fatigue · health · lifestyle · sport

How To Get Exercising With Chronic Illness

Getting regular exercise is important for everyone, but when you have a chronic illness, or if you’re recovering from an illness or surgery, it can feel like a potential minefield – there’s the risk of hurting yourself, impacting your recovery… and to be perfectly honest, it might just feel like too much hard work. But appropriate exercise can help with a lot of health conditions, by managing symptoms, improving sleep, and increasing strength. So how can you get into exercising with chronic illness? I’ve pulled together my thoughts and top tips based on my own experience (which has included recovering from brain surgery twice, post-viral fatigue syndrome, exercise-induced asthma, hypermobility spectrum disorder, and more!).

how to exercise with chronic illness exercising with a health condition after surgery the sickly mama blog

Exercising With Chronic Illness

Recognise what you’re already doing

First things first. It’s important to acknowledge the exercise you’re already doing. Whether that’s walking to town to buy shopping, or cleaning the bathroom, or just getting up and having a shower, chances are you’re already doing some exercise. Understand what you’re already doing on a regular basis, how difficult you find it and the impact on your body. That should give you an idea of your current ‘baseline’ level of fitness and exercise, and how variable it is. Then you can use that as a starting point to build up from.

Do your research

Next, you need to ensure you understand your health condition(s) and the kinds of limitations they may place on your ability to exercise or the type of exercise you can do. For instance, because of my hypermobility spectrum disorder I should try to avoid high-impact exercise and instead focus on low-impact exercises such as swimming. I also need to be extra careful about ensuring I have good form and don’t over-extend my joints when I’m doing yoga.

Try talking to your doctor, and make sure they approve of the exercise you’re planning on doing. You could also be asked to be referred to a physiotherapist, who may be able to recommend specific exercises that will help your condition.

But also – have a research online for advice on exercising with your specific health condition or chronic illness. Often you can find very detailed information online (for instance, this article on exercising with hypermobility) which your doctor may not be familiar with. Of course, it’s important to be careful to use reputable sites and look for advice which is backed up by peer-reviewed scientific research (quick rule of thumb: if the site you’re looking at is trying to get you to buy something, be a bit more sceptical of its health advice…). And, of course, check any proposed new exercise regimen with your doctor.

Set realistic targets for exercising with chronic illness

If you’re currently struggling to get into the shower in the mornings, it’s probably not realistic to set yourself the target of running a marathon – and it probably won’t do your body much good to try. Set yourself realistic targets, which are in line with the advice for your condition and which permit time off for rest. For instance, rather than saying you want to do a certain type of exercise once a day, you could set yourself a target to do a certain number of minutes of exercise (or steps, miles etc.) in a week. That way, you can do more on days when you feel good, and take a break on bad days. Start small, and aim to build up over time, so that it’s not too much of a shock to your body.

If your health condition tends to be quite variable, you could also think about giving yourself workout options which you can select from depending on how you’re feeling each day. For example, aiming for ten minutes of gentle stretching on a bad day, twenty minutes of yoga on an okay day, and a short run on a good day (or whatever works for you!), will mean that you’re flexing your workouts around your chronic illness.

Work with your body, not against it

Following on from the above, the most important thing when you’re exercising with chronic illness (or when recovering from surgery or illness) is to listen to your body and work with it, not against it.

There’s a culture in some fitness circles to “push yourself to your limits”, that “pain is temporary” or something to push through. That kind of attitude is not going to help you develop a good relationship with exercise in the long run (no pun intended…), if you’re suffering from chronic illness. If your body tells you to stop – stop! You can always do more exercise when you’re feeling better.

Over time you’ll probably get the feel for when your body is saying no as a result of your health condition, and when it’s just saying no because you’re giving it a good workout. But it can take a while to get to know what you can handle, how to recognise when your body’s had enough, and how a workout will impact you the next day. You may also start to notice other patterns that you hadn’t picked up on previously, in terms of how activity affects your condition.

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Measure progress against yourself – not other people

As the old saying goes: comparison is the thief of joy. If your friends are comparing notes on the 5k they ran at the weekend, don’t let that make you feel bad about the fact that you can only run 1k, or that you were proud of managing a five minute walk the other day. Even comparing yourself to others with the same health condition is not helpful. Remember that your body is unique, and everyone responds differently to illness (and to exercising with chronic illness!). Focus on your progress by comparing yourself to your previous achievements and your baseline ability to exercise. That way, it’s a fair comparison and you can celebrate your progress, instead of feeling like you’re not doing enough.

Cut yourself some slack

This is probably the most important point on the list. You need to cut yourself some slack. Things won’t just go smoothly. There will be times when your health condition probably means that your progress goes backwards for a while. You may feel frustrated that you’re ‘back where you started’ (or even further back), as a result of a flare up in your illness.

That’s okay. It’s okay to go backwards, and it’s okay to be frustrated by it. But try to be kind to yourself. If you need a break, have a break. If you need the day off, take the day off. If you need the week off – likewise. Remember that it’s okay to find things difficult, or need to rest. The whole point of exercise is to look after your health and wellbeing.

Don’t be afraid to give up and do something different

With exercise, there can be a culture that it’s bad to be a “quitter”. Well, that’s true – if you stop exercising completely. But if you’re just not getting on with a specific type of exercise, then there’s nothing wrong with quitting it in order to try something else. For instance, if you’re finding running too difficult, you could try swimming or yoga instead. The point is to find something that you actually enjoy doing, and build it into your routine, so that it’s sustainable for the long term.

Build a habit again… And again… And again.

One of the most important things when you’re trying to improve your fitness is to get into a routine with your exercise. Then, it just becomes part of your day to day life. And the tricky thing when you’re trying to exercise with chronic illness, is that the routine tends to get broken. For instance, I remember a couple of years ago when I’d got into a really good routine with dance classes and rock climbing, and had gained a lot of strength and fitness… And then randomly had a really bad asthma flare up that meant I struggled just walking around for weeks and weeks. I lost the habit of going to class, I lost a lot of muscle mass. It was totally disheartening.

