What do you expect?

Wednesday was February 11th.

The 100th Day of School. For some reason this is a big deal (although I never remember doing anything to mark this day when I was in school and thankfully, I didn't have to do any kind of 100 things project with the kids like some of you did.)

The day Mercury got its sorry ass out of retrograde and back into proper orbit, thank you very much!

And, if my grandmother were alive, it would have been her 107th birthday. Happy Birthday Helen! (Pronounced the French way, Helène, and we never, EVER called her Grandma.) 

I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot this past week. Most likely because I have been watching a lot of Downton Abbey. In my mind, and in reality, my grandmother was a complex woman who was a mix of Mrs. Hughes and the Dowager Duchess Violet Crawley, with a dash of Mrs. Patmore thrown in for a bit of spice. 

It is interesting (and frustrating) to watch Downton through a feminist lens.  (Spoiler ALERT - stop reading now if you haven't watched Seasons 4 and 5). I find myself rooting for Edith and her writing career and single motherhood and wish they would explore this further, wanting to slap Mary for her coy, better than everyone else attitude, and loving Maggie Smith's delivery of Violet Crawley's poignant and biting lines so perfectly every single time! 

The expectations of proper behaviour and everyone, especially women,  knowing their place in the world of Downton and 1920s England is such a predominant theme of the show, that after binge-watching Seasons 4 and 5 over the course of a week, I can't help but think about and see how these very same kinds of expectations actually affect us all to some degree in 2015 as well. 

A few months ago I read something that made me have what I would call a LIFE CHANGING epiphany. So much so that I have had to sit on it for a while, mull it around in the depths of my memories and watch it play out as I recapped most of my early life and childhood. It all kind of gelled for me a few weeks ago.

I had crowd-sourced my online friends for some good podcasts to listen to on the days that I spend close to 2 hours driving my kids back and forth to their various after school activities. High up on that list was an NPR show called Invisibilia. This new show, hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Speigel, explores the intangible forces that shape human behaviour – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. The first episode I listened to (and have since listened to at least two more times) is called "How To Become Batman" and is about how profoundly the expectations of others can affect us. Lulu and Alix interview researchers and scientists looking at this phenomenon as well as a man named Daniel Kish. Daniel is blind. He has no eyes, he lost them to cancer as a toddler, and yet, he claims that he can SEE. Really, you must go listen to the whole podcast, you'll be hooked. And now, I can't get the concept of expectations as a force that shapes us out of my head.

The epiphany article I read earlier was published in 2011 in Psychology Today and is titled "The Trouble with Bright Girls". It talks about how girls and boys in the 5th grade differ in terms of how they interpret and then perform difficult tasks and why this difference exists. And perhaps not surprisingly, it all comes back to expectations. 

...bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

Think about this a bit.  At a very early age, the expectations that "boys will be boys" and that girls need to focus on being good and "sugar and spice and all things nice" is already being felt by our children and embedded in their minds. 

And this is when it all hit me and I had that AHA! moment.

I can attest to this kind of messaging from my youth. A lot of it from my former governess grandmother. And almost all of it was about how to be a "good" and proper young girl. How to sit properly (cross your ankles, not your legs), how to eat properly (no soup slurping), how to set a table properly and which fork and spoon to use. I was told that a lady doesn't laugh TOO loud. She never makes a scene. She must sit up straight (Helen would run a very boney knuckle down our backs if we slouched). We had a set of the giant Encyclopedia Britannica books and on most nights I would have to walk up and down the hall with one balanced on my head. You know, for my posture. Funny thing, I don't recall my brothers ever having to do this.  

As I reminisce about all of this now, I can't help but wonder at the expectations that she and others had for me to be such a good and proper girl and how these affected my own sense of self-worth as I grew up.  I dug out my old report cards from Grade 4 to Grade 7 and the amount of time that I was referred to as a "good girl" in the comments from my teachers was indeed rather ridiculous. I also called my mom and asked her to find my younger brother's report cards and read them to me and the phrases, "needs to concentrate" and "must make greater effort" were written in his comments more often than any mention of his "good" behaviour. My mom also read me an excerpt from her own Grade 5 report card (seriously, the woman keeps EVERYTHING) and the comment that stuck out was that "she controls her emotions". So, you know... these kinds of expectations have been going on for quite a while. 

