There are some things that happen in life that people don’t talk about, despite the commonality of the experience. Recently, a group of my online friends started discussing their, and their partners’, experience of the menopause. One person shared with the group, and all of a sudden the stories came pouring out. I knew the basics, but I didn’t realise how much of a difficult — and sometimes devastating — experience it could be.
Dealing with the effects of the menopause over a long period of time is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the Victorian era in the UK, people used to die at the average age of 59. With average life expectancy now extended by thirty years, women have to live in a post-menopausal state for much longer.
There is nowhere near enough education about the menopause. We learn about puberty at school but not about what happens to half of the population in later life. Given how reluctant people are to talk about it, access to information can be difficult.
The divide between those who have menopause support and knowledge and those left to suffer is massive.
More worryingly, the lack of education also extends to the medical profession. The book contains horrific stories of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed patients, including the case of one woman ultimately being given electroshock therapy after being diagnosed with ‘treatment-resistant depression’. It turned out that her symptoms were caused by hormone deficiency:
Although the menopause will happen to every woman in the world, and has massive health consequences, according to a Menopause Support investigation, 41 per cent of UK medical schools do not give mandatory menopause education.
… in one study of around 3,000 British menopausal women, after complaining of the onset of low mood or anxiety, 66 per cent were offered antidepressants by their doctor instead of hormones.
Some good news is that there is freely-accessible information out there for medical professionals, for example this 90-minute video from Dr Louise Newson on assessing perimenopausal and menopausal women, and safely prescribing HRT during remote consultations:
Menopause leads to other major health issues — osteoporosis (brittle and fragile bones), Alzheimer’s (dementia) and heart disease. There are some things you can do to combat a reduction in bone density, such as high-impact exercise, but on their own they are not as effective as when they are combined with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Using body-identical transdermal estrogen after the age of 50 halves a woman’s chances of breaking a hip and reduces her chances of having a heart attack.
A Women’s Health Initiative study in 2002 made people extremely wary of HRT. It turns out that there are different types of treatment; compounded ‘bioidentical’ tablets are awful as there is no reliable way to know what they contain, whereas body-identical hormone cream does not carry the same risks:
We need to question the conventional wisdom, which says that HRT causes breast cancer and that the risks of taking HRT outweigh the benefits. What most people – including me, until I began my investigation – think they know about HRT is wrong on two counts: every form of HRT is not the same, and the terrifying cancer-scare headlines which erupted with the Women’s Health Initiative Study back in 2002 refer to the older, synthetic forms of HRT that have now been superseded by a completely different products.
The bad news: In the general population, 23 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed per 1,000 women. If women take the old, synthetic HRT, an additional 4 cases appear. If women drink a large glass of wine every day, an additional 5 cases appear. If women are obese (BMI over 30), an additional 24 cases appear. The good news: If women take 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week, 7 cases disappear. If women take estrogen-only HRT, 4 cases disappear.
The experience of the menopause is yet another burden for women that can hold them back in their careers. It typically turns up at a time when they already have a lot on their plates, trying to sustain a career whilst dealing with moody teenagers and ageing parents. Hot flushes can be debilitating. Thanks to reports on COVID-19 we have heard a lot about ‘brain fog’; unfortunately this is another symptom of the menopause:
When scientists ask menopausal women about their symptoms, 80 per cent report hot flushes, 77 per cent report joint pain, and 60 per cent memory issues. Aside from these three, further plagues of the menopause include: heart palpitations, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, headaches, panic attacks, exhaustion, irritability, muscle pain, night sweats, loss of libido, vaginal dryness, body odour, brittle nails, dry mouth, digestive problems, gum disease, dry skin, hair loss, poor concentration, weight gain, dizzy spells, stress incontinence – and last but not least, something that might be from a horror movie: formication, which means an itchy feeling under the skin, like ants. I had that. Quite simply, the majority of women battle through the menopause, and only a lucky few are symptom-free.
Suicide is at its highest for women aged 45–49, and at its second highest in the 50–54 age group.
Some women have to deal with menopause much earlier in their lives than they would otherwise expect. Early onset menopause, and medical menopause (i.e. following a medical procedure), can both be extremely traumatic. One in 40 women experience the menopause before they turn 40.
Women actually produce more testosterone than estrogen. According to menopause experts, testosterone is an essential hormone that should be replaced and yet it is not officially prescribed ‘on licence’ on the UK National Health Service as part of HRT. It shouldn’t be considered a ‘lifestyle drug’ just used to enhance a person’s libido, but “a life-saving hormone that will preserve [women’s] brains, bodies and long-term health.” It enhances “cognition, muscle, mode, bone density and energy.”
