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HEALTH + NUTRITION

You really are stardust… and also chips

Your body is a phenomenally complex machine. Right now, as you sit here reading this, it’s busy digesting your lunch, making new cells, fighting infections, converting food to energy, regulating your temperature, filtering your blood and thinking about getting milk on your way home… not to mention keeping your heart beating, your lungs pumping, and translating the series of black marks in front of your eyes into words for you to read.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it does all of this with one set of inputs – the food that you eat. 

Prior to embarking on my health journey, my rough understanding of how my digestive system worked went something like this: eat food; food gets mushed up into glucose; body uses glucose for energy.

I knew very vaguely that things like vitamins were important, but not really how or why. I also ‘knew’ that a calorie was a calorie, because all food gets mushed up into the same unit of energy – so all that really mattered was how many calories you ate, not where they came from.

It is true that all calories have the same amount of energy – a calorie of broccoli is the same as a calorie of french fries. But that’s because a calorie is a unit of measurement, not a nutrient. A calorie, to get technical, is the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. 

But, in a plot twist that seemed to have escaped my younger self, I am not actually a machine that boils water. 

If all I needed was the right input of energy, I could consume all my daily calories in table sugar and be perfectly healthy. I’d like to think even teenage me would have understood that that’s some very faulty logic – but it’s taken me a painfully long time to realise something that should have been obvious: everything your body needs to do, it resources from the nutrients in your diet. 

Your body literally makes itself out of what you put into it. 

Reader’s digest

We’re prone, I think, to thinking of our bodies as either far too complex to ever understand, or as so simple they’re basically machines. Sometimes we have both thoughts at the same time – like when we think our bodies ‘just’ use food to make glucose for energy, while also having absolutely no idea what our organs of digestion actually do.

So let’s digest my dinner together (ew) to figure it out. Tonight, because I’m the meanest mother in the world, we had fakeaway fish and chips – oven chips and pan-fried fish, wrapped in paper and served with coleslaw and tartare sauce.

Our bodies start digesting before we even take our first bite of food. Just thinking about the food, smelling the aromas of hot, salty chips… feel the saliva start to fill your mouth? That’s your brain getting your body ready to start digesting the food to come. And when the first bite hits the tongue, our taste buds start relaying all sorts of messages to our brains so they can coordinate our bodies to respond to what’s in our food.

Natalieconstancehall, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chewing breaks down the food into smaller pieces so that we can swallow it, but our saliva also contains enzymes that start to break down fats and simple carbohydrates as we chew, making it easier for our bodies to digest them fully later.

Once the chewed up fish and chips reaches the stomach, the real magic begins. Sensing the protein in the fish, our stomachs release a substance that produces more stomach acid to help break it down, as well as disinfecting the food to kill off any pathogens. Between the acid and the churning and grinding of our stomach walls, our food is mashed into an acidic pulp, which also releases vitamins and minerals so that we’re able to absorb them.

From the stomach, the puddle of mush formerly known as dinner enters our small intestines. The fat and protein in the meal signals our bodies to produce a hormone that tells the gallbladder to release bile, the pancreas to release enzymes, and also lets our brains know that we’re full. 

As the mush works its way through around 7 metres of small intestine, our bodies absorb everything we need to use. Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars (ol’ mate glucose) and proteins are mostly broken down into amino acids. Both of these are then absorbed into the bloodstream (more on where they go next later). Fats are broken down by bile and then absorbed into either the bloodstream or the lymphatic system, depending on their type. 

In the large intestine, we enlist the help of our microbiomes to wring any remaining goodness out of our meal. Our microbes consume the things we can’t use (like fibre, polyphenols and resistant starches) – and then make things from them (like vitamins and short-chain fatty acids) that we can. We absorb any excess water and electrolytes, and whatever’s left is what comes out as poop.

That’s the basic summary of how the body takes food and converts it into nutrients. Next, let’s cover what it does with those nutrients once it’s got them.

Glucose = energy?

We’ve broken down the carbs in our chips, fish batter and veg and released them into our bloodstream as glucose. That’s our energy sorted, right?

Turns out it’s a bit more complex.

Our central nervous systems, sensing the rise in blood glucose, tell the pancreas to make insulin. Think of insulin like a bouncer – the glucose can’t get out of the blood and into a cell without insulin escorting it. Because high blood glucose is dangerous, we can’t leave the glucose that we don’t currently need for energy in our bloodstream – we have to take it and put it somewhere.

Since we’ve taken a big hit of starchy, salty chips, we’ve probably got a bit more glucose in our blood than our cells currently need. So after our cells have had their fill, we store some of the rest away in our liver and our skeletal muscles. And once those stores are full, we convert whatever’s left into triglycerides to store as fat.

(Then, later in the evening, we’re probably going to start feeling peckish again. We ate a lot of energy, but we had to store it because we couldn’t use it right away, so our blood glucose will soon drop again and we’ll start craving a little something sweet to tide us over until bedtime. If we resist the chocolate calling to us from the pantry and our blood sugar dips too low, our pancreas will release a different hormone called glucagon, which will tell the liver, the muscle and then our fat cells to release their stores for us to use as energy. (Our adrenal glands also release hormones that kick this process into gear, both when we have low blood sugar and when we’re under stress.))

Fat = fat?

We’ve just covered what happens to the glucose, but what about the protein (now in the form of amino acids) and fat (now fatty acids) in our meal that also passed from our small intestines into our bloodstream?

We only use protein for energy if we don’t have enough carbohydrate or fat, so mostly we’ll use those amino acids to build things – like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and immune system cells. But, like the glucose, our cells can use the circulating fatty acids for energy – and then store any extra for later in our fat cells.

Over the last few decades, one thing we could all agree on was that fat made you fat. If I’d been asked to think any deeper about it, I imagine I’d have pictured some kind of kids-book cog machine – fat goes in, cogs whirr, the fat gets deposited straight on my thighs. No one had ever indicated to me that fat had any deeper purpose, or did anything beneficial in my body.

But dietary fat is, in fact, really important for our health. It’s true that fat is a denser form of energy, with more calories than carbohydrates or protein – but that’s a good thing. Think of carbs like kindling, providing a quick burst of fuel that burns out quickly. Fats are the big logs on our energetic fire – they provide long-burning energy that keeps us going and keeps our blood sugar stable between meals and overnight. They also help us to feel full, and make food taste better.

Our bodies also use fats to build our cell membranes and make hormones – and we need fat to be able to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).

What about the other stuff?

We’ve covered what happened to the fats and the carbohydrates in our dinner. What about the vitamins and minerals that we broke down and absorbed along with them. What are they for?

We’ll cover vitamins in detail another time, but minerals make up about 4% of our bodies, and we can’t make them – we have to get them from our food. They include things we need quite a bit of, like calcium and sodium, and things we only need a tiny amount of – but can’t function properly without – like iron, iodine and zinc.

Here’s a handful of ways minerals are essential to our health:

  • We need zinc to make stomach acid
  • We need iodine to produce thyroid hormones
  • We need iron to make hemoglobin (red blood cells), which carry oxygen around our bodies
  • We need calcium to contract our muscles and magnesium to relax them.

There’s one other big player in our meal that we haven’t discussed yet – water. We can survive about 8 weeks without food, but more than a few days without water will kill us. This is because water makes up 55% of our body mass (60% if you’re male) and contributes to just about everything your body needs to do.