Grade Five

Grade Five

But if the message you constantly receive growing up is that your goodness is your most important trait, where does that leave you? And if for some reason you don't meet the expectations of goodness that people have of you, what does that do to your self-esteem and self-confidence? 

I'll tell you what it does. It makes you hide. It makes you ashamed of anything "bad" that you do or feel or think or that happens to you and you'll do whatever it takes to keep up the illusion of "good", both for yourself and for those around you. Back at Downton, think about Edith and her illegitimate child. She'd rather concoct an elaborate ruse with her Aunt and go away for months to hide her pregnancy, then have a bastard child in the midst of life at the Abbey. Because of expectations. A good girl doesn't do that to her family or the family's GOOD name.

So yes, I truly believe that the expectations that others have of us are immensely powerful. They can be at once empowering and also debilitatingly paralyzing.  

When we watch Daniel Kish, a man who is completely blind, riding a bike, it's one of those mind-blowing moments. FOR US. Because of our expectations of what a blind person can do. For him, it's just regular, every day, life. And it's not just him thinking and believing and Little Engine That Could -"I think I can, I think I can" -ing it up the hill. It was his mother not interfering with him being the unstoppable climbing child and exploring his world, it was her not stopping him from clicking and discovering echolocation, despite others telling her his behaviour was not socially acceptable, and it was her not stopping him from getting on a bike. It is because of his mother and others around Daniel not putting "blind people can't do that" expectations on him, that he can see (yes, he says he can actually SEE), and do all that he can.  

The paralyzing part of expectations, especially those that are specific to gender, comes when we start hearing at such a young age that girls shouldn't do {_______}, or boys don't play with {_______}, or that it's more important to be a good girl than it is to be a curious one. Or that boys aren't supposed to be emotional and girls are valued more for their obedience and not their thoughts and actions. 

The Always #LikeAGirl commercial that was aired during the Superbowl is a prime example of this concept of expectations and their effect on young girls. And it is right around the ages of 10-12 (Grade 4/5) when we see this dramatic change in confidence in girls. 

I believe a lot of these expectations are driven by fear. In Downton Abbey, there is the fear that the world around the Crawley family is changing and certain members of the household (both upper and lower) cling dearly to the way things were to maintain a sense of order in their lives. Fear is a powerful force in the parenting world as well. We all have certain expectations of what our kids can and can not do and whether we are right or wrong, those expectations affect our children, are internalized by them and will follow them throughout their lives.

In the Batman Invisibilia podcast, Daniel Kish's mother tells Lulu and Alix how she had to abandon her fears for her child in order to let him become who he is today. I can't help but think about her making that kind of conscious choice and am in total awe of her. I also wonder how different our world would be if we could all abandon some of our fears and let go of our expectations to a greater degree. If we looked at people of different genders, people with all kinds of abilities, people from different parts of the world, without so many of our limiting expectations. What if we too left our fears behind and started to believe in people beyond what we expect or more importantly, what we have been taught to expect? 

Can you just imagine the feats of mind-blowing-ness that could be accomplished in that world? 

I don't know about you, but that is a world I want to be in, one that I'd like for my children and one that I'll gladly re-examine my expectations for.

How big is your village?

I am about to do something I swore I would never do.

I am going to write about vaccines.



Before I do though, I have a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1: My children are both fully immunized and both had a reaction to their first immunizations. Nothing that I would classify as a major reaction, just a change in behaviour, fevers, and a few restless nights. As a result of this, I decided to put our kids on a modified immunization schedule and only get one (max 2) immunizations at one time, especially the combo ones. Needless to say, it took a lot longer than the prescribed pediatric immunization schedule, but neither of them have had any kind of reaction after that first time (when they both got 4 shots at once), and they are now fully immunized.  