There is a ‘window of opportunity’ at the start of the menopause to begin estrogen replacement which reduces the chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
However, promising research is growing on older women starting HRT a decade or more after the menopause.
There is a small group of oncologists are looking at prescribing HRT to breast cancer survivors following a good recovery, used in conjunction with anti-cancer drugs such as tamoxifen. It may be that in some cases, the quality of a person’s life post-menopause outweighs the risks.
The book is a must-read. It has increased my knowledge from next-to-nothing to a broad, general understanding of something that half of the people around me will go through at some point in their lives. I’ve bought a second copy to be left in our book-swap rack at my office.
My employer has asked for UK-based staff to come back to our office in London on a trial basis from October, for around 50% of the time. I don’t envy the people involved in making the decisions around this as they will never completely satisfy everyone. I know that they have put a lot of thought and care into the decision and I think that this request probably strikes the right balance for now.
I think of ‘where you work’ as a spectrum, from completely remote to completely in the office. In the future, where will the optimal point be?
Back in August, my company organised a get-together in Hyde Park for all of our London staff. For many people, it was their first time getting back on a train into Central London since we first locked down. At the event, people expressed very different views about how much they thought that we need to be back in the office, but everyone seemed to enjoy being together again. More than one person commented that they were happy working from home, but they hadn’t realised just how much they had missed their colleagues.
My conclusion is that it seems to make sense to be in the same place with your team, or your organisation, for at least some points in the year. But how much is the right amount?
All about me
On a personal level, aside from the terror of a deadly disease sweeping through the population, I think that I am going to have very positive memories of my experience during the pandemic. Partly I think this is because I am wearing rose-tinted glasses — I was extremely anxious for a lot of 2020, and this has definitely abated since my vaccination — but looking back I can see so many positive things to take from the lockdown.
I am a 44-year-old man who has spent 22 years at work. I have two (almost) teenage children and a wife who doesn’t currently work long hours at her job. For many years my usual pattern of work was to leave the house at 7am, commute into London, spend the majority of my day in meetings, and then to work late in order to catch up with emails and messages, and to get other work done. So many times I would grab a sandwich for dinner on the way home and arrive back after the children were asleep. Sometimes I might go a couple of days without seeing them. The lockdown forced me to see that my staying late in order to be productive had been at the expense of seeing my family. Obvious, perhaps, but I hadn’t really felt it until I’d experienced the alternative.
Ah, the joys of an Upper Crust Taw Valley Cheddar & Tomato baguette for dinner. Like an old familiar and slightly stale friend.
We are so fortunate to have a house that is just the right size to ensure that we all regularly bump into each other but also to be able to get out of each other’s way. I have a comfortable space to work undisturbed with an excellent Internet connection. During the lockdown, I swapped my morning commute for exercise and I’m now the fittest I have ever been in my life. In the past 18 months, I’ve eaten dinner with my wife almost every night. My boys and I have much better relationships for me having been around — the proportion of poor-quality time spent with them moaning about picking things up and keeping the house tidy is much lower than it otherwise would have been. I feel so lucky to have been present as my eldest son moved into his teenage years.
Now that I’ve experienced all of this, it’s a lot to give up.
Being in an office
Since I started working with my current employer in 2017, my immediate team has always been global. We support and partner with our business colleagues in cities all over the world. Pre-pandemic, it was rare for a meeting not to involve one or more people dialling in. Before Teams became so central to our day-to-day work we used BlueJeans for video calling, and I was regularly in the top three monthly users of our 55,000-person strong organisation. Many times we’ve wrestled with meetings that involved a myriad of connections, usually wasting time at the start, connecting from large meeting rooms in our main offices as well as the odd person dialling in from home or more exotic places like the back of a taxi as it travelled along streets of Hong Kong. The pandemic has been a great leveller in that it pushed us all into our individual ‘Brady Bunch’-style video boxes, and now everyone joins our meetings on an equal footing. Colleagues in other locations have told me that their experience is much better now that they have an equal seat at the table and aren’t battling to contribute while a group of people in a meeting room have a discussion amongst themselves.
Going back to the office will mean a return to hybrid meetings, which in my mind are the worst kind. There is a hierarchy of good meeting configurations:
Everyone physically together beats
Everyone remote, which itself beats
Some together and some remote.
