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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Baby

When it comes to parenting the hard way is hard but the easy way is even harder

Young women carrying firewood from what was Sackville (Now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, 1916, Press Association Archives.

Like most parents I came to experiment with “babywearing” by necessity. An email from my landlord delivered the news that our apartment was to be sold at just about the moment my contractions kicked off with baby number three. My husband, the long-suffering Mr Frazer, would need to work tirelessly every weekend and late into the evenings for the next few months to secure us a mortgage. Meanwhile I would hold down the fort. I had accumulated enough parenting experience by then to be pretty terrified by the prospect of being home alone with two kids and a newborn. Things change as you progress on the parenting journey. In the immortal words of Fleetwood Mac “time makes you bolder”. Once upon a time I would have stopped the vacuum to remove every sucked up lego and treated every bump and bruise as a genuine emergency. Now I just sigh and shout “Is there blood?” before I’ll even look up from the dishes. 

When my eldest was born thirteen years ago it seemed the whole world stopped just for her. Every time she batted a beautiful eyelid I dropped what I was doing and rushed to her side to nurse her for hours in a cloud of cushions. Absolutely everything else in my life could, and did, wait until her needs were satisfied. But this time there would be a four year old and an eight year old waiting too. They were also relying on me to be fed, clothed and brought to school on time. What would I do if the baby needed feeding during the school run? Or started a two-hour colic-bawl while the other two waited for dinner? Both our families lived too far away to help with the day-to-day stuff and I would be flying solo most nights until after bath and bedtime. So I turned to babywearing in search of a necessary second pair of hands.

I had dabbled with carriers before, but had never really gotten the hang of it. As soon as it felt even a little tiring or heavy I would sit down, unbuckle all my various straps, wriggle free, and then forget about it for a few weeks. But as with so many things in life (and parenting in particular) I was about to learn that the hard way is hard, but the easy way is even harder.  Giving up on babywearing so quickly in the past was a mistake. By quitting before trying a variety of techniques and carriers or building up my stamina I had missed out on a truly transformative parenting tool. I all too often ended up holding a squirmy toddler with one arm while steering a heavy buggy down a busy street with the other. Ugh. But baby number three brought me a second chance with babywearing and I soon found that a little investment in time and effort to master this parenting skill paid off. I ended up wishing I could go back and learn how to wrap from the start. 

In time I began to wonder why I had given up so easily the first time around. We humans often assume that tasks deemed “natural” should be easy, and come automatically. Many new mothers have this expectation around breastfeeding before the gruelling, nipple chafing, mind-bending real life experience pops that bubble. It is true that our evolution as a species has prepared us for breastfeeding and carrying our young. But it is equally true that it has prepared us biologically for hunting, foraging and building shelter. I would still want some practice before being air-dropped into a remote forest alone to survive on my skills. And babywearing will feel natural and easy eventually. Like baby’s first steps, what will feel effortless later will take a good deal of conscious attention to master at first. The very techniques that were hardest to learn and get used to at first (like wrapping) were also the most beneficial and convenient in time.

A life-changing source of help for me in learning how to wrap confidently was Hedwych Veeman’s fantastic youtube channel Wrapyouinlove. A certified babywearing educator, Hedwych offers clear, well-paced instructional videos on how to carry your babies and toddlers for everyone from nervous beginners to the more experienced and adventurous (with techniques like tandem wrapping).  I talked to Hedwych in October 2022 to find out how her own journey in babywearing started and pick her brains on what barriers exist to making it more widespread.

I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing

I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing. Although I had never heard the phrase before it needed no explanation. I instantly recognised the hippie-dippy, tie-dyed mother stereotype, so relaxed she is virtually horizontal and too busy weaving homemade hemp baskets to realise she is depriving her kids of the discipline and routine they need to thrive in a challenging world. But the tide is turning on industrial era parenting ideals that are centred on schedules and discipline. Tie-dye is back. As Hedwych describes it, this fear that sparing the rod will spoil your child frames our children as little dictators seeking to manipulate us rather than little people with legitimate needs for comfort and closeness. “How would you like to be treated?”, she asks herself when trying to decide what is best for her babies. Whether your child’s current needs are more for comfort and closeness or more for predictability and routine, either way babywearing can help. Rather than an unnecessary indulgence, babywearing is a practical and useful tool for all busy parents. No particular diehard ideological stance on attachment parenting or goat wool socks needed. Whatever socks you have on will be fine.

Hedwych’s need was brought on by the stress of having to study for upcoming exams while also caring for a newborn. Anyone who cares for children regularly can identify with the dilemma of having only one pair of hands but several different jobs that need doing at any given moment. She advises us to view babywearing as a parenting tool rather than just a form of transport. Although as a form of transport it can be pretty useful too when you can avoid the queue for the lifts or squeeze yourself and your baby onto a crowded city bus. But caring for multiple children, especially when you include toddlers, is where babywearing really comes into its own. As Hedwych demonstrates, use of traditional wrap carriers especially can facilitate carrying much older and bigger children that we find in the average Babybjorn. Sceptics are often concerned that carrying toddlers and older children will discourage independent walking, but as Hedwych and I have both found, the opposite is often true. Packing a carrier with you on your trips encourages the family to attempt longer walks, knowing that if tiredness sets in for a toddler on the way home you have a plan B. And a carrier is a much handier and off-road friendly plan B than lugging a stroller with you on a hike. For city dwellers, carriers are also a much more public transport friendly option too.  