Disclaimer #2: I am a former pharmaceutical sales rep. Yes, it's true, I worked for the BIG BAD PHARMA Wolf. Only, it was the best job I ever had, the one job where I felt that what I was doing was actually helping people and damn it, I was really good at that job!

Disclaimer #3: During my career as a pharmaceutical rep, at one point, it was my job to sell vaccines.

Disclaimer #4: I have a chronic disease (Rheumatoid Arthritis) and have been on many different medications for it since 1991. I have been in clinical trials for new drugs and I have injected various medicines into my body weekly for the past 15 years. Without these medicines, made by, studied, and marketed by pharmaceutical companies, I would most likely not be alive today. And also because of these medications, I am now considered an immunocompromised person.

Ok, I think that's about it for the disclaimers. Now, back to this whole vaccination "debate".

Conversations about vaccines. HA! My friend Heather posted a comment on Facebook the other day about vaccines and it has since garnered 782 comments. SEVEN HUNDRED AND EIGHTY TWO COMMENTS! That is a lot of feels people. Shit, if that post was one of those "comment on this post and a kid in Africa gets a vaccine so he/she doesn't get polio!!", that post alone could have saved 782 kids from a disease that is LITERALLY non-existent on our country. (Canada was deemed a polio-free country in 1994 - thanks to, you guessed it, a vaccine!)

Look, just so we are clear, I am not here to condemn or condone anyone's choices in this matter. I am going to make an assumption (and hope I am not making an ASS out of U or ME) that both those who vaccinate and those who don't, do so with all of the information that they need to make an informed and educated decision. What I am going to do, is ask for a bit of consistency in these decisions and maybe some deeper critical thinking about what these "choices" mean, not just for you, your child and your family, but for everyone around you.

I know for a fact, that all of us are all doing the best we can to keep our children safe. Safe from disease, safe from harmful chemicals, and safe from, well... any and all the bad things that are out there in the world that could harm them in any way. 

So here is the hard truth for everyone. Sometimes that's going to work and sometimes it just doesn't. 

Sometimes you can do all the right things according to your set of values and choices; vaccinate, don't vaccinate, eat organic, eat McDonald's, breastfeed, formula-feed, and on and on and on and on... and still, things can happen that you have no control over. 


My kid had a lung infection this past summer from a bacteria called Streptococcus Pyogenes. Most of you know it more commonly as Strep Throat. You or your child have most likely had it at some point in your life. Your throat hurts, A LOT, you go to the doctor, you get a prescription for some penicillin (a medicine made by a pharmaceutical company) and bam, you are back to work/school in a couple of days. Easy peasy right? 

Not always. In RARE cases, Group A Strep infections turn SUPER NASTY!

That lung infection in my child turned out to be a very bad pneumonia and he quickly went into severe septic shock and had a cardiac arrest in the pediatric ICU. He was put on a heart-lung bypass machine for 6 days because his own heart and lungs couldn't handle the work of fighting the infection and keeping him alive at the same time. My son survived this infection and the measures that had to be taken to save him, thanks to many factors, not the least of which was the medicines that he was given (again from those darn pharma companies), the blood products that he needed, the incredible team of doctors, nurses and respiratory techs that looked after him and all the love that we could muster around him.

I think back to those days before he got sick and I remember the talk on the school playground at drop off and pick up times. "There's something going around", "So and so has been sick too", "Everyone's been fighting a bit of a cough lately". It's not like it was much different than any other time, because really, there is always "something" going around at school. Germs and viruses just LOVE schools and all the nooks and crannies and multiple tiny bodies cramped into not very big spaces. The only difference this time was that someone's kid got a sore throat and a bit of a cough, and my child almost died, and NO ONE could have foreseen either of those events. And there was no medication that either of them could have taken to prevent either the sore throat or the sepsis. Sometimes, it's all comes down to just dumb luck. 

Vaccines and the diseases that they prevent are a bit different though. There is at least some measure of control that we have with these diseases. One that is readily available and rather effective. Have you ever seen anyone with the measles or the mumps or diptheria? I know I haven't. And to be honest, up until a few minutes ago when I Googled it, I wasn't exactly sure what Rubella was, and why it needed to be eradicated, but 30,000 infant deaths and 20,000 infants born disabled during the last U.S. outbreak in 1962-65, is PLENTY good enough reason for me!