It can be hard to force yourself to get back into a routine one it’s been broken, but the only advice I can give is to persevere and be patient. Chances are, you’ll have to keep re-starting your routine as time goes by. But I think it helps to focus on the positives. For instance, even though I had lost a lot of strength and fitness, when I restarted dance and climbing, I hadn’t forgotten the theory and skills I’d learned. Although I felt like I was back to square one, in fact I was still a couple of squares further along the board, compared to when I originally started. And the second time around, it didn’t take quite so long to get back up to speed.

How to get into exercising with chronic illness… Your tips!

Have you managed to develop a good exercise routine with chronic illness – or while recovering from surgery or illness? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments below!

how to get into exercising with chronic illness the sickly mama blog yoga by the ocean
child development · Just for fun · lifestyle · parenting · play

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

I’ve previously written about Little Man’s first discoveries of the great outdoors as a newly-walking toddler. I thought it would be fun to follow up with some ideas for fun ways to play and explore the great outdoors when you have a young toddler – in the one year old to eighteen months sort of timeframe. I’m focusing on cheap and easy activities that involve household items you probably already have, or at least that don’t require purchasing anything worth more than about £1… Because fun shouldn’t be mega expensive!

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

Pebbles in a Pot

This idea came from my own lovely mum! When I was a kid we had a gravel area outside our kitchen door, and mum said I used to spend ages sat on the step happily putting little pebbles from the gravel into empty milk bottles.

We have a small amount of gravel in our back garden, so I thought I would try the same with Little Man, showing him how to put pebbles into an empty plastic bottle… And he loves it! (To be fair, it could be genetic – so I guess there’s no guarantee your kids will like it, buuut let’s just skate past that). He needs reasonably close supervision to ensure he doesn’t try to eat any of the pebbles, but as time has gone by, the frequency of attempted pebble-munching has greatly diminished.

Pebbles in a pot!

The pebbles in a pot game is great for fine motor skills as well as concepts like big and small, empty and full. And honestly, it requires so little parental input that it’s perfect for those mornings when you find yourself in your back garden with an energetic toddler much, much earlier than planned…

Interactive Plants

Okay, bear with me, because I didn’t really have a title for this one! While on our way to nursery one morning a couple of months ago, I introduced Little Man to the concept of dandelion clocks. He loved watching me blow away the seeds and having a try himself (mainly just aggressively blowing raspberries in the complete wrong direction, but he had a go!). Now he loves dandelions and asks for them whenever we go out – he calls them “bubbles” which actually kind of makes sense when you think about it.

But dandelions aren’t the only interactive plant out there! We’ve played with snapdragons (antirrhinums), squeezing the sides of the flower to make them snap, and Little Man really likes picking daisies and singing the Upsy Daisy song from In The Night Garden – and watching mama make daisy chains. There’s such fun to be had in simply exploring new flowers and plant textures like tulips, daffodils, poppies and strands of grass.

When we go out, Little Man also enjoys looking for daisies, dandelions, leaves and sticks, and later on in the summer I can’t wait to go foraging for blackberries and other fruit, and playing with popping the seedpods of bizzy lizzies (impatiens). There’s really so many fun and interesting plants that little ones can explore, it’s probably worth a blog post on its own!

Upsy Daisy, here I come!

Treasure Hunt

I thought this would be a bit too complicated for Little Man at just 14 months old, but actually thanks to Easter I discovered that you really can do a fun treasure hunt in the garden, even for really young toddlers.

First, pick something they’ll be really interested in finding (like, say, shiny chocolate eggs… Or toys wrapped in silver foil). Let them watch you “hide” them (pretty much in plain sight), and then set them loose! With a fair bit of help and prompting, it’s a really fun way to spend some time together. Little Man though did not trust us to look after the eggs he had found while he looked for others, which created a slight issue when he ran out of hands…

Easter Egg Hunt Champion 2021

Fun with Water

You don’t need to buy a paddling pool to have fun in the sunshine (when the sunshine actually turns up, of course). We have now invested in a pool, but before we did, we had loads of fun with a washing up bowl and a bucket of water in the garden! Little Man actually still managed to fit in a normal kitchen bucket at almost 18 months old, and really enjoyed watching the water spilling over the rim as he sat down, and stood up… And sat down, and stood up… Safe to say, the lawn got a good watering.

Setting up a few buckets of water and some cups and things to play with is super easy and a great way to keep cool on a hot day. Just make sure you don’t forget the sun cream!

Making Marks With Chalk

This is my last suggestion and unless you live near some natural chalk hills and can collect a pocketful of rock chalk while out for a walk, you’ll need to buy some chalks – I got a big packet for £1 from our local cheap and cheerful store (it’s not technically a pound shop so I don’t know what else to call it…)

Chalk is great because of course it washes away in the rain, so you can make a huge mess of a driveway, path, fence, some rocks or a wheelie bin… And not worry too much about the cleanup (if you live in the UK, anyway). Little Man is loving playing with chalk at the moment and it’s great for starting to learn the alphabet and numbers as well.

Your top tips for free and cheap outdoor play ideas

What are your top tips and ideas for fun outdoors with a toddler? I’d love to get more ideas and tips for me and Little Man this summer!

health · Just for fun

Why You Should Always Find Out Your Surgeon’s Birthday

Today is my birthday! How old am I? Fortunately that’s not relevant to this blog post. Because today, we’re going to be talking about the most important birthday you need to add to your calendar. And, hard though it is to believe – it’s not my birthday… It’s your surgeon’s. Because a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that patients who underwent surgery on the surgeon’s birthday exhibited higher mortality than patients who underwent surgery on other days.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s correct. Your surgeon is more likely to kill you if they’re operating on you on their birthday. How’s that for a crazy fact – and a completely inappropriate topic for a light-hearted celebratory birthday blog post? In my defense, the study was published as part of the British Medical Journal’s fun and festive Christmas edition, so I’m not the only one completely misjudging the suitability of the topic for light entertainment.

It’s my surgeon’s birthday. How worried should I be?