People are now used to putting their virtual hands up in a Teams or Zoom meeting, but what does that look like when ‘the room’ puts a hand up? Matt Ballantine has recently experimented with a hybrid workshop and his conclusion is that it can work, but it needs a lot of planning and moderation, something that we won’t have the luxury of putting in place for most of the meetings that we have. My view is that we should be encouraging people to think about what kind of meeting they are running and how they will set it up to be effective and inclusive. As technologists, we should be leading the way in showing people how to use tools such as digital whiteboards and tablet devices more effectively, bridging the gap to the utopia of all being able to be in the same place.
All teams in our London office have selected a ‘team day’ where they will be together physically during the return to office experiment. A few months ago our entire global organisation implemented ’step-back Wednesdays’, where we don’t schedule any internal meetings. If the goal of being in the same physical space together is collaboration and culture, this seems like the ideal day for us to be together. Other days are inevitably filled with meetings, almost always with someone who is not based in the same country, so we’d be stuck at our desks on Teams calls. Using Wednesdays to collaborate means that we miss out on the ‘deep work’ focus time for which they were intended, so we’ll need to see how we get on.
The office is a great leveller in that everyone has the same space to work in, no matter whether they live in a palace or a studio flat. Having space at home is a luxury, one that many people miss out on. This may play a significant role in how often someone wants to work in the office:
“For me it [working from home] means I now sit on the sofa 16 hours a day as there is nowhere else in a small flat to work. It is uncomfortable, not like sitting at a desk and my hands and arms sometimes hurt. I miss the office banter, working from home when you live on your own and in lockdown is very isolating. It is all email and not much conversation, or if it is – it’s a meeting that is much more painful to do over zoom or skype or whatever.” Woman, 60s, London… (Source: Demos — Distanced Revolution: Employee experiences of working from home during the pandemic, June 2021)
There are many other factors at play too. An office may be a safe space for some, removing themselves from difficult or violent relationships at home. The Demos report also highlights that not all home working is equal; people in higher-paid jobs are likely to have a much better time of it than those on low incomes. Some may also experience the added stress of employee surveillance such as presence and content monitoring. I am lucky in that I am able to pay for a good home broadband connection; with inflation starting to take hold again in the UK, people on low incomes may be forced to make difficult choices.
A close friend of mine works for a very well-known giant technology company, and we were reflecting on our thoughts about returning to the office. He was a much bigger enthusiast than I was. Putting aside any fears about being on a train full of unvaccinated anti-mask commuters (of which there are many), I could see why:
His office is walking distance from the mainline station that we both travel into so he doesn’t need to take the tube; his train fare is almost £10 cheaper per day than mine.
He gets three free meals a day, along with endless snacks and barista-made coffee on tap.
He can wear his regular clothes instead of business attire, and therefore doesn’t need to spend money on regular dry cleaning.
His office has incredible facilities, including a running track, music room, rooftop cafe and many more things besides.
My office is a beautiful space in an incredible location, but it doesn’t quite compare on any of these fronts.
I think that in general there may be stages of life where people want to be more present in an office. The version of me in my early 20s, living in a tiny studio flat in London, would desperately want to have the structure of travelling to work every day. Living in such a small place, consisting of one sleeping/kitchen room and a tiny bathroom, was terrible for my mental health. The office was a big part of my social life; making friends in a big city can be hard. Now that I have a family and a bigger space to roam around in, my mental health is so much better and I don’t feel a desire to be at the office as much. If and when the children leave home, I may feel that I want to be back at the office a little more.
It will be interesting to see what the labour market norms and expectations will be in the future. It may be that people entering the workforce for the first time would prefer to work remotely, or at least be within a legal framework that allows them to work remotely by default, with the onus being on the employer to prove that the job needs to be done from an office some or all of the time. I can see a case being made for people wanting to be based anywhere in the country — or the world — so that they can afford to buy a property and lead the lifestyle they want outside of work as well. Some people are concerned that if a job can be done from anywhere, the person hired for that job could be hired from anywhere too, putting their roles at risk. At a macro level, I believe this ‘flattening’ of the world is something to be embraced; assuming that rich countries should keep hold of all of the high-paying good jobs doesn’t feel right. We might try and fight it individually, but this trend has been coming for some time and is unlikely to stop.
Obligations to each other
If we assume, possibly incorrectly, that the people at the start and towards the end of their careers are the ones who want to be at the office and we just let that happen, what would the impact be? What obligations do those of us in the middle of our careers have to our colleagues to be ‘present’ in a broader sense than just at the end of a phone, email, instant message or virtual meeting? I learned the ropes of work through observing other people and how they themselves interact with others, like Corporal Barnes in A Few Good Men:
One of the concerns about moving to being completely remote is a breakdown or erosion of company culture. Wikipedia tells me that:
Ravasi and Schultz (2006) characterise organizational culture as a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving and, even thinking and feeling. Thus organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. In addition, organizational culture may affect how much employees identify with an organization.
