Saturday, 28 November 2015

Returning to normality after a hospital stay

Well, as I stated back in August in my post about the frustrations of looking after a sick child, it was only a matter of time before we ended up in hospital for something. This particular something was a very nasty chest infection of the kind that makes kids breathe as though they're running a marathon and wheeze like an accordion. Poor Duckling didn't really know what had hit him. He'd been ill with a cold, cough and temperature for a couple of weeks, but by the weekend before last, appeared to have made a full recovery. We breathed a sigh of relief, but barely 48 hours of optimal health had passed before another cold hit him and the cough returned. For a day or two it seemed mild, but then a temperature developed again and mild turned into really quite wheezy. We saw the GP who diagnosed bronchiolitis and prescribed an inhaler, and this seemed to help a bit for a day or so, but then quite wheezy turned into really struggling to breathe and after a trip to the out of hours clinic on Sunday, we were sent straight to hospital.

Making the transition into hospital is a comparatively easy affair, apart from the lucky dip involved in sending your husband back for your overnight things (I ended up with one pair of hiking socks and one pair of knee highs but otherwise he did surprisingly well). One word from a doctor and suddenly there isn't any doubt in your mind that hospital is where you have to be. Nothing but your child then matters - not work, not social engagements, not loads of washing, not appropriate underwear. It's quite an out of body experience. Life is lived from one round of observations to the next, and your emotions become inextricably linked to a set of numbers on a chart. On day one, things generally went like this each time a nurse came to do Duckling's "obs":

Respiratory rate: 68 breaths per minute (Oh God, that's not good)
Heart rate: 182 beats per minute (Waaay too fast)
Oxygen saturation levels: 85% (Bad, bad, bad. Can he get brain damage from that?!)
Temperature: 40.1 o C (Holy crap)

By day three, it was more:

Respiratory rate: 48 breaths per minute (Great!)
Heart rate: 154 beats per (Super!)
Oxygen saturation levels: 97% (Hooray!)
Temperature: 37.5 o C (Whoop! We can go home!)

Ours was a ward of wheezers (as one nurse put it). The three other kids in the beds around us all appeared to have very similar illnesses involving fevers, breathing problems and coughs. Their reactions to their illnesses were notably diverse however. Duckling essentially breastfed and slept, breastfed and slept, occasionally perking up enough (when on Calpol) to go for a short toddle, watch a Peppa Pig or have a grumble about the pulse oximeter on his toe. The boy next to Duckling was a month younger than him. His approach was to veer wildly between mania (shaking the bars of his cage cot like a gorilla, wailing, throwing his toys on the floor) and extreme lethargy (collapsing in a heap and sleeping for hours). The girl opposite, who was about four, silently sat in her hospital bed looking serene and pale, like a painting of some Victorian moppet with influenza. In contrast, the little two year old girl next to her slept, then thrashed about, then woke, then coughed, then cried loudly and pitifully on an hourly loop that continued the entire time we were in there. I didn't hear her speak once except to moan "mama" though her tears.

While the children's reactions to their maladies were mixed though, as mothers, our reactions were remarkably uniform. We soothed, we stroked, we cuddled, we reassured, and at some point we all curled up with our little ones on their / our beds to sleep or comfort (or in my case hold the oxygen mask over a fidgety Duckling's face for five hours). Admittedly we weren't in the intensive care unit, but I don't remember once feeling panicked or thinking "help, what should I do?" - I just knew, and everyone else seemed to as well, as though our most basic, innate mothering instincts had been turned up to the max to drown out all other concerns. I was worried about Duckling of course, but for someone who usually worries a lot, I was surprisingly sanguine. Somehow the prospect of him not recovering was just too terrible to contemplate, so I think I unconsciously pushed it out my mind so I could focus on the present.

Caring for a really sick child strips parenting back to its most basic elements; love and care. You don't intellectualise, you just act. Rules, routines, discipline, stimulating creativity, encouraging independence, ensuring healthy eating; the usual framework of parental objectives suddenly isn't required - all you need to do is comfort, listen, and make sure that doctors and nurses are doing the same.