The study looked at almost a million surgical procedures performed by 47,489 surgeons, and found that mortality rates were 6.9% on surgeon’s birthdays, compared to 5.6% on other days. That’s a pretty noticeable difference – but there are, of course, a few “buts”…

The study looked at 17 common emergency surgical procedures, performed on patients aged 65 – 99, at US hospitals from 2011 – 2014. The fact that these were emergency procedures performed on older people means the expected mortality rate for the first 30 days after surgery was already quite high. Unless you’re a 65+ year old undergoing a common medical emergency, even if it is your surgeon’s birthday, you’ve probably not got a 6.9% chance of dying. Good news for anyone getting an ingrowing toenail removed (or having pituitary surgery).

Additionally, apparently it’s actually comparable to the kind of increase in death rates that is seen at other times – including Christmas, New Year and weekends. So that’s… not at all reassuring, actually, now I think of it.

Why does it happen?

Well, the study was observational, meaning that the authors couldn’t establish the reasons behind the ‘birthday effect’ they observed, or exclude the impact of other, unmeasured factors. But they suggested a number of factors that could be at play:

  • Surgeons rushing to complete procedures on their birthday if they have plans to celebrate later on.
  • More distractions from birthday phone messages or conversations with team members, which could lead to more errors.
  • Surgeons being less likely to check up on patients following surgery, if they are busy with birthday plans.

They all sound totally plausible, although I’ve also thought of a few of my own that the researchers somehow missed:

  • Surgical staff suffering from a sugar rush and subsequent drop in blood sugars after eating birthday cake, impairing surgical performance.
  • One or two evil surgeons intentionally killing patients as part of some kind of sick annual birthday ritual. It’s probably a whole conspiracy, guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out Bill Gates was involved.

How reliable is the study?

I’m not a statistician, so I’ll leave that question to more experienced maths jockeys. I will say, however, that the letters section of the British Medical Journal website contains a number of letters on the topic from some very disgruntled surgeons, and is well worth a read. To quote one letter from neurosurgeon Steven A. Reid: “One wonders about the intrusion of errors on the part of statisticians on their birthdays — I’m certain the outcome isn’t as dramatic. More speeding tickets perhaps?”

And in conclusion…

Well, I’m not a surgeon, but you’ll be glad to hear I’ve booked my birthday off work anyway. You can’t be too careful, right? And if you’re reading this while in the office, well… play it safe and go read about my experience of transsphenoidal pituitary surgery rather than doing any more of that dangerous work stuff…

baby · Just for fun · parenting · Seasonal

First Spring Into Nature: A Toddler’s First Steps In Springtime

Little Man is now 16 months old. Since last autumn he’s changed from being a baby into a toddler, and sometimes it feels like it’s difficult to keep up! Over the winter, he learned to walk, and one of the best things about the weather warming up for spring has been the opportunity for him to really explore the natural world on his own terms as a toddler, and take his first spring into nature.

Of course, last year we spent plenty of time outdoors – thanks to lockdown, there often wasn’t much to do other than to sit out in the garden together in the afternoons. But the ability to walk rather than crawl (or just lie there!) has completely changed how he interacts with nature, and also (let’s be honest) slightly reduced the frequency with which he tries to eat pebbles, dirt, and leaves. I wanted to write a post about Little Man’s first spring into nature, what he’s enjoyed most in the great outdoors, and some of the fun ways he’s engaged with springtime.

First Spring into Nature: A Toddler’s First Steps in Springtime

Meeting the birds

Little Man loves birds. When walking him to and from nursery in the pram, he would sometimes point up at the sky, or behind us. After a while, my husband realised he was pointing at birds, which of course were usually gone by the time mum or dad turned to look.

He’s fascinated by birds, and now we make a point of stopping to look whenever there’s a fat pigeon on a fence that’s too lazy to fly away when we get close. There’s even a little blackbird who has been flying back and forth from a particular berry-covered tree on our way to nursery all winter, who sometimes will perch on a branch and watch us watching him for a little while before he flaps off.

Going to see the ducks on the river has also been a big hit this winter, although I’m not sure that Little Man has worked out the connection between swimming ducks and flying birdies…

Down by the riverside

First steps on grass

The first time after Little Man had learned to walk that it was mild enough to take him out to the garden and let him try walking on the grass was so lovely. He didn’t know what to make of the grass but once he discovered how soft it was to fall over on, he threw himself (often quite literally…) into the challenge of learning to walk on it.

I love the fact that when you have a young child, you almost rediscover the world from their perspective. As a grown up, I wouldn’t say that walking on a freshly-mown lawn is any more difficult than walking on a flat pavement – unlike, say, walking on sand, which is noticeably more difficult. But for Little Man, it’s a completely different experience. Plus, there are loads of little rocks everywhere to eat look at…

One of our first trips to the garden this spring

First snow

We didn’t get heavy snow here at any point this winter (unlike most of the rest of the country, it seems!). But we did get a decent dusting one day – enough for wee man to get out and discover snow for the first time. We bundled him up and set him loose on the driveway.

He was fascinated and really enjoyed it for a little bit, until he fell down onto his bum and I wasn’t quite quick enough to pick him up. A chilly rear end was apparently enough to put him off snow completely, and so we retreated back into the house. I think the fun of snow is perhaps more pronounced for slightly older children.

First snow for Little Man

Meeting the flowers

I love spring bulbs and flowers. My garden is filled with daffodils, tulips, hyacinths – you name it. I love the way that bright daffodils really make it feel like spring has finally arrived, even if the weather is still cold. And for Little Man, the daffodils are almost as big as he is, which is strange to imagine from an adult’s perspective.

He’s been loving discovering flowers, from the bulbs in our garden to the cut flowers we’ve had in the house over the past few weeks. But when he fell over in the local park and squashed a lovely bed of narcissus perfectly flat, we did run away pretty sharpish…

Meeting a daffodil

Your first spring into nature:

What fun discoveries have your little ones made this springtime? Let me know in the comments!

children's books · Just for fun · parenting · reviews

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen

Continuing my series of Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews, today I will be reviewing the board book Moon Dance. No, sadly Van Morrison has not branched out into the magical world of kids books (as far as I know) – this is written by Christian Riese Lassen, famous primarily for painting pictures of dolphins.