I don’t think that just learning how the company does things through reading manuals, watching videos or having formal interactions in meetings are sufficient by themselves to adequately absorb the culture of an organisation. Intuitively, there is a lot of value in being able to observe the ambient behaviour of your colleagues every day. A week’s business trip abroad to another office has immeasurable value to create a frame of reference for how that part of the company operates.
Distribution made us more resilient
From a technology perspective, one of the major advantages of having a distributed workforce has been that IT issues tend to only impact a single person at a time. A failure in a firewall or Wi-Fi system at the office can take everybody offline, whereas an issue with a home router or even a regional Internet provider outage is unlikely to be a widespread problem. Working remotely made our technology setup more resilient.
But the world of work is becoming much more ambiguous. Whereas twenty years ago workplace was boundaried by the limitations of availability of equipment and people, information technology has broken those dependencies. When work was a place, charging by the hour made sense. The concept of “Compensation” (what a shit term that is) to reward you in return for your physical presence.
Today work can be anywhere for many of us. For many of us we are taking advantage of that. For many others they are being taken advantage of.
Over the last three months, our new Technical Architect unconstrained by physical location has been ramping down his old job and ramping up his new. He’s been attending new team meetings when old team commitments allowed, and generally getting his head around the new place. The last two weeks of his old job were actually quite busy as his former colleagues stepped out of denial that he was actually leaving, but otherwise the transition has felt far smoother than the usual new employer experience of “3 months of waiting”.
None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that both old and new employers were working completely remotely throughout.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my answer to the question of ‘where do you work?’ is now ‘online’. Being forced to work digitally has many advantages. I remember pre-pandemic that we might have an impromptu discussion in our London office that would lead to some important decisions or action points. A number of days later we might realise that nobody wrote down and published what was discussed, so everyone who wasn’t in that office at that moment was out of the loop. Being remote means that you are more deliberate about communicating, and the chances of someone in a different office not knowing what’s going on is vastly reduced.
The main contact at one of our key vendors got in touch a couple of weeks ago to see about meeting up in person. Pre-pandemic, I had already developed a preference for meeting via Teams as opposed to asking people to travel to our office for an hour. If we had work to discuss then we should do it remotely as it would save both of us time. But if the reason for meeting up is to be social and build on our relationship, getting together in person makes sense.
I don’t see working primarily online as a net negative. For all of the reasons that my life has improved since we locked down, I prefer working remotely to going to the office. The technology to bring us closer together, towards the experience of all being in the same room despite being physically remote from each other, is only going to get better as time goes on. With all the recent talk of metaverses, my bet is that while our need for connection and developing a common culture will remain, the need to be physically together will gradually disappear, allowing us to be wherever we want to be and to pursue as fulfilling a life ‘outside of work’ as we want to. It will be interesting to see what norms emerge.
It was a struggle today. I only managed just over four hours’ sleep last night. I was up just very early this morning in order to fit my indoor bike trainer session in before an early work meeting.
I’m very surprised it was as high as 67%!
I had planned to go to bed earlier, but we have a young teenager who has just moved into the ‘not tired at night’ phase and it doesn’t yet feel right to leave him to shut down the house while we ascend the wooden hill.
Due to the lockdown I am missing the hour of walking that used to be part of my daily commute to and from the office, so since March I’ve been prioritising exercise on most days. I enjoy exercise for its own sake, but it’s also motivating that there are numerous articles about how desk-based jobs are literally killing us:
Both the total volume of sedentary time and its accrual in prolonged, uninterrupted bouts are associated with all-cause mortality, suggesting that physical activity guidelines should target reducing and interrupting sedentary time to reduce risk for death.
Friends and family think I’m at best over-cautious, or at worst ridiculous. They don’t say it to me directly, but I sense it.
Most people I know seem to have returned to some kind of normality. Getting together indoors, going to pubs and restaurants, eating out, sharing trips in cars. These things crept back in gradually. People are fed up with keeping away from others and so badly want it all to be over. We stopped hearing about the people catching it, going to hospital with it, dying from it. It feels like the risks abated, and behaviour changed day by day.
Because I am not joining in, and continue to avoid any unnecessary face-to-face contact, I’m now very much an outlier. “Are you still not going out, Andrew?” “Life has to go on.”
