daisies and dandelions growing, so he sprays weed killer.
LB: Dinosaurs are weeds
PB: Are they? Do they grow from seeds?
LB: Yes, some of them do. You need to give them water and glue.... and... oil to grow.
PB: Really? Water and glue and oil?
LB: Yes, and... and...
PB: Custard?
LB: No Mummy, not something we eat. Water and glue and oil and diesel and the seed grows and grows and grows into a Tyrannosaurus Rex!

This conversation took us most of the drive from HomeTown to WorkTown, as what I've failed to convey is the manner in which LittleBear comes out with some of these statements. It goes something like this:

Mummy? What if? What if? Mummy? What if they... they... they... Mummy? What if they fall into the hole?

He's in such a tearing hurry to speak and to make sure he's speaking so you can't interrupt, that he starts his sentences well in advance of actually having thought what he's going to say. The "Mummy?" is generally a delaying tactic to keep his place in the conversation until he's ready with his next declaration. I used to think that saying "Yes?" in response to "Mummy?" in these conversations would assure him that I was indeed listening and that he could continue. As it turns out that's only sometimes the correct option. Other times it is a completely uninvited interruption that can cause the entire explanation or enquiry to be restarted from scratch. You just can't tell.

So - we got to nursery full of chatter and laughter and smiles. And I still got lots of cuddles and kisses and then went to work happy in the knowledge that LittleBear and I love each other, and that even when we're both tired things can still go well. And who knows what changed, other than no biscuits were dropped.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Epic mothering fail

Today I stopped the car and shouted at LittleBear, "do you want me to get you out and leave you here?"

Yes, I actually did that.

Maybe I should give a little background to how I got to that position.

Actually, no, first, I should reassure you that I didn't leave my three year old by the side of the busy road. And for those who like to skip to the end of the book to make sure that everything ends happily, we had a big cuddle and everyone stopped shouting and crying.

Back to the background. LittleBear didn't sleep brilliantly, what with the coughing (again! always the coughing) and losing his comforter in the night and needing Mummy to find it, and the birds and sun waking up early and waking him up. And if LittleBear doesn't sleep brilliantly, chances are BigBear and PhysicsBear don't sleep brilliantly either. I think I may have mentioned that I'm not very nice when I'm tired.

Once we'd finally managed to wrestle LittleBear into getting up, going for a wee, getting dressed, eating breakfast, playing, having his teeth brush, put his socks back on again, shoes on, coat on, into the car about two and half days an hour had passed, and my temper was an hour worse than it had been when I got up, and it had been pretty lousy then.

LittleBear quite likes to have a snack in the car on the way to nursery. That would be the snack that comes in between breakfast (at home) and second breakfast (at nursery). It's usually a little rice cake, or maybe a rich tea biscuit. I know, I spoil him with such extravagant treats.

Mistake number 1: there were only a couple of little rice cakes left, so I passed LittleBear the packet forgetting about all the rice cake shrapnel and dust in the bottom of the packet. You know where all of it ended up don't you? That's right, you're thinking more clearly than I was, it ended up all over LittleBear and the car. I didn't discover this feature until later however.

Then came the biscuit.

Mistake number 2: playing along with LittleBear who was telling me that his half eaten biscuit was a boat, I suggested he show the boat the river as we drove over the bridge. Naturally he dropped the biscuit, at which point the world ended.

Then came the tears.

Then the coat was wet around the collar. There are few things prone to make LittleBear cry more than having his clothes wet. Even the faintest trace of moisture requires everything to be ripped off immediately.

Mistake number 3: I suggested (at this point rather forcefully, perhaps even in a tone that some might call shouting) that LittleBear unzip his coat so the wet collar wasn't touching him. "I can't", he wailed whilst unzipping his coat, "it'll never dry, it'll stay wet forever". [I feel like pointing out that this is the same conversation we have every single time any item of clothing gets wet, and no matter how many times something does dry, we have the same performance the next time.] Now the coat is open however... "my shirt is wet" It'll never dry, it'll stay wet forever". Rashly I suggested that if he stopped crying his clothes wouldn't be wet. Apparently that was not a reasonable suggestion.

Mistake number 4: I explained to LittleBear that I couldn't reach his dropped biscuit, so he had a choice. He could wait until the next village, where there was a place I could stop to get the biscuit, or he could have a new one. As far as I could tell through the sobbing about the unacceptably wet clothing, he asked for a new one. I gave him a new biscuit. It was a whole biscuit. This was wrong. He wanted half a biscuit. I broke the new one in half and gave it back. It was too small. I took the small half back and gave him the big half. It was too big. I told him he could eat one of them or have nothing. "But then I'll be hungry! And I'll never have anything to eat ever, and I don't love you". Wow, that one spiralled quickly.

Mistake number 5: By this point I was yelling at LittleBear to stop crying if he wanted this shirt not to be wet, to either eat a biscuit or not eat a biscuit, and mostly to shut up. (And yes, I was told "that's not a kind thing to say".) To nobody's surprise, the more I shouted, the more he cried. Yay.