Carrier time as a baby hasn’t stopped little Séamus loving hikes to Howth summit. Photograph by Mary Frazer.

And yet it seems there is still a lot of resistance to the idea that babywearing can be good for you and your family in Ireland. Some strange comments have cropped up more than once for me while out and about with my baby. “Isn’t he cold?” (pressed right up against his Mam’s body in June? Eh, no). “Isn’t that bad for your back?” (no, but sitting at a computer all day certainly was). “Aren’t you afraid he will suffocate?” (Yes! In cots, prams, cars and everywhere else all new Mam’s worry about this all the time! That’s why we follow the safety advice). Babywearing has also been criticised by some as a form of cultural appropriation, as many of the commercially successful carriers of recent years originate with time-honoured local traditions that are not acknowledged by marketers presenting these tools as new inventions. But as Aaminah Shakur points out here, every culture has traditional methods and customs around carrying their young, but so many cultures have unfortunately lost touch with those traditions. Curious as to how so many cultures could have gotten to a point where babywearing seems somehow abnormal, unsafe or culturally “other”, I googled “when was the pram invented” and came across the staggering claim on that before the invention or the first perambulators circa 1800 “babies were seldom carried outside of the home”.

So, before modern technology came along with its industrial wheeled doo-dads for sale, mothers and babies throughout the ages just…stayed at home? It got me thinking about how much of today’s “essential” baby equipment is an expensive patch over a stolen or forgotten piece of cultural parenting heritage. Despite having been born and brought up in Ireland and interested in babywearing for some time, I was completely ignorant of Irish babywearing customs until I saw these fascinating pictures posted by @history_of_irish_babywearing on instagram. The celtic babywearing traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were practised with blankets, with no special equipment needed at all, just a bit of know-how.

Parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades, and not always for the better. Vested interests have profited enormously from our move away from traditional skills towards reliance on increasingly expensive and complex tools. When we factor in the time spent working longer hours to afford these fancy parenting devices, the hours spent dealing with the concomitant clutter, and the fact that they have replaced cheaper more effective parenting skills, we may conclude that far from helping, they are actually making our lives harder.

I couldn’t help but think I had missed out on something crucial in my whole approach to parenting one day as I watched my then sixty-something mother in law deftly change a nappy. The bum in question belonged to one of her many grandchildren, casually balanced on her knee. No mats, stands or paraphernalia were needed beyond some baby wipes. She never missed a spot or a beat in the conversation as she worked, though she never looked down. I thought about all the changing tables and other devices I relied on over the years to complete this simple everyday job. I made up my mind to pay more attention in future when the grannies were granny-ing in my vicinity in case I could learn a trick or two, and I certainly did. I watched. I practised. Now, if you need a nappy change two miles into a forest hike, up a windy hillside, or just in a public toilet without a table, I’m your woman. Massive queues for parenting facilities hold no fear. This change in parenting perspective didn’t happen overnight, and I am still working on it. 

If you are a newbie considering an adventure in babywearing then bravo! Be prepared that the learning phase is going to take time. Even if you are still expecting, you can start to practise tying your wraps with a doll in front of a mirror before your little “package” finally arrives. Sometimes you will make mistakes, sometimes you will be too tired, and sometimes things will take longer than you would like. There will be blood, sweat and poo, but just over the hill is freedom from all that baby junk

Here are links to some more information and resources on babywearing, good luck!


It’s Freaky Friday All Week (3)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part Three

Day Two: Tuesday

John is working all day. I’m home alone with three unusually self-sufficient children and no housework to do. I’m pervaded by a subtle but encompassing malaise. A sort of restlessness and unease. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is… until I suddenly recognise it. It’s boredom! It’s been so long I barely recognised my old teen-years nemesis. Time to pull out the mental list of “Things I Never Get Around To” and start wasting time with wild abandon. Who knows? Maybe some personal grooming is even on the cards. The sky’s the limit. 

Lunch is Michael’s turn today. He places a bag of pre-washed salad, a pack of pre-sliced cheese and a tub of marinated olives on the table, throws a bunch of forks at us and claims he has “made” lunch. You can keep your corporate efficiency gurus. If you are really interested in cutting out wasted time and effort, just watch how a nine year old boy does it. You might learn a trick or two.

Michael (9) likes to work smart, not hard

I’ve cycled depressingly quickly through my wish list of things I’ve always wanted to have time for in one morning. By late afternoon I find myself putting up a shelf and reorganising my kitchen. I’m making a mess while Mary is preparing dinner. I’m at it so long and so chaotically that I have to ask her “doesn’t it bother you that I’ve turned the kitchen into a dump while you are trying to cook?” “Not at all.” she replies. “It’s not my mess.” She is contentedly simmering a smoked sausage sauce to serve with pasta. It’s a Mary staple and a family favourite. When we finally eat, Michael says the sauce is “too good for the Gods”. This is a reference to the “good enough for Jehovah” line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I am bursting with pride as this is by far his cleverest and most sophisticated joke to date. 

In the evening, after their laundry and dish work they all sit around watching as many cartoons as they want, leaving myself and John to drink beer and murder a few classics on the guitar. At 10pm all three are still awake, but drift one by one away from the TV and on to my bed where the singing turns to chatting until little Séamus nods off in my lap. The perfect evening.