Yes, I know that vaccines have side effects. ALL medicines have side effects. Many of the products that we consider "natural" medicines have side effects too. As a former pharmaceutical rep, I am actually quite well versed in medication side effects, the measures taken to study, document and report these side effects and the analysis that both health care professionals and individuals have to make to assess the risk/benefit of taking, versus not taking a medication for any given condition or situation. And as a chronic disease sufferer and life-long medication user, I also know quite intimately how the side effects of medications can affect ones life significantly. No medication is completely benign and no one is saying that vaccines are either.

Let's have a look at something. Below is the list of side effects listed in the product monograph of a common medication. I warn you, its a long list. 

More common side effects:

Abdominal pain
acid or sour stomach
cloudy urine
decrease in amount of urine
decrease in urine output or decrease in urine-concentrating ability
difficulty having a bowel movement (stool)
excess air or gas in stomach or intestines
full feeling
itching skin
pain or discomfort in chest, upper stomach, or throat
pale skin
passing gas
noisy, rattling breathing
rash with flat lesions or small raised lesions on the skin
shortness of breath
swelling of face, fingers, hands, feet, lower legs, or ankles
troubled breathing at rest
troubled breathing with exertion
unusual bleeding or bruising
unusual tiredness or weakness
weight gain

Less common side effects:

Abdominal cramps
stomach soreness or discomfort

Rare side effects:

back, leg, or stomach pains
bleeding gums
blistering, peeling, loosening of skin
blood in urine or stools
bloody, black, or tarry stools
blurred vision
burning feeling in chest or stomach
change in vision
chest pain
clay-colored stools
cough or hoarseness
dark urine
decreased urine output
difficulty breathing
difficulty swallowing
dilated neck veins
dry mouth
extreme fatigue
fast, irregular, pounding, or racing heartbeat or pulse
fever with or without chills
frequent urination
general body swelling
general feeling of tiredness or weakness
hair loss, thinning of hair
hives or welts
impaired vision
increased blood pressure
increased volume of pale, dilute urine
irregular breathing
joint or muscle pain
lab results that show problems with liver
light-colored stools
loss of appetite
lower back or side pain
muscle twitching
painful or difficult urination
pains in stomach, side, or abdomen, possibly radiating to the back
pinpoint red spots on skin
puffiness or swelling of the eyelids or around the eyes, face, lips, or tongue
red skin lesions, often with a purple center
red, irritated eyes
redness of skin
severe abdominal pain, cramping, burning
severe and continuing nausea
sore throat
sores, ulcers, or white spots in mouth or on lips
stiff neck or back
stomach upset
swollen or painful glands
tenderness in stomach area
tightness in chest
unpleasant breath odor
upper right abdominal pain
vomiting of blood
vomiting of material that looks like coffee grounds
yellow eyes and skin

In case you haven't guessed, this is the list of the common, less common, and rare side effects listed for Children's Advil. If we used the same criteria that some use for not giving vaccines (based on the risk of less common or rare side effects) on our use of Children's Advil, would we ever use it? Why is one medication deemed less harmful than another? Are they not both made by large pharmaceutical companies just out to make the big bucks? How is the science behind one medicine not given the same credence as another? I seriously want everyone to think about these questions and at least answer them for themselves. 

And about Big Pharma. The thing you may not know about these companies is, that while they may not be perfect, and I completely agree that they do need to be held to a higher standard, they are also full of good, hard-working people who care about making people's lives better and healthier and they care about making a good living while doing that. Trust me, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. 

Let's try this another way. How many times have we heard "it takes a village" in regards to raising children?  And while we may be able to control our mini-villages when our children are young and primarily stick within our circles of friends and family who follow a certain way of doing things, we can't control the bigger villages that our kids are inevitably going to venture out into. At what point do we consider and teach our own children that there are others in these bigger villages that we all need to take care of as well? If we look at immunization programs as less of a "choice" to make for our families alone and more of an approach to population protection for our youngest and, immunologically-speaking, weaker members of society, present company included, then are we not responsible as members of our larger villages to provide that protection to them? 