Water enables all the digestive processes we’ve just talked about because we break our food down in water. It’s also the way we transport nutrients around our body – we move things through fluid. It lubricates our joints and absorbs shocks, regulates our body temperature through sweating, and removes waste and flushes toxins out of our bodies through our urine and faeces. Typically, you get about 20% of your daily water from food (that cabbage in your coleslaw was 92% water), and the rest you need to drink.

In conclusion: suck it, kids

My kids might complain that they had to eat salad, and their fish and chips weren’t deep fried in oil that’s older than they are, but based on the recommended dietary allowances in Cronometer, our meal tonight provided me (and Hypothetical You!) with:

  • 576% of our vitamin A requirement (mostly from the carrots in the slaw)
  • 350% of vitamin B12
  • 171% of our vitamin K
  • 70% of our vitamin C
  • 20% of our folate
  • 28% of our fibre.

If, instead, we’d had deep fried, battered fish and chips from the shop down the road, a fillet of fish and the same amount of chips would have had roughly the same number of calories – but we would have only taken in:

  • 3% of our daily vitamin A requirement
  • 42% of our B12
  • 36% of our vitamin K
  • 6% of our vitamin C
  • 10% of our folate
  • 16% of our fibre.

We might have had a similar amount of “energy”, but we’d be missing many of the things that our bodies need to function properly. For one meal, or one day, this might not be a huge deal, but for most of us now, most of the time, it’s not just one meal or one day. So next time you really, really want those greasy, salty corner-store fish and chips, remember this post and… at least add a salad?

Categories
HEALTH + NUTRITION

For my fellow skeptics

I want to go into a bit more detail about some of the stuff in this post – both to clarify what I’m saying, and to help assimilate in my own brain what I’m learning and what I’m experiencing. So, if this is the magic bullet of perfect health, why isn’t it mainstream?

I think there are a lot of reasons, but here are a few of the top ones:

It’s too new

There’s a knowledge lag of 17 years before new treatments become standard practice. 

In the case of experimental surgeries or pharmaceutical drugs, this might be a good thing – but if there’s no risk of harm, why wait?

It’s too hard to standardise 

The “gold standard” of scientific research is the randomised controlled trial. By definition, such a trial needs to be testing one intervention, with all the other variables held constant. A few of these have been done, but the results aren’t conclusive, because they can’t be

If you trial 100 people on a gluten-free diet, 10 of them might feel better. For those 10, that result could be life-changing, but overall, your trial is a failure because everyone didn’t get better. But the point is that everyone isn’t meant to because everyone is different. 

Five of those 10 might improve further on a dairy-free diet too, or if they eat more plant foods, or heal their gut. Some of the other 90 might have issues with candida, or mould exposure, or their blood sugar.

There’s no single lifestyle intervention that will help everyone… beyond the obvious ones that we’ve already accepted because they really are universal, like stopping smoking, exercising, getting more sleep and eating less sugar.

Unfortunately, instead of the medical community as a whole saying “hey, these things help some people, they’re worth a try”, they tend to say “there’s no evidence for that, so don’t bother”.

(The funny part is that the efficacy of drug treatments are on the whole also pretty crap… for example, people with high cholesterol who may be at risk of a heart attack are prescribed a statin – a drug that lowers the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood. Usually, you need to then stay on this drug forever.

But the “number needed to treat” (NNT) for statins taken over five years is 104 – which means that for every 104 people put on a statin for five years, one heart attack will be prevented. But the number needed to harm (NNH) is only 50 – “one in 50 people on statins develops diabetes and one in ten experiences muscle damage as defined as rhabdomyolysis”.

On the other hand, switching to the Mediterranean diet for five years has an NNT of 61, with no harms found.)

No one wants to fund the research anyway

Who’s going to put up the money for the kind of massive, intensive trial that would show results in this kind of stuff… Big Broccoli? This is not me digressing into Big Pharma conspiracies – just me saying that research costs a lot of money, and it’s generally funded by those who can make that money back from positive results of the research (like drug companies). 

No one organisation is going to make billions from everyone eating a better diet and reducing their stress.

We think about things in boxes

The way we think about and classify disease is also working against us. We’ve built a system of specialists, classifications and interventions. We think about our bodies as a series of separate boxes rather than an interconnected whole. If you have a problem with your teeth, you see a dentist. If you have a problem with diarrhea and stomach cramps, you see a gastroenterologist. No one ever connects your bad teeth to your irritable bowel.

We’ve made medicine into an assembly line – you get 15 minutes to outline your symptoms, we check them against the way we’ve classified diseases, assign a name to whatever is wrong with you, and then give you the “standard of care” solution. Which is usually a drug, and may have loads of side effects or not even be particularly effective (see the statin example above). 

The dentist might remove your sore tooth, or give you a root canal so you can’t feel the pain anymore. The gastroenterologist might put you on an anti inflammatory or give you painkillers. But if both problems were caused by an imbalance in your microbiome, you might end up in a different doctor’s office six months later, being treated for depression or candida or joint pain.

We see what we want to see

In functional nutrition, if you discover an intolerance to dairy or soy or corn and remove it from your diet for a period of time, while also working on improving your digestion and the quality of your diet, supporting your liver or other organs, and rebuilding your microbiome, you may eventually be able to start eating those foods again. This could be because you’ve healed your leaky gut, calmed your immune system, and/or reduced inflammation. Being able to resume eating a food you were intolerant to is evidence of success.

But to the medical establishment, that’s often seen as proof that the intervention didn’t work, or was all in your head. See! You can eat the thing again – that means you were never really intolerant to it! The fact that you also got better is just a coincidence.

To me, there’s a real cognitive dissonance to this view. It’s not like we don’t know how crucial vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins are to our health. We also know that 60% of the average (American) diet is now made up of processed sugar, white flour and vegetable oil – substances which have plenty of calories, but basically no nutritional value*.

Both of the doctors I saw personally about my lichen sclerosus decided to think of my recovery as “spontaneous remission” rather than accept that changing my diet had anything to do with it. Like, when the science they’d been taught didn’t match with the results they saw, they preferred to believe it had just happened by magic rather than consider new information. It still boggles my mind.

We like to believe the system is the best system

I think we really hold onto the idea that whatever the “usual” way of doing things must be the best way. I can see why – any deeper interrogation of modern society is a one-way rabbit hole that leads straight to an existential crisis. (She says, from inside the hole.)

But… the way we do school isn’t the best way of educating children. The way we farm is definitely not the best way of growing food. The way we work is absolutely not the best way to achieve a healthy, productive society. Most of our systems seem to be at best a series of accidents that built over time until they turned into reinforcing loops. Modern life is now a perpetual motion machine that we can’t figure out how to slow down, let alone point in a new direction.

Mainstream isn’t necessarily mainstream, anyway

I’d like to add one more point here, that’s becoming more and more apparent to me the longer I’m out in the world talking to people about my own health journey. Being a hardheaded, super-skeptical member of Team Science, readjusting my world view to accept that there was this whole field of health I’d never heard about, and that all these chronic diseases and mental health issues we’re suffering from are not only abnormal but also highly likely to be fixable, felt like I had to rewire my entire perspective on the world. It sounds dramatic, but I felt like everything I’d thought was true and solid was revealed to be – at best – some really mushy jelly, and I had to re-learn how to live on suddenly shaky ground.

So I’d assumed that the process of talking about this with anyone else would be similar – I’d either become an instant pariah, or I’d have to provide a full dissertation with footnotes and references in every conversation. But it turns out that just because my doctors don’t believe me doesn’t mean that everyone else agrees with them. 