We finally reached the layby where it's safe to stop, so I did and it was here that I uttered the fateful line, "do you want me to get you out and leave you here?".

Gulps and a pitiful shake of the head... and I shamefully realise that I'm supposed to be the grown up. I'm supposed to be the one who can control my emotions. I'm supposed to be leading by example, not shouting, not yelling, not threatening, not being unkind. I get out of the car, and go to find his biscuit. And my poor little boy thinks I'm about to get him out of the car and leave him. Instead I find the fall-out from the rice cake packet. You remember the rice cake packet? The one that he turned upside down and thus shed a small mountain of slightly sticky crumbs everywhere? Not quite calm I still manage to say (in my mother's voice, I swear) "you stupid child! Look what you've done!"

Mistake number 6: (you didn't think I'd run out of mistakes to make did you?) I get LittleBear out of the car, so I can take his dangerously damp coat off and clear up the abominable crumby mess. Now he really thinks I'm about to leave him, and telling him I'm just taking his coat off doesn't appear to convince him otherwise.

And that is how I ended up sat on the pavement, enfolding my precious boy in the biggest cuddle ever, rocking him back and forth, stroking his head and murmuring sweet nothings to him to assure him that I do, did and will always love him, even if sometimes I'm cross. And maybe to some of you that was mistake number 7, maybe I should just have kept driving and ignored him. Maybe I "gave in" to him. But he's my LittleBear, and I'd been in the wrong, and I'd shouted at him for being nothing more than an over-tired toddler, and in my world there is nothing more important than being sure that you're loved, and I will do anything that it takes to make sure that he grows up knowing that my love is total, unwavering and unbreakable. And leaving him at nursery today was almost as hard as the first day I had to do so.

"Mummy? I love you. When I said I didn't love you, I didn't mean it"

Monday, 23 March 2015

Scenes from a year

We all have nostalgic places don’t we? Places forever associated in your mind with a particular event. Perhaps there's that restaurant that whenever you walk past you remember a first date? Or the park where you flew a kite with your grandfather? Or the playground where your cousin bowled a cricket ball into your shin and you still have a dent in the bone? That last one's just me isn't it? I'm not talking about the kind of places and memories where every now and then it drifts back to you with an "Oh, yes, I remember now, isn't this where we ate those weird fishes?" I mean the kind of instantaneous association you have with a place where the moment you see it you're almost reliving the moment again.

It seems that the first year of LittleBear's life created rather a lot of those for me. And there are now places, almost entirely in and around the village we live in, that I cannot pass without being instantly transported to a different time and place…

Beside the war memorial

Where I walked one dark, cold December night. It was 9:30pm and the only way to get BabyBear (as he was then) to sleep was to take him for a walk or a drive. I'd opted for a walk in the pram, and he gazed upwards, fascinated by the changing light and dark of the street lights all the way round the village. Finally, under the trees around the war memorial, with no street lights, he fell asleep. I walked back and forth and back and forth under those trees until I was confident I could risk the street lit route home, where BigBear was just cooking our dinner.

Those traffic lights

The ones where in my bleary-eyed exhaustion I drove straight through the red light. And then pulled over in a layby to get out and let BigBear drive. We passed each other by the boot of the car and I sobbed in his arms at how useless I was that I couldn't even be trusted to drive us home safely. I double, triple, quadruple check those lights EVERY time I drive through them now.

A certain stretch of motorway

Where I fell asleep at the wheel. Only for a matter of a second or two. But the sensation of my head jerking upwards and realising I'd fallen asleep terrified me more than almost anything that has ever happened to me. The next exit was mine, but from that moment on the windows were open and I was pinching myself to keep checking I didn't nod off again. I drive that stretch every time I go to see BestFriend. And every time it flashes through my mind how close I came to crashing myself and BabyBear at 70mph.

A bench on the village green

Where I sat, BabyBear finally asleep in his pram, sobbing as I wondered how anyone else ever managed this. People passed, either not noticing or being too embarrassed to stop. A lovely old man did stop, not noticing I was crying and commented on what a bonny baby I had. I still feel a slight burn of shame and reddening of the cheeks as I pass that bench and wonder at my own complete and public meltdown.

An alcove in the fiction section of Waterstones

Where I rocked BabyBear's pushchair back and forth and back and forth, desperate that he not wake up. Desperate to find some small ounce of normality in our new life as parents. Desperate that BigBear have a chance to browse and choose some new books without me and BabyBear ruining his life, which at that point I was convinced we were doing. It was our first trip into "town" with BabyBear and I had absolutely no idea what I would do if he started his screaming routine. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have cuddled and/or fed him, and probably received sympathetic glances from large portions of the shop, but at the time I thought everyone would hate me and I'd be banished forever or something. Shopping for books by authors from E-H still makes me a bit anxious.

The art shop

Where BigBear and I went in another attempt at normality. BabyBear was behaving beautifully and BigBear suggested I treat myself to something from the art shop. I gazed longingly at the Paperblanks notebooks, at the tubes of gouache paint, at the calligraphy nibs and inks and then stood crying in the middle of the shop, informing BigBear "there's no point in buying anything. I'm never going to be able to do any art again". Melodramatic? Me? The art shop is quite close to where I work and I pop in and pick things up for this and that project quite often now. And feel a twinge of foolishness every time for my absurd declaration to a husband who was trying his best to make sure I did something nice for me in amongst the fog of caring for a newborn.