“In meetings, “I can’t find words,” said Mr. Reagan, who has now taken a leave. “I feel like I sound like an idiot.””
I remember one December where I had to run a workshop after a big night out of festive drinking. My hangover manifested itself in that I was unable to string sentences together properly. Something had altered in my brain, albeit temporarily, and it was torture. As I spoke, it was as though I had a separate inner dialogue that was asking me “Where is this sentence going?”, and I didn’t know. The thought of being stuck like that permanently fills me with dread.
The film Awakenings (1990) with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams has always fascinated me. Based on a book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, it depicts people who had become victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the 1920s. From Wikipedia:
The disease attacks the brain, leaving some victims in a statue-like condition, speechless and motionless. Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread around the world. Nearly five million people were affected, a third of whom died in the acute stages. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-morbid vigour.
The book and/or the film draws a link between the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the subsequent encephalitis lethargica pandemic that followed. My understanding is that there is no irrefutable evidence that the first pandemic caused the second one, but this continues to be the subject of scientific debate.
The above characteristics can be indicative of the ability of coronaviruses to produce persistent neurological lesions. Acute COVID-19-related encephalitis, along with the potentially long-term worrying consequences of the disease, underscore the need for clinicians to pay attention to the suspected cases of encephalitis in this regard.
We should take advantage of both historical and novel evidence. The prevalence of anosmia, combined with the neuroinvasive properties of coronaviruses, might support neuroinvasion by SARS-CoV-2. Whether the infection might trigger neurodegeneration, starting in the olfactory bulb, in predisposed patients is unknown. We should not underestimate the potential long-term neurological sequelae of this novel coronavirus.
“We should be vigilant and look out for these complications in people who have had COVID-19. Whether we will see an epidemic on a large scale of brain damage linked to the pandemic – perhaps similar to the encephalitis lethargica outbreak in the 1920s and 1930s after the 1918 influenza pandemic – remains to be seen.”
Encephalitis and sleeping sickness had been linked to previous influenza outbreaks between the 1580s to 1890s. But the 20th-century epidemic of encephalitis lethargica started in 1915, before the influenza pandemic, and continued into the 1930s, so a direct link between the two has remained difficult to prove.
In those who died, postmortems revealed a pattern of inflammation in the seat of the brain (known as the brainstem). Some patients who had damage to areas of the brain involved in movement were locked in their bodies, unable to move for decades (post-encephalitic Parkinsonism), and were only “awakened” by treatment with L-Dopa (a chemical that naturally occurs in the body) by Oliver Sacks in the 1960s. It is too early to tell if we will see a similar outbreak associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, though early reports of encephalitis in COVID-19 have shown features similar to those in encephalitis lethargica.
The aftermath of this global event has many lessons for us now in the time of COVID-19. One, of course, is that we may see widespread brain damage following this viral pandemic.
I’m not sure when I’ll be at the stage where I feel comfortable visiting friends at their houses, sharing car journeys, or meeting up in pubs or restaurants. I doubt that there is a rigorous logical set of conditions that would need to be specifically met before I start doing those things again. I’ll know it when I feel it. Perhaps this stuff is just different for everyone based on their perception of risk versus their need to socialise to maintain a quality of life and good mental health. Perhaps part of it is that I am lucky to have a job that I can do from home so my need to venture out is minimal. Perhaps my interest in politics over the past few years has made me much more deeply distrustful of our government and their response to the pandemic than many other people. Eight months in, the novelty of being at home all the time has worn off, but I’m still ok to keep hunkering down for now.
Although I’m now five months into new routines and a new way of life, I’ve been finding that my anxiety level has been creeping back up during the summer. The vast majority of my friends and family seem to have gone back to normal, pretty much giving up on social distancing. I feel that I want to shout out loud that there is still a pandemic on — the phrase that keeps coming back to me is the one uttered by Clark Griswold in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation when his family appeal to him to give up on their road trip to Wallyworld. “I think you’re all ****** in the head!” I understand the massive desire to get back to some kind of normality, I just don’t agree with taking the risks. I know that because of this, people think I am being ridiculous.
“You’re unlikely to get sick from it as you are relatively young and fit.” Yes, thankfully that’s true. But there’s a chance I could get it and be one of the unlucky ones for whom it has serious implications. The idea of having ‘long COVID’ doesn’t sound good either. And then, even if I caught it and had no symptoms at all, I could easily spread it to anyone else I come in contact with.