We inherited the book from some lovely friends once their daughter outgrew it (thanks guys!), and it has proved very popular with Little Man. Moon Dance refers to itself as ‘A Sparkle Book’, as if sparkle books were a thing we have all heard of. A quick search of Amazon Books identifies other children’s books by Riese Lassen which also include curious classifications: Sea Treasures (‘A Mystery Envelope Book’), and Sea Creatures (‘A Read And Play Carry Puzzle Book’). Sounds complicated. But anyway! On with the review…

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review: Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen

A Sparkle Book

In fairness to Moon Dance, it very much does what it says on the tin. The illustrations of underwater life are beautiful and engaging, and there can be no doubt that this is, indeed, a Sparkle Book. Every full-page illustration, including the front cover, features colourful sparkly cut-outs that will bewitch even the least magpie-like babies and toddlers.

No Time To Rhyme

Moon Dance is essentially a poem, all about dolphins having a lovely underwater dance. This is where the problems start to creep in. The book contains seven verses of four lines each, with an ABCB rhyme scheme, i.e. there are 7 opportunities to rhyme in this book. Of those verses, three rhyme on the same word: ‘light’. That’s nearly half the book turning on the same rhyme. I know it’s a kid’s book, but it’s hardly a rousing introduction to the magical world of poetry, and it sounds very clunky. Rhymezone.com reliably informs me that there are 589 possible rhymes for ‘light’ in the English language. We know you’re really a painter, Christian Riese Lassen, but next time maybe try a little harder with the words…

Sparkly but dumb

Unnatural History

Now we come to the next issue: one for all fans of David Attenborough documentaries (and if you’re not a fan of David Attenborough documentaries then, quite frankly, you need to sit down and take a long, hard look at yourself). The natural history depicted in this book is questionable at best. Am I being petty? Yes. Is it reasonable to expect 100% accuracy in the depictions of underwater life in a children’s book whose primary selling point is the fact that it has sparkly pages? Who knows. But is this series called Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews? You’re damn right it is. So let’s continue.

All is pretty much well for the first four pages, assuming you can get on board with the basic concept that dolphins like to spend the whole night dancing, instead of sleeping like everyone else (in fact dolphins are often active late at night, but do also sleep for a few hours here and there, so in a way everyone’s right).

Then we hit a problem: page 5 opens with the couplet “Down on the seabed / Where colours are bold”. This strikes me as off for two reasons:

  • Water absorbs light rapidly, with some wavelengths (i.e. colours) absorbed faster than others. The colour red completely disappears by the time you reach a depth of c. 20 feet, orange by c. 50 feet, and so on. Unless this is an incredibly shallow seabed, it’s not likely that the colours there would be especially bold.
  • More importantly, the entire premise of the book is that IT’S NIGHTTIME. Colours are not bold at night!

So, we take a deep breath and move on. Hey, it’s just one line, right?

All Thriller, No Killer

At first glance, the verse on the next page is nice, about how the whales join in the dance alongside the dolphins. But wait. What’s that in the corresponding illustration? Those are killer whales. This is significant because (a) killer whales are not really whales, they’re just giant monochrome dolphins, but more importantly (b) killer whales notoriously eat dolphins, meaning they’re not especially likely to be caught prancing around in the moonlight together – unless the killer whales are trying to catch a dolphin dinner. I don’t know about you, but that seems a bit dark for a kids book for me. As my husband points out: “They’ve got the word ‘killer’ in their fucking name, guys”.

Not the best of buddies

Little Man’s Review

In all fairness, despite its flaws, Little Man loves Moon Dance, as it is very shiny and reflective. The pages are a bit large for tiny hands, so he struggles to look at the book on his own, but if mama or dada holds the book he enjoys turning the pages. And, for extra enjoyment, mama and dada gently shake the pages to make them sparkle to the absolute max, which proves very popular.

Brutally Honest Children’s Book Reviews: The Verdict

And so, in conclusion we come at last to the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Drumroll please, it’s the Brutally Honest Children’s Book Review Star Rating System, and the results are in for Moon Dance by Christian Riese Lassen:

  • Plot: *** (3/5)
  • Illustrations: ***** (5/5)
  • Interactive features: *** (3/5)
  • Educational Value: ** (2/5)
  • Little Man: **** (4/5)

Aggregate Score: (17/25)

health · Just for fun · pregnancy

Things That Are Suddenly Unexpectedly Difficult When You’re Pregnant

Okay, so everyone knows that pregnancy makes some things difficult. Doing up your shoelaces, fitting in your clothes, and picking up something you’ve dropped on the floor are all tasks that you know are going to become challenging when you’re super pregnant. But some other pregnancy problems are not so predictable… like walking through a car park, or reading about cheese. It’s a well-known fact that forewarned is forearmed, so I’m writing this blog post to warn other mothers-to-be about all the things that are suddenly unexpectedly difficult when you’re pregnant…

Unexpected Things That Are Suddenly Difficult When You’re Pregnant

Walking through a car park

When I was pregnant, my pre-existing joint problems got a lot worse. I have a condition called hypermobility spectrum disorder, which means that my joints are more flexible than they’re supposed to be. In pregnancy, the additional weight from my baby bump meant that my joints were under even more pressure than normal, which meant a lot of quite severe joint pain. My employer was actually super about this, and they gave me a car parking space for the duration of my pregnancy (car parking spaces are like gold dust at my work, so it was very exciting). This meant that every morning and afternoon, I had to walk through the underground car park.

And OH MY GOD it was like a logic puzzle! Normally, if you’re trying to fit through the gap between two cars, and you think it might be a bit too small, you turn sideways to fit through the gap. Top tip: this approach doesn’t work if you’re pregnant with a massive baby bump. Instead, you just have to waddle the long way around, on your poor fat little preggo feet… What a total pain in the bump.