The bend in the path

Where BigBear had to stop as he reached the end of his ability to tolerate the bawling from BabyBear and I kept pushing the pram. As I rounded the corner BabyBear fell asleep. I looked back to just make out BigBear rooted to the spot. We cycle, walk, run, skip, hop and bounce down that path now. But every time it still makes me wonder how close we came to breaking BigBear.

In case you think the entirety of BabyBear's first year in the world was marked by doom and gloom, there are the happier spots. There are fewer of them, perhaps because the happy times are a more diffuse and nebulous affair than the moments of fear, desperation and anguish that burn into the soul. But they are there, somewhere...

Passing the building society

Where I bumped into a friend I'd just started to make at the Early Years Centre with her baby girl. I was disconsolate as my plan of going to the library had backfired when it turned out to be closed and I wasn't sure how BabyBear and I were going to fill an empty Tuesday morning. She said "why don't you come to baby group with us?" A baby group? What was this magic? For a pound they gave me a cup of tea, a biscuit, a big playmat with lots of toys, and a warm and loving welcome with other mothers and babies. I made actual, real friends there. People I invite to my house and everything. All because of a chance meeting outside the building society, and I think of that moment every time I pass it now.

The first swing on the right

Where BabyBear had his first go in a swing, and his face lit up as I pushed him. He still loves those swings, even though he's getting a bit big for them now. And even as I push my LittleBear in them I see my beautiful baby, little fists over the edge of the seat enjoying his first ride.

The bench just near that other bench

Where I caught a spur of the moment photograph on my phone of a big smile with two little teeth in, looking so snug, and so happy bundled up against the cold. I still have the photo on my phone and every time I see that spot I remember sitting on the bench with the pushchair facing me and taking that picture, knowing we could be happy together.

We're working on some new automatic memories now. There's a path that I now can't walk along without warming up to bellow "Stop!" as loud as my voice will allow as LittleBear has a habit of pelting down it on his scooter straight towards the main road. And there's the windmill that we climbed to the top of that he loved more than anything else we did for months. Give it another decade and I might think about sitting on that bench again.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Not all PhDs are created equal

There appear to be a lot of people, most of them with PhDs, who seem to think that the possession of said PhD endows them with superior intellect, or greater worth. I'll let you in on a little secret though - not all PhDs are created equal. I've never met a PhD candidate yet who hasn't worked their arse off to achieve their PhD, but for an unfortunate number of them, the receipt of the PhD appears to be little more than some kind of long-service award. Working hard as a general factotum, dogsbody and second pair of hands for your professor; undertaking tedious rounds of experiments dictated by your supervisor; writing up the conclusions drawn by your head of department; these are not the qualities that should earn you a PhD. New ideas, interesting research, and most of all thinking should be prerequisites.

You may think that this is sour grapes since I'm merely PhysicsBear and not DrPhysicsBear, but though I'd like to have got a PhD it would only be as a defensive shield against all the academics I work for and with who assume that my lack of PhD makes me somehow lesser. It doesn't take most of them long to realise that they may have assumed wrong.

You may think that I can't possibly know that many people in possession of a PhD who are frankly woefully under-endowed with little grey cells. You'd be wrong. Bear in mind I've been in this job for 16 years, and almost every customer I work with has a PhD as a minimum qualification. I've also interviewed people to come and work for us, and most of them (a) had PhDs and (b) were hopeless.

Oh the tales I could tell... actually, go on then, I will...

Exhibit A

One of our customers, let's call him DrS, has a mass spectrometer. Not altogether surprising, as we sell mass spectrometers. He rather confrontationally accosts one of my colleagues and insists "your instrument is broken!" Being the concerned and diligent people that we are, colleague takes a look:

Colleague: So, what seems to be wrong?
DrS: It's broken. There are all those peaks that shouldn't be there.

Hmmm. Let's pause for a moment there. A mass spectrometer does one thing. It analyses the composition, by mass, of the chemicals that you put in. You get one peak per chemical. Sometimes it can go wrong and you get horrible peak shapes. Sometimes it can go wrong and you have tiddly small peaks. Sometimes it can go wrong and you have no peaks at all. Never can it go wrong and invent peaks out of some kind of malice or twisted sense of humour.

Colleague: Um, let's see, those peaks seem to be at masses, um, 18, 28, 32, 40 and 44.

The astute amongst you, or perhaps just the chemists, will notice that those are the molecular masses of water, nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide. Looks a bit like air that does.

Colleague: So, I'd say you have an air leak
DrS: No, that's not possible. Your instrument is broken.
Colleague: OK, well, this is a mass spectrometer, and the spectrum is showing the presence of air, so I think we have to assume the air's getting in there somehow.

This conversation continues for some time in this vein until one of DrS's colleagues comes over and agrees that it must be an air leak. DrS has a chemistry PhD and works as a researcher in an extremely reputable university.