“I think it’s ok to sit in a restaurant as long as they have the windows open.” Yes, airflow reduces the risk, but why take the risk in the first place? Is it worth it? This is a highly contagious airborne virus; you need to take your mask off to eat, and you’ll be sitting close to your friends at the same table and potentially exposing yourself unnecessarily to the virus over a number of hours.
“There are lots of other things out there that you could get, or could happen, that could kill you.” That’s true, but there’s not many of those that we end up shutting down half of the world for because of the potential harm that they bring.
The more that people I know go back to normal, the less I want to see them, as I don’t trust that they have been careful in managing their own risk. I’m currently not prepared to sit in a restaurant indoors, visit my friends or family in their homes or have visitors to our house where they would spend their time inside. It has been difficult at times over the past few weeks where even those of us living under the same roof have had different opinions about the risks, but we’re managing our way through it.
Perhaps my anxiety partly comes from getting so wrapped up in following politics over the past half decade or so. I am deeply distrustful of our government and the people around them. I’m highly sceptical that they have our best interests at heart, or are competent enough to do a good job even if they did. Managing a pandemic at a government level must be unimaginably complex, and our collection of ministers are second-rate at best. I know that I have to take complete personal responsibility for myself.
“Look at the case numbers in the UK though, they are flat.” That’s been true for the past few weeks, but they are on the rise again. Have we ever had a good test and trace regime that we can rely on here in the UK? Would the government tell us the truth if the numbers were not good? We know that there is probably a two-week lag time between exposure and developing symptoms or becoming contagious yourself, so who knows how many cases are really out there.
I am in an extremely privileged and fortunate position of having a very caring employer who has allowed us to work from home since mid-March. We are unlikely to be asked to go back to the office any time soon. I know that for a lot of people things haven’t stopped or changed during this whole pandemic — they have had to get out to work, my wife included — and I am in awe of them. I also understand that we are social creatures and there is a need for us to meet and connect with each other. I just don’t understand why people would take unnecessary risks such as dining in restaurants with friends or meeting in each other’s houses when there’s no need to.
This weekend my wife and I took a rare walk into town together to buy a coffee. As soon as we got anywhere near other people I put my mask on and didn’t take it off until we were almost home, well clear of everyone else. Maciej Ceglowski’s post from back in April, called Let’s All Wear A Mask, is the kind of logical argument that speaks to me as he outlines his case brilliantly. But it’s clear from my stroll around town that masks are generally seen as an inconvenience and only worn for going into shops, if at all.
I am trying to check and question myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m probably the one in the wrong as everyone else seems to be taking it easy with a relaxed attitude to the risks, but then I just work through the logic again and find myself right back at the start.
For the past two days we’ve had major debates in our house about whether our children should be in school. I’m now working from home, and am certainly not planning on being out of the house much. Our soon-to-be 13-year-old made some very reasoned arguments this morning about why he shouldn’t go. I tend to agree with him. As he gets older I’m less sure of myself in terms of how much control we should have over his life. I’d never let him stay home from school on a regular day, but what’s happening in the world right now is so irregular that I’m not sure the old rules apply.
From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020
Despite the almost all of the rest of Europe deciding to keep their children at home, the UK has decided not to. I am deeply distrustful of the government, but I can see the reasoning as to why they would be kept open:
– Parents who are unable to work from home may need to ask elderly relatives to look after the children
– We have vulnerable children across the country who rely on free school meals to keep them nourished
– Schools aren’t really set up for teaching via remote means.
For our family, we are fortunate enough where only the last point impacts us.
It’s still not a slam-dunk. My wife works as a teaching assistant in a primary school and she is providing a valuable service to society by continuing to go, for all the reasons above. (She is amazing.) I’m a Vice-Chair of Governors at another primary school; we have to rely on advice from government, Public Health England and others on what to do, and my role is to support the school in this. We also have a friend who works as a Paediatric Matron at a local NHS hospital, and she is still sending her children to school — if she felt that the risk was significant, she would keep them at home.
It’s a tricky one with no easy answers, and I am sure that there are so many people going through similar dilemmas right now.
Canal path ride with the boys turned into a ‘get as muddy as you can’ contest. Had to wash all the clothes twice!
This article by James Bridle is being shared everywhere and for good reason. I’ve seen first hand one of my children wandering to a seemingly innocent YouTube video called something like ‘Try not to laugh’ which interspersed cartoon sequences with video of real bus crashes and a death metal soundtrack. The deliberate shock material the most upsetting thing to me, although the weird farms of auto-generated CGI videos that are then being watched by robots in order to generate income from the advertisements is pretty disturbing. I assume that Google doesn’t mind too much as they take their cut of the advertising revenue. Just think of the external impact of the energy resource usage that is going into this.
