Keep Calm and Carry On: How to Prepare Children for Exam Failure

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So, Molly is in Year 6 now and I’m sure that I am not the only parent in the anxiety provoking situation of considering secondary transition. I am in the fortunate position (minus a few holidays and luxuries) of being able to consider a private education for my children. This rubs against my preference for all children, from any background, to be able to receive the best possible education, particularly as my siblings and I were all state educated. But where we live in London, in the vicinity of dozens of the top private schools in the country, the difference in available quality of education is all too stark. The draw of these selective schools to the local population, means that many academically able children are removed from the state education system with some demographic consequences for some of the local state schools. While we never considered a private primary education, a private secondary education was always on the cards. Of course, we also applied for the local grammar school for Molly, one that I myself attended in the 80s (see my blog on this), but unfortunately, Molly didn’t make it through the selection process (although I have managed to remain tutor-free). Not altogether surprising since we were told that there were 3500 candidates for 100 places – worse odds (35:1) than Oxbridge (10:1) but still far easier than getting on Love Island (2500:1)! The remaining selective school exam onslaught is in January with weeks required to be cleared from my diary for exams and subsequent interviews and my wallet some-what lighter for the registration fees.

I’m Chinese. I take education seriously. But equally, I am a child psychiatrist and I take mental health even more seriously. Optimal performance in any domain is impaired by poor mental health (as is happiness) and this consideration needs to come first and foremost. When Molly was told that she had not made it through the grammar school exams, she was understandably temporarily disappointed and subdued, but she was readily reassured, and within the hour was back to her usual happy self and has been looking onward and upward. There has been no dent in her self-esteem that I can discern, rather, there has been a smidgeon of increased effort in her work ethic. Given that we have come through and managed the first hurdle of school “rejection” relatively unscathed; I feel somewhat able to advise on some ways that I found useful in combatting rejection dejection.

  • Start early and go slow:Adapting to big changes and making a big lifestyle change is always more stressful than making small, incremental changes over time. If you have the long term goal of children sitting selective school exams, I would always advise starting early with a small amount of work (30 minutes a day) up to Year 5 and building incrementally to a reasonable amount of work (1 hour a day) in Year 5 and Year 6. As our state primary school does not give much homework, this is very manageable. Children, who are not used to doing work regularly at home, will be more stressed if they are suddenly loaded up with tutors and work towards exam time, and this also emphasizes the fact that these exams are ‘super important’ which drives anxiety. If little and often has been part of life from the start, then exam preparation remains part of normal life and the attention and importance of exams (and therefore their outcomes) can be normalised.

 

  • Let Life Go On:It is really important that children get selected into schools that are academically suited to them. If your child has extra-curricular activities that they enjoy as down-time, or that they would wish to continue in secondary school, then it is really important that these continue throughout the period approaching exams. If a child requires to stop everything else in their life in order to work towards exams, the likelihood is that they may be selected into a school where they cannot keep up with the class unless they continue to work at this heightened level. This leaves children in the stressful and vulnerable position of potentially giving up enjoyable extra-curricular activities forever. Extra-curricular activities are usually enjoyable and act as a source of stress release and social interaction. Some parents think that it is advantageous to ‘sneak’ spoon fed children into highly academic schools, but believe me, this is never advantageous. If children are unable to keep up they will be ‘managed out’ of these schools which can sometimes be ruthless about maintaining their league table status, and if a child has to work all-out to keep up, then this has consequences on their mental health.

 

  • Realistic expectations and realistic explanations: I have a notion that self-awareness is the key to happiness. That if we understand ourselves and perform to our expectations then we are happy. Unhappiness arises when we do not know who we are or fail to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. This is of course more likely to happen if our expectations of ourselves are unrealistic. For many of us, myself included, I only truly felt that I started knowing who I was in my late twenties, and now in my forties, I am perfectly content with my own flawed self. Imperfect but comfortable in my imperfection – like an old pair of shoes. For the typical 11-year old child where identity is yet to be fully formed, ‘expectations’ are defined by parents. To prevent children feeling like they have fallen short, try to ensure that expectations are set at ‘realistic’. Asking school teachers, reviewing children’s independent work and having an idea of the academic level required for particular selective schools is important when choosing schools for your children. It is OK to be ambitious and choose some schools which may be a stretch, but if you are doing this, then explain it clearly to your child that there is no expectation to get into these schools, but that they are worth a punt. I take the school selection decision as a spread betting exercise and have opted for a selection of schools with varying academic vigour and will let fate decide. State school options are included in this spread bet and are talked up as being as appropriate as the private school options.

 

  • Preparing for Failure:Children will always take things harder if they are not prepared. Many children, particularly the high-achieving and confident children that tend to apply for selective schools, have never experienced failure before. Make sure that failure is discussed openly well before exam time. Put your own failures on the table and demonstrate that failure is not something to be embarrassed about, but a normal part of life. Inculcate the mantras: “Strength is not in the never falling, but in the getting up after a fall.’ And “If you are not constantly failing, you are not really stretching yourself.” I will explain this latter statement. Children who participate in competitive sports will have a wealth of analogies that can be used to demonstrate this. Thankfully Molly does a spot of competitive swimming and is used to constant failure as the thing with swimming is that once you get to the top of a group, you get moved to the next group and start at the bottom again: succeed at school swimming, attend club swimming, succeed at club swimming, attend county swimming, succeed at county swimming, attend regional swimming and so on and so on. Unless you are Rebecca Adlington, somewhere along the line you will fail, fail, fail! What excellent life experience! I highly recommend this as an extra-curricular activity for acclimatising to failure! The truth is this: if you are succeeding easily constantly, your pond is too small. Of course, discussing failure openly can also bring up hiccups. During an explanation of why it was no problem not to get into the grammar school (before it actually happened), Molly pipes up: ‘You don’t think I’m going to get in do you?” – it’s always a good idea to answer these questions honestly: “You know what Molly? I think you have a good chance, but I really don’t know because there are a lot of other clever girls out there who all have a good chance. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t get in because it just means that the school is not suited to YOU, and there are other good schools that will be.”