Some Girls Have All the Luck

When I moved from a small, mixed-sex national school in Shannon to a big all-girls school in Belfast for the first time, it marked a seismic shift in my inner world. Aged ten-and-a-bit, introverted, awkward and usually oblivious to social cues, the move to a new city and school had brought some previously uninteresting things to my attention. I started to notice how other girls looked, and compare them to myself. Most of the girls who seemed happy, confident and at home in this school had certain features in common. They had perms. They had little rock-solid bumps of hair at the front, bound tightly with gallons of hair spray and slides, and colourful scrunchies at the back. They also had what I now know are called white “slouch socks”, but at the time just confused me. I knew their socks were better than mine, that their socks had a volume and a presence that mine somehow lacked, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why or how this was so.

To my amazement I managed to make friends with some of these girls to the extent that I was allowed to “call for” them after school. In case you are under thirty years of age, I’ll explain that “calling for” someone after school was where you walked to a friend’s house unannounced and rapped their door. They answered, flung a coat on, and shouted over their shoulder “I’m going out!” to whoever was in charge inside. And “out” was where we went. There was no real plan, and usually very little to do. There was a lot of talking, visiting the shop en masse, and linking arms. We linked arms while walking anywhere, usually shouting or singing at the tops of our voices. 

The method by which I gained access to this important nexus of girls was accidental. Despite my having the wrong food at break time (fruit instead of crisps), the wrong coat (warm and padded instead of a paper thin Naff jacket) and the wrong hair (no perm, no hairspray, no bump)  I circumvented the system by wowing them with my doodles in class. It just so happens that RTE was not widely available in Belfast at this time, so most of my classmates did not recognise the Don Conroy masterpieces I was cranking out day after day. They had never seen his how-to videos on the Den explaining that anyone could draw these things.

Although I had moved at a pretty vulnerable time in a girl’s life, I had never felt more at home. Some thirty years later, I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere like I belonged to that little group. The streets where my classmates lived, up past my school at the edge of the city, were our playground. When I watch hard hitting independent films about the reality of life on council estates… the low, crumbling brick walls, the overflowing bins, the broken glass, the paint chipped railings… it makes me a little bit homesick and lonely still. 

“council flats” by sgis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I knew I was accepted by my new group of friends because they nick-named me Pee-Wee (based on my stature) and begged me to stay out when it was home time. They couldn’t understand that home time was not a remotely fungible or flexible concept in my house. My parents were different. We didn’t watch the soaps, or anything else my Mother deemed to have the potential to be a bad influence. We went to mass every Sunday, without exception. We had non-negotiable boundaries on behaviour. I hated that the fun went on without me long after my early bedtime. And I really hated that most extra-curricular adventures the gang decided to take; up to the nearby forest to jump streams, throwing stones into the local pond (known as “half moon lake” and drenched in scary urban legend), taking a bus into town, kissing boys; were off-limits to me. My Mother had a sixth-sense for mischief and could usually sense right away when I returned home having broken the small circle of geographical and behavioural freedom afforded to me. She just knew.

Despite being the poor sap saddled with the stick-in-the-mud parents and all their rules, my friendships with the gang developed until I was spending every free minute I could with them. One of the tokens of acceptance that I valued most from them was an invitation “in”. Being taken into someone’s bedroom rather than waiting at the door was a sign the friendship was going to the next level. No longer just a peripheral member, but really part of the gang. That’s why when Deirdre* brought me in one day, I was determined to do and say the right things, and most of all not to betray my general cluelessness about life. Deirdre had an unbelievably bouncy perm and was allowed to wear low-neck bodysuits. She held a lot of sway with the gang, not least because she had a knack for attracting the attention of boys. So I tried not to show my surprise when I saw her bed was a beaten-looking mattress on the floor. She mumbled something about the state of the room being a temporary one as it was due to be “done up” very soon. That sounded reasonable to me. When she went to the bathroom for a wee, she took me in with her. As she unbuttoned and sat down right in front of me without asking me to turn around or showing even a hint of embarrassment or hesitation, I tried hard once again to seem at ease, as though I were used to company in the bathroom too. She continued the conversation as she urinated and wiped and I struggled to contain my own unease as I wondered whether I should turn, look away, or just try to look at her eyes as she spoke. How I wished I could be as confident and at home in my own skin as she was! She had boobs already, at only eleven. How I wished I had even the mildest swelling, promising boobs to come at that age. But I had nothing. I felt trapped in the body of a child, with parents who treated me as a child, whilst she was somehow almost a woman already.  

As Deirdre brought me back downstairs to head out again, her mother heard the stairs creak and called us into the living room to chat. Her hair was white and yellow towards the ends and black at the roots, and she had black lines drawn around her eyes. She talked about going to a nightclub called The Arena. It was somewhere outside of Belfast. A bus had to be arranged. She told me how she would have a carry-out on the bus then take just half of an E once inside, because she wasn’t going to go mad or anything. Unsure of what to say, or why she was telling me, I just nodded silently. I could always find out what an “E” was later.  My God! A bus trip to a nightclub! I’d heard of some older sisters, or friends of friends who were 16 or 17 getting into The Arena, but the idea that someone’s Mother would go absolutely floored me. Again, I hoped I looked cool, like all this was very normal and expected for me. Like my Mother’s social life didn’t centre round knitting circles and prayer groups. 

