Hanging out with my younger self

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If you are lucky you might be able to live to 100. Thus, one could think about life a bit like a 100 metre race (that most of us want to get through in Usain Bolt-style but in slow motion). Worryingly, instead of slow motion, I have started approaching the halfway mark of the track in Benny Hill show-style (in fast forward). Worse still, pretty much at every birthday for the past 10 years I have been able to visualise my young self around the 30 metre mark blow me a kiss goodbye.

But, this last month has been different, even though it saw me move another metre further down that 100m track. For the first time in nearly 9 years (since my son was born), I’ve had a chance to remind myself what it was like to be spontaneous and carefree. The reason being that while I have been in Japan for work for a month, my children and husband have been back home, in England.

So, four weeks ago I walked back to that 30 metre mark, embraced my young-adult self and went wild. Well, maybe wild is not an accurate word here, given that wild in my 20s meant something quite different than it means to me today. I will not go into explaining what wild meant to me in my youth, but for the past four weeks it’s meant:

  • not cooking a single lunch or dinner
  • checking my alarm clock at 6.45 am on Saturdays and Sundays, and going back to sleep for another 3 hours
  • indulging on culture (visiting temples, shrines, cemeteries and bamboo forests)
  • my social calendar having been so full with BBQs and dinners with friends, colleagues, school mums and even with some new acquaintances, takoyaki (octopus dumplings) gatherings and birthday parties that my young self would have been proud of me. (If I wanted to show off my busy social calendar I could mention that I’ve had 18 social events in the past 30 days!)

Even though I’ve loved my freedom, seeing new places and meeting new people, in a moment I will start making my way back to the 42 metre mark on the track of life. And I will do that with unprecedented enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am today. You see, I am at Kansai Airport on my way back to England where I will be reunited with my children and my husband.

The education that saved my daughter’s life

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My daughter was 11 months old. For the preceding 3 months she had lost a lot of weight, so much so that the health visitor at the community centre (in Brighton, UK) where I took her for weighing once a month recommended that she be seen by a doctor. But when I took her to our doctor, she just said ‘Let’s keep an eye on it’.

In addition to losing weight, my daughter started drinking loads of water, wetting her nappy unusually frequently and instead of being her usual little sweetheart self she became ratty and miserable and she cried a lot.

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My daughter around the time of diagnosis

My husband and I started to think something was wrong when it got to the point that she would finish a beaker of water in one sitting and her nappies were completely saturated one hour after she had gone to bed. One evening my husband and I discussed what the cause of the drinking and peeing was: The heat wave that we were experiencing? Salt in the food that we didn’t know was there? And then it hit me.

I remembered that at secondary school during a health education lesson the teacher had talked about Type 1 diabetes. I somehow recalled that the symptoms listed were excessive drinking and peeing.

So, I booked an appointment for her to see the doctor the following day.

At the doctor’s surgery I voiced my concerns about Type 1 diabetes. The GP didn’t take it seriously and asked us to come back in three days time if my daughter was still feeling ‘poorly’.

But having Googled Type 1 diabetes before the appointment, I was prepared. More specifically, I had collected a urine sample from my daughter beforehand and I asked the doctor to dip the urine to check whether there was sugar in it (indicating diabetes).

The doctor dipped it, re-dipped it, and turned to me to ask if there was any chance that the Tupperware box I brought the urine sample in was contaminated with sugar. In-between tears all I could was whisper: ‘No.’

The doctor rang the hospital, where they urged us to drive over immediately. But before we left for that hospital visit that confirmed that my daughter was indeed Type 1 diabetic the GP said:

‘Lucky you had the urine sample with you’.

Yes. My daughter was lucky. She was ‘lucky’ because a teacher in Finland had spent 5 minutes talking about Type 1 diabetes and I vaguely remembered what the symptoms were. Whereas, shockingly, the doctor in the UK didn’t recognise the typical symptoms of Type 1 diabetes that my daughter was displaying: weight loss, excessive thirst, excessive peeing and tiredness, even when these were specifically spelled out to her.

Worse still, I don’t think this GP was a one-off case. Most people in the UK, including many GPs, seem to be oblivious to these symptoms, even though the UK has the fifth highest number of Type 1 diabetics in the world per capita (approx. 32,000 Type 1 diabetic children under the age of 14 years) and has about 2000 people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes annually (ref.). Instead, it seems that GPs, the press, and thus also the general population in the UK are more aware of the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes (a less dangerous condition, that often affects people over the age of 40).