Exhibit B

This time it's the turn of DrB. DrB has been having persistent trouble with the detection system in his mass spectrometer. He keeps reporting to me that it's not detecting any ions at all. Greatly concerned by this development, I have him return all of the detection equipment to us for me to test. To my surprise, it works perfectly in our lab. I return his equipment to him but he continues to report the same problem. I request that he return the timing electronics and PC so I can check over all the hardware and software that actually gathers the data. That too is fine. As are all the cables and interconnections. Eventually, bewildered and slightly worried, I phone him again.

Me: DrB, we can't find anything wrong here. How certain are you that you're actually generating ions? Do you have any way of independently checking if the ion source is working?
DrB: Oh no, I took the ion source off weeks ago.
Me: Erm, if you don't have an ion source, what were you expecting the detector to detect?
DrB: Oh, I thought it might detect cosmic events or something.

I guess it's worth pointing out at this point that we go to great lengths to make sure our instruments don't detect anything other than the ions generated in the instrument. That's rather the point. DrB has a PhD in chemistry, and again, works at at a very respectable university. And yet he had me spend weeks and weeks trying to debug a non-existent problem.

Exhibit C

We make a piece of portable equipment. When I say portable, I mean it's the size of a small suitcase, battery-powered and weighs about 20kg. One person can carry it around, but they end up quite a tired person quite quickly. And despite being portable it's still a delicate piece of scientific equipment. One of our customers, DrH, wanted to know how robust it was and decided to do a series of experiments to determine how rugged it was, and therefore what improvements he might be able to get us to make to improve its ruggedness. When I say "series of experiments", as it turns out I mean "one experiment". He dropped it from a metre. Onto a concrete floor. It broke. To be honest, we could have told him that without smashing a £30,000 scientific instrument. We'd rather imagined he might start at 10cm and work his way up and then he'd at least have had a couple more data points before trashing the whole thing. But no, this engineering-PhD holding expert just dropped it. From a metre. Onto concrete.

Exhibit D

We needed to employ someone new. We wanted either a physicist with strong electronics skills or an electronics engineer with strong physics skills. Almost everyone who had a CV good enough to even consider inviting for interview had a PhD, and all of them from very good universities. We set them all the same little challenge on a white board to see how they coped with thinking on their feet.

If an ion gun produces 20nA of ion current, all of which consists of singly charged ions, how many ions are being emitted per second? (If you need to know the charge on an electron, we can tell you). 

Now, if that gun is pulsed such that it is only on for 40ns in every 100μs, how many ions are being emitted per second? 

And if the ion gun is scanning over a 100μm x 100μm square, what's the dose rate in ions/s/cm2?

Now, I'm happy to accept that not everyone reading this will be able to do that calculation, but it should, quite frankly, be a walk in the park for any science student, never mind someone with a PhD in physics or electronics. The biggest challenge is in handling exponents properly. Even taking into account interview nerves does not excuse the number of candidates who responded "I'm sure I've known this once, but I'd have to look it up" or variations upon that theme. No! Don't look it up, use your bloody brain and think about what current is and what ions are.

The only person to successfully undertake that calculation is now my colleague. Like me, he does not have a PhD.

The prosecution rests its case.


I am only talking about science PhDs here, who knows what those weirdos over in the humanities get up to.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

How to spoil your own Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday dawned, well, more-or-less at dawn, thanks to LittleBear's propensity for waking up really early on the very days you'd really rather he didn't. Nonetheless, being a surprisingly biddable LittleBear, he remained relatively quiet and happy in his own bed until the sun-face lit up on his clock telling him it was time to get up. And then, with some gentle reminders from BigBear that this was a special day for being lovely to Mummies, I was left in peace in bed while BigBear and LittleBear got up. Ahhhh... a lie-in... blissful, guilt-free, uninterrupted sleep... a lolling drift back into gentle slumber... But no! My brain had other ideas. My stupid, anxiety-ridden, unco-operative bloody brain just started worrying instead.

Was I worrying about BigBear and LittleBear? No, in truth they often give me a bit of extra sleep on a Sunday morning, so I knew they were fine.

Was I worrying about work? No, since having LittleBear, though I still care about what I do at work, it doesn't assume the same importance in my mind as it used to.

Was I worrying about something important, a matter of life, death or taxes? No, there's really nothing of any great import occurring on any of those fronts.

I was worrying about making a phone call. Yes, a phone call. One of my Achilles heels (yes, I throw accuracy with my classical mythology to the four winds and I have multiple Achilles heels. Maybe this one is an Achilles elbow, or perhaps Achilles ear-lobe. No, not an ear-lobe, that's not a major enough body-part. I'll stick with heel)

Some background... the Bear Family, in the form of GrannyBear, AuntieBear and various Bear Cousins, own a holiday cottage some 250 miles from here. To avoid all the maintenance falling upon the shoulders of one Bear, we're trying to share it around a bit. And I have volunteered to take responsibility for the redecoration of the master bedroom. After some rather unfortunate failings in the watertightness of the roof, the master bedroom has suffered quite a bit of water damage, hence the need for redecoration. The kind of redecoration that's beyond the realm of DIY. Plastering and other Dark Arts. I now have the phone numbers of a plasterer and a painter/decorator recommended by local friends.