I never managed to make it inside Deirdre’s house again.  My Mother put her foot down in regards to my roaming up “around there” with “those girls”. I was heartbroken. I sat at home night after night, with my parents’ tv news droning on and on in the background, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Why was she treating me like a child? How I envied Deirdre. Her looks, her friends, her freedoms. I turned inward. I turned to my books. When September came, my parents sent me off to a Grammar School outside the area, a bus ride away, where I knew no one. I made some friends there, but we never had the kind of freewheeling adventures and closeness I had before. We never really had a “gang”. And I never did figure out how to dress or do my hair to attract attention from boys or envy from other girls. I embraced grunge instead, and told myself I didn’t want to. In time I gained my freedom by signing up for University and moving out, far away from the old streets to new streets near the Botanical Gardens and the Museum.

One morning coming through town I bumped into one of the old gang. I asked about everyone I could remember. What became of so-and-so? Where are they now? What are they doing? I eventually asked about  Deirdre. She seemed to think I knew part of the story already, because she said wasn’t it a real shame that Deirdre’s Mother took her Father back into the house after what he had done to Deirdre, her little girl. Of course Deirdre couldn’t just forgive him for what happened, she had no choice but to run away. The last she had heard was that a group of boys from the area had taken a car and gone to get her from the juvenile home. She jumped from a first floor window and left with them in a stolen car. No one had heard what became of her after that. I nodded silently, hoping I would seem worldly and unsurprised, like I had known what was going on in that house all along. I wished my friend well and said goodbye. I went off to catch a bus to a long day of statistics and research methods.

*pseudonyms have been used

Find a Feeling, Pass it on

I don’t think there is ever really just one moment when you decide to marry the person you are with, but some moments are such obvious forks in the road that we look back on them as decisive.

I was in the living room at my parents house in Dundrum, Co Down when my brother arrived home for Christmas. He handed me a small, folded and pencil-marked white package. On closer inspection it was a used office envelope, which had been folded over to form an improvised wrapper. “It’s a Christmas present from John”, he said. 

John was a friend of his that I had been seeing for about a month or so. It was such a new relationship that I had decided to cleverly avoid any awkward gift-giving uncertainty (and unnecessary expenditure) by suggesting in advance that we give each other a single book. Now this deal obviously had the potential to bring on some uncertainty and stress about the choice of book. Because I happened to be smugly secure in a lifelong identity as ‘the reader’ amongst my family and friends I felt sure I would come out of it looking ok anyway.

It took a beat or two to register that this dirty envelope was a gift, especially as someone else’s name had been written and crossed out on the front of it. I pulled a small, thin, volume out of the envelope and opened it. There was an inscription on the inside, but, alas, it was not to me. It was from one strange man to another, on the event of his birthday. Beside the inscription was the price inscribed in pencil- £2.00. The plot thinned. The inscription wasn’t for me because the book was second hand. 

The book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It tells the story of a rich Prince who turns his back on luxury and privilege to seek spiritual enlightenment after witnessing the suffering of the masses outside the palace. After years of wandering and trying many different paths he finds pursuit of both enlightenment and flesh equally disappointing and settles down by a river. The sound of the river flowing calls to him to stop searching and start living.

I was twenty six at this time, and floundering in a sea of opportunity. I was unbalanced by unexpected acceptance into my dream PhD program the year before. At the same time, I was lost in a vacuum left by the disappearance of my religious faith. The book floored me. It was just what I  needed to read. I had a strong gut feeling that John would be part of my life for a long time to come.

A few weeks later we were taking a walk together through a very quiet town centre. He had come to stay over with me as I was living an hour and a half away from him by train, in a peaceful seaside village in Northern Ireland. It was Sunday, so we were hung over. He told me what he thought about the book I had chosen for him. It was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. The story is about identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia. It is long, detailed, and emotionally tense. John is an identical twin, and as psychology was one of the interests that had gotten us chatting in the first place, I thought this was a no-brainer. He hated it, and pulled no punches in telling me exactly why. He rubbished the plot, eviscerated the structure, and tore into the style. Ouch. I was incensed. Who was this idiot to think he could tell me what was and wasn’t an enjoyable book? Stupid gut feeling! I never wanted to speak to him again, and I never did, for about an hour.

I hadn’t yet become acquainted with John’s unique style of giving or speaking then. He’s gives it to you straight. Not because it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or there’s a social obligation. Not because it’s expected, or meets the budget, or it’s what you want to hear.  

He had picked a book for me that he knew would resonate with my exact circumstances. That meant something to him. A book that at least attempted to stand at the edge of the void of our existence shouting back some ideas about why we are here and what we should do about it. He presented it without artifice, didn’t worry about looking cheap, and I don’t think he would have cared less if I’d left it in a train station, thrown it in a bin, or hated every word of it. I picked something diverting and superficially relevant, wrapped it well and hoped I wouldn’t look stupid in my choice. 

We’ve been married for twelve years now. Books pass through our house like a river. They appear from friends and family who have read something they want to share. Once finished, John always knows who to pass it on to. Somewhere else that idea needs to go. Giving without thought of return.

This reminiscence was inspired by Lucie Ehiwe’s post on reading to live better. I wish you and Peter many happy arguments about the ideas you read.