 

  • Contain your judgement.Children around this period are hawks to information and opinions about various schools. Much of it is hogwash because ‘one man’s beef is another man’s poison’. Literally. A highly-academic school can propel some girls to glittering careers, but the same school can contribute to a different girl to commit suicide. It’s all about ‘fit’. Therefore, it is no good listening to the judgements of other parents to make decisions about your own children, and its no good transferring judgements about schools to your children. They will take these comments from you as gospel and it will affect their mindset and they will tell their friends, spreading irrelevant judgements. Although I have chosen a variety of schools, I never talk of a preferred school and merely state that all of them are good. Other parents find this extremely frustration and keep pushing me with “But REALLY, which one is your preferred school?” and my honest-truth is REALLY– my preferred school is the one that offers a place to my daughter! It helps not to pay too much attention to the school propaganda machine and prospectuses which imply that they will be the only ones to hone and sculpt your child’s mind in the right way. In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘one partner who was destined to be my lifelong love’ (sorry hubby) – there are many people in this world who we could each have fallen in love with; and equally there are many, many schools which will do a good job at educating my children. Unless you are an Oscar winning actor, if you have a ‘preferred school’ that you have singled out as being ‘the ONE’, it will be very difficult to hide disappointment from your children if they don’t get in. Anyone who has gone through the house buying process in the UK will have experience of the disappointment of being ‘gazumped out of our dream home’ and quickly realises that the scatter gun offering on many perfectly acceptable houses and THEN loving the one that you exchange on is a much better strategy.

 

Also – I am a control freak and if anyone is going to be ‘shaping my child’s mind and attitudes’ – it’s going to be ME! Mu ha ha ha ha. (For as long as possible anyway!)

 

  • Contain your own anxiety. OK, I have to fess up that every 8-10 weeks I do have an anxiety wobbly where I worry that no selective school will take my money and accept my daughter to their school and that by some freak influx of 11 year olds to my local area, we will now live too far away to get into the good local state school. At least though, I recognise this anxiety wobbly for what it is and am able to mostly keep it to myself, give myself a good slap around the chops and saying: ‘stop catastrophising’. I doubt any parent can really get through this period without a stitch of worry and anxiety, but the best advice is to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and preferably try not to show your anxiety to your children as your anxiety is fuel for their anxiety.

 

  • Pride and unconditional love. If you are a bit shy about expressing your emotions to your children, now is a really good time to release yourself from your shackles. Go all out on expressing pride and unconditional love. This does not mean that you let children off the hard work that they are likely required to do, but that the effort that they put in is noted, praised and whole-heartedly appreciated, as well as their non-academic attributes that make them the lovable person they are.

 

  • Silver Linings.When failure happens, make sure that you accept it. Highlight the silver linings to yourself and your child. It’s better that you actually BELIEVE these silver linings, other-wise your child will know that you are just trying to make them feel better and see it as fake. If you can, convince and accept it yourself first then you’ll be able to deliver the silver linings genuinely. You might feel some innate need to contest the failure and imagine some mistake has been made and feel a need to make an appeal. Alternatively, you might feel that it is necessary to make up an excuse as to why your child didn’t get in to a particular school or feel embarrassed to divulge failure to family and friends. All of these common parental behaviours meant to make your child feel better often have the paradoxical effect of making the failure hurt more for your child as they highlight your disappointment and disbelief in the legitimate outcome. As I said, unless you are an Oscar winning actor, try to be genuinely happy with the outcome as if you feel disappointed, your children will know about it however much you try to keep it from them. Many 10 year old children’s main wish is to make their parents proud. Conversely, feeling that you have made your parents ashamed or disappointed can feel like agony.

To all parents embarking on the same journey as me in the next 2 months:

Stay Sane!

To all girls and boys out there who are embarking on the same journey as Molly in the next 2 months.

Good Luck!

You will be Brilliant wherever you go to school!

Helping children to identify their own emotions

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Many parents are happy to spend time and effort daily to teach our children to read and write, but very few of us sit down with our children daily to talk about emotions. Yet difficulties in managing emotions have a direct impact on learning and is the major reason that children get excluded from school. Getting in the habit of talking about emotions should happen early on. In my book “Inside Out Parenting”, I talk about teaching managing emotions with the same effort and at the same time as teaching our children to manage their motions (toilet training). We should spend as much time and effort encouraging our children to tell us that they ‘need a cuddle’ as we would teaching them to tell us that they ‘need a pee’. If talking about our common experiences of emotion is habitual from toddlerdom, it will become part of our natural repertoire and free us for a life time.

Remember when our children were babies and they cried if they were wet/ hungry/ thirsty or tired? Children who have difficulty identifying their emotions are in the same boat. They convey distress in one way (usually anger) which does not help others identify what is actually wrong. In clinic, it is often evident that many families (parents and children alike) can only identify and express one negative emotion: ANGER – and all manner of other nuanced emotions: frustration/ boredom/ jealousy/ sadness/ pain/ irritation/ annoyance/ unfairness/ grief/ hunger just become subsumed under ‘anger’. This inability to identify and define emotions and their cause is impairing as the solutions for relieving distress in each case is very different. The more that we as parents can actively support and teach our children to identify emotions and physical states, the easier our children will find it to manage their emotions.

Emotions can be tricky things to identify, particularly so for children who have learning disability or autism spectrum disorder who may not understand where the discomfort is coming from. Negative emotions like frustration, anger, jealousy and sadness feel intensely uncomfortable and unless we have an understanding of the cause and temporary nature of the feeling and ways to deal with it, then it can cause immense distress to children, adults and all around them. I will give a funny first-world problem example:

When Molly was around 6 years old, she had quite a temper and one dinner time she complained incessantly about the dinner that I had cooked. Having had rather a long day and spent time trying to prepare a nice dinner, I didn’t feel like listening to her complaints any longer and as she is usually well-fed and watered, I sent her to bed without her dinner. Around 11pm, down comes Molly in immense distress and sorrowful tears.

Molly:  Mummy! I’m dying. I’ve got a pain in my tummy and it really hurts.

Me:      You’re hungry, that’s all.

Molly: No, it’s not that. It’s the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I really think it’s serious. I waited ages and it’s not going away, it’s getting worse and worse. I’m frightened.

Me:      OK. But eat this first and then we can call the doctor if it still hurts.

Molly [buttered toast later]: Mummy. The pain has gone.