Herein lies the main reason why, as much as I wanted to leave hospital, I've found it quite difficult since coming home to transition back to 'normal' parenting. It has to be done for the sanity of all concerned, but it involves really thinking about what you're doing. You have to say "No" and "Stop" and "That's enough Peppa" and "Why don't you eat some raisins instead?". You can't just run on adrenaline and instinct in the exhausting but simple world of newborn-style "on demand" feeding and cuddles. You have be a conscious parent again, with all special dispensations put away for another day, even though all you want to do is vegetate after your week of stress and sleeplessness and / or hug your little one every time they whimper whispering "thank goodness you're all right."

It doesn't help that Duckling is not impressed at all by the return to normality. He may have been ill, but I think he also rather enjoyed having Mummy with him 24/7, at his beck and call, boobs at the ready. By the end of our stay, he was also delighting in the massive playroom full of cars, planes, trains and a kick ass Wendy House complete with plastic peas in a microwave. When I asked him as we drove home if he liked hospital, he replied "Yeah! Yeah! Me go door door and woo woo Mummy. And bees!" (Yes, I liked going through the door into the Wendy House and playing with the trains Mummy. And the peas!). Home by comparison is boring, and Mummy's refusal to get her boobies out every 10 minutes is not met with good grace and acceptance. At all. I know he's still on antibiotics and probably not feeling 100%, but there's only so much I can take.

Then of course there's the perpetual worry that he's not really quite recovered - he's still coughing, so can I really be sure he's OK without all the measuring and beepy machines? And there's a concern that this could happen again. Hospital is no longer a place where other people go. It is now a known entity where we could very well end up again if Duckling succumbs to another post-cold bacterial infection, or it turns out he has some underlying asthma issues (I hope not, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised). I can't in all honesty describe him as a 'healthy child' who just 'fights things off' anymore, because he's not: we had to intervene in a fairly major way this time, and if we've had to do that once, it's more than possible we'll have to do it again. Part of me wants to wrap him up in cotton wool and never let him out the house again for fear he will get another sniffle, but that's no way to live, and it's not fair to anyone. So, come Tuesday, we'll be back at the childminder's and normality will properly resume. I know this winter is probably not going to be fun or easy illness-wise, but I suppose if I can recapture the art of living in the present that I seemed to uncharacteristically master so well in hospital, we'll get through it somehow. And even if we do end up back in hospital, at least Duckling will be pleased to see the plastic peas.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Interviewing idiocy

I recently had to interview for a new position at work. I was the only candidate and the role had essentially been created with me in mind, so it shouldn't have presented much of a challenge. However, I still found myself exceptionally nervous, which resulted in me rambling my way through the first few questions, choosing a project where everyone ended up deeply unhappy as my example of a "win win" scenario, and rounding things off by tipping water down my front.