Every day I seem to talk to someone else who’s experimenting with this diet or that intervention because their doctor couldn’t help them, or they just know in their gut that they should feel better than they do. The problem is that most of them are doing it on their own, without help, in a scattershot trial-and-error way based on anecdotes or Instagram ads.

I feel like I’m still integrating this new model of the world into my brain. I still hold my breath every time I recommend someone makes a dietary change to try and help a health issue, and I’m still gobsmacked every time that change works. Recently I suggested a relative could try a gluten and dairy free diet to see if it helped his ulcerative colitis. I was not only still slightly shocked when his symptoms promptly resolved, but equally shocked (and amazed) that when he later tried a gluten challenge, the bleeding resumed the next day. 

It’s not that it works, because the more I learn, the more the science and the theories make so much sense to me – it’s that any medical professional (let alone basically all of them) would leave fixing the fucking problem out of their arsenal when it’s readily available as an option.

This stuff should not be fringe – but to make it mainstream, we’re not only going to need to change the information we teach to our health professionals, we’re going to have to rethink our entire food system, as well as the way we work, play, interact, sleep, clean ourselves, and more. It’s terrifying, and overwhelming – but also so freaking exciting. 

Some good places to start if you’re keen to find out more

Broken Brain podcast

Doctor’s Farmacy podcast

I’ve read dozens and dozens of books in the last year or two that expand on these ideas – what will speak to you will probably depend on what you’re personally dealing with. I reckon podcasts are the best way in – you can find what you’re interested in and choose to dig further from there.

That said, some of my favourites are:


*I’d go further and say they have negative nutritional value – not only are they not helping you get all the things your body needs to work properly, but they’re actively making you sick. More on that another time!

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PERSONAL

It turns out rain is just a bit wet

It’s raining this morning. That steady, relentless Spring rain that soaks everything and lasts all day. On Monday and Friday mornings, I walk to the gym for my PT session, and then walk home again via the local coffee shop. I get my almond flat white and wander home along the stream, sometimes stopping to meditate somewhere along the way. Once I get home, I shower, cook myself a big breakfast of eggs and avocado and greens or mushrooms, and settle in to work or study for the rest of the morning. It’s a routine I really love.

I almost didn’t walk this morning. I thought about rearranging our schedule so that I could get a ride – if we weren’t still in level 2, Diogo could have taken the kids to preschool early for a play in the playground, dropping me off on the way. But I love the walk – it wakes me up and warms me up, and I listen to my podcasts on the way. So I put my jacket on, stuffed a spare pair of socks in my bag, and headed out.

And it was fine. In fact, it was really nice. The birds were singing, the kōwhai were blooming. I got a bit damp around my toes and the bottom of my jacket, but otherwise it was more or less like any other walk on a cold morning. 

At some point, I’d started thinking of rain as some sort of insurmountable obstacle –  like having damp socks or wet hair would be a day-ruining cataclysm, an enduring misery to be avoided at all costs. It turns out, rain is just a bit wet. Who knew?

As a teenager, I had to walk from the train to school and back. I didn’t have a car until I was 25, and then promptly moved to Canada where I went straight back to catching public transport everywhere. When I came home, for one reason or another, I mostly didn’t have a car until Diogo moved in with me, bringing his car with him. Then we had a baby and acquired a second car, to “make life easier”.

Our logic was sound but also absolute bullshit – because I got paid by the hour, it made sense to get me where I needed to go as fast as possible, to “maximise my earning potential”. This is also the reason that we ended up adding a cleaner, and a gardener, and a Roomba, to “free me up” to do as much paid work as humanly possible. In our modern society, this is a sound and sensible plan. But over time, it was steadily becoming apparent that I hated it. In theory, I was making more than the car and the cleaner and the gardener cost – but somehow, it didn’t seem like it. We were both tired and stressed and run down, so all the extra money seemed to go on cafes and takeaways and wine.

I was resenting the work, but also, who wants to clean when they don’t have to? Who enjoys commuting on the train?

Turns out, me. I always enjoyed the train. No stressing about being on time – it was all out of my hands. I could read books or listen to music and there was absolutely no way to do anything else, or feel bad about the time I was “wasting”. On the other hand, sitting in traffic fills me with tense and impotent anxiety. I find parking in the city stressful, and I arrive everywhere frazzled and on edge.

We sold our second car about a year ago, when it didn’t pass its WOF and it wasn’t worth paying to fix it. It was originally a bit of a trial, but once it had gone, the adjustment period was actually quicker than expected. We needed to be a bit more organised about who had to be where and when. We bought a bike with a child seat so we could do drop-offs and pick-ups without the car on fine days. I started walking more… and more… and more.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started taking the kids to school on the bus, even on days when I have the car. It takes longer, but it’s so much nicer as a way to start our day. There’s no rushing, except to get out the door in time to walk to the bus stop, which is about 15 minutes away at 3- and 4-year-old speed. 

We start our day with a walk outside, checking out the river and the birds and the trees. The kids run backwards and forwards and play with sticks (and/or complain and ask to be carried, depending). The bus is more fun for them than the car – it’s big and interesting and there are people to look at and buttons to press (we’re working on at what time and how often). We’re always at the gate on time, so they have a bit of time to run around with friends before heading inside, and then I put my podcast or audiobook on and walk back home, which takes me about 45 minutes if I’m direct about it (sometimes I’m not). Everyone wins.

Is it inefficient? Sure. Is it a waste of time? I really don’t think so. I might even try it when it’s raining.

Categories
HEALTH + NUTRITION PERSONAL

New site, new me

It’s been a while. My life has changed so fundamentally that I haven’t known where to start, or how to even begin to convey the shift without losing everyone immediately. 

(Before we go any further: no, I didn’t find Jesus. Even worse.)

The background

Almost a year and a half ago, I was finally diagnosed with a skin condition on the autoimmune spectrum. It’s called lichen sclerosus, but I don’t recommend you look it up. The cliffs notes version is that it causes the skin on and around your lady parts to turn white, thin, and itch incessantly. Because the skin is so thin, scratching the itch (or doing anything that irritates the skin, such as, say, having a bowel motion, or sex) splits the skin and causes bleeding, fissures, and lots and lots of pain. Oh, and more itching. Endless, relentless, mind-bending itching.

Getting the diagnosis had been a journey of almost a year of daily misery – but my relief was short-lived. I was given a tube of steroid cream to help with the itching and told there was nothing else anyone could do. I was likely to have this forever, and it would never get better. Sucks to be you, my doctor said kindly, and shovelled me out the door.

Around the same time, I was told that my thyroid was “normal”, even though I was positive I hadn’t been ovulating since getting pregnant with Luca, my periods barely lasted two days, I was so exhausted that I could barely climb the stairs, my toes frequently got so cold they went numb inside my shoes, my brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool and I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to feel excited or engaged by anything. 

The only upside was that I didn’t really mind that it was too painful to have sex, because my sex drive had completely vanished, and taken my imagination with it. I’d not only stopped writing fiction, I couldn’t even be bothered to read it – my brain couldn’t see the point of wasting time on anything that wasn’t real.

My lower back also hurt so badly that lying flat on the floor felt like I was lying on bars of hot metal, and then my knees started to hurt too – until every time I bent over sharp pains shot through my joints.

I’ve suffered from IBS since puberty, but my digestive problems were also getting worse and worse. I was constantly bloated and constipated. I had hay fever all the damn time, although it was hard to tell because I also always had a cold. I got every illness the kids brought home from daycare, and stayed sick long after everyone else was better. 