From then on, Molly was able to identify what ‘hunger’ felt like and the solution. If we are on hand to explain to children their emotions as and when they experience them, then they will learn what these emotions are and how to handle them. Of course, sometimes in the heat of the emotion children may not accept your explanation: try telling an over-tired child that they are tired and you’ll get the most vehement denials – but reinforcing your explanations the following day when they are calm can help, as can witnessing the same symptoms in their siblings and having these pointed out. Molly became quite the pro at tutting “He’s over-tired” when D was raging due to tiredness. 

Sometimes, we need to do a bit of investigative work to find out the cause of negative emotions: for instance the source of jealousy or frustration, but if we find it, normalise it and explain it, it generally helps for the next time around. If we are there to catch emotion forming and can head it off, all the better:

Me: I can see Molly that you are upset that your brother got a massive Lego set from Grandma for his Christmas present and you got a book. But this doesn’t mean that they love you any less, it just means that they happened to know what he wanted and weren’t quite sure what to get you. Tell you what, why don’t the two of us go and buy you something else as an extra present tomorrow?

 

50 shades of grey: Parenting is not all black & white

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One of my bug-bears regarding mainstream advice for parents is the extreme focus on “Dos and Don’ts”. Having been asked to write a few articles for mainstream media, I often sigh when I am asked to produce a list of my top ‘dos and don’ts of parenting’.

Incidentally, it would be the following:

DO:

  • Use sunscreen on your children
  • Vaccinate your children

DON’T:

  • Sexually abuse your children
  • Physically abuse your children
  • Emotionally abuse your children
  • Physically or emotionally neglect your children

But this isn’t usually what people are after.

I know what people are after: Don’t allow your children on social media/ Don’t allow your children to watch TV/ Don’t tell your daughters that they are beautiful/ Don’t praise your children for being intelligent/ Do praise your children for effort/ Do encourage exercise/ Do read with your children/ Don’t push your children to achieve/ Do push your children to achieve.

The advice may be catchy and ‘sound’ sensible and I could even throw in a few science sounding sound bites to support my case, but really – it is meaningless and often based on fluff and anecdote rather than hard science. The reality is that in the words of Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” and like most things, parenting does not exist in the black and white, but 50 shades of grey.

“Black and white thinking” is often an undesirable symptom of conditions such as depression, personality disorder and autism spectrum disorder. In depression for example people can feel that making a small mistake is a disaster because in the binary world of ‘black and white’ or ‘perfection and imperfection’, small mistakes necessitate categorisation in the ‘imperfect’ pile. People with personality disorder may tend to classify people as “good or bad”, those who are good are put on a pedestal, but if they cause even minor offence, they then become enemy number 1 – because there are no in-between options. In autism spectrum disorder, there is much frustration, anger and a sense of injustice with queue-jumpers and rule infringers, because often there is only “right and wrong”. In all cases, black and white thinking is a negative: it does not reflect reality, discourages adaptability and perceptions of nuance and as such causes unnecessary distress.

So why does the media wish to encourage its audience to think in such maladaptive ways? And how can we protect ourselves from binary thinking?

In cognitive behavioural therapy for children with black and white thinking, one of the purposes of therapy is to challenge black and white thinking: to map out every shade of grey and to consider every caveat.

I think we parents could also do with some of this in our lives to stop our own binary thinking regarding how we parent:

Mapping out Shades of Grey:

(If black is no and white is yes)

Does looking like a hot mess mean I am a bad parent? Black

Does having a messy house mean I am a bad parent? Slate

Does doing the school run in my PJs mean I’m a bad parent? Ash

Does shouting at my child in anger mean I am a bad parent? Pigeon

Does physically abusing my child mean I am a bad parent? Snow

Caveats:

If I give my children ready meals am I a bad parent?

  • What if it is not every night?
  • What if I am a time poor working parent?
  • What if I am a time poor single parent?
  • What if it allows me to spend more quality time with my child?
  • What if it allows me to help my child with their homework?
  • What if I have 4 children?
  • What if I have a new baby?
  • What if it is a hipster vegan and gluten free ready-meal?

I know that binary parenting advice is an easy-to-understand way of delivering information, but I think that it is about time that we trusted the intelligence and judgement of parents a little more. The focus should be on providing good quality information and education and not on sound bites to be dogmatically followed. I hope that my blogs and book reflect this ethos. I don’t want people to ‘do as I do’ or ‘do as I say’ but to reflect on their own parenting and find their own path with a clear understanding of the implications of compromises that we must all make. And to embrace grey in their lives like they would Jamie Dornan if they got the chance…!

 

 

Smart Women Week

Red SWW_Instagram Organic Feed_Holan Liang

Jo Malone CBE

Kelly Hoppen

Melissa Hemsley

Trinny Woodall

Ella Mills

Clemmie Hooper

(lots more amazing and smart women)

& Me!

I can’t believe that I am going to be part of this amazing line-up at Red Magazine’s ‘Smart Women Week’ September 18th-22nd. I have been a great fan of Red Magazine the last 10 years and so I was absolutely chuffed to be asked to speak at their London event about all thing’s child mental health. If you would like to come along, please see the link below for tickets!

smartwomenweek.co.uk

It’s all in the Mind: Psychosomatic and Somatopsychosis

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Watching Molly do cartwheels the other day, I discovered a new psychiatric syndrome: somatopsychosis. It’s a very rare condition and she may be the only sufferer largely due to her terrible parent: me.

Most of us are aware of the miraculous power of our minds over our bodies and the inextricable links between psychological problems and physical problems. At the most basic, feeling physically unwell can make us feel sad about not being able to do things we wanted to do, or anxious that we may have a serious or life-threatening illness. Being a medical student was the worst. Reading lists of symptoms of rare neurological diseases was bound to bring on symptoms of blurred vision, pins and needles and lethargy such that a self-diagnosed brain tumour became a convincing reality. Conversely, when we experience bereavement, adversity or tragedy, we often feel it physically as “heartache” or “headache” or “tiredness” and “sleeplessness”. The term “psychosomatic” is basically a fancy way of saying bodily (somatic) symptoms for which there is a psychological (psycho) basis.