All I have to do is phone them.

All I have to do is phone them.

All I have to do is phone them.
But, they might think I'm an idiot. They might laugh at me. They might refuse to do the work because I asked the wrong questions. They might think I'm a fool for thinking anyone could possible do the work in a couple of months time, when everyone knows you have to arrange things at least 6 months in advance. Or they might think I'm mad for phoning now when I don't need to the work done for a couple of months as they could start next week. They might tell me it's going to be squillions of pounds and I'll panic and not know what to say.

Do you have any idea how many ways this phone call could go wrong? How many ways I could be laughed at and thought stupid? Can you imagine getting through life with every phone call you make being like this for days in advance? I can go a very, very long time between haircuts, or dentist appointments, or car services just because of the paralysing fear of something so nebulous I'm not sure I am managing to fully put it into words. My hands shake and I feel sick. My sub-conscious mind takes over and tricks me into "forgetting" the phone call I need to make, and gets me busy doing things somewhere away from a phone. Then evening rolls around and "oh dear! I've forgotten to make that phone-call!"

So, that was my lie-in.

Meanwhile LittleBear and BigBear went out together and LittleBear chose the biggest bunch of flowers he could find for me and when they got home he crept upstairs as quietly as he could and snuck into our room to see if I was awake so he could say "Happy Mothering Day!" to me. Admittedly he had ulterior motives. He has been looking forward to breakfast in bed for weeks. So he and BigBear went and made me fresh coffee and brought me a pain au chocolat and a cup of coffee. Oh, and a croissant for LittleBear. That would be in addition to the bowl of cereal and the two croissants he'd had for "first breakfast" already. And we snuggled up in bed together eating and it was lovely.

My day was then filled with cuddles and giggles and tickles and a very lovely LittleBear who decided that he was a baby tiger and I was a Mummy tiger. And it turns out that as well as having a tiger cave made out of cushions, sofas and blankets, what baby tigers like best of all is cuddles with Mummy tiger.

So LittleBear made my Mothering Sunday lovely (with some help from BigBear) despite my brain's best efforts.

But if you're a friend of mine and I haven't phoned you for a while... don't take it personally... I might want to really...

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The futility of fretting about food

Every now and then I fall into the trap I mentioned in a previous post about not reading parenting books and I start to read advice about feeding your child. Or I read one of those ubiquitous bloody articles about how wonderful French children are and how they eat everything and it's all because French parents are so wonderful and blah blah blah it'll only be a matter of weeks before your toddler is eating octopus. Which is why I now have a freezerful of lamb and mint burgers, salmon fishcakes, moroccan lamb casserole, and assorted other delicious meals, all of which LittleBear has persistently and repeatedly refused to touch.

LittleBear is three, and therefore is, almost by definition, a picky eater. Yes, I'm sure your children eat quinoa and spinach curry, but back here in the real world, my son is pretty suspicious about anything that I assure him is yummy food. And all those tasty things that other children like? Uh-uh, no way.

Chicken? Nope, that's meat

Sausages? Only if they're Tesco Finest outdoor bred pork chipolatas. You can try giving him another variety that to your unrefined palate looks, smells and tastes identical, but one bite will be all that passes his lips, and that might be handed back, semi-chewed, with a firm shake of the head. I don't know what's in those sausages but I need some of it right now. My sanity may depend upon it.

Pizza? Nope, that's got tomato sauce on it

Pasta bolognese? Nope, see above.

Meatballs? Nope, see above.

Pasta and tomato sauce? I think you know the answer.

Any food with a sauce? Nope. Sauces are the devil's work.

Any food that might have touched something in a sauce? You might actually be trying to poison LittleBear.

So, with this in mind, when an email fell into my inbox offering a 'webinar' (and my loathing of that term almost deserves a post of its own), I was tempted. The topic is Weaning and Toddler Eating and among the topics addressed is the holy grail (second only to sleeping through the night):

Tackling fussy eaters

Yay! I thought. This could be really handy, I thought. Some useful ideas for getting LittleBear to eat, I thought. And then I saw that it was being run by someone who has written "Top 100 Recipes for Brainy Kids". Seriously? Seriously?! Someone has actually managed to find yet another way to prey upon the fears and insecurities of parents. It's not enough that we love them, cherish them, help them to learn and grow, teach them to be kind, decent human beings, raise them to have self-confidence and self-esteem. Obviously, what we should really be doing is trying to make sure they have an edge over everyone else. We should be pushing them harder, making them brainier, forcing them to play the violin when they're 18 months old. And if you're not feeding your children the "right" things, then you're failing as a parent.

You only need to know one or two teachers to know that diet is important for attention span and health and therefore ability to learn, but actually trying to make your child brainy by feeding them the right foods? It's only a small step from there to Gwyneth Paltrow. Or maybe I've got it all wrong, and the book is recipes for the kids who are already brainy. Just for the special ones, not for those nasty plebby kids. Maybe it's just trying to appeal to the smug parent who thinks little Algernon is destined for a Nobel prize and must therefore be fed accordingly.