Just to round things out, I’d developed an allergy to my cat, and then I started having an allergic reaction to alcohol too (wine, you guys. My beloved wine!). Cutting onions made my eyes feel like they were exploding, and I’d randomly get hives for no reason. My nails, which had always been really strong, started to peel and split. My hair didn’t fall out, but it changed texture, managing to be both brittle and fluffy at the same time.

In short, I felt like I was falling apart. After Luca was born, I’d always thought we’d have a third baby, but I couldn’t see how it would be physically possible. I was genuinely convinced that if I did, my body would never recover. I felt like everything I wanted and cared about had melted away, until all I had left was my kids, Diogo, and dragging myself with gritted teeth through the bare minimum every day.

The road back

After the diagnosis, I couldn’t accept that that was just it. Take the steroids to dull the itching, and otherwise just live with being perpetually exhausted and stupid and in constant pain – it’s normal! You’re fine!

I wasn’t fine. I couldn’t be fine. This could not be it. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t accept it – I actually felt like I couldn’t. If this was the rest of my life, I felt like I wasn’t even sure it was worth living. I’m not saying I was hiding in my room sharpening the razor blades, but I decided I had to try and do something about my health myself. 

As a start, I cut dairy out of my diet again (I’d nixed it to good digestive result before getting pregnant with Nico, but during said pregnancy I’d gone balls-to-the-wall on ice cream and remained there ever since). I figured that anything that helped my IBS was bound to help the tearing and bleeding – even if it was just by making my bowel motions more regular.

So I ate a tonne of fibre. I went back on probiotics. I started lifting weights with a personal trainer twice a week and working even harder on our diets at home. At this point though, I thought our diets were already pretty good. I love to cook, and in trying (and totally, utterly failing) to lose the baby weight after Luca was born, I’d got pretty militant about what we were all eating. I made sourdough, home-cooked the vast majority of our meals, and got organic veggies delivered.

Cutting out dairy, it turned out, did help. It helped a lot. The itching subsided enough to stop me feeling like I was going to go insane. I mostly stopped bleeding when I pooped, and the agonising pain that had wracked me after a bowel motion went away. It still hurt, but nothing like it had. (There was a period where I’d had to lie down for half an hour or so after every BM, clutching the sides of the bed and heavy breathing through the pain.)

I’m a natural skeptic, but since removing dairy had been so helpful, I decided to go to a naturopath to see if there was any further advice she could give me. I had one appointment, where she said I needed to cut out dairy, gluten, meat, and all grains for three weeks and replace half my meals with smoothies made from a protein powder she managed to sell me for a truly ridiculous sum. She tried very hard not to call it a cleanse. I left with a pile of very expensive supplements and no idea why I was meant to take any of them, or how they were meant to help. 

Now, at this point, you need to know that my four-year-old takes after me. Every second word out of his mouth is “why?”. He needs to understand why he’s being asked to do something before he’s willing to do it. His sense of fairness and justice is very, very tied up in not only understanding how things work but why they work that way. At our first parent-teacher meeting, his preschool teacher told us that he’s a perfect student as long as A) he’s told why something is happening, and B) that reason feels both logical and just to him.

I can relate, kid. I call it my “problem with authority”, but it’s frequently more a problem with stupidity. I can’t abide doing things that don’t seem to have a purpose, or where the purpose doesn’t make sense. “Just because” has never cut it for me, even if I sometimes wish it would cut it with my toddler.

So a few days later, I asked the naturopath to call me. I really needed to understand why she was recommending what she was recommending. She couldn’t explain it to me – in fact, she barely even tried – so I didn’t do the cleanse.

There goes that idea, I thought. But later, I was telling my cousin about it and she said, “oh my god, you need to meet Shelley.”

Shelley was something called a “functional nutritionist”. She’d helped my cousin, who has celiac disease, get healthy when she got pregnant with her first child. In fact, she’d got her so healthy that it had caused her ongoing issues – her son had been born so plump and hale that when he later dropped into being the skinny string bean he was genetically destined to be, her Plunket lady became convinced he was malnourished and kept making her take him to the hospital for monitoring.

I left my first appointment with Shelley thinking maybe I was in love. Not only could she explain all the whys to me, but she was convinced that we could not only stop but reverse the lichen. She also wasn’t interested in only solving that problem, or even solving the hormonal problem I thought was underlying it – she wanted to go all the way back to my digestive issues and solve those too.

As she explained it, the lichen was caused by inflammation. My body was attacking its own tissues in a way it wasn’t meant to. But, unlike the other medical professionals I’d seen, she wanted to understand why the inflammation was happening. Your body doesn’t just start misfiring in a vacuum. Something has happened inside you to cause a malfunction, and that malfunction has built up over time. Your cells haven’t repaired themselves properly. And eventually, that malfunction manifests itself somewhere – on your skin, as a tumour, as fatigue or brain fog or depression, or numerous other symptoms.

She traced a path backwards for me. The lichen was the most visible end point of a chain that began with my digestive system. Light after light switched on. I couldn’t believe that there was this incredibly obvious solution just sitting here, and that no one was talking about it. Look after your body, and it will do what it’s meant to. We weren’t subduing my symptoms or changing anything in my body – we were just supporting it to find its own way back to health. 

And, to my wonder and surprise, it did.

The new normal

The size of the change that’s been wrought in me staggers me daily. But I don’t know how to talk about it, because it seems both so flimsy and obvious (eat vegetables!), and considering the way we think about medical issues in this modern world, so incredibly unlikely (eat vegetables!). We helped my digestive system work better, took out foods it turned out I was intolerant to, added a few supplements to support things that hadn’t been functioning well… and it changed my life.

My lichen sclerosus is not only symptom-free (except for one day a month around my period, and if I accidentally eat gluten, dairy, oats or corn), but I’m having regular, totally PMS-free periods every 28 days for the first time in my life. I’m not allergic to wine, or my cat, or the pollen outside. I hadn’t even realised I’d always had an issue with post-nasal drip until it stopped.

For the first time since I turned 12, I’m free of IBS. I have a bowel movement every morning after I wake up, and it’s never painful or crampy or surprising. I don’t get constipated or suffer from regular diarrhea. I’m not so bloated I could be 8 months pregnant after every second meal.

I sleep well and wake up feeling good. For the first time I can ever remember, I have actual, real live energy. I’m excited to do things, and my brain feels like it’s firing on every cylinder. I’m not depressed or fatigued or foggy. I’m not living with a constant hum of vague anxiety in the back of my head.

My nails are strong. My skin is clear. When everyone else gets sick, I often don’t – or at least I get less sick, and I get better faster.

What am I taking to effect this massive, life-affecting change? I still take a couple of NAC every day, but other than that: nothing. I avoid dairy, gluten, oats and corn. I’m careful about vegetable oils and sugar. I go for a walk every day and try to meditate at least a few times a week. I go to bed early. That’s really about it. My entire life changed, and all I had to do was give up KFC. I don’t know how to explain it to people without sounding ridiculous.

I tell friends about this and they say “but what do you eat?” and “I couldn’t do it – it doesn’t sound worth giving up bread/pastry/cheese/pizza”.

All I can say is this:

I eat better than I ever have – and I love to eat. It was hard to get used to, it took a long time to fully adjust, and I went through all five stages of grief for every food I realised was causing my symptoms to flare up, but now, I don’t miss it. Genuinely. Would I like a piece of hot, crusty sourdough with butter? Yes. But instead I have some variation on eggs and bacon and mushrooms and avocado and kale for breakfast every morning, and I feel amazing after it. I eat soups and salads and stews and curries and tacos – I just make them myself, without gluten or dairy.