Children are no different and due to their immature abilities to identify and express emotions, their propensity to cite psychological problems as physical ones are more frequent. For children, who may have less understanding that psychological problems stem from the head, the gut is the most frequent organ assigned to physical problems. Children who are worried at school may experience genuine stomach aches or constipation which miraculously remit at the weekends and on holidays. For teenagers and adults, the neurological often (but not always) begins to preside with headaches and migraines becoming more prevalent presentations of psychosomatic symptoms.

Psychosomatic symptoms more commonly arise in children who are less able to understand, identify and report their feelings and emotions. Therefore younger children, and children with learning difficulties and or autistic spectrum disorders are more vulnerable. It may also occur in children where reporting feelings and emotions is not possible, discouraged or seen as a sign of weakness or failure. Often children may have experienced past or current physical problems and therefore have a good understanding of how to solicit help or get their needs met for physical problems. Often parents can contribute to symptoms by their own fears and anxieties about their child’s physical health. This is particularly so if the child has a long standing medical condition or has been unwell in the past. Doctors and health professionals can add their own anxieties “of missing a rare disorder” into the mix with repeated investigations and suggested treatments to help uncover and treat an underlying biological basis to problems, and neglect to consider that the underlying problems may be psychological.

If that is the long established thinking on psychosomatic symptoms, what then is my new disorder of “somatopsychosis”? Well, exactly the reverse: psychological symptoms caused by physical ones. This sounds highly unusual, and indeed, Molly is the only recognised case report of this pathological condition that I have just made up. Here is how it works:

Some doctors, like myself (I hope this is the case and I am not an unusually hard-hearted anomaly), have a skewed sense of pain severity due to our dealings with pain at the very severe end. At times it can border on the down-right unsympathetic: when my husband complains of woozy head and sniffles, it’s most definitely man-flu of no significance and he should take Lemsip, go to bed and quit complaining. When an adult patient complains of pain from a blood test, I sometimes mentally think “Come on – it’s a skin prick – I’ve just sewn someone’s entire arm back on!” and don’t let me get started on people that wince in extreme agony from having a blood pressure taken. I am of course professional, kind and sympathetic to my patients, but I am also human, so I hope you will forgive the occasional internal eye-roll at such “wimpish” behaviour.

Unfortunately for my children, professionalism doesn’t wholly apply at home and although broken legs, cuts that are likely to leave scars and high temperatures are met with the usual heightened maternal anxiety (including vivid nightmares of misaligned bones or fractures that disturb the bone growth plates that only people of medical training contemplate) I admit to a general propensity to a lack of sympathy to minor physical pain. As such poor Molly and D have learnt that a grazed knee will earn a dusting off, a quick wound wash, a hug and a wipe of the tears, but then an expectation that the episode is now over and they are to carry on playing. A bumped knee will unlikely earn more than an “Oh dear, you’ll get a nasty bruise” or sometimes, I admit to even worse: “Well, that’s what you get for charging around without looking where you are going.”

As a child psychiatrist on the other hand, identifying and expressing feelings and emotions are a different kettle of fish. From a young age, both children have been encouraged to talk to me about their internal lives, what has worried them at school and all angles are thoroughly investigated and talked through with utmost attention.

It appears that this table-turning of the usual scenario where parents pay immense attention to physical pain and tend to access less of their children’s internal worlds can have its own unhealthy consequences. Here’s what happened:

Molly: Whee! look at me! I can do really good cartwheels now!

Me: You’d better watch out, doing cartwheels on a slippy rug is not the best idea…

[BUMP]

Molly: Ouch! [Blubber, blubber]

Me: I told you so.

Molly: You don’t know what a terrible day I had. Girls were being mean to me at school.

Me: [???? What the hell? Where did that come from?]

I had to suppress a smile as I realised what was happening. Molly subconsciously knew that I wasn’t going to give her sympathy for a bumped bottom, but a potential peer interaction problem would give her the comfort and attention she needed at that time of physical pain.

AAARGHH! I have generated somatopsychosis! At least my early recognition of this oddity has reminded me to be more sympathetic to my children and change my ways. I absolutely don’t want her to subconsciously fabricate mental health problems to gain attention. It does go to show though, the frightening power of our day to day words and actions on our children, and the critical importance of what we DO and DON’T give attention and kindness for.

 

 

 

Exercise Your Mind

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Just a quick blog to shout out about an exciting new “Gym” that’s launching in London this weekend. No, it’s not one for planks and TRX, but one for exercising the little grey cells!
It does seem a shame that after school or university, we become cosseted in a life where IF we continue to learn, it is usually “on-the-job” such that we become super-specialist in our own pigeon-boxed specialties without gaining breadth of learning. No more getting to try “lino-printing” or “debating” as we did in the classroom, to the extent that I am rather jealous of my kids who are shipped off to exciting school clubs such as “Lego Workshop”, “Chess” and “Tech club”. Jealous no more, as this weekend (May 13th 2018), Cerebral Gym will launch at the lovely and charitable House of St Barnabas in SoHo. Here, you will get to learn about all manner of things from bridge, to opera via architecture, with a bit of rap and book club thrown in for good measure. If it all get’s a bit too much for the little grey cells, there’s massage and meditation on site.
And to top it all off, a spot of parenting chat with me! Yippee.
If you are free, do come down. See the sites below for info and tickets.

Cerebral Gym Website

BOOK TICKETS

How to Train a Husband

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My dad told me he sent a copy of my parenting book to his old university friend who is in his 70s. After reading the book, his friend’s comments were these: “It’s not a book on how to raise your children, it’s a book on ‘How to Train Your Husband!'”

I had to laugh. I thought that it was only in the last chapter of my book “Inside Out Parenting” that I broke forth into a feminist rant on equality in childcare and domestic chores (promise), but it has to be said that since the book’s release several men have commented to me that they feel sorry for my husband. Also I do know that for some time now several of Banker’s friends no longer allow me unsupervised contact with their wives lest I contaminate them with my views on equality in domesticity and the value of fathers in the lives of children, so it is possible that this flavour pervades more of the book than I realise.