Had I not remembered that health education session from my Finnish high school, the chances are that, similarly to 1 in 4 Type 1 diabetic children in the UK whose diabetes is not diagnosed in time, my daughter would have collapsed, convulsed and needed serious and urgent hospital care. After all, when we got to the hospital my daughter’s blood sugar level was so high that the hospital’s blood sugar meter could not read it (> 42 mmol/L). Such high blood glucose level indicates that she had a huge insulin deficiency and as a consequence she was likely to start developing something called diabetic ketoacidosis, an extremely dangerous complication of Type 1 diabetes which, if left untreated, will lead to coma, organ failure or even death in a matter of hours. The thought of us following the GP’s suggestion to go back home for another three days is a thought I don’t really want to think about.

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My daughter after diagnosis (what you can see sticking ou under her top is a tube that connects her insulin pump to a cannula on her leg, she has been wearing it 24-7-365 for the past 4 years).

We were lucky, but many parents whose child is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes go through the frightening experience of diabetic ketoacidosis, and even worse, some parents lose their child because of it. These medical emergencies could be relatively easily avoided by educating people (and GPs) about Type 1 diabetes.

So, to contribute to many Type 1 diabetics’ and/or their parents’ attempts to educate people, below I have written a short description of Type 1 diabetes and added a picture of the four most common symptoms of Type 1 diabetes (taken from diabetes.co.uk).  If your high school health education syllabus did not include Type 1 diabetes, I would recommend you familiarise yourself with the symptoms and make your friends aware of them as well.

 

Type 1 diabetes in a nutshell

Type 1 diabetes is not the same as Type 2 diabetes, the latter of these being the one that most of us have heard about in the news, and is most commonly associated with lifestyle choices. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune illness whose onset is usually in childhood, puberty or early adulthood, but people of any age can develop it. Importantly, the amount of sugar/fat in one’s diet or the patient’s weight or activity level is not related to the onset of Type 1 diabetes.

In Type 1 diabetes, like in other autoimmune deceases, for some reason white cells attack the person’s other cells. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, the cells that have been attacked and destroyed are the Beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, a vital hormone that enables glucose (sugar, carbs) being transferred from blood stream to the cells as energy. Without insulin a person will die in a matter of days. Thus, Type 1 diabetics need to inject insulin every day (in fact many times a day). No diet or herbal remedy will take away the need of insulin in these patients.

Type 1 diabetes – Typical symptoms pre diagnosis

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You can read more about our life as a family with a young diabetic child here, here and here.

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My daughter

Fathers are as good caregivers as mothers

 

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This was more difficult than I thought. I’ve just left the children for the first time ever for longer than a short conference trip, and thus smudged my mascara big time when curling up next to them at 4.30am this morning and giving them the last hug for the next 4 ½ weeks.

Not only do I miss them all already but I also feel like a bad mum sitting here at Frankfurt airport waiting for my connecting flight. I feel as if I was abandoning them and making their life a misery.

But why should I feel like some kind of a non-maternal she-devil? I’m going back to Japan for work (an important part of most parents’ lives) and my children are staying at our home with their father (my husband) going about their daily routines in a similar way as if I was there. Ok, they will not see their mum for a month. But they will see their dad. So, I don’t really know why I need to feel like a bad mum. My kids love me, and I love them. And importantly, my husband loves our kids as much as I do. But for some reason, society tends to assume that that’s not the case (for instance, when it comes to maternity/paternity leave or custodial rights), and therefore seems to value mothers’ contribution and care higher than that of fathers’.

Regardless of what society might think, my husband is a great caregiver. He’s not the best cook in the world, but he is capable of boiling some pasta, making a Spanish omelette, turning the oven on for some fish fingers and using the toaster – and in emergencies, walking to the nearest curry house to feed the kids. He’s also not as tidy or obsessed with cleanliness as I am, and if we didn’t have an au pair, I’d expect the house to look like a tip when I am not there. But more importantly than him being Nigella Lawson or Kim Woodburn (or any other domestic goddess) he does an amazing job at being a parent. He spends his weekends putting up tents in the garden and sleeping in them with the kids, he takes the kids climbing at a local climbing wall, creates a dinosaur cage out of old cardboard boxes or a secret den by using dining chairs, a throw and some cushions, and even on a school night after work he helps our son with his Terracotta army homework or our daughter with her phonics, and afterwards lies underneath our dining table with the kids pretending they are in a cave and reads to them.