It helps that eating even a tiny crumb of butter makes me itch until I bleed and then feel exhausted and depressed for a week, but feeling strong and healthy and filled with energy is more than worth giving up the 10 minutes of bliss while the KFC was in my mouth (right before the stomach ache kicked in).

I think an awful lot of us have forgotten (or never known) what it feels like to actually be healthy. We’ve normalised things that just aren’t normal – bloating, headaches, constipation, feeling tired all the time, period pain, sore backs and knees, zits, skin issues and rashes, anxiety… 

We understand on a basic level that food, stress, sleep and exercise matter for our health, but we don’t understand how much, or how far our “normal” lives have strayed from what our bodies actually need.

I understood that my body needed vitamins and minerals, but I had no idea what those vitamins and minerals actually did, or how many I was getting in my diet. It turns out that if you eat a “standard” diet, it’s pretty much impossible for your body to get all the things it needs to keep your cells healthy. The breakdown will be slow and gradual, but over time you will start to break down. Those less lucky (like me) will break down faster and develop chronic or autoimmune diseases that will significantly affect their quality of life.

In our polarised world, there seem to be only two possible camps now – either you believe in science, and therefore surgery and pharmaceutical drugs are the only “real” ways to treat disease, and anything else is just the placebo effect or hippie nonsense; or you’re a full-on anti-vaxxer sharing conspiracy theories on facebook. 

But there’s a middle path. Science is amazing and we’ve learned things that have saved countless lives, but we’ve learned mostly how to treat the symptoms of disease. If I get hit by a bus or have a heart attack, I’m going to be deeply grateful for medical science. But medical science doesn’t have all the answers yet, and the focus on diagnosing and treating diseases lets a lot of us down, a lot of the time. 

I have a friend who went to her doctor with a rash covering her entire body, periods so heavy she could barely leave the house, constant exhaustion, constipation and depression – and because her blood tests were all “within range” she was told there was nothing wrong with her.

Another friend went to the same naturopath I mentioned above, did the “cleanse” and her heavy periods resolved. But she didn’t learn anything or come away with any permanent changes to her lifestyle – she finished her four weeks and went straight back to her old life. I saw her six months or so later and asked if she was still feeling better. She cheerfully told me all her issues had come back, so her doctor was booking her in for a hysterectomy. 

They were removing an organ from her body rather than figure out what was causing the problem – and I felt like I was the only person in the room who thought this was insane! Especially because, since removing her uterus won’t solve whatever imbalance is happening, she’s likely to find herself a year down the track with new symptoms elsewhere in her body. 

Your organs don’t operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected to everything else. 

And everything starts with what you’re putting in – your body literally makes itself out of what you put into it. It takes the fats and amino acids and vitamins and minerals from your food and creates literally everything that makes you you. And if it’s not getting enough, or it can’t absorb what it’s getting, or it’s under too much stress (from illness or inflammation or actual stress), it will start prioritising what it keeps running and what it lets start to fail. It’s that simple and that complicated.

How am I so sure? Because I got so into this stuff after seeing the change in my own life and health that I’m now part way through a diploma in nutritional therapy. This is a real thing, and there’s a whole world out there of doctors and medical professionals practising what’s called “functional medicine”. This is the future, and it is the goods.

So this is me, reintroducing myself to you – and outing myself as a freshly-minted health nut. 

Told you it was bad.

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Green thumbs?

My touchpoint for happiness has always been my grandparent’s house. It’s my lodestone, my central point. My spiritual hearth. It’s the place where I was happiest and my mind was quietest. It held all the things I thought made a good life — the sound of the wind in the pines, sun-warmed veggies and fruit picked off trees, lambs being born over the fence. The pool where I spent so much of my time and the armchair where I spent the rest, stack of library books at hand.

Sometimes little things come to me — the smell of the bunk room, with its generations of sporting equipment tucked into dusty corners behind old plastic sun chairs and shelves of homemade preserves. The bottles of soda kept in the bottom of the cupboard that could be fished out on special occasions. I can feel the snick of the key releasing the door (it had no handle and I never saw the key put away) and the way the hum of the upright freezer permeated everything in that small space.

I have perfect mental muscle memory of letting myself out the front door on dusky summer evenings and padding barefoot across the patio, down the two concrete steps, over the little ridge where the path curved and across the prickly sun-crisped grass to fetch the ice cream from the freezer. The house would smell like warm lights and roast lamb and pudding, and the tree above the bunk room door would hang over my head, laden with the red berries that had passed into family lore after a childhood dare led to an emergency doctor visit.

I don’t need my own collection of dilapidated homemade sheds and outhouses in which to store sporting goods and extra food, but I’ve always felt like I wanted my adult self to recreate the way I felt there. And I’ve always felt that that would require land and animals and plants. Making fruit from my own jam, a lunch table consisting of a bowl of fresh produce, a loaf of bread and a knife.

I’ve rarely considered that childhood me didn’t actually do any of the gardening or baking — I watched my grandparents do it, usually out of my peripheral vision while I lazed in the grass or the pool or on the couch. I also missed, in my child’s way, the work of it all — the days of de-stoning and stirring and boiling and canning. The baskets and buckets of plums and apricots and tomatoes that became my winter breakfasts and the ketchup I lavished on every meal.

This is a very long way of saying that I’m worried I don’t actually like gardening. Now that we have the land, and the babies are big enough to allow some time to start clearing and weeding and growing, I’m realising it’s… frustrating. It’s an excellent exercise in control, or the lack thereof — once you’ve done all the things you can do, you really just have to watch and wait.

I’m not a big fan of either.

I’m not sure if this is because I’m still not very good at gardening, or because our property has been such a frustrating mess for so long. It’s taken a lot of years to get good at baking and cooking and breadmaking, but the path felt easier — I always loved doing it, I’ve just been layering up skills until I could tell by touch whether my sourdough was ready and know how to turn the contents of my fridge into a delicious meal. Maybe I’ve started too big — my first garden is an overgrown quarter acre on a hill that no one’s given any care to in ten or twenty years.

I always kind of thought (foolishly, I realise, as soon as I stop to think about it) that gardening would be easy. It’s what the planet does, right? Put seed in soil, add water and sun. I forget that nature takes the path of least resistance, and nature is also slugs and caterpillars and weeds.

Gardening might be natural, but natural isn’t peaceful. It’s war. A never-ending tussle for land rights and supremacy. The plants we grow for food have been engineered over generations to be tasty and productive — but because of that, they’re also weak and fragile. They need us to coddle and protect them or they’ll be crushed by the hungry, scrappy might of the real nature that wants to steal their resources and devour them for its own.

But at the same time, they don’t need much of anything at all. The war is fought slowly, one weed at a time. Trying to hurry things along or plant in bad soil has lead to three years of dud harvests. My cauliflowers never grow; my lettuces and herbs all bolt straight to seed.

I know the solution, but the solution is time. Improve the soil. Build my compost. Grow less, with better care. Wait. Watch. Wait again.

My constant need to succeed, to achieve, isn’t coping very well with nature. Nature doesn’t give a shit about my timetable. Nature can’t be hurried or hacked or worked around with good communication and a post-it workshop. Nature is utterly indifferent to my ability to write convincingly.

I’m pretty sure that means I need to stick at it. If nothing else, we should all know where our food comes from; how much time and skill it takes to grow it well. It changes your relationship with the whole natural world, not just the things you eat. If it can teach me patience and care, it may even change my relationship with myself.

If my thumbs aren’t quite green yet, at least there’s dirt under my nails.