For many people the status quo is very satisfactory thank you very much and boats shouldn’t be rocked. But if like me you feel that “Equality starts at home” then here are my contributions on how to attempt to achieve this. I am by no means an expert on husbands or relationships but equality is something that I have thought about and tried to implement. Rather than feel ashamed or guilty about being a “mean wife” (which I am not impervious to feeling due to societal expectations of a “good wife”), I shall embrace the “How to Train a Husband” banner and offer you these gems:

  1. Choose your husband wisely. Simplistic advice perhaps but many of us get caught up in love and romance that we don’t think beyond to the potential 50+ years of life ever-after when desire abates, life goes on and chores are required to be done. Choosing a husband that respects and loves you is really important. My definition of “love” involves caring about your happiness. If being a “perfect housewife” is making you desperate or depressed, then husbands need to care about that and try to be more involved to allow you to fulfil yourself in the ways that you need.
  2. Start from a base of equality if you can. It is much easier to argue for equality in the home if your relationship started off on a basis of equality. Marrying your boss or someone incredibly wealthy unfortunately can put you an an unequal power footing from the outset. You may always feel weaker in your ability to assert your needs. But for many young couples these days, it is more commonly the case that going into parenthood both partners are working and earning an equivalent salary, the power dynamic only changes when one parent (usually, but not always the wife) steps back from her career due to childcare responsibilities. If this is the case, then you know what equality in a relationship feels like so you should seek to maintain it.
  3. Assert your needs. Some people love quitting their jobs to undertake the fantastic experience of parenthood. This is great. But some people don’t and they feel guilty about feeling this and/ or complaining about being unfulfilled by their caregiving role. I would say that if you don’t feel totally fulfilled, then it is imperative that you make this known to your partner. Harbouring guilt and unhappiness will gnaw at you from the inside and is the harbinger of depression. We all have to do things out of responsibility, but we need support and hope that there are alternatives or compromises to be made to work towards something more fulfilling. Hopelessness and feeling there is no way out is a very dark place. If you abided Rule number 1, then a partner that cared about your happiness would step in and do what they could to allow you to feel more fulfilled. Even if they could not actively help, their support and understanding of your feelings can sometimes be enough. Equally, if breadwinners feels trapped in a job they hate they should make their voice heard: adjustments need to be made for everyone’s happiness and an effective team and division of labour should work for all.
  4. Childcare is a 9-5 job. Of course this is blatantly untrue as children need looking after throughout the clock. But if it were a standard job, these would be the hours that you would be employed to work. As such, from this view point, any work that is required to be done outside of the 9-5 framework are a job for parents – of which there are usually two. Whilst I have undertaken to be the primary carer for my children between normal working hours (unfortunately in my case Banker works 7am-7pm), any child related problems outside these hours or at the weekends are equally shared. I know that this seems ridiculous to point out, but I have seen many of my friends continue to resume full responsibility for their children at weekends running themselves ragged while their husband relaxes after a hard week in the office. Really? If you are in possession of several young children I can honestly say that I think going to the office should be regarded as veritable downtime. If your husband poo poos this notion, book a week’s holiday away and get your husband to be sole charge of the children for a week (no grandparent support allowed). I promise that within a week, they will come around to the notion that going to the office is easier than childcare.
  5. Childcare and Maid are two different jobs. Just because you have given up your job to look after your children, this does not mean that you have also become the live-in maid. If your husband treats you like a maid, please stop and think whether this would have happened before you got married and gave up your job to look after children? If it did happen before you got married – why did you marry him…?? If it didn’t used to happen, what has changed, why have you become the maid? If he wants a maid, he should employ one. If the family are suffering because of reduced income due to your quitting your job to look after children, then this is a FAMILY problem, meaning that EVERYONE needs to pitch in to help with the cleaning and chores. You should both be maids. I know that this sounds petty, and I do more than 50% of the domestic chores in my household, but HELL if that is the “expectation”. If there is ever a whiff of discontent or insinuation that domestic chores are my “responsibility” – I go on full-on strike! Yes, ladies – I have purposefully picked out my husbands’ shirts and underpants from the dirty laundry and laundered my own and the children’s clothing only. If there are complaints about no clean shirts I point at the washing machine. Many of my friends find this despicable – but really? I never washed his clothes before we had children, why should having children together mean that I am now responsible for washing his clothes?
  6. Maintain a job and income. I know that this is not always possible, but if you can, in any way shape or form, I think this is beneficial for your self-esteem and sanity. The only way to maintain respect in a relationship is by knowing and believing that you WANT not NEED to remain in it. For me, knowing that I have maintained employment skills in a part-time job means that I have certainty that should my relationship fail, I could go full-time and be able to support myself and my family. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would all wish for our marriages to last and relationships to succeed, but there is nothing successful in a  marriage that lasted in misery and entrapment. Remaining in a marriage for fear of destitution is not really a great place to be in. Finances aside, a job allows you not only financial independence but to maintain social contact with other people and to meet new people such that should a relationship fail, you do not feel socially isolated and unable to meet new and interesting people. I don’t know if there are statistics to back this up, but anecdotally it feels like that when a couple divorce, the husband re-marries more readily than the wife. I don’t think that it is always because the wife typically gets custody of the children that this happens, but because many wives have been socially isolated or cosseted within female only social groups long before the divorce settlements are initiated.
  7. If “Training” your husband is not in your nature, encourage others to do it for you. I have found that often mothers are more readily blamed for anything that happens involving their children. When Big Sis broke her leg at the park with her father, my mother rebuked me with “What the hell were you doing letting your husband take her to the park!” This transfer of blame from fathers to mothers should be unacceptable but it happens all the time. Banker had a spate of being late to pick up Big Sis and Lil Bro on his nursery runs. Rather than rebuke him the nursery were congenial when he arrived late. However, the following day I would be given a telling off about the children being picked up late. I immediately countered that it was my husband who was late and not me. They acknowledged this and asked me to let my husband know that this was not on. Luckily, I had taken a good dose of assertiveness that morning and said, ‘You know, if I tell him it will be perceived as nagging. It will be much more effective if you ring him at work and tell him yourself.’ To my alarm, the nursery teacher became all bashful and said, ‘Am I allowed?’ This was the first time that I realized the unfairness of it all. Professionals are more than happy to criticize working women on their parenting but dare not criticize working men. I said to the teacher: ‘Not only are you allowed, but I would be delighted if you did!’. Mothers: encourage professionals to talk to your husband directly and refuse to be accountable for your husband’s actions. My additional advice, is this: if you are a professional who works with children, be it teacher, nursery worker, teaching assistant, doctor, nurse, dentist, or other, please be fair and call fathers to account as well as mothers.
  8. Share the Mental Load: What scientific explanation is there to say that organising childcare, making a packed lunch or reminding children to put on a coat and remember a PE kit require a pair of breasts? None-whatsoever. Yet generations of women have been conned into subsuming these activities as their responsibility. I myself spent much time and sleepless nights wracking my brains over solutions to tricky childcare logistics when I wanted to return to work.  It only struck me when Big Sis was 7 that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, Banker too was surprised to be asked. He had indeed sat through my endless rantings about how maybe we could pay ‘anyone-in-the-world’ to look after the children, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his. There ensued, of course, the typical grumbles: ‘important job’ . . . ‘impossible’ . . . ‘money’ . . . ‘promotion’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’. However, I happened to know that one of his colleagues had been able to wangle a late start to drop his children at school a few times a week. This colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children, following a divorce. For him, it was a privilege to be able to do the school run. So I pointed out to my darling husband that I was offering him exactly this privilege, without the expense of a divorce and custody battle. Bargain! Seriously, though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility? Why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is often because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. The other day, having just cleaned the kitchen, I asked Banker to make Big Sis a packed lunch for her school trip. He replied, ‘OK. But what goes into a packed lunch?’ I did not dignify this question with an answer. A grown-up, well-educated man should be able to work this one out for himself. I, for one, would like some time off from all the thinking and planning of parenting, as well as all the doing. Make sure it is not just the load that is shared, but also the mental load.