In a shock move, they still gave me the job and I'm now having fun trying to manage a team of four rather feisty ladies on three days a week. All good therefore, but the whole rigmarole made me question, not for the first time, how effective traditional interviews actually are in choosing the right candidate. Had I been up against others, there's a very real possibility that my rubbish interview would have scuppered me, even though the job is a great fit with my skill set, and I (and my manager) know I'm going to be good at it.  My problems with interviews (both as an interviewee and interviewer) are as follows:
  • You're testing a candidate's ability to control their nerves first and foremost. To be honest, the people that do this best are either those that don't care about the job and thus have nothing to lose, people with planet sized egos who can't contemplate others not sharing their inflated opinion of themselves, or psychopaths, who don't care what others think of them full stop. Nerves turn competent, modest, bright people into gibbering and / or monosyllabic nitwits, which makes it very hard to judge their true value. Unless you're interviewing for a job that requires impeccable calm under pressure (A&E doctor, fighter pilot, war correspondent etc.) it seems a pity that something as human, normal and transitory as nerves should have such a big impact on your career prospects.
  • Standard interview questions are inane. Everyone knows they're inane, and yet it's like we've signed some weird interview pact whereby we feel we have to ask them or the interview gods (or HR) will punish us. "Can you tell us how you prioritise your time?" Err, I do the most important and urgent things first. That's it. Even though in reality, I tend to start most mornings responding to whatever head-slappingly stupid email I received the night before. "Can you give me an example of how you dealt with a difficult individual?" Well, I had to wrestle a one year old into a nappy, vest, dungarees and socks this morning. I found brute force and bribes worked quite well. "Where do you see yourself in 5 year's time" Easy. On a beach in Bermuda having won the lottery. Doesn't everyone? 
  • When the questions aren't inane, they're impossibly abstract. "Tell me how you develop effective strategies" was a question I had at my recent interview. Where to begin? It entirely depends on the issue you need to address with your strategy. And the resources available. And how you define "strategy". And, err, now I'm thinking about it, what is a strategy exactly anyway?! I think I rambled for five minutes or so before I struck upon something I could just about pass off as a 'strategy' and gave some non-waffley detail. Had they asked me "tell me how you get reports out of people who can't be bothered to write them" I could have given them a concise, fully fleshed out answer because I have to do that all the time. All. The. Sodding. Time.
  • Candidates only get 45 minutes or so to prove their worth in comparison to two / five / twenty five others; they're never judged purely on their own merits (unless they're lucky enough to be the only candidate of course!). This is obvious, but it doesn't make it any less unfair. You could be amazing, but if the questions don't play to your strengths but do to someone else's, or someone who went to the same school as the interviewer comes along, and they hit it off, you don't have a chance, however much you've prepared and however impartial the interviewer might consider themselves to be. I once went for two interviews in one week for two very similar jobs, either of which I would have loved and could have done with my hands tied behind my back. Both told me I did a really great interview, but for the first that I was "over qualified" and for the second that I "lacked experience". Both were meaningless let-you-down-gently excuses, I know, but what it proved was that experience and interview technique are largely arbitrary in and of themselves - someone else had seemed better on the day for whatever reason, and they therefore got the job. 
  • Interviewing doesn't always find you someone decent. I've had colleagues rave about interview candidates who turn out to be utterly useless. I've engaged temps with virtually no interview process who are amazing. Until someone has actually done the job for a while, you just can't tell with 100% accuracy how good they're going to be, however much you bombard them with questions about their approach to time management.
Short of hiring someone for a day to try them out, what would work better than a standard interview though? Truth be told, not a lot if you have to get though a number of candidates and keep things fair, but I think we can tweak the conventions a bit.  A conversational approach is still a lot more enlightening than your standard panel set up. Have a chat. Put the candidate at their ease. Figure out if you could actually work with them, day in, day out. You can absolutely weave some questions in there to test their knowledge and understanding, but if you make it relaxed and two-way, it's actually much easier for them to give good, well-developed answers as they will feel much safer asking you questions to test whether they're responding along the right lines.

Also, set them some small tasks or tests, give them some scenarios to work through, or run a bit of a role play. Make it less artificial and abstract, and more grounded in reality. Sure, you can ask about time management, but you're only ever going to get a stock, rehearsed answer that tells you nothing. So MAKE someone manage their time in front of you! A bit mean, but revealing.

Finally, ask them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. I always find the last five minutes of an interview, where you enquire what the candidate will be doing for the rest of the day, very revealing. Suddenly they're on safe ground, and you get a proper insight into their personality. I've totally changed my opinion of someone based on that (I thought they were humourless, but turns out they were hilarious! They still didn't get the job though. They spelled our organisation's name wrong in their test.).

That concludes the post.  Thank you for reading.  I'll be in touch.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A bit of a knackered rant. Sorry.

There are times when I love being a Mum. Then there are the times when I find it utterly soul destroying.  I'm fairly sure that the highs and lows I feel as a parent are no different to the highs and lows I felt with my normal mood swings in my "former life".  Sometimes these were hormonal, sometimes they were triggered by events, and it's no different now, although interestingly, in some respects, I find motherhood has actually evened my mood swings out a bit.  Essentially, my mood now is mostly a kind of perma-knackered, so I don't have the time or energy to really reflect and feel melancholy in the way I did before Duckling, but then nor do I have the time and energy to really relish life either. When I do get a bit down though, it takes a lot less to tip me over into tears, because exhaustion means I'm usually quite close to them most of the time already.