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Round two (Luca’s birth story)

I had a cup of tea before I met my second child. A cup of tea and a piece of toast with jam. It was the best cup of tea and the best piece of toast I’ve ever had, even though the toast was hospital-cooked cold white bread and the tea was in a styrofoam mug with UHC milk from the little nook in the delivery ward.

I still feel slightly gobsmacked that I did it: that I stopped to have tea and toast, and then a shower, before I even saw my baby’s face properly. After he was born, all I saw was a grey triangle of squashed-looking face peeping out of a towel as he was rushed out of the theatre and up to the special care unit. Before that, he was a tiny lump on the other side of the room, hidden behind a huddle of midwives and doctors as I lay, sobbing, under glaring lights with my legs in stirrups while my body juddered and convulsed from shock.

Brazil didn’t know where to be, hovering behind the doctors and then coming back to squeeze my hand while the doctor set to work examining the damage they’d done to me in their haste to save my baby. “Wow,” the doc said, “look, there’s only a first degree tear!”

She went to get suturing supplies. “I feel like something bad happened to my haemorrhoids,” I told her. It didn’t hurt yet, but it felt like there was a cold breeze down there, like something that had been on the inside was now on the outside in a way it shouldn’t be.

She looked again. “Oh,” she said. “Ah.” Then, “well, the good news is if you ever have another baby, you can probably ask for an elective c-section.”

Back to the tea. They took my baby to special care once they got him breathing. Brazil went with them, I think, and I was stitched up and wheeled back up to postnatal, my limbs still jerking their violent and involuntary dance. I was covered in blood and sweat (and shit, probably), and I couldn’t stop crying. The whole thing felt surreal, like I was drunk or dreaming or underwater.

“He’s okay,” my midwife said. “He’s going to be fine. Let’s get you cleaned up, and you can go and see him. Do you need anything first?”

I hadn’t slept or eaten. I’d had a baby inside me and now he was outside and nowhere near me. I didn’t know who he was yet. We hadn’t met. He was supposed to go from my tummy to my chest and stay there, switching sides with my skin but staying part of me. Nico didn’t feel like a separate person for days, sometimes even for months. My legs continued to shake and my eyes continued to leak.

“Can I have my phone?” I asked. “And maybe something to eat?”

Let’s back up again.

Throughout this pregnancy, everyone assured me that second births are nothing like first births. They’re faster. They’re easier. Your body knows what to do. I was terrified of having to go through giving birth again, but I was pretty confident that this time would be better. I packed my hospital bag with one change of clothes. Positive thinking!, I’d thought positively. No week in hospital for us this time! We’d go in, have the baby, and be home when Nico woke up in the morning.

“I’m really sorry I told you it would be better this time,” my midwife said as I drank my tea. “Two bad births is really bad luck.”

This time did seem better, for quite a while. I’d been having contractions on and off for a few days, but they’d always vanish when I lay down to try and sleep. Finally, six days overdue, they started up and didn’t stop. There had been so many false alarms that when I told Brazil he needed to call my parents and let them know tonight was the night, he just kept reading his book. “Oh,” he finally said. “You mean now?”

Things happened as they’re meant to happen. It was painful and intense but manageable. I’d forgotten how much it hurts, but this time it felt like I was making progress, like the pain would lead us to a baby. We put Nico to bed. My parents arrived. I leaned on our bed and tried to breathe through the contractions until it was time to call my midwife, and then contracted my way down the path and into the car, and then out of the car and up to the delivery ward.

And then everything slowed down again. We passed a fun few hours alternating between the bed, the bath and the swiss ball, the contractions strong and regular but not getting any more of either. I mashed Brazil’s hand and forearm between mine in rhythm with the pain, like I could transfer it out of me if I squeezed hard enough. Sometime around 4am, I think, I hauled myself out of the bath and called a team meeting.

My midwife would check my dilation. If things had progressed, we’d keep going as we were. If they hadn’t, she’d break my waters and see if that sped things up — and we’d get the 20 minutes of monitoring required before having an epidural started, so that if nothing changed and we were in for another long haul, we’d be ready to go with some sweet, sweet relief.

I’d told anybody who’d listen that I wouldn’t wait for the epidural this time. I don’t need to try and be a hero, I’d said, paraphrasing a thing I saw on Twitter about how we don’t want anything about women to be natural until it’s causing them unimaginable pain.

But then it came to it, and… I just kept putting it off. The competitive perfectionist in me wanted to know if I could do it. And the idea that an epidural was a failure or an admission of weakness had buried itself too deep. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it.

So I put it off. And put it off.

I have two thoughts about this. The first is that if I’d been even a few minutes earlier in giving in, I wouldn’t have had to feel what came after.

The other is that if I’d tried to tough it out, we might never have known how much distress Luca was in — or at least not until it was too late.

I was still only seven or eight centimetres dilated, so a nurse came and set up the fetal heart monitor, and we broke my waters. And then things got hazy.

Two things happened at once. The contractions went from crushing-Brazil’s-hand-and-breathing-through-it to screaming agony, and in the middle of each one my body would kind of hitch and I’d get this insanely strong involuntary pushing sensation, and then it would flip back. It was like I was in two stages of labour at the same time.

Second, everyone got really quiet and focused on the heart rate monitor. Luca’s heart rate was dropping precipitously with each contraction, and it wasn’t coming back up in between.

I could tell it was bad and that people (more and more of them all the time) were getting really concerned, but I couldn’t see the screen and I was in and out of these overpowering, all-consuming push-pull contractions.

My midwife did another examination. She called a nurse in to repeat it, and then another one. Luca, who’d been lying sideways for weeks, had finally turned — but the wrong way. He’d gone posterior — and then he’d tipped his head back, and now the hard ridge of his forehead was stuck against my cervix.

He was stuck, and he was in trouble.

What happened next was this: the emergency caesarian team were already performing an emergency caesarian. There was no one else who could do one, and no time to wait for them to finish.

“This baby has to come out right now,” my midwife kept saying to me. “We don’t have any time. I need you to push him out now.

I wasn’t even fully dilated.

My midwife and two nurses took turns reaching inside me and trying to physically shove what remained of my cervix behind the baby’s head. I expect that will be the most painful experience of my life. I certainly hope it will be.

With every contraction I just had to push and push and push, as hard as I could, with whatever I had. “You can do this,” my midwife told me. “You can do this because you have to. There’s no other way.”

I screamed. I cried. I shat myself.

The baby remained stuck. His heart rate dropped further.

They took my bed and ran me down to theatre, while I screamed and writhed my way through contractions in the hallway and the lift. They wheeled me into a huge white room, filled with people in scrubs and bright lights. My legs were locked into stirrups. An obstetrician ran in, a lovely older Sikh man in a colourful turban. I feel this rush of love for him every time I think about it, because he stopped at my head first and asked my name and told me it was going to be okay. (I think that’s what he did, anyway. All I actually remember is this sense of kindness, and an overwhelming gratitude that someone had remembered I was still a person, too.)

“I’m going to get these forceps,” he said, “and I’m going to pull and you’re going to push.” A nurse unpackaged the huge set of forceps, like salad tongs gone wrong, and handed them to him. “We’re going to do this right now, in one go. You need to give this push every single thing you have. This is our only shot.”

No one ever said “or your baby will die”. It sat there in the room, but nobody said it. I didn’t really process it until later.

While I drank my tea later that morning, my midwife said “usually they’d at least take the time to give you a local”.

They didn’t, though.

They pulled. I pushed. My baby came out. He was grey and floppy and he’d aspirated meconium. A swarm of people carried him away and left me lying on the table.