My point is that children don’t really care whether they have beans on toast for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and a Spanish omelette the rest of the week, or whether or not there are toothpaste marks on the bathroom mirror or a build up of dust on the sideboard. Children just want to have a caregiver who (in addition to proving a safe environment) spends quality time with them, and my husband, like many other fathers, is perfect in providing just that.

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The beginning of the end

 

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Our time in Japan as a family has come to the end, as the children have now moved back to England.

I am currently also back in England but will go back to Japan in September for another six months to complete teaching for this academic year (which finishes in March). My lovely, modern husband will be looking after our children for the coming several months and will (happily) be in charge of arranging our kids’ Aikido, guitar and swimming classes, after school clubs, parent get-togethers and even attempting to bake something for the Parent-Teacher Association’s fundraising – maybe I am a bit ambitious with the last item on this list, or at least with the part that he would happily do it, but you’ll get the point that my husband will look after the kids’ school stuff and hobbies for the next six months while I will be the modern wife and mother who will be working 6000 miles from home.

The kids’ move has meant that the past month or so was in many ways extremely emotional, as the children had to say goodbye to their friends and teachers in Japan.

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This is a goodbye poem my son wrote to his best friend in Japan. It says: Sorry. Now I need to go to England. I am sure I will let you go to visit my house in England or Finland. And I like you. Can you always play? I wish I could stay. You are important because you are my friend. Till the end.

 

We’ve also had to say goodbye to the apartment that was our home for 2 ½ years. I was only able to get through the last week of emptying and cleaning of the apartment with frequent (and generous!) pourings of my favourite, plum wine.

 

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My last supper in the apartment

 

In addition to their friends, my son will  miss butamans (Chinese pork buns) and my daughter will miss strangers’ constant exclaims of ‘kawaii’ (‘cute’) at her. On the other hand, my husband will miss his Japan to England commmute as much as I miss the daily inspections of my children’s bodies for ticks during our recent visit to Finland (they have a huge problem in Finland currently with those horrible creatures (ticks not kids) whose single bite can result in a life threatening illness).

From now on, instead of my husband, I will be travelling between the two countries.

The past month was also extremely stressful, one of the most stressful times of my life in fact. Not only did the last day of the academic semester coincide with our flight back to Europe, but we also had to empty our apartment, move my stuff to a flat share, and most traumatic of all: negotiate with the kids which of our lorry load of toys would go into our three suitcases heading to England and which in the bin. In desperation, my son carried one huge soft toy dog in his arms to the airport in the hope that he was allowed to take that on the plane – he was even prepared to make a scene if the airport ground staff told him that he would have to leave it behind, but in accommodating Japanese style, we were allowed to take the toy on the plane! There was one happy boy on that Finnair flight holding a dog nearly as big as a St Bernard.

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A nervous toy dog and his owner before finding out if doggy is flying to Europe or not.

 

I am in two minds about the move. I love Japan, the reliability of its public transport, delicious food, people’s considerate approach to others and interesting culture. In England public transport is abysmal, food in many restaurants below par, and people in many ways are less considerate than the Japanese. However, culturally and socially England is amazing, and I am prepared to live with the disgraceful Southern Trains, cold bangers and mash and bad service setting me back £12, and people pushing in on the train before I’ve had a chance to come out because of that wonderful sociable, friendly and accepting ethos (I will not address the result of the Brexit vote here, but I feel that overall people at least in English cities like Brighton are still very friendly, tolerant and open-minded).

Come September I will miss the kids and everything about them: them not waking up next to me in the morning, them not running to the hall when I get home from work to give me a hug while shouting ‘Mummy’s home!’, us not playing Monopoly or Top Trumps after dinner or just hanging around on a weekend, but I am taking a positive view of the next six months. This is an opportunity for me to re-live my time before kids. So, instead of being melancholy about this I will take this as a great opportunity to see the Japan that I would not see with the kids – staying overnight in a monastry, seeing a multitude of beautiful temples, experiencing natural beauty, soaking in outdoor and indoor hot springs, endulging in fancy restaurants with elegant food, letting my hair down in izakayas (Japanese ‘gastropubs’) i.e. experiences that do not strike kids as amazing, but to me sound like heaven.

So, for the next six months, I will be writing little anecdotes of my solo travels, experiences and observations of Japan. Stay tuned for the next chapter.