Don’t Forget You are a Giant Dirt-Bat

A few years ago, when my son was about five years old, we were late to drop his older sister off at a birthday party. The party was in the beautiful Edwardian Herbert Park in Dublin. It was warm, and I was sweaty…and stressed. I was pushing an empty buggy with as much speed as I could possibly muster while an unnaturally hefty two-month-old lay strapped to my chest.  All the while I was coaxing the other two kids along as fast as I could.

I decided that I’d had enough of my son’s rough-shamble appearance. It seemed that other parents could turn kids of a similar age out at parties clean, neat and well-dressed, so why couldn’t I? I put the effort in. I got the nice, neat, stiff clothes on. I put him in a headlock and managed to get the face actually clean. I won the argument about shoes, and off we went. We were a little late, but I was covered for this by the wide-reaching small baby excuse.

Out of puff, and now just about 5 minutes from arriving finally presentable, disaster struck. As we passed a mound of mulch and muck, about 10 feet high, my son broke ranks. He peeled off and reached the top of the mulch mountain in what felt like a second. Before I could process what was happening, he announced clearly, and with startling conviction to all around “I AM A GIANT DIRT-BAT!” before tumbling and rolling his way down to the muddy puddle below. He arrived at the party looking like he had stopped at Woodstock for a weekend of debauchery on the way. I was not pleased.

He’s still the dirtiest child I know. There are no knees in his uniform trousers. I have to force hair cuts on him by stealth, threat and bribe. And the hair cuts are necessary, because, try as I might, he resists any sort of brushing of his tangled birds-nest like he would an attempt on his life. I’m sure his teacher can see exactly what he has for breakfast every morning. I know when he’s lying about brushing his teeth, the evidence is all over his chin and jumper if he really has.  

I’m sure this can’t last forever. I’m at the end of my tether, washing-wise, for one thing. I need him to cut me a break from the ruining two or three outfits a day. 

One day he might be standing in front of me in a tie, with an immaculate white shirt, tucked in. There may even be product of some sort in his clean and styled hair. Maybe he’s going for a big interview, maybe he’s going on a big date, or maybe he’s even getting married. He’ll be looking sharp and clean, and I’ll be bursting with mortifying maternal pride. And at that point I’ll squeeze his hand and lean in close to whisper an important message. “Don’t forget, you are a giant dirt-bat.” 

Picture by John Frazer, visit to see more of his art

Patsy’s fax machine… new ways to appreciate the old

I’ve always been annoyingly intrigued by the past, from my 1990s teenage obsession with 1970s flares, to my 2000s throwback to vinyl, and my very misguided and short-lived 2010s fling with a real typewriter. I know, I know, it is very easy to romanticise the past and assume it was all so much better and simpler then, though this is unlikely to be the case. I admit it, the flared jeans trailed the ground and wicked up a good 6 inches of rain from the footpath. The vinyl got scratched. I never could find a ribbon to fit that typewriter, and waiting for one stopped me writing for a least 3 months.

I’m not a Luddite. I think it’s important to stay grateful and realisitc about the opportunities technological development has given us. Much as I do love Blur, I can’t concur that Modern Life is Rubbish.

I indulge my obsession with the past by making digitial images of vintage machines. These are mostly drawn in pencil on paper first, then coloured on iPad using an apple pencil and ProCreate. This is an amazing way to draw with an intuitive, traditional feel, but retain all the benefits of a digital image that can be copied and edited. Here is an example of my work.

CC BY-NC These works can be reproduced non-commercially,

but credit must be given to their creator, Patricia Frazer

“Boot Up”…

This is my take on the Macintosh Plus, a very early version Mac computer. This model was introduced in 1986. It features a slot to insert a floppy disk at the front. I am fascinated with old technology, and although I can well remember using floppy disks like it was yesterday, I think these are now old enough for their designs to stir up some nostalgia in me.

Domo Arigato, Mr Human

In November 2020 the Financial Times published a story titled “Thanks for polluting the planet” in which they reported on British research claiming that the 64 million ‘unnecessary’ emails sent by Britons each day contribute significantly to climate change.

A BBC article also reporting on the issue (Climate change: Can sending fewer emails really save the planet?) questions the calculations of how much energy would really be saved, and whether such targeting of relatively small savings may detract from more worthy targets. But what goes unquestioned in this and many other reports on the story is the underlying assumption that saying thanks is somehow “useless”.

The research behind the claims was commissioned by Ovo Energy, a ‘Green’ British Energy Supplier with a published goal to become a zero carbon business by 2030. 

The research was carried out by survey consultants Censuswide and identifies the following as the top 10 most “unnecessary” emails:

Top 10 most ‘unnecessary’ emails sent:
1. Thank you6. Have a good evening
2. Thanks7. Did you get/see this?
3. Have a good weekend8. Cheers
4. Received9. You too
5. Appreciated10. LOL

Chart Source: Ovo Energy website .

I have to say, as a psychologist I ROFLMAO when I read that thanks and sharing a laugh are deemed not just unimportant, but wholly ‘unnecessary’ communications.