The thing I find hardest is the total lack of a decent break. I've whinged a good few times on here about Drake being away all week, and how tough it is being a single Mum on weekdays (though I am acutely aware that it's nowhere near as tough as being a single Mum ALL the time).  Sometimes I feel like my record on this matter is so broken it doesn't make any kind of meaningful, recognisable sounds any more.  Nevertheless, the need for a break never goes away.  Sometimes it's just a mild niggling itch in the background.  Other times it's all I can do to stop myself screaming "I NEED A BREAK" at my fellow Sainsbury's shoppers before I drop to the floor and sob.  This week, things have been in the latter category.  Duckling's been ill again so I've spent a lot of time trying to work from home with him asleep on my lap / coughing his lungs up down the phone to my colleagues.   Drake's been ill too and had to fly out at 4.30 am this morning (Sunday) because his project is going live.  Essentially therefore, I had a couple of hours on Friday night off (I went out with friends and it was amazing, though Duckling was already screaming for me by the time I returned and then wouldn't go back to sleep), and a few loo trips and a shower on Saturday when I wasn't directly responsible for Duckling (Drake was packing and ironing and sorting car rentals and flights and doing the washing that I seem incapable of finding the time for, and watching football, and pissing about on his iPhone for whole strings of minutes at a time) and that was it.  No more respite / sharing the load (bar the time I'm in work) now until next weekend.  And now I'm ill too.

Boo hoo hoo, poor me, I want to cry in a sarcastic snarl.  I really don't know how lucky I am, do I, with my beautiful son and caring husband and a nice house and a nice life.  And it's true.  I am lucky and I have no right to complain.  That doesn't mean I'm not going to though, because I am still completely, bone achingly knackered.  Duckling has not slept through the night, 7 pm to 7 am, ONCE since birth (5 am is the closest we've come).  We're not talking one wake up a night.  We're talking minimum three if made to stay in his cot all night, and that's if we can actually get him to go back to sleep, which is mostly an impossibility after wake up no. 2. Co-sleeping thus remains a necessity - easier than constantly leaping out of bed, but still less than comfortable or conducive to a decent night's sleep.  I'm not going to go into a rant again about sleep training and how totally bloody ineffective it is as a long-term measure for instilling good sleep habits (the slightest cold or teething issues and we're back to square one, time and time again). I have largely just accepted that Duckling is just not a sleepy baby, and we'll just have to wait for him to sleep through in his own time, probably when I pluck up the courage to survive the screaming that will come with total breastfeeding withdrawal.  Sometimes though, when I think about the fact that I haven't had a single full night's sleep since I was about 6 months' pregnant (so, December 2013 - nearly two years ago), I want to weep.  Going out with my three friends on Friday, who all have younger babies, and were all shocked that Duckling still doesn't sleep through, rather rubbed this in.

Lack of sleep, lack of a break and illness are pretty much the triumvirate when it comes to parental burn out, and I am definitely in that zone today.  Right now, I would give anything for someone to say "we're going to clone you, and let your clone look after your son for 24 hours while you sleep, have a bath, go for a run and watch a couple of box sets."  Because that is the only possible scenario in which I know I could actually relax.  And herein lies the root of why I feel so stressed right now.  With Duckling under the weather, he is ultra, ultra clingy at the moment, so nobody - not Drake, not my Mum, not his childminder - will do except me.  He may tolerate them for a few minutes, maybe even an hour or two if I'm not in easy reach, but that's it.  After that, he just wants me.  And that's lovely, but it's also incredibly draining because as much as I love to be loved, I also need space and the ability to make a sodding piece of toast without a toddler trying to scale my leg to get to my boobies.  Yet I wouldn't be happy leaving him with someone else for purely selfish, relaxation reasons, when I know he will be distraught, and they'll then get stressed too.  So I can't win.  There is no solution to how I feel right now.  There is nobody who can clone me, or more realistically, be a surrogate Mummy for a day.  Furthermore, I already feel like a palm him off too much on others, given my work schedule.  I will have to leave him with my Mum tomorrow, as I have to go into work for an afternoon meeting (I don't usually work on Mondays), and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday he'll be back at the childminder's all day provided he's well again. This will give me some headspace, admittedly, but work doesn't really quite count as relaxation, especially since I've been promoted.  So, all I can do is keep going.  Keep crashing along, bleary eyed and grumpy, in the knowledge that the need to be separate, sleep, have some space and regain some sanity will fade into a dull itch again eventually.  Hopefully before I have a nervous breakdown.