 

I know I might sound like a right old dragon. But the good news is this: although implementing and fighting my corner with my husband has not always been plain sailing, I know this for a fact: my husband has been grateful for my honesty and has thanked me openly for allowing and fostering his relationship with his children. At a recent book publicity event, the male CEO of a major publishing company came up to me to say that he chimed with my view: the thing he is most grateful to his wife for was to insist that he participated in childcare. Although he grumbled at the time, he recognises now the difference it has made to his relationship with his children, now fully-grown. Because children are not blind, they see everything: who is doing what for whom. Providing the cheque for lavish birthday parties and expensive presents will never quite equate to the tear wiper, illness healer, sandwich maker, homework teacher, hug-giver, PE kit rememberer, confidence instiller; and I think that deep down, we all know this to be true.

Back to School

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For many parents it’s back to school this week, a time of mixed emotions. I’m sure that I am not alone in feeling a sense of relief (thank God I’m no longer responsible for them 24/7 or for organising who will be responsible for them 24/7), sadness (how the heck did they get this big? A minute ago I was wiping their bottom) and anxiety (how will they get on with their new teacher?).

The “Back to School” prep has all been done. This year, thanks to a last minute job application form that was due, the majority was delegated to Banker. For the first time, he braved John Lewis alone with the kids to battle over the last Size 3 Geox, AND he ironed on all the name labels on the new uniforms. This latter he did correctly this time as last year when he was assigned this task he spent an hour ironing on sticker name labels (used for books and pencil cases etc) rather than the iron-on name labels (used for clothing). They obviously didn’t stick and I had an absolute barney as I had to repeat the task. This year all was done to standard, which goes to show that these parenting tasks need not be the preserve of mums (if we are happy to tolerate a hiccup or two)! All I did was get Lil Bro his back-to-school haircut and then they were set.

As soon as my kids saw their friends they were off without a backward glance.

I toddled off to the shops. It was with sadness that on my return from the shops, a good hour after the school bell had tolled that I saw a mum and her son outside the school gates. I heard a snapshot of their conversation “Just go in and talk to the others. It’ll be fine.” It occurred to me that for some families, “back-to-school” is not just a logistic nightmare of name labels, new shoes and haircuts, but a return to a battle-ground and heartache.

As an autism specialist, it is not uncommon for my clients to loathe school and in extremis to refuse to go to school. Anxiety is the most common co-morbidity in children with autism, and it is also the most common mental health problem in primary school aged children. So here are a few pointers on school refusal:

Try to find the cause for anxiety

  • Encourage your child to feel safe to talk to you about their problems. This requires a non-judgemental attitude and a guarantee of confidence and that they will not get into trouble. They will also need to know that they will be taken seriously, and that you will have the resources and strength to help them. Many children I see in clinic do not disclose bullying to parents as “it will worry them”, “they won’t believe me”, “they will only confront the situation and make it worse” or “they won’t be able to do anything”.
  • Often it is not sufficient to ask your child why they will not/ do not want to go to school. Persistent badgering on this question may cause more harm than good if it is not forthcoming given encouragement. Sometimes your child may not fully understand their own emotions or the cause of their emotions and therefore cannot tell you even if they wanted to. In this instance, it is up to you to speak to teachers and friends and come up with your best guesses. Discuss these hunches with your child in a non-judgemental way: “If I were in your shoes, I’d be a little scared of your new teacher…” and see whether any of them chime with your child. This is a favourite child psychiatrist strategy of mine as usually one of your guesses will be correct and when you see a child’s face respond to you verbalising their darkest emotions, you can tell that you’ve got to the heart of it and work can begin.

If you find a cause then dealing with the cause will be your next step. Some common causes for school refusal in primary aged children are:

  • bullying/ social ostracisation by peers
  • bullying/ fear of a teacher/ fear of being told off
  • anxiety about a particular subject: fear of failure in an academic subject, fear of being ridiculed in P.E.
  • anxiety about leaving the parent (separation anxiety) for fear something may happen to the parent.

Sometimes, there is no one-single cause and anxiety may be generalised or the sum of minor anxieties that can overwhelm. Working through each one, however minor, can be important.

Dealing with the cause should always involve:

  • Working together with the school. The natural parental instinct is to do your utmost to protect your child which can mean confronting the school staff or the parents of other children. Try to stay calm and keep an even head – whatever happens, getting other parents and teachers on side will lead to better outcomes for your child than making adversaries.
  • Supporting your child. As well as in relation to the identified cause, increasing your child’s self-esteem, resilience and social skills will always help.