Wearing shoes

Everyone expects that when you’re pregnant, you’ll have to buy a new wardrobe of giant baggy tent-clothes to fit your enormous bump. But no-one warns you that you might also need to buy new shoes, due to developing giant fat swollen feet. By the time I went into hospital to be induced, I actually only had one pair of shoes that actually still fit my freakishly large feet (even though I had bought new, larger shoes while pregnant!) and it was a pair of trainers that I had to wear unlaced. I should mention that swollen feet in pregnancy can be a sign of pre-eclampsia, so make sure if you do experience this fun side-effect that you get checked out by your midwife. In my case though, there was nothing wrong with me. I just had gigantic preggo feet.

Another thing to note is that, following bad advice from one of the midwives, I took my compression socks off the day after my son was born. My feet promptly swelled up overnight to such an incredible extent that they didn’t even fit in those shoes, and I just shuffled around the hospital in a pair of oversized slippers for a few days. When I was eventually supplied with new compression socks to put back on, after the nurses became alarmed at the sight of my colossal cankles, it was actually a two-man job to put the socks on, working around the remains of my deflated baby bump. Both my poor mum and long-suffering husband got the opportunity to help me put them on after showering on different days, which I’m sure is an experience they’ll never forget.

Anyway, the point is – if your feet swell up when you’re pregnant, make sure you keep the compression socks on for a few days after the birth…

Reading about cheese

When I first suspected I was pregnant, my husband and I were on holiday in Japan for a family wedding. Obviously, buying a pregnancy test over there was not especially practical because I don’t speak or read Japanese! However, I became fairly certain I was pregnant after an incident at a train station. My husband and I were queueing to buy tickets, and as we were waiting I glanced around at the pamphlets and posters at the far end of the room. For some completely inexplicable reason, in a room where every other bit of text was in Japanese, there was one poster which just had the word “CHEESE” on it in English, in very large orange letters. The moment I read it, it tipped my very low-level nausea into the feeling that I was going to throw up at any moment, and I had to apologise quickly to my husband and run outside to wait for him in the fresh air… Hello, morning sickness!

Walking through the office

Once you’re heavily pregnant, walking through the office takes at least twice as long as it used to. Not because of the magical pregnancy waddle (although that doesn’t help) but because everyone wants to stop you, tell you how enormous you are, ask you how far along you are, and exclaim loudly that you look ready to pop already. Thanks guys. Much like a vampire, I have no reflection, so it’s incredibly helpful for all my co-workers to make sure I know how enormous I am.

Drinking coffee

Okay, so you’re not supposed to drink too much caffeine when you’re pregnant, and I was very careful about that, as I’m normally a tea fiend. But I do also love a coffee, and so I would sometimes order a decaf from a coffee shop. Sadly, of course, people can’t tell that your coffee is decaf just by looking at it, which means that you have to be prepared to brave some very judgemental glares from complete strangers as you stroll through town trying to enjoy a quiet coffee…

Rolling over in bed

When you’re the size of a malnourished beluga whale and all your joints hurt, rolling over in bed is no longer an everyday task, achieved with only momentary inconvenience to yourself and your bedmate. Instead, it becomes an undertaking almost as mammoth as your giant belly. When I was pregnant, I had to sleep with extra pillows to support my hip and knee joints, so turning over in bed not only involved turning myself, but also swapping over the pillows, which frequently caught on the covers and dragged them out of place, and generally made me just consider giving up on the sweet dream of getting some sleep at all…

What random things do you find difficult when you’re pregnant?

Let me know whatever weird and wonderful things you found to be unexpectedly difficult when you’re pregnant! I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below…

health · Just for fun · top tips

How To Cope When Dealing With Hospital Administration Systems

Something that no-one realises about chronic illness, until they become ill themselves, is the sheer amount of extra life admin it generates. It’s simply incredible how much time can be taken up by what should be simple tasks – booking appointments, getting hold of medication, finding out test results, getting in touch with the right person if your symptoms change… It can actually become extremely stressful and difficult to cope with hospital administration systems and the issues they can create through sheer inefficiency.

I think the worst instance of hospital administration failure that I encountered was when I was telephoned by the hospital and told off for missing an MRI appointment after my first pituitary surgery. I had indeed missed the appointment, because the letter had got lost in the post. As I had been expecting a scan appointment, though, I had actually called the hospital two weeks earlier to chase up, and been put through to the MRI department, who had told me that I was not booked in for any scans. I later discovered the hospital for some mad reason has two MRI departments, so presumably my scan was with the other department, and at no point did anyone think to tell me to check with both departments. Well done, hospital. Good use of public money.

I was first diagnosed with my pituitary tumor aged 21, which means that I’ve been dealing with the hell that is hospital admin for 11 years, the vast majority of my adult life. And that means that I have a few tips to share!

I used to think that the difficulties I encountered in getting anything done was because I was dealing with the National Health Service. I’m so grateful for the NHS funding my treatment that I would just remind myself to be grateful for it, and put up with the terrible admin, endless phonecalls and feeling of being lost in the system. Then one of my friends developed a serious medical issue which they had treated privately… And they encountered the exact same problems! It seems that terrible admin may well be a universal healthcare experience. So here are my top tips for how to cope with hospital administration, without falling into a pit of total despair…

how to cope with inefficient hospital administration systems without giving in to despair

Top Tips For How To Cope With Hospital Administration Systems

1. Be Organised

You have to be organised. Just because your doctor tells you something will happen doesn’t mean it will, without your intervention. Keep a note of what appointments you’re due to have, and if you haven’t heard from the hospital or doctor’s surgery well in advance, get in touch to check what’s happening.

2. Get Ahead Of The Game

Try to get in touch with your hospital nice and early if you haven’t heard anything. It gives you the most time to get something sorted. There’s nothing more stressful than realising that, for instance, you’re going to have a gap in treatment because the hospital has forgotten to send you a prescription or order the right tests. So make sure you chase up on things sooner rather than later.

3. Remember it’s not anyone’s individual fault

When you’ve made six phone calls and still made no progress with getting an appointment sorted, it’s incredibly frustrating. Try to remember it’s not the fault of the people you’re talking to, who are mostly just human beings trying to do their jobs in an imperfect system. You’ll get better progress by trying to be friendly and build a rapport with the staff you talk to, rather than getting annoyed.