My mind is blown by how quickly there is a grotesque race to the bottom as soon as a new technology platform is introduced. YouTube’s launch in 2005 feels like yesterday and here we are already.
A couple of weekends ago I spent an entire Sunday sitting in a field watching my two young boys competing in the Berkhamsted Raiders football tournament which traditionally marks the end of our season. Raiders is a great club to be a part of — we have won FA and European recognition for the club, and particularly how it is run in the spirit of respect and fair play.
If you turn up at a match at our club you will always find someone has put up a ‘respect barrier’ rope along one of the lengths of the pitch, the idea being that the supporters from both teams stand behind this to watch the match. This gives the players, coaches and referee a bit of distance — a brilliant idea, particularly when the match is getting heated and temperatures are running high. It’s always the job of the home team to get the respect barrier up before the game. If the person putting it up has managed to untangle the rope and get the support poles into the frozen ground, an aerial view of it would look like this:
Typically when the supporters turn up they cluster at each end with people that they know. Here they are, eight supporters of each team closely watching the ball which is dangerously close to the goal on the left:
The problem with this setup, especially when the ball is close to the line near the respect barrier, is that not everyone can see. If the action is directly in front of you it’s fine but if you are at the other end of the pitch or even a few people deep, the angle to the ball means it becomes very hard to maintain a clear line of sight. Everyone is straining to see which only makes the situation worse:
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a solution to this problem! I’d love to take credit for it but it has to go to a fellow parent from another Raiders team who suggested it to me. Instead of having the respect barrier completely parallel to the length of the pitch, it can be configured in a ‘V’ shape as shown below:
Assuming that people don’t push so far forward that they strain or break the respect barrier (showing very little respect in the process), everyone at the front should then have a reasonable chance of seeing the action wherever it is on the pitch. Occasionally this can be difficult to do where one pitch sits alongside another one, however the ‘V’ doesn’t have to be very deep in order to have a massive impact on visibility:
Hopefully, armed with this knowledge we’ll be able to go into next season being able see even more on-pitch action than before. Well, at least at our home games.
My employer has recently signed up to the CityMothers network which gives staff the opportunity to network with other working parents and attend seminars and events organised by the group. Yesterday morning I went along to my first one, hosted at the law firm Bird & Bird, on ‘Raising Confident, Competent Children.’
The presenter, Anita Cleare, was excellent. I gathered from the comments of other attendees that some had been to her seminars a few times before; lots of them had very glowing feedback about her presentations and a few mentioned that they had taken action based on her advice which had changed their home lives for the better.
The seminar was good in that it reinforced to me that my wife and I are already doing—I think—a reasonably good job with our children. Time will tell! However there were also a few tips that I picked up as well as some tweaks that I think we need to make in terms of how we deal with certain situations.
The session was divided into six subject areas and here are my notes from each one:
If you need your child to do something and have a request of them, use the following process:
Get close to them
Makes you more difficult to ignore
Means that you do not need to raise your voice
Use your child’s name
Give a clear instruction—don’t be ambiguous
Pause for at least five seconds
Praise them if they do as you ask
Repeat once if necessary—don’t ask more than twice, otherwise you are giving a signal that it is okay to ignore you
If you are ignored twice, back up the instruction with a suitable consequence.
This will be difficult at first
Make sure you keep calm and do not shout
This is all about getting into a habit of listening and doing what is asked the first or second time
Children are unable to truly empathise when they are young—they are unlikely to truly empathise until they are much older—however they can learn the behaviours of kindness
Ask what others would like to do
As a parent you need to model good behaviour for your children
Avoid criticising others
Point out others’ good points
Praise your child for being helpful
Ask your child about feelings
Encourage your child to make amends
Provide a consequence for inconsiderate or hurtful behaviour
Expect appropriate behaviour from your child and from visitors
There was a tip from someone in the audience where she is part of a group that take it in turns to have random Friday off and have the kids over in a group. “This is a lot easier now the children are older.
Having healthy self-esteem
There is a self-reinforcing cycle about having or not having self esteem. If children don’t have it they will exhibit behaviours such as giving up on things easily, not making friends etc.
Things that are related to positive self-esteem in children:
Thinking and believing good things about themselves
Receiving lots of praise, affection and attention from parents
Having achievements recognised
Having clear limits and appropriate discipline
An example was given about a child who comes off of a football pitch and says “I had a rubbish match, I played terribly.”
Don’t contradict this, especially with an untruth such as “No, you played great!” Instead, help them interpret this and think about what they would do differently next time.