Avoid pitfalls:

  • Sometimes, parents will allow children to stay off school due to school refusal. It is important to remember that this can inadvertently encourage problems as you are in effect teaching your child that crying and fussing will lead to a day off school. Sometimes it is impossible to get a child into school, but if this is the case, then schoolwork should be done at home rather than a pleasurable day at home watching TV and playing computer games. An incredibly boring or taxing day of chores at home may lead some children to the conclusion that school is preferable!
  • If at all possible, get children back into school as quickly as possible because the longer that they are off school, the harder it will be to get them back.

 

Make Time For Your Dreams

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In September 2013, after a prolonged period of doubting, mental deliberation and build-up, I ventured on-line and bought myself a domain name: Shrinkgrowskids.com. It was meant to keep me busy while the children were in school because finding employment in school hours only is impossible. I psyched myself up. I was about to start writing when the following happened:

  • my daughter broke her leg (she was 6 years old and too little to use crutches. We have a typical Victorian townhouse on 3 floors. She needed hoisting everywhere. I put my back out)
  • my dad got diagnosed with cancer (thankfully now in remission)
  • my son had terrible allergies to a list of over 20 food items

There were a lot of hospital appointments. The blog got put on the back-burner. Life’s never easy and there is always an excuse NOT to do something.

I’m glad that I persisted.

In January 2014, I finally got the chance to sit down and blog and this led on some 3 years later to the publication of my book last month. So I wanted to share the following with you:

Remember your dreams and make time to make them happen!

 

***

Here’s a little taster from the intro of my book:

Oh, for pity’s sake!’ I silently cursed.
I had timed the nursery run to a tee and for once we were actually on schedule – until my three-year-old daughter, Molly, realized that her new shoes did not have her name label in them. Disaster! I tried to persuade her that this would be fine for one day and promised to stick the labels in that night; I explained that I couldn’t do it there and then because we would be late for her nursery (and, more importantly, I would be late for a meeting I was due to chair). But Molly out and out refused to see reason.

So I tried cajoling, then bribing, then threatening her. All to no avail. Ultimately I gave in, impatiently got the name labels and grumpily stuck them in her shoes. But by then it was too late. Molly was digging her heels in and her anger wasn’t just about the shoes anymore, but had become an incoherent fury with the world in general. And she was still refusing to put on her shoes. There followed more shouting, this time from me, along the lines of, ‘Now I’m going to be late!’ Reciprocal shouting and foot stamping from Molly ensued, until I realized that physically picking her up, bundling her under my arm and forcibly depositing her in the car was the only way I was going to get anywhere that day.

This was no mean feat. Picture me shuffling sheepishly down the road to the car, praying not to encounter any of my neighbours, Molly tucked under my arm like a log, kicking and screaming, with no shoes on. Simultaneously, my eighteen-month- old son D (Chinese for little brother, which is what we’ve always called him), was clinging on to me like an oversized pendant, his arms wrapped tightly around my neck. Assorted nursery-required paraphernalia was haphazardly piled into two bags, which weighed down so heavily on my elbows that they were cutting off the circulation to my fingers, from which dangled the contentious shoes. I must have resembled a demented rag and bone woman with my assorted wares hanging all over me. Meanwhile, Molly’s ongoing high-pitched wails of, ‘You’re hurting me!’ advertised our approach to everyone in the neighbourhood.

It was on that day of model motherhood that I decided I should write a book about parenting. If this seems perverse, I haven’t even confessed the funniest part of the story yet. About an hour after that little episode, I finally took my seat at the meeting. There I sat, solemnly discussing the effects that ‘compromised parenting’ has on the mental health of children. Believe me, the irony was not lost on me.

You see, I am a child psychiatrist. Handling Molly’s meltdown should have been second nature to me, but it wasn’t. After this humiliating escapade, I started to write down the more ridiculous of my parenting moments, because on one level they intrigued me: ‘Surely a child psychiatrist should know better?’ I kept asking myself.

Before having children I probably considered myself some-thing of a ‘parenting expert’. I doled out parenting advice to parents like hot dinners and wore my, ‘I know about parenting; I’m a child psychiatrist y’know’ badge with pride. It was only when I actually became a parent that I woke up to the humbling reality that there is no such thing as a ‘parenting expert’. Parenting is, in essence, often a process of mainly well-intentioned trial and error. The well-intentioned part is important because in recent times parents have been taking their role in their children’s development much more seriously. We’ve come a long way from the days when children were seen and not heard; when it was fairly common for them to be farmed out to wet nurses, governesses or boarding school at one end of the social spectrum, or sent up a chimney at the other. We now know that leaving the administration of parenting to others means potentially leaving the outcomes

of our children, and the adults that they will become, in the hands of others.

Indeed, sometimes it seems we have gone to the other extreme; there has been such a seismic shift in our attitudes towards parenting. Rather than abdicating responsibility for our children, or being ambivalent, we now have an almost obsessive preoccupation with them. I like to think that this is because my profession has done such a great job at promoting the importance of loving and understanding our children, though cynics might argue that it has more to do with the fact that most of us can no longer afford nannies, governesses or boarding schools. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that there is now a genuine interest in giving our children the best possible start in life.

***

Asian Woman: Nanny or Hooker?

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So it’s finally general election day (again!) and in the build up you’d think that local canvassers would be hungry to win over voters on the doorstep wouldn’t you?

Sadly not if you are Asian. This week, I experienced yet again the “Mistaken for the Cleaner” scenario. Here’s what happened:

Door bell rings.

I answer it.

The canvasser looks at me and gives me a flyer (for the party that I support) and asks me to give it to the resident voter.

I am taken aback, because I would like to have a chat about the candidate that I am going to vote for, but the canvasser has already turned his back and is already exiting the gate.

I finally find my tongue.

“I live here. I’m a voter too you know? Aren’t you going to talk to me?”

Cue awkward back-tracking by canvasser on the hot foot.

“Oh, sorry”

*sigh* “Did you think I was the cleaner?”

“No, no, of course not, we get doors answered by all sorts of people, you know friends and so on.”

I’m not really buying this. REALLY? Someone opens the front door and the first thing you think is: this person is a ‘friend’ of the resident…??!!

“Do you want to know about our policies.”

“Don’t worry. I’m good.”

Door shut.