No information is given on the Ovo website linking to a full version of the report, nor is any indication given that the research was published in full or in part in a peer reviewed academic publication. Of course, we don’t always need peer review to tell us whether to trust a piece of research as long as we have adequate information about how it was conducted and what measures were used. What we are told about the research is that the information comes from a representative survey of 3,000 British people aged 16+, surveyed between the 14th and 17th of November 2019. We are also shown detailed working out for the carbon calculations and extrapolations, but we are given no information whatsoever on how the uselessness, pointlessness or otherwise uncessesariness of our communications is judged. What is the measure of uselessness in workplace communications? The short emails of thanks and well wishes are described as ‘unactionable’. Is this the same as pointless? I’m not convinced. Findings from positive psychology research suggest that saying thanks is important, for those both expressing and receiving it, as it strengthens interpersonal bonds, leads to increased productivity at work, and brings all sorts of benefits in terms of increased well being

Even if this evidence for the importance of saying thanks to personal relationships, well being and productivity were unavailable, it would still be a gross error to deem these ‘unactionable’ emails useless. Not knowing the point of something is not equivalent to knowing that it has no point. To assume so is to commit the logical error of confusing absence of proof for proof of absence. We should not assume something is unimportant or irrelevant simply because we lack evidence or understanding of why and how it is important or relevant. This is especially true when we are considering extremely complex systems. A recent example would be the discovery of one or two unknown genes of life-altering significance, lying hidden in what had previously been considered to be all junk dna.

Stopping large swathes of the email-using public from saying ‘thanks’, or ‘lol’, would be social engineering at a grand scale. This story is a good example of how researchers can over extrapolate beyond slim, questionable evidence, to give life-altering advice way beyond their competencies.

Of course, after eliminating thanks-yous, we could always just inject the humanity back into our workplace with corporate team-building exercises, but these costly outings may not really be a great substitute. Perhaps we are better leaving well enough alone.

As someone who focused her PhD research entirely on behavioural adaptations to mitigate climate change, I’m not reluctant to make sacrifices to my daily habits to help the environment. But, at the risk of setting the world on fire, thanks for reading.

Original artwork by Patricia Frazer- do not reproduce without permission. NFT soon available on

Was that last contraction 6 or more like 7 units of pain Mrs Frazer?

I’m Trish, and I’m a quantophile. The potential of quantitative research to answer seemingly unanswerable questions about our innermost experiences is what first attracted me to psychology. And over a decade later, I’m still in love. But the rose tint is definitely starting to wear off as I see more and more examples of balanced judgement replaced with mindless quantification.

If you have had any formal training in research methods you will have learned that all measurements should be both reliable and valid. Reliability involves types of consistency. If Doctor 1 and Doctor 2 both administer a structured interview to assess your mental health they should agree on whether you are clinically depressed, and at what level of severity. You can even use some statistical wizardry to put a number on how ‘reliable’ your measurement is. Your friends and classmates will gasp in wonder as numbers pour satisfyingly into your output file! 

Establishing validity is a lot trickier than reliability. It taps into what our measurements and results mean. This can be particularly tricky when we try to measure a new construct such as “Mental Health Literacy”. For example, in a study by Aromaa, Tolvanen, Tuulari and Wahlbeck published in 2011 agreement with the statement “Antidepressants have plenty of side effects” was used to measure “personal stigma” in relation to depression. Endorsement of this statement was assumed to reflect a lack of “realistic” views about medication. And yet the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ position statement on antidepressants released earlier this year states that reactions to antidepressants can range from “an overall improvement in levels of depression and quality of life, to feeling the benefit of functioning better while suffering adverse side effects, to finding them ineffective with intolerable and harmful side effects” .  So a lot hinges on what exactly is implied by the word “plenty”. It seems a pretty soft subjective bedrock on which to build a firm, objective science of attitude change intervention. The association for psychological science states that there are “more than 280 different scales for assessing depression” in current use. To paraphrase the (possibly apocryphal) statement by Einstein if the scale worked, one would be enough.

Even if we do manage to measure our constructs of interest accurately, there are still many pitfalls to beware of in their analysis and interpretation. For example the hallowed ‘p’ value. You probably remember that a p value is the chance that your results were a ‘fluke’. It isn’t though. Nor does it tell you how important your results are or anything about your effect size. The p value is so widely misunderstood that Haller and Kraus in 2002 administered a quiz testing 6 frequent misunderstandings of the p value and found that not only did 100% of students sampled make at least one mistake, but so did 80% of instructors.

Created by Brendan Powell Smith, not endorsed by Lego

Pain is a subjective, complex and mysterious experience, but one that we nonetheless must strive to measure in some objective way for research to take place. We use tools like visual analog scales that allow us to rate pain numerically, by placing a mark on a line, or with smiley faces. These all tap into to relative and continuous nature of pain by asking us to relate our current pain to an absolute absence of pain or “the worst pain imaginable”. This makes intuitive sense. Since pain does not correlate perfectly with tissue damage or any other objectively observable physical signal the research attempting to assess the validity of these pain scales usually relies on reliability assessments (people rate previous pain experiences similarly over time, vulnerable to all the biases in recall), and the level to which they are affected by pain relief. Since the pain assessment tools are often developed in order to reliably test pain relief strategies there is a certain circular logic at play that I find very irritating while being asked repeatedly to rate my labour contractions on a scale of 1- 10 to establish that my epidural has not been effective.