I guess I should be grateful to the woman who wrote the recipe book, as the rage it has induced in me has snapped me out of worrying about LittleBear's food habits and reminded me not to read the books/websites/newspaper articles*

* delete as appropriate

Meanwhile, if I reconsider LittleBear... his current favourite food is pasta with cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and peas, slathered in butter. A close second is rice with peas, corn, green beans and carrots, slathered in butter. Basically, if it's a vegetable, ideally slathered in butter, he loves it.

Now you're beginning to think he's the perfect middle class toddler, and I'm just pretending to complain about his eating habits as a means of bragging about his marvellous vegetable consumption. I assure you, I'm not. I am delighted that he eats vegetables, and given BigBear's relationship with fruit and veg, I'm marginally surprised too. I'd just quite like him to eat something else as well.

When LittleBear was two, he had a two-year health check, and one of the things I was asked about was what he ate. Foolishly I was honest about his almost total absence of meat consumption, and his only intermittent willingness to consider fish. And I was met with what I now realise is the standard response of anyone who's never wondered where a vegan gets their protein from, "That's OK, as long as he eats eggs and cheese and other dairy products".

LittleBear doesn't eat eggs. Or rather, he claims he does eat eggs. When I ask him how he likes his eggs cooked? "In cakes". Of course, silly me. Do cakes count as a staple foodstuff? I think they do now.

LittleBear sometimes eats cheese, but only in small quantities and not when I would find it convenient for him to do so. Of course, when he was much smaller, he lulled me into a false sense of confidence by hoovering up mature Gruyere. Now medium cheddar is a bit adventurous.

So where is he getting his protein from? Let me reassure you.

A three year old needs about 15g of protein per day. A pain au chocolate has 4g of protein in it. We're sorted.

Footnote: for those of a worried disposition, he loves beans, milk, yoghurt, rice, fishfingers, and wholegrain bread. I'm not just feeding him on pain au chocolat and hoping for the best. Not every day anyway.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

It's OK to ask

Just recently, BigBear and I were invited to a wedding. This is awesome for  lots of reasons:

  • Yay! Friends are getting married! Celebrating other people being happy is brilliant.
  •  A day out having fun without LittleBear! (Not that I don't love being with LittleBear, but just once in a while it would nice to have some adult company and conversation that isn't punctuated by "Mummy? What did you say?", "Mummy? What did he say?", "Mummy, when are we going to Antarctica?", "Mummy, where did the beet harvester we saw on Tuesday go to next?" etc etc)
  • The ceremony is in a bandstand on the seafront. Could a wedding be more awesome? Oh yes, it could, the reception is in a pub.
In case you hadn't gathered, I am really looking forward to going to this wedding. I even have a new dress, and am planning to buy some new shoes too (BigBear, if you're reading this, yes, I do need more shoes. I need shoes that match this dress. Yes, it is important. No, there is not a one-in-one-out policy on shoes.)

Despite the overall happiness induced even by the idea of going to a wedding again, there are a couple of things percolating away in my brain that are making me anxious.

Firstly, and I think I'm just going to carry this anxiety with me throughout the day, we're going to leave LittleBear with GrannyBear for the day. LittleBear loves GrannyBear. GrannyBear loves LittleBear. Where's the problem? GrannyBear is going to have to put LittleBear to bed. GrannyBear has only done this once before, and BigBear and I were in the house at the time. She's never had to fly solo with him, and he can be a little... capricious. Especially when tired. I've never actually spent a night away from LittleBear, and for that reason, even though we're leaving him for the duration of the wedding, we're going to drive an hour and a half back to GrannyBear's house at the end. That's right, the reception's in a pub and one of us is going to not drink. The sacrifices of parenthood. Or perhaps the sacrifices of dutiful-daughterhood, as I can't in good conscience abandon my mother to the maelstrom that will be LittleBear waking at dawn and finding Mummy is not present. He'd probably be fine... but... but... but... It's that "but" that holds me by the throat and won't let me go.

Secondly, the half of the couple I know better is an old university friend, and therefore, along with almost all my old university friends, I only met him because he was friends with TheEx already. TheEx might be there. So? TheEx left over ten years ago now, and I haven't seen or spoken to him in nine years. I don't spend my time thinking about him, I don't really care what he's done with his life in the intervening years, I don't think I have anything particular to say to him now. And yet, the visceral anxiety that the thought of seeing him again evinces is almost paralysing. Every accusation he threw at me, every insult, every verbal assault has left its mark, has left the fear: what if he was right? What if he starts again where he left off? What if he convinced everyone else at the wedding of all the things he'd once said about me? (Yes, really, my brain actually went that way). Once I'd got that far, the anxiety had me in its clutches.