4. Think outside the box

Most hospital departments and doctors surgeries have a public number you can call, but of course when you do, you end up speaking to someone who knows nothing about you or your issue. As a result, you can find yourself explaining yourself over and over again to different people, and feeling like you’re getting nowhere.

It’s time to think outside the box! Firstly, get Googling. In hospitals, often the consultant or head of the department you’re under will have their own secretary and you may be able to find their contact details online, or even on the letters you’re sent from the department. You may have better luck contacting the secretary if you have specific issues with your treatment or new symptoms.

Over time, you may also be able to build up other contacts. Some hospital departments have specialist nurses attached to the department who run certain tests or follow-ups. If you can find the public phone number for the specialist nurses, they may be especially helpful in chasing up on things for you. I love the specialist endocrine nurses at my hospital, they’re so lovely and super helpful.

5. Take up cathartic screaming

Ultimately, despite all your best efforts, your encounters with hospital admin systems will likely still be frustrating and inefficient. At some point, it’s best to accept this and try not to let it get to you. All you can do is try your best to smooth the process, give timely reminders, and chase up on things that should have been organised for you.

Make sure you can have a good rant to a friend or family member about how frustrating it all is. If you find yourself getting too stressed out, try to take a step back and give yourself a break. You can always start making phone calls again tomorrow.

What are your worst experiences with hospital admin? Do you have any tips for how to cope with hospital administration systems? Let me me know in the comments!

Just for fun · mermaiding

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

Underwater modelling looks super cool, but I can tell you from experience that it has it’s downsides. So today, I present my list of the things no-one tells you about being an underwater model…

Things No One Tells You About Being An Underwater Model

1. You might look amazing but you will feel GROSS

Underwater modelling (and underwater performance more generally) may look incredibly glamorous, but the truth is… It’s not! If you’re shooting (or performing) in chlorinated water, by the end of the shoot your eyes will be bright red like some kind of mermaid vampire, and your nose will be running like mad. If you’re working in seawater or fresh water, your eyes probably won’t be as sore, but you’ll still have a gross runny nose and… You might smell pretty bad too. Ever seen a mermaid performing in an aquarium, looking magical alongside the fish and sharks? Yeah, when she gets out the tank backstage, she will stink of seaweed and shark poop. And she’ll still smell pretty bad even after her third hot shower that evening.

2. It takes FOREVER

That gorgeous shot of the underwater model hovering in the water, wrapped in elegant folds of transparent fabric that float around her in perfect symmetry? Yeah, the photographer will have about 500 versions of that photo that didn’t work out.

Getting the perfect underwater photo takes patience and persistence, sometimes to a quite ridiculous extent. So many things have to come together for the shot to work. The model has to be floating just right; so does her costume and hair. There can’t be any bubbles or floating debris obscuring the picture. If the model is moving in the water (and let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to stay still in water!), the photographer has to press the shutter button at the exact right moment, not too early or too late. Plus, all of the normal considerations that need to come together to create a great photo – the lighting, the model’s expression and open eyes, the make-up, the props… The list goes on.

So if you have a specific shot you’re trying to create, be prepared to try for the shot over… and over… and over… and then maybe just a few more times…

3. Being an underwater model is super cold!

So this one sounds obvious, but modelling underwater gets really cold. I presume that professional mermaids and underwater models who live in lovely hot countries don’t have this issue to quite the same degree, but if you’re in the UK it’s going to be an issue. Make sure you plan how you’re going to warm up once you’re out of the water – hot towels, warm drinks, a space heater or hot shower are all good ideas to have on standby. You also need to ensure that you’re not in the water for too long at one time – 15 minutes is the absolute max in cold water before you should have a break.

One of my coldest mermaid performance experiences was at an aquarium in Scotland where the water for their main sand tiger shark tank was fed directly from the Firth of Forth. After each stint swimming in the freezing water, we climbed straight into a large sink filled with warm water… It was heavenly!

Photograph by Mark Jones

4. Risk assessments are really important

Risk assessments for underwater models:

Modelling and performing underwater is inherently dangerous. You’re trying to hold your breath for long periods of time, often in cold water, often while wearing impractical costumes or working with props that could impede your ability to swim to the surface if you needed to. If you’re modelling or performing in open water, there are even more dangers – waves, tides, entanglement hazards from fishing gear, and so on. With all these dangers, it’s important to manage the risk to yourself and others.

I actually ended up with a concussion after one underwater photoshoot – we were shooting at night against a black background with a single beam of light, so it was pretty dark, and I surfaced straight into a metal ladder that had been placed across the pool as part of the lighting rig. Talking to my doctor the next day about how I sustained the injury required a LOT of explaining… And my GP always remembered me as the professional mermaid after that. So, proper risk assessment for underwater photography is really important.

How to do a risk assessment for an underwater photoshoot:

Essentially, the process involves identifying possible risks or hazards that could arise as part of the photoshoot, and taking action to eliminate or reduce the risk, as well as planning for what you’ll do if the risk materialises.

So for instance, linking back to aprevious section in this article, with an underwater photoshoot a risk could be that the model ends up with hypothermia; and you could plan to mitigate this by controlling the amount of time spend in the water, the temperature of the water (if possible), providing a heated area where they can warm up afterwards, having towels and warm drinks on hand, etc. etc. Or another risk could be the model getting into difficulties in the water; so think about having a safety diver or divers in the water, and/or a lifeguard on hand in shallower water, and agreeing a hand signal that the model can use to signal that they need help. Think about whether the model’s costume(s) could impede any rescue efforts, and how you can manage that.

By working your way through the possible dangers, and planning for how to keep the models and photographer safe, you can ensure you have a fun and low-risk shoot.

Other risks to consider in your assessment:

You should also think about other types of risk, such as whether you have the right insurance, and whether your photoshoot will be in line with the law. For instance, if you or your photographer is diving using SCUBA gear in the UK, you will be subject to the Diving At Work Regulations (1997). Make sure you do your research and know the relevant laws in advance of your photoshoot.