It is unrealistic to think we can get by currently without rating scales in psychology or medicine, but we should be aware that a tool that might help with research or provide a useful aggregate with which to compare groups may not be the most useful tool to connect with and understand the person in front of us. 

Sense about science are publishing a Data Science Guide to help the public critically evaluate the sea of seemingly meaningful numbers we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Their advice, when looking at claims based on data analysis of any kind, is to always ask yourself:

  • Where does it come from?
  • What is being assumed?
  • Can it bear the weight being put on it?

Sound advice. So, how does psychology as a discipline measure up in applying this advice? A systematic review of 433 scales reports that around 50% of them cited no evidence to support validity whatsoever (see para 8). Like the lego pain scale, it seems we are relying on face validity. I would love to hear your thoughts- is this a problem for psychology?

Baby Frazer, by the numbers Birthweight: 4.33 kg Overdue by: approximately 252 unusually long hours Pain caused: 8-9 on the ‘lego’ scale

Will the real Rosenhan pseudopatients please stand up?

If you have taken more than a passing interest in psychology, at any level, you have almost certainly come across the Rosenhan Experiment in which 8 pseudopatients claiming to hear a voice were admitted to psychiatric hospitals and diagnosed rapidly and fixedly with various psychotic conditions. Even if some other aspects of your course (like hand calculation of correlation coefficients for example) left you cold, I’m willing to bet this piqued your interest. As a lecturer in mental health I speak about this study to students at least 3-4 times each year, and I have yet to tire of it. If anything, my fascination deepens.

Although most students are familiar with the main thrust of the study and its outcome, it is so familiar that most don’t go and read the original paper in full, which is a pity. They miss some juicy details, like the ways in which the patients’ every behaviour was interpreted as pathological in the medical and nursing notes. “Patient engages in writing behavior” illustrates neatly how context is all important in our perception and interpretation of behaviours as symptoms. The “oral-acquisitive nature of the syndrome” of schizophrenia was the supposed cause of patients loitering outside the canteen before meal times on a ward where there was quite simply nothing else to do.

My favourite detail is that the great Rosenhan makes an error in describing an everyday statistical concept in this paper! There is hope for us all (I will post a lollipop to anyone who can find it).

Although the paper is largely descriptive, there are some interesting numbers in there too. For example, the mean number of minutes per day that the hospitalised patients had contact with psychologists, psychiatrists or physicians was 6.8. This figure includes the admissions and discharge interviews as well as group  and individual psychotherapy sessions. The 8 patients collectively were administered 2,100 pills. Despite all but one of the pseudopatients striving to be released after the first day the length of hospitalisation ranged from 7 to 52 days and many retained a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission” on discharge.

Publication of this paper in 1973 caused a lot of controversy, with psychiatrists defending the validity of their diagnostic systems and pointing out that many medical illnesses can be feigned without causing us to doubt their validity.

Psychologists have generally embraced the study as a powerful demonstration of the biasing effect and stickiness of diagnostic labels. For some it may be perceived to bolster the argument that using a medical model to research and treat mental health difficulties just doesn’t work. That it is still being discussed and articles being published on how it is represented in textbooks is testament to the enormity of its influence in this field of psychology.

David Rosenhan passed away in 2012 after a long and successful career, finishing at Stanford. The pseudopatients (“three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, and a housewife”) have to my knowledge never been identified or come forward. I would love to hear from them, or their friends or relatives in the case that some of them have passed away. There was also a ninth patient who violated the ground rules by giving false information outside the claim to hear a voice in his admission interview.

So is the infamous Rosenhan Experiment a damning indictment of psychiatric diagnostic systems that still exist today, a merely historical embarrassment that serves to demonstrate how far we have come, or a gimmicky but unscientific reminder that doctors are human too, and can be fooled like the rest of us?

What do you think?

Update to this article: In November 2019 Susannah Cahalan published a must-read book (The Great Pretender) for anyone interested in this topic, suggesting aspects of the study were fraudulent. Thanks to the commenter who mentioned this book.

Can I use a ‘parental block’ to filter out parenting websites?

Image by John Frazer at and George’s Street Arcade Dublin

In the early weeks and months after my first child was born, sleep deprived though I was, I felt a lot of certainty in the parenting theories and strategies I would use. Sure, the job was difficult, but I knew how to do it. Sleep, routines, attachment, feeding, child care, I knew where I stood on all these issues. But the more experienced I become at parenting the less sure I become. And the more I practice at parenting, the less time I have for what should work in theory.

We have never been more overwhelmed than we are today with information and advice on every aspect of our parenting. In any moment of uncertainty a slew of confusing and often contradictory advice is only a click away.  For example, we are advised that to ensure successful breastfeeding we should respond immediately to subtle signs of hunger, picking up babies even before they cry. But we also need to allow them to self-soothe and get into a predictable routine. Then there are the sleep training wars. We are assured that letting a baby cry it out causes lasting damage,  but so does the sleep deprivation, for both them and us. By co-sleeping we are either providing an essential primordial bonding experience that will lead to emotional stability, or promoting poor sleep habits and risking sids. Possibly both simultaneously. We are constantly reminded that what we feed our children, especially for the first five years, will affect their health and well being for the rest of their lives. So we should  try to keep in mind and follow all 20+ pages of advice in most weaning guidelines, but also not forget to relax and make food fun! Or else meal times will become a battle ground with lasting negative associations.  Keep your kids active everyday, but don’t over schedule them with sporting activities. You will need to limit that screen time to promote their physical and emotional well being, but best to foster a love of computers whilst you do or your child may not have a job. It’s not always a Catch 22 as a parent, however. You can follow recommendations to protect your skin from the sun AND the recommendations to get adequate vitamin D at the same time as these researchers suggest by exposing your kids to a carefully timed 30 minute dose of sunlight each day. In between school, work, music lessons, homework, all important free-play time and this amazing well-balanced, home-made, tasty and nutritious masterpiece you are no doubt about to whip up for dinner this shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?