Maybe you don't know what I mean when I talk about anxiety. It's the feeling when your stomach clenches to the point of feeling physically sick. The fear reaches up and holds tight to your throat so it feels as though you'll choke if you try to speak. Your heart feels as though it's skipping beats. You try to breathe deeply but you lungs won't fill. You start to salivate in anticipation of vomiting. And then the internal monologue breaks into imagined conversations that play over and over again. You lie awake at night, with more and more unlikely conversations playing out in your head, each of them more painful or humiliating than the last, until you're in tears and it all seems so bloody real. And you still can't breathe, and you still feel sick and you just can't make your mind think about anything else at all, no matter what tricks you try to play on it.

This isn't just how I feel about seeing TheEx again...

BigBear and I went on holiday to Andalusia a few years ago, and had tickets to go into the Alhambra one day. The night before, with the prospect of having to navigate our way there, in our hire car, get in, find lunch, interact with people whose language we didn't speak, this is exactly how I felt. I lay awake utterly overwhelmed with the anxiety induced by facing an unknown situation.

A few years before that I flew to Los Alamos to install a large scientific instrument there. I was the last person to board the plane as I sat in the departure lounge throwing up. The purser wouldn't let me on as he thought I was infectious. The delightful motherly stewardess took one look at me, gave me a cuddle and said "it's nerves isn't it?"

This type of anxiety is how I ended up sitting in my doctor's surgery, my son playing on the floor at my feet, and sobbing "I just don't want him to grow up like me". This is how I ended up being referred to CBT.

The CBT has helped but it hasn't exactly cured me. I'm not sure that's what CBT does. I'm not sure that's how anxiety works. What it has done is given me some tools. One of the things it's made me do is to be honest about how I feel to other people. It's also made me be realistic about whether a fear is based in reality, and can be addressed, or whether it's something that is coming entirely from inside my head. Not that the things inside my head aren't real (thank you Professor Dumbledore) but the way of fighting them is slightly different.

So, I was honest, I emailed my friends, who aren't really aware of my battles with anxiety, told them I was anxious and asked if TheEx would be there. And he won't be. So suddenly, the tight bands around my chest are gone, the conversations in my head have evaporated, and I can go back to worrying about serious matters...

Where am I going to find the perfect shoes?

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Is it just me?

Sometimes I get a little annoyed at work. No, really I do. I know that may seem hard to believe, but it's true. Last week, for example the following three interactions took place, all in one day:


S - The Boss
M - Electronics Engineer. Joined the company when I went on maternity leave, as a permanent member. Took over many of my job functions.
C - Bolshy Engineer

 Scene 1, a project meeting:

Background: before M joined the company, I did a large proportion of the electronics, including design, test, debug and repair. 
Me: If M is over-loaded, I could have a look at that repair job, since I've got some spare time.
S: It is electronics you know.
Me: Yes, I know, I may not be an electronics designer, but rumour has it I used to be more or less competent to debug things 
S: But it's electronics you know.
Me: <snarkily> I'll just go back to typing the minutes shall I? I'm good at typing after all.

Scene 2, the same project meeting:

Background: before M joined the company, I was responsible for all detector testing. I trained M in how to do it. Recently, the company purchased a new oscilloscope. I helped specify and choose the new oscilloscope.
Me: Since M is still over-loaded, I'll test those detectors 
M: Remember it's a new oscilloscope
Me: <full-blown snark> Yes, I know. But if I can't cope, I can always use the old one.

Scene 3, later that day

S: I need someone strong to help me move this table
Me: I'll help
S: I need someone strong.
Me: <something really quite rude>

Scene 4, later that day, I'm testing a detector

M: If you can't remember where to set the voltages, you can just come and ask me
Me: <gobsmacked silence>...
Me: <suppressing snark> It's OK thanks, I think I can remember what I'm doing

I mean really, am I completely bloody useless? Am I only here to type up the minutes during the project meetings because nobody else in the damn place can spell or type without staring at the keyboard and wondering where they left the 'd'? Is it because I'm "only" a girl? Or because I took a year of maternity leave and therefore lost all right to be treated as though I have a brain? Or because I now work 3 days a week instead of 5 and am therefore only 60% of a functioning person?

Then this week, something similar occurred, with a change of cast.

Scene 5, the laboratory

C: The reactor stack is ready for PhysicsBear to test tomorrow
M: I could test it now if you like?
C: There are some alignment subtleties to it you know
M: I know, I tested the last one
C: It's quite subtle, I think PhysicsBear should test it.
M: ...

And then I remembered all the other times that S has questioned, erm, well, pretty much everybody's ability to do anything whatsoever. And all the times M has reminded people of things they already know. And all the times nobody has listened when I've suggested what the problem might be. And all the times one or other of us has essentially been told "make sure you do your job properly and don't screw up won't you?" And all the times I've told C he's a lunk-head.

So I conclude that I just work with a bunch of insensitive muppets who don't actually have the faintest idea they're being insulting. And I have to count myself as one of those muppets. There's a reason outsiders look at us with bewilderment when they see us at work. There's a reason my colleague's daughter refers to us as a dysfunctional family. There's a reason C's wife, a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, shakes her head and points out that we're all "on the spectrum". There's a reason I get irate at work. And it's just possible they're all the same reason. And it's just possible it's the reason we're actually pretty good at doing things that nobody else in the world is stupid enough to try.