Luca was born at 6:45 in the morning, and I held him for the first time that evening. He started breathing on his own shortly after he was born, and he latched and fed the first time we tried. He had to stay in special care for five days of IV antibiotics due to the meconium, but he was strong and healthy and nothing else was wrong with him. We don’t know what happened to him during the birth, but there don’t seem to be any lasting effects.

He’s a healthy, happy, chunky baby.

I have an obstetrician follow-up this week to check the state of play in my ladybusiness, but it feels like I got off fairly lightly, considering. I went back to the gym this week and the only pain I’m in is the usual. I’ve had two rounds of gastro since he was born (thanks, sticky daycare fingers and completely fucked immune system) and other than discovering it’s possible to breastfeed while vomiting, my body and pelvic floor coped the way it always has. We haven’t even tried to have sex yet, both because we have TWO BABIES, ARE YOU EVEN KIDDING, and because I still feel like that area of my body is a war crime that should be cordoned off and left to grow weeds. I don’t know when that feeling will change — it still hadn’t really after Nico when I got pregnant with Luca (thanks, wine!).

I thought a lot during the election about whether the state of funding in our hospitals put my baby’s life at risk. Should there have been backup for c-sections? The hospital had no incubators free at first, and then his monitoring equipment was “the buggy one” that alarmed constantly for no reason because it was so old. After the birth I was put into a shared postnatal room because there was no other space, and I spent the first couple of nights separated by a curtain from a first-time mother and her screaming baby, while my baby slept down the hall in special care. The staff were trying so hard, and were so kind, but they were so obviously overstretched and overstressed.

The last nine years of cutting costs and corners in our public services are really showing, once you look under the hood.

So there it is: round two.

I’m both more and less cynical about the natural birth movement now. I still believe in empowering women to do what their bodies are designed to do. I read a book about the medical history of birth while camping out beside Luca’s incubator (Brazil made me stop reading especially gory facts aloud, but privately I thought it was probably small fry to anyone in that room. We’d all seen the kraken), which was a revelation in how many of the women who used to die in childbirth died because of shoddy medical practices rather than the process of birth.

But I also think women are on average older than they used to be, and fatter, and more sedentary. And less versed in experiencing both pain and loss of control.

There’s a very real risk that pushing women to give birth naturally makes them feel weak for asking for or getting pain relief, and ashamed of births that don’t go to plan and require intervention (which seems, anecdotally, to be most of them?). I know people who’ve had powerful, pain-free, empowering births, and I love that it’s possible. But are we risking making women feel like that’s usual, when in most cases it really isn’t?

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Sweet

If I had to describe Luca in a word, at two months and one week old, that word would be “sweet”. He’s sweet. Like Nico, he’s happy almost all the time, but his happiness is different: Nico’s is active; it comes from entertaining and being entertained. Luca is social too, but he’s a smiler and a chatterbox rather than a performer. He wants to ask how your day was and actually listen to your answer.

It’s amazing how easy having an easy baby is.

At the time, I never would have said Nico was difficult. I remember when he was this tiny, people would ask if I thought I knew what he was like yet, and I’d always say “determined”. His adjective was determined then, and it’s probably still determined now.

I wouldn’t have said he was difficult because he was so happy. He never cried a lot — probably because he nearly always got his own way. (His own way being, in order of preference: 1) a boob in his mouth, 2) being held, or in a pinch 3) a parent’s absolute and undivided attention.) For the first seven or eight months of his life, he had an apoplectic meltdown every single time I left his line of sight. He refused to lie on the floor or under his play gym unless someone was actively interacting with him the whole time. Just getting a glass of water was stressful.

Today I repotted my tomatoes while Luca sat in his bouncy chair having chats with the wind. I went up to the shed, got a bucket of compost, trotted inside and out and up and down, and he waved his little feet and noted my reappearance each time with a smile.

He’s so delicious.

Of course, it helps having two adults at home. It helps having experience in raising a small baby. It might even help that he spent his first week in an incubator, so although he never slept for long until the last couple of weeks, he’s always been willing to sleep in a bed. (Or the floor. Or his chair. Or someone’s lap. I have a whole series of photos of places he’s fallen asleep after we forgot about him because he’s just so freaking chill.) You can even put him down “drowsy but not asleep”, as all the books say, and he will actually go to sleep. Until I saw it happen I believed that particular piece of advice was a cruel MSM lie designed solely to make new parents insane.

He does loads of stuff I’d heard babies can do that Nico never did: stops feeding when he’s had enough, takes a bottle, poos less than every ten minutes. It’s a whole new world. We reckon we’ll probably keep him.

Periodically while going about my day I remember that our Prime Minister is a 37-year-old, unmarried, childless woman, and I get such a fizzy rush in my tummy that I feel like I could scale a mountain on the spot. I always believed in the importance of “if they can see it they can be it”, but I didn’t really consider it to apply to me. And yet I can’t help but feel like it’s so much more possible now to make a difference to my country, or to have my voice heard. I feel positive about our nation’s future for the first time in a long time, and it feels so freaking good.

Also, real talk: I reckon Jacinda and I would be mates.

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Luca

I was due on the 23rd and born on the 30th. Luca was due on the 23rd and born on the 30th. He has Diogo’s nose, but my pale skin and hands and ears. His eyelashes are lighter than the rest of us but equally as long, and they curl up at the ends instead of sticking straight out. Maybe he’ll be a swimmer or a basketball player: he’s exactly average in weight, but 98th percentile for height, with the longest, skinniest feet I’ve ever seen on a human.

I’m so happy he’s here.

I’ll write about his birth, not just because it helps me to get these things out, but because I think it’s helpful to others who’ve given birth. I don’t want to scare expecting mothers and I definitely think there’s a very helpful place for uplifting natural birth stories, but I also think they crowd out the people whose experience was traumatic or awful or just so much more intense and affecting than they expected.

They sit with their births silently, thinking maybe the problem was them, or they’re weird or over-sensitive or just unlucky, but so many of the people I know use the word “trauma” when asked about their births… they just don’t say so unless you ask. Or get them drunk.

In the meantime, I’ll take the stitches and stretch marks and only sleeping in two-hour chunks while giving effusive thanks to any deities listening that I’m not pregnant anymore. The baby came out, and (once the shock wore off), my feelings came back. I looked at Brazil and felt a rush of love so overwhelming I proposed on the spot (I think maybe I did this after Nico too, he always just laughs and says yes like I’d asked him if he wants a cup of tea). My desire to do things came flooding back, along with the point of doing those things and the ability to look forward to them.

It’s been a rough nine months. This year has felt like a battle: against my hormones, against guilt and boredom, against my own body. It has, in a word, sucked.

Antenatal depression sucks. Antenatal depression with a still-small baby sucks. Add in bronchitis, a cracked rib, FOUR bouts of gastro, a sinus infection, constant daycare-induced coughs and colds, hemorrhoids, IBS, the state of the wider world, and then several weeks of contractions-but-not-labour and I think 2017 can officially be awarded my worst year ever.

But the baby came out, and my feelings came back.

Now, my heart throbs watching my big baby give my little baby his Phillip when he cries, and try his hardest to be gentle when he strokes his tiny head. It hurts as it expands for this new little person who’s somehow his own little person already.

Luca is seven weeks old and getting chunkier by the day. His furrowed expression of wide-eyed concern is interspersed now with gummy, scrunched-nose smiles and earnest chatting. He sleeps fantastically during the day and barely at all at night. Mostly he’s so chill we sometimes forget he’s even there.