I’ll write more about risk assessing underwater photoshoots in a future post, so watch this space.

5. Being an underwater model is incredibly tiring

Underwater modelling is exhausting. Repeatedly diving and posing while holding your breath is very strenuous work, and it’s another reason why it’s important to schedule short diving windows – even if the water is warm. It’s really easy to underestimate just how tiring it can be! I recommend restricting photoshoot timings to a maximum of 20 minutes at a time before the model gets a break. If you have multiple models at a shoot, it’s best to rotate them; often the photographer will be able to keep going longer if they’re shooting from outside of the water or are using SCUBA gear, so it’s the best way to make use of the time.

Make sure you’ve properly considered how tired you will be after any extended session as an underwater model, and how you will manage that. It may be sensible to ensure that you’re not going to have to drive yourself home after the photoshoot – especially combined with the risk of things such as getting sore, dry eyes from the chlorine.

Photograph by Johannes Hjorth

6. You can’t communicate with your photographer

Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Underwater, the photographer cannot direct the model while actually taking pictures. In order to discuss how the shoot is going, you’ll both need to surface to talk to one another. That takes time and can be a real pain, especially if the photographer is using SCUBA gear, or if you’re shooting in a tank when it can be difficult for the model to hear anything that’s being said outside the tank itself.

So for a successful underwater photoshoot, make sure you have a thorough discussion with your photographer before getting into the water. Agree the type of shots you’re aiming for, the poses, location in the water, and any hand signals you’ll use to communicate with one another. That way, you’ll get the most of your time shooting together.

More tips and tricks for underwater models

This article is part of a series I’m writing called The Professional Mermaid’s Guide to Underwater Modelling! Why not check out the series page to see all the articles I’ve written about underwater modelling and photography? The series includes top tips on everything from learning how to open your eyes underwater, to styling hair and using wigs in the water, underwater makeup tips, and more!

Are you an underwater model or photographer? Do you have any tips that you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Props To Create Stunning Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model, I’ve been writing a series of articles with my top tips for underwater photography. These blog posts are primarily aimed at people who are new to underwater modelling, but they’ll be useful to models, photographers and anyone else aiming to create the perfect underwater photograph! In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to use props underwater for the best effect…

how to use props underwater to create stunning underwater photographs modelling top tips the sickly mama mermaid

How To Use Props In Underwater Photography:

Using fabric in underwater photography:

Loose fabric is one of the best props you can use in underwater photography, because visibly floating fabric is a simple way of enhancing the weightless sensation of being underwater. There are some simple ways to enhance the effect when selecting your fabric:

  • Pick the right fabric. Lighter fabric will float the best (and the longest) in the water, and fabric which is slightly translucent will catch the light and look most effective in your photographs. Organza, chiffon, voile, tulle etc. are all good choices.
  • Consider the background you’ll be shooting against and select a fabric that will contrast, e.g. white fabric against a black background, orange fabric against a blue background and so on. Bright block colours are usually more effective underwater than darker or heavily patterned fabrics.
  • Ensure the fabric is big enough to have an effect – if you are using loose fabric then you want at least a couple of metres of it, if it’s part of a costume (sleeves, skirts, etc) then again, bigger is better.

Then you need to think about how you’re actually going to use the fabric in your pictures. Some top tips for working with fabric underwater include:

  • Move slowly and steadily through the water, to maximise your opportunity to get the shot.
  • If you’re using loose fabric, aim to keep it at chest height or above, as this will accentuate the weightless effect of the picture.
  • Think about how you’re shaping your hands as you hold onto the fabric – you don’t want beautiful flowing fabric clenched in tight little fists!
  • Aim to keep the fabric mostly behind or above you unless it’s partially translucent, as otherwise it will block you in the photo.
mermaid using fabric prop underwater the sickly mama mairead claydon blog

Using Small Props In Underwater Photography

Often small props can be a very simple way to create some extra interest in your underwater photography, or to give it a fun sense of surrealism. One of the most fun photographs of me underwater is of me dressed in a mermaid tail, reading a newspaper at the bottom of a water tank (see below, by Shamira Crivellaro). I love it because it’s such a surreal shot – the floaty hair makes it clear that the photo really was taken underwater, but the calm pose reading the paper with my glasses on is not what you expect from typical mermaid photography!

mermaid reading a newspaper underwater wearing glasses

Here’s a few top tips on getting the most from using small props underwater:

  • Make sure they’re waterproof! Okay, it sounds incredibly obvious but there’s nothing worse than having a key prop disintegrate in the middle of a shoot (and then finding yourself swimming around the tank trying to retrieve the pieces!). So make sure they’re waterproof before you start – that includes making sure they won’t leak colour, or have bits fall off, and that they sink/float as you’d expect.
  • A single prop is usually more effective than loads of them. Getting the perfect shot underwater is difficult enough without introducing too many variables! Make it something simple that’s easy to interact with.
  • Combining ‘everyday’ items with underwater photography is often very effective at achieving that surreal look. For instance, newspapers, tea cups, fans, mirrors etc.
mermaid holding a model ship underwater david ballard
Photograph by David Ballard

Using Large Props In Underwater Photography

Large props, such as furniture, can also look incredible in your underwater photography, but they bring their own challenges! Again, you need to make sure they’re waterproof, but what other considerations are there when working with large props?

  • The biggest consideration is buoyancy! If your furniture is trying to float away, it’s incredibly difficult to work with. I once did a shoot with a chair that was almost impossible, because it just was not heavy enough to stay sunk at the bottom of the pool, and we both kept drifting away together! (See the pic below… We made it work eventually!) You can always add weights to help something sink if needed.
  • Working with large items creates additional risk, particularly in terms of getting the props into/out of the water and the risk of costumes catching on the props during the shoot and restricting movement. Make sure you’ve properly risk assessed the shoot and considered how to manage these potential dangers.