What they said was perfectly reasonable as long as they are not globalising and catastrophising it such as “I don’t like football, I’m rubbish at all sports.”
Try to help them to look at what happened objectively and avoid negative thinking.
Someone in the audience raised a point that their elder child says to their younger child that they are better than them at something and this makes it hard for the younger child to gain or keep self-esteem.
Again, don’t contradict this if it is true—don’t say “no you’re not!”
Instead, try to help interpret why this is (“he’s two years older than you”) and look towards the future (“when you’re grown up you may be better than him at that.”)
Encourage your child to set goals and work towards them.
Children need to be guided through the process of problem solving, i.e.:
Define the problem
Come up with solutions
Evaluate the options
Decide on the best solution
Put the plan into action
Review how it worked and revise the plan if necessary
How to help them do this
Set a good example and model doing it yourself
Play games that promote thinking
Encourage your child to find answers
Prompt your child to work at solving problems
Congratulate your child when they solve a problem on their own
Involve your child in family problem-solving, e.g. “What do we think we can do so that we aren’t shouting at each other to get out of the door every morning?”
If you’re a working parent, don’t compensate for your absence by running around and doing everything for them when you are at home—you’re not helping anybody in the long term
Give the children simple jobs to do
Know they won’t be able to do them very well at the start but they will get better
You need to teach and show them how to do it or they won’t do it
Examples (for my family) are making their own beds, putting dirty clothes in the wash basket, tidying up, feeding the cats, putting things in the dishwasher
Families live in houses and families need to take responsibilities for the things that happen there, not just the grown-ups
Children doing jobs will create more quality time for you as a family!
Getting up late
Not being organised
Taking over and doing everything for your child
Giving too many prompts and reminders
Can be all about priorities and power. Align the priorities and hand over power. Structure it so that if these things are done they can play or have a reward. Ramp it up gently—if there are five things to do then the first day reward them if they do one thing on their own!
Someone in the audience says this has been amazing for her family life—her child has to be at the door ready by 8:15am and then gets to use the tablet in the evening.
Suggestion from someone of having a stopwatch to see how fast they can get ready for school
Have a set time for homework
It was definitely worthwhile and good to have some time to reflect on how we do things in our house. The view from the office was pretty fantastic too:
We took a family trip to London today to go and see The Art of the Brick exhibition in the Old Truman Brewery near Spitalfields. Our boys (aged seven and five) both enjoyed it and we wandered around to a lot of excited calls of “Daddy!” and “Mummy!” as they came across new things.
Although a lot of the artefacts in the exhibition were impressive, the notes about each exhibit came across as pretty cheesy and at £47 for all of us to get in it didn’t feel like great value for money. Still, we had fun and enjoyed a look around the market afterwards. Photos from the exhibition are below.
At bedtime tonight my two boys spent 20 minutes walking me through their Minecraft book and excitedly telling me me all about the worlds they have created, the things you can build and the characters you can encounter. They’ve been reaching for the iOS version of the game at every opportunity we give them. As much as I enjoyed talking to them about it I always feel so paralysed and conflicted about the children and technology. Half of me wants to just embrace getting computers, Raspberry Pis etc. to encourage them and the other half of me is scared of losing them to computer and video game addiction and/or the perils of the Internet.
It feels weird that the adults in the house have pretty much unrestricted use of technology and the kids just have a little bit of time playing games. When I was little in the mid-80s to mid-90s it was the other way around—I spent endless hours on the computer and it eventually led me to a Computer Science degree and a career in technology—but those times were different. With my old Acorn Electron, BBC Micro or A3000 I was limited to playing around with the programs I had on disk, typing in ‘listings’ that were printed in magazines or writing programs of my own. I know a bit of the answer is to sit with them in order to make sure the time is spent well but this isn’t always practical and a big part of me wants them to spend time exploring and creating on their own without me supervising their every move. They should soon be showing me things that I didn’t know! By restricting their interactions with technology could they be missing out on possibilities to learn and grow?
I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a refurbished pre-Internet computer and showing them how to program it but if it doesn’t spark their imagination it would be a bit of an expensive mistake. They talk about their friends having consoles but I’m not sure I want an XBox or PlayStation in the house due to not having time myself to understand how to make them safe for the children. We can restrict the games to family-friendly ones but I assume they come with lots of social features and I’d like to turn some of those off until they are a bit older.
I realise as I type this that these are all ‘first world problems’ and in the grand scheme of things this isn’t a big deal but it continues to play on my mind as they get older. I’m sure we’ll work it out.