Not that he really has a choice: Nico is 18 months old, and a ball of frantic, utterly charming energy. The speed at which he’s learning things is incredible to watch, and he’s suddenly so much fun to hang out with. He’s a performer and a show-off, and his comic timing is impeccable for someone who only has a handful of words. I’ve said before that happiness is different once you have a baby — the highs are higher but the lows are lower. You live in extremes. Turns out that’s also toddlers, but squared — ours is by turns the sweetest, most hilarious human you’ve ever met and a demonic, rage-fueled beastling. Every day is a new exercise in patience, but is also more fun than the day before.

Without the routine of work, time has gone sort of fuzzy around the edges. Days are faster and slower at the same time. I’m aware this time that Luca’s babyhood will be gone before we know it. People tell you that the first time, but you can’t actually grasp it. You will sleep again and see your friends again and wear a normal bra again, and your baby will roll and sit and crawl and then get up and run, until the day you find them standing on a chair trying to get into the fruit bowl.

We’re tired and frequently living at the very edges of our physical, mental and emotional tolerance, but we’re both at home at the moment so we get to enjoy this period, instead of having to just survive it. I can’t even imagine being alone with both of them all day every day — that most families don’t have a choice is dumbfounding to me now that we’re here. The correct ratio of adults to under 2s is at least 4:1.

Brazil is at home until May and I’m back to work part-time this week. It made perfect sense when we planned it, and it still does: I have freedom about when and where I work, and I make more an hour. He enjoys his job, but can’t do it in less than four days a week — so logistically, either he works full time and I’m at home all day with two babies, or he takes parental leave and I work part time, mostly from home. It’s a no-brainer. Plus he’s the best dad ever, so it’s awesome for him to get to spend extended time at home with the boys while they’re little.

But now that we’re here the guilts are back. I love what I do and I’m a better person and a far better mother when I have time and space to do things other than mothering… but it still feels terrible sometimes to admit that. And I still wish I was with them every time I leave them.

There are those extremes again.

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Attention, please

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Is Google making us stupid?

To make this author’s point for him, I didn’t finish reading that article. I was researching something else, and it was one of about five open tabs I was skimming simultaneously.

Yesterday I read a fantastic interview on the Spinoff about why our political system is broken — policies tinker around the edges in neat soundbites rather than tackling actual structural change, which is not only seen as too big to manage, but too hard for the public to comprehend in a Stuff article or a news segment.

But the world is complex. Our problems are complex.

In my work, we take difficult government information and make it easier to understand and act on. Clients and users and user-experience researchers tend to think this means we can make it simple. We can simplify, but this type of information fundamentally isn’t simple.

After user testing, testers frequently used to come back to me with, “users said it was too long and hard to understand. We recommend you make it shorter.”

This is why we try our hardest to always be involved in planning and executing testing now — it’s valid feedback, but for government entitlements and processes, it’s also useless. We’ve already made it as short as we can: whatever’s left is the information required to do the thing. There are ways of cutting it up and displaying it and phrasing it to make it easier for most people to find only the pieces they need (which is where we try to focus testing), but until someone gives us leave to rewrite legislation along with the website, the information required is the information required.

Recently, we’ve had several meetings with clients’ senior managers about syndicating content. This is an idea that goes around government every few years before sinking back into the depths of 5-year technology strategies. It’s a great idea, in theory: rewrite your web content so you can serve compact, distinct “bites” of information on any site or platform (the word “snackable” was used repeatedly).

The thing is, I’ve never really seen it work in government. I’d argue it’s never really worked anywhere other than a google results page. If your content boils down into a three-line snack, it’s not content — it’s a fact.

There might be a place for this, if it’s ever worth the technology that would be required to centralise it: “The GST rate is 15%”, “Daylight savings changes on Sunday 24 September”, “Student loan repayments are 10% of your before-tax income”. (Also, Google is already doing this, and with reasonable accuracy.)

Anything beyond that would have to be so simplistic as to be functionally useless. We already try to write page summaries that say something definite about the content of the page, so our best suggestion is probably to just syndicate your page summaries where they fit and provide a link to the main content… then fix that main content as best you can. There will never be a way to claim paid parental leave or figure out your child support in three lines.

There will also never be a plan to end child poverty or a way to grasp the impacts of climate change that can be conveyed in a news break or a paragraph you can share on Facebook. I worry the internet is not only rewiring our brains to read less deeply and and spend less time thinking about what we’ve read (I did read some of the article), but to expect that everything we need to know can be rolled up into a Wikipedia page summary — and that it’s okay to form opinions and make choices and vote based only on that summary.

For anyone who’s interested, here are two things we’ve worked on lately that experiment with syndicating or bite-sizing content, with reasonable success:

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And anyway, Mozart died at 35.

Twitter is now the place I go when I need something to make me furious at everything. Today I read an entire thread of men arguing over why work/life balance is a myth, and marathon hours and working weekends are fundamentally necessary if you want to be a success.

Look at Elon Musk, they said. Look at Mozart.

Newsflash, fellas: you’re not Mozart. Your work is probably not that important. And even if it is, if you’re doing it 12 or 14 hours a day you’re probably doing it badly.

Go the fuck home and see your kids.

Human brains aren’t designed to do creative or complex work for 12 hours straight. Long before you burn out, you’re going to stop doing good work. And your wife probably hates you.

How do these attitudes come about? There’s a wealth of evidence that extra hours of work don’t add extra productivity. The eight-hour workday is even based on maximum productivity for a factory assembly line — I’d argue the maximum creative output in a day is closer to four or five hours (with some padding for admin and meetings and eating sushi).

Your brain needs to rest to work creatively. Work/life balance isn’t important just because, you know, life is your actual life, but because without downtime your brain can’t process information and make new connections and break down all the things you’ve fed it into delicious spontaneous idea-mulch.

It’s also a socially dangerous argument to have. If it’s necessary to abandon your personal life to succeed at work, you either can’t have a family, are fucked if you already do, or you’re assuming you can dump all of your real-life responsibilities onto your partner forever in order to do your work.

I know I’m very privileged to not have to work in a 9-5 at-the-desk office environment, but here’s how I do my best work:

  1. Do a couple of hours of focused work.
  2. Take a walk, do a load of washing, knit, stare at the shops, eat chips, etc.
  3. Do another couple of hours of focused work.
  4. Stop working and hang out with my family.
  5. Sleep.
  6. Get in the shower in the morning and find a solution to whatever I was working on the day before waiting for me.
  7. Repeat.

I’ve yet to find a work problem that wasn’t solved faster by going to sleep than by continuing to try and actively beat it into submission after doing so had already failed. My brain is a wonderful and amazing creature that will come up with solutions to things without my help — if I let it.

The more I do creative work the more I realise that the time I don’t spend working is as important as the time I do.

I might send you an email at 9pm, but it’s not because I kept working until 9 — it’s because I went and made dinner and put Nico to bed and then sat on the couch staring at The Get Down and suddenly my brain was like “HEY, I GOT THE ANSWER!” and I got up and wrote it down.

Or The Get Down finished and because I’d had a few hours off the thing suddenly wasn’t as hard as it had seemed at 4pm.

And in the meantime, I also got to live my actual life.

Sixtyproof limit how much we take on not just because we have small children and partners and we like to interact with them (and occasionally also our friends and pets and television sets) but because we do better work that way — you can have 25 quality hours of work out of me a week, or 50 terrible ones.

Anyway, this whole post is a nice way of letting my clients know I’m going to start charging them for showers and Netflix.