It's not just me.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Are you having another one?

Apparently this is the default question to ask anyone with a child once said child is past the age of about 18 months. So I've now had 21 months of being asked the same question. I'm beginning to wonder if there's an upper age limit, either for me or LittleBear, when that question will stop. When he's 5? 10? 20? When I'm 50? 60? Or perhaps I need to get a sign printed to hang round my neck saying "I'm only having one child, so don't ask".

Why does it bother me? Other than the repetitive nature of the question, it does touch a nerve. It touches such a nerve that it was one of many things that I tried to sort through during my sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I felt judged for only having one child, as though people would think I was selfish, or unloving, or (here we go again) a failure for only having one child.

Surely if I loved him I'd provide him with a sibling to play with?

Surely, if I loved him, I'd want to do it all again?

Surely if I was a good enough parent, then I'd be a parent to more than one child?

The absurdity of these thoughts is that they weren't things that I thought about parents of single children. Nor were they things that anyone had ever said to me. They were things that I thought about myself and assumed others thought of me. My "homework" from CBT was to ask people what exactly they did assume about someone with only one child. The answers were probably no surprise to most normal people:

"Huh? I don't think I assume anything"

"I think if you've only got one child you're probably a better mother as you can devote more time to just one"

"Why would I think anything about someone with one child rather than two?"

"I'm a bit jealous of you only having one"

So it looks as though nobody is secretly judging my family, or at least not about how many children there are in it. We'll draw a veil over everything else. I really don't want to know what anyone thinks about the things LittleBear says really loudly on the bus about other passengers...

I still haven't really got to the bottom of why being asked bothers me have I?

Before we started out on the deranged plan of having children, BigBear always said he only wanted one. Obviously, as I always know better, and I wanted two children, I was completely convinced that I'd be able to change his mind. Quite sensibly really (BigBear tends to be the sensible one, though I'm the one who's always right) BigBear pointed out that the path to two children generally starts with one, so perhaps we should just start with one, and we'd see how things went.

Everything about giving birth to LittleBear went smoothly, and then... well... despite the fact that he was a perfectly normal little baby who did all the things that little babies do, I didn't exactly cope very well. He was tongue tied, which made feeding difficult, and he wouldn't take a bottle (expressed or formula) and I was stubborn and persisted with breastfeeding. So I had 8 or 9 weeks of agonising feeding, until his tongue tie was snipped and he got the hang of feeding. And obviously, being a little baby he woke at all hours of the day and night to feed. And I'm generally rather an anxious person, and I don't function well on a lack of sleep, and one thing led to another and there I was with post-natal depression.

And it was a deep, dark pit with no perceptible way out. I couldn't imagine or believe that life was ever going to get easier or better or happier. No rational talk, or theoretical understanding got through to that primitive part of my brain that just couldn't see a way out. Fortunately, BigBear was wonderful, and we had a wonderful doctor, and health visitor, and family support worker, and parents and friends, and passers by in the street. Basically if anyone so much as looked at me kindly I sobbed on their shoulder. And between them all I got the help that I needed and ended up on anti-depressants and managed to crawl back out of my deep dark pit.

But EVEN once out of the deep dark pit, I didn't exactly enjoy the first year with LittleBear. It was exhausting, anxiety-inducing, emotional, and in many patches actually quite boring. Babies really aren't that interesting you know. Not until they start talking. Then they turn into actual little people who are so much more interesting than pink, squirming, crying things.

And even today, if I have a disturbed night, for whatever reason, I become PhysicsBear With a Sore Paw. I'm just not nice. I'm not nice to BigBear, I'm not nice to LittleBear, I'm not nice to anyone. I'm cross, I'm impatient, I'm horrid. Me and sleep-deprivation are not a good combination.

So now, when people ask me if I'm having another, the answer is a flat-out "No!" I couldn't do it to myself. I cannot face even the possibility of ending up in the pit of post natal depression again. I couldn't do it to BigBear. He deserves to have a wife who functions, who is human, and loving and present. I couldn't do it to LittleBear. He deserves a Mummy who is patient and loving and interested in playing his wonderful, bizarre, imaginative games. And even if I weren't catastrophically tired, even if I had one of those mythical babies who sleeps through the night, I wouldn't be the Mummy that I can be now. I wouldn't be able to devote endless hours to snuggling up with my boy and reading as many stories as he wants. I wouldn't be able to charge around the house playing dinosaur-chase whenever he wants. We wouldn't be able to sprawl on the floor with teeny tiny pieces of Lego spread around us. I really genuinely love the time I get to play with LittleBear when there are no other demands upon my time. I don't want to give that up, and I don't want to take it away from him.

That still doesn't entirely explain why being asked bothers me does it? OK, I admit it, I really hate being wrong. And I have to confess that this time BigBear was right and I was wrong. One child is the perfect number for us. But there's still a little bit of my heart that's mourning the two-child family I always thought I'd have. And there's a little bit of my head that tells me it's all because I'm not good enough. That I failed. That "everyone else can cope, so why can't you?" I guess I haven't quite finished the work that the CBT started have I?