The Underwater Photoshoot Series

This article is part of a series giving advice on underwater photoshoots both for photographers and underwater models, drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid. Why not check out my previous articles, including top tips for modelling underwater and this blog post helping you learn how to open your eyes underwater.

baking · celebrations · food · gluten free · Just for fun · recipes · Seasonal

Ridiculously Delicious Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

So the 16th February is, of course, Pancake Day. And let’s face it, what with lockdown and coronavirus, we’ve not got much to look forward to this year. Which means (in my mind) that Pancake Day should now be treated as a major holiday and celebrated as such. To that end, I’m bringing together some of my personal favourite recipes and ideas for incredible pancakes – including sweet and savory recipes, gluten free pancakes, and some slightly outlandish ideas as well… By the time I’m finished, I might just have to turn it into Pancake Week!

Pancake Day Inspiration and Ideas

Big Fat Pancakes

Ah, big fat pancakes. You know the ones. The kind of fluffy pancakes you find stacked up like the Empire State Building and smothered in syrup, on a plate that’s much too small, in a cheap American diner…. Om nom nom. Here’s a recipe for big fat pancakes from BBC Good Food – the normal flour can be directly substituted for gluten-free flour. And see below for ideas on how to make them a bit more exciting…

Savoury Pancakes

These kind of American pancakes really work well with additions to the batter. If you’re a fan of the Hawaiian pizza, I highly recommend scattering shredded ham and small pieces of pineapple into the pan along with the wet batter. They will cook into the pancake and, served with a little melted cheese on top, create a delicious (if slightly unorthodox) Hawaiian pancake treat! Unless you are my husband, in which case you will think it is the pancake of the devil. Fair enough.

If you are of my husband’s mindset, with regards to the combination of ham, pineapple and cheese, then there are of course big fat savoury pancake alternatives. Another great choice is to keep the shredded ham in the batter (but drop the pineapple!… not into the batter…) and then top your pancakes with smoked cheese and chives.

Sweet Pancakes

The obvious choice is, of course, to drop blueberries in your pancake batter and serve with syrup or, if you’re feeling especially extravagant, blueberry yoghurt and maple syrup. I think pretty much any fruit + yoghurt combination works – I’m not the biggest ever fan of blueberries but I love these pancakes with raspberries and yoghurt (in fact you can see that exact combo in one of the pictures on this page!). Ice cream is a more than acceptable yoghurt substitute if you don’t care about pretending that your breakfast is remotely healthy.

Another amazing big fat pancake is a cinammon swirl pancake. These are perfect breakfast pancakes! Basically it’s a normal American pancake but with an addition of sweet cinammon butter, swirled into the batter. I make them at home on a semi-regular basis and they are super delicious, but fair warning: I have never managed to get them looking particularly attractive (hence the absence of photos). To this day, I have no idea how the folks over at BBC Good Food managed to get theirs looking so perfect. But who cares? They don’t last long enough to photograph anyway.

I also weirdly love the combo of banana, bacon and maple syrup for the ultimate sweet and savoury twist.

Skinny Flat Pancakes

Let’s be clear. By ‘skinny’ pancakes, I mean pancakes that are physically slender, not ones that are in any way healthy to eat. That is not in the spirit of Pancake Day. The best thing about skinny flat pancakes, a.k.a. classic French crepes (basic recipe here, straight swap the flour for gluten free flour if needed), is that you can eat a lot more of them before you’re full! As we all know, on Pancake Day one should maximise the quantity, as well as the quality, of pancakes consumed…

Savoury Crepes

Crepes work super well with savoury flavours. My favourite is to spread the crepe with cream cheese, sprinkle with cracked black pepper, smoked salmon, a squeeze of lemon and a generous scattering of chopped chives. It’s sort of like a smoked salmon blini, but much much bigger!

Sweet Crepes

Having started with a savoury crepe (or two, or three) obviously you need to move on to dessert. When I was a kid, my mum always served up crepes spread with strawberry jam, and/or a sprinkle of lemon juice and sugar. Sometimes the classics are the best!

But these days I often dish up a range of sweet fillings, so people can pick and choose their favourites and maybe have a few different combinations. Strawberries and banana are the perfect versatile fruits to have available to fill your crepes, along with Nutella (other chocolate spreads are available…) or caramel sauce.

Fun and Fruity Pancakes

Speaking of fruit, my husband was the one to first introduce me to banana pancakes. Before he came along, I thought ‘banana pancakes’ were the same as ‘banana and pancakes’ – I clearly didn’t pay enough attention to Jack Johnson in my youth. Boy, was I missing out! Proper banana pancakes are now a staple in our house, and Little Man loves them too.

Making banana pancakes can be as simple as two ingredients – banana and egg – making them naturally gluten free, although I prefer recipes that include baking powder for a little extra lightness. My go-to recipe is here, but I usually add a tablespoon of gluten-free flour – because I find the addition of flour makes the pancakes much easier to flip! Banana-only pancakes can be very runny, and you end up with rather unattractive melty blobs (although to be fair, they are absolutely delicious melty blobs). I recommend serving them hot from the pan with either maple syrup or golden syrup – both are delicious.

I’ve heard a rumour that you can make other types of fruit pancake, but honestly why would you bother?

Boozy Pancakes

The classic boozy pancake is, naturally, the Crepe Suzette. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious recipe, but also requires a certain amount of confidence and fancy chef-y skills like making caramel and then setting it on fire. The BBC conveniently have an easy version recipe which they call Cointreau Pancakes (other orange-flavoured liqueurs are available).

I have been religiously Googling alternative alcoholic pancake recipes for Pancake Day 2021 inspiration, because as we all know, lockdowns are vastly improved by the addition of booze. The ones that have caught my eye the most are these caramelised banana and rum pancakes (drool!), these Bailey’s red velvet pancakes with whipped cream (I love the idea of red velvet pancakes!), these pina colada pancakes (my favourite cocktail) and these strawberry lime margarita pancakes which just sound straight-up amazing. Will I get the chance to try all these recipes before Pancake Day? Clearly, no – so if you try one, let me know what you think in the comments!

More Pancake Day Inspiration

Do you have any 2021 Pancake Day inspiration of your own? Let me know your favourite recipes in the comments! Or check out my other recipes and gluten-free baking ideas here.