This is not a unique scenario. Not too long ago I laughed out loud along with the rest of the world when the images of Professor Kelly’s report on South Korea was unexpectedly hijacked by his kids. Yet the initial hilarity and empathy with Professor Kelly’s clip soon became soured by the comments that flowed beneath the video. If there ever was a hero of the piece, it was his Korean wife that sped in to save the day and heroically crawled back in on all fours to close the door to allow peace to descend. I immediately warmed to her as her casual wear and practical pony tail looked just like my own. My own response to such an eventuality with my own children would have been instinctively identical.

Why then was she presumed by many to be the Nanny/ Maid, and worse still, why were her actions defined as being “submissive” and “fearful”? What would the “proper”/ “non-submissive” response from a wife and mother have been? To walk in and wave at the camera? To leave her husband to battle it out with the children on-screen?

Whatever people may say to try to justify their gut reactions, I am without a doubt that the “nanny-assumption”, just as the canvasser’s “cleaner assumption” was based on our ethnicity. How can I be so sure? Because it happens to me (and I’m sure other Asian/ Latino women) all the time. Here are a few of my highlights:

• When I first started dating my husband (a 6 foot 2 white South African), many people expressed surprise, questioning “You are a strange couple. What do you have in common?” I soon realised this was a bit of code for “He’s tall, white and handsome and should be going out with a leggy blonde not a short bespectacled Chinese woman”. This line of thought was later confirmed by a sozzled old bufty we had the misfortune to sit next to at a wedding once who stated the quandry more precisely due to inebriated state: “How did you two ever get together? He has round eyes and you have slitty eyes.”

• My husband had invited some of his new, white, male colleagues over for dinner. At 5 minutes to specified guest arrival time, I’m still in my tracksuit pants doing the last minute hoover and cushion plumping because in London with the ineffectiveness of the transport links and the relaxed attitude to time-keeping, I’m figuring I’ve still got 20 minutes to get changed and slap on some lippy. But what-ho? There’s the door-bell! The damn husband had failed to mention that his new colleagues had meticulous talent for punctuality. Never mind, I do my hostess duties diligently: offering to take coats and taking orders for drinks. The guests are genial and I show them into the dining room, where I start to serve the food that my husband has prepared. Here I figure that since they have caught me in my casual garb that it would be affected to disappear upstairs and re-emerge tarted up, so I don’t bother with that pretence. It is only when I plonk myself down at the table amongst the gathering that I notice the strange looks from my fellow diners. There is a definite note of initial surprise that “the brazen cleaner/ house-help is joining us for dinner”, followed by a tinge of embarrassment when they finally clock that I am the wife.

• When I was on maternity leave and started being in my house in the day time, I couldn’t help but notice that each morning a troupe of Asian ladies would come up the road, disappear into various houses and then leave in the evenings. I could see them through windows dusting and polishing in various houses. I realised that I looked more like them than my actual neighbours. It was no surprise then that when unexpected callers came to the door (the gas man, electricity man, charity door-stoppers, election campaigners, the police) they would ask to speak to the owner of the property when they were faced with me. After a few times of indignant proclamations of “I am the owner of this property”; I realised that it was much more fun and expedient to actually pretend to be the Cleaner and this works fantastically well to get rid of a lot of people that I don’t have the time for. I don’t even need to speak. I just put on a puzzled look, shake my head and shrug my shoulders like I can’t understand English.

• One time on maternity leave I went to the Royal Academy of Art with my baby and a friend with her twin babies. I had access to the Friends’ room so we ventured in there to have a snack, but the tables were all full, so we were kindly invited to join a table that was already occupied by a sweet elderly couple. This was a blessing as we had 3 babies between us. As my daughter was asleep, I helped out my friend with one of her twins by rocking her in my arms, and my friend chatted amiably to the elderly couple. When along comes a posh old dame who comes over babbling with delight about how wonderful it is to see families enjoying a day out at the RA. She talked at length about her own daughter who “also had triplets”. At this point I clocked things from her perspective. Here was a family of white grandparents, white daughter and triplets. That left me, the Nanny.

• Add to this the countless times I have had to have my passport doubly scrutinised at airports (apparently because there are Chinese gangs providing all manner of people with fake British passports) or if I am with my children, all our passports doubly scrutinised (because of Chinese gangs child trafficking). Strangely enough, if I travel with my husband, or if he travels alone with the children, this never happens. The addition of a “jolly fine white chap” somehow legitimises the rest of us.

Like for Jung-a Kim, Professor Kelly’s lovely wife, none of the above particularly bothers me. The reason being that for most non-white females, we have acclimatised and adapted to these day to day occurrences. I believe that these days we are to refer to them as “micro-aggressions”, but in my day, they were just things we ignored/ laughed at or put up with. Annoying, petty stereotyping is not the preserve of non-white females. Although I have witnessed a myriad of advantages that my husband gets purely by being a “tall, white, male”: aeroplane upgrades, hotel upgrades, many, many people-that-ignored-me smiling and offering to help him, people hanging on to his every word (when he is actually spouting my rhetoric which would have been ignored if it were coming out of my mouth); I have also witnessed my tall, white-male husband frequently mistaken for a Bullingdon club posh toff/ arrogant Apartheid supporting South African/ Countryside Alliance fox-hunter/ Trust Fund elite just because of the way he looks – which I imagine can also be tiresome.

“What are you doing going out with him?” my Socialist Worker reading friend asked.

But scratch beneath the colour of our skins and you will see that we:

• Are both the youngest of 3 children
• Are both from close knit families
• Are both immigrants to the U.K.
• Are both originally from pariah nations (South Africa due to Apartheid; Taiwan due to Chinese diplomacy)
• Both have direct experience of the effects of racism and inequality
• Both have an interest in opening our minds and hearts to new people, new places and new experiences
• Are both happy with who we are

So where it matters, we are immensely similar.

And so, in conclusion I think that we should all do a bit more of looking beyond stereotypes. I have no problem with being mistaken for a Nanny/ Maid/ Cleaner, because consider the alternative: I absolutely hated travelling with my husband to Thailand/ Indonesia and other developing Asian countries in my youth, because if we ever got in a cab, went for a nice meal or checked into a fancy hotel; I was clearly always “The Hooker”.