I can't help but feel that in all of the discussion (and I do use that term lightly) about pro-vaxxing vs. anti-vaxxing that is going on these days, that there is a sense of some #firstworldproblems, Capital P, Privilege accompanying it. We take for granted that many of the diseases that we vaccinate against don't exist in North America anymore. It is as if we've been lulled into a state of complacency. We don't see babies dying from rubella or measles anymore. We don't see the devastating effects that polio can have on a child's body. We think that a case of whooping cough is no biggie, because we easily have access to medicines that can treat it (even though in 2012, there were 20 pertussis-related deaths in the US, the most since 1955, and most of these in infants under 3 months of age.)  

In many developing countries, this is not the case. Mothers and fathers will literally walk miles with their children to get them vaccinated. These parents know death, they see children dying of diseases that are treatable and preventable in other parts of the world and they don't have access to the hospitals and medicines that we all take for granted. I can't help but wonder how they would feel about these 'debates' about vaccinations that we keep having from behind our laptops and iPhones, sipping our lattes and watching our kids climb all over those germ-infested slides and tunnels at the local play place, while they watch their children suffer and die. 

There are many choices that we make as parents and many of them are true choices that affect only us and our kids and our immediate families. There are other decisions that we have to make that take us out of our little bubble worlds and that need to be made with our larger 'villages' in mind. I know that no one makes these vaccine decisions with the intention of hurting or harming another child or human being, but the reality is that this can and does happen. There could be a child fighting cancer in your son's class who is immunocompromised. Your daughter's best friend may have a new baby sister who is too young to be immunized. And an unvaccinated child carrying a communicable virus, that could seriously harm them, is a risk that these vulnerable villagers shouldn't have to take. And you just don't know for sure about any of these things, until way after the fact.

Just like you don't know if your child will be the one in a million who will have a major reaction and long term side-effect from a vaccine (or any medication). 

Just like you don't know if your kid is going to go into septic shock and almost die from a common bacteria that causes sore throats.

Just like you don't know if or when you or your child will need some of those medicines made by pharmaceutical companies to stay alive or even to just keep a fever down. 

My point is that there are no guarantees in this life. But there are risks that we can mitigate, not just for ourselves and our children, but for the villages we claim to be a part of and all the vulnerable people within it. And THAT is what vaccines do. For almost everyone. 

My hope is that we can all start looking at these risks and the decisions that we make about them from a broader, more population protection perspective and will a lot less complacency than what we are currently doing. 



If I have an hour to myself these days, you will likely find me firmly attached to my iPod via my headphones, under a ton of blankets (because - scary bits yo!), and completely engrossed - a few times to the point of forgetting to eat, drink and pee - in my latest Netflix obsession.

I am of course talking about the BBC2 series The Fall. This psychological thriller, set in Belfast, follows the story of two people, both hunters in their worlds. One is a serial killer who hunts, stalks, terrorizes and kills his female prey and the other is the police officer who is hunting him. And while this sounds like every other television crime drama out there, I assure you, it is SO NOT!

The main character, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is portrayed brilliantly by Gillian Anderson. I hadn't realized how much I have missed watching her on television until I started binging on this show. Jamie Dornan (yes, he of the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey film) is so damn creepy as the serial killer/father/husband/counsellor, that even writing about him right now has my stomach in knots!

And while the subject matter of the show is gritty and violent and potentially triggering for some, Stella's continual take-downs of the casual and not-so-casual sexism and misogyny in her world (and in society in general) is so masterful, that I seriously want to go HUG the writer and creator of the series, Allan Cubitt.


I could seriously go on and on here, but I don't want to ruin the whole show for you. If you are looking for something new to watch on Netflix, and want to be simultaneously creeped the Eff out and feel empowered as a feminist and a woman, while totally girl-crushing all over Gillian Anderson, then this is the show for you.

Trust me, you won't be disappointed.