Of all the pieces of parenting advice I have read my favourite has to be the reminder that we should not strive after perfection in our parenting after all. Not just because it makes for a miserable existence, you understand, but because pursuit of perfection may also be a formula for sub-standard parenting. Whew! I was just starting to think we can’t win at this parenting game.

Not to say that the dissemination of knowledge and information on safe and effective parenting has not been completely unhelpful. I don’t want to appear ungrateful. For example, we have lower than ever infant and child mortality, and despite concerns around cyber bullying and sedentary lifestyles, worldwide more of our children enjoy a higher quality of life than ever before on concrete measures like mortality and poverty. A great example of the success of an informational campaign aimed at parents is the ‘back to sleep’ campaign which significantly reduced SIDS. But if a little information is a good thing, it does not necessarily follow than a lot of information is even better. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck between being informed enough to avoid behaviours that confer high risk to our children, and not having our lives taken over by the desire to achieve optimal development with complete avoidance of risk.

As someone with a PhD in behavioural analysis and many years of training in interpreting conflicting or unclear research evidence I find myself completely out of my depth at managing, assimilating and constructively using the available information on how to be a good parent. There is just too much of it. Trying to interpret it all and assess its scientific credibility would be a full time job, and I already have one of those (or two, if you count parenting). My accumulated learning and experience boils down to this: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. As regards making use of all the useful advice out there in internet land, I turn to Oscar Wilde “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself”

Regrets for my old Nokia 3310: work-life balance in the era of smartphones

Original artwork by Patricia Frazer- do not reproduce without permission. NFT available on

What led Denis Diderot, 18th century philosopher, critic of the arts and defender of the enlightenment to become a “slave” to his dressing gown? Diderot edited the influential  Encyclopédie as well as many controversial philosophical works challenging religious orthodoxy and championing rationalism. He also left his stamp on the field of marketing with a charming essay called Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown. In it he describes how replacing his old threadbare robe with a new scarlet one leads him to spiraling consumption in the pursuit of a lifestyle as elegant as his new look. Afraid any longer to wipe up ink spills with his sleeve he surveys the change in his once scruffy writer’s residence with sadness, concluding that while he had been “master” of his old robe, he has become “a slave to the new”.

When one purchase leads on to many others (like buying a new phone case to complement the latest phone) this is called the Diderot Effect. Few of us feel the need to don elaborate robes anymore, but we don’t have to look too far for good examples of where we still fall foul of the Diderot Effect and become slaves to the new. Last summer I innocently purchased a second hand typewriter with the vague intention that it would help me avoid online distraction and thus write more. When I got it home I realised that it needed a cosy desk upon which to sit, the right chair for the desk, space in a small apartment for a chair and desk… to cut a long story short not a word was written until the typewriter was unceremoniously dumped at the recycling centre.

Impulse buying a typewriter may be a fairly unusual example. A more common experience of this effect may be nestled in your hand right now as you read. When many of us bought our first mobile phones we got more than we bargained for. We had little idea that we would soon experience similar spiralling change in how we communicate, live and work, and how many more devices we might purchase as a result.

Mobile phone use has had mixed effects on wellbeing for most people. There are positive effects such as new tools to improve our mental and physical health, better access to knowledge and the ability to keep in contact with our far away friends and family. And of course, we are often bombarded with examples of the negative effects- the depressive and unsettling effect of constant social comparisons on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the increasing complexity and dissatisfaction in our decision-making caused by information overload, the extension of work far into our evenings and weekends via email use.

How do we address this upset to our work life balance? Should we throw away our smartphones en masse and dig out the old Nokia 3310, or, better yet, the quill? Ignore the siren song of the new scarlet robe in favour of the old threadbare one? Perhaps. But if answering a few sporadic emails from my phone allows me to pick the kids up from school on Friday instead of staying in the office then throwing away my phone won’t buy me the freedom and balance I desire. I have turned to the existentialists for help on this one. Sartre emphasizes the role of choice in defining us. We are what we do, and though our choices are influenced by pressures we are in some sense free to walk away from our jobs, our responsibilities, our families and our dependence on technology if we really think life would be better without them.  This excerpt from his essay concerning freedom and responsibility might have been written expressly to describe our troubled relation to after hours work communications had it not predated the invention of email by several decades. “For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it. This can be due to inertia, to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in…” .

I choose to continue to use my smartphone for work, but I don’t have to feel trapped by it. Viewing it as a choice rather than a necessity makes me feel more in control of this aspect of my life. And when Facebook makes me feel more insecure than connected I can choose to delete the app. Is moderation possible in our smartphone use, or, like addicts, will we always succumb to a Diderot Effect, downloading one app after another? Is the existence of apps to help us cut down on phone usage evidence we can regain control, or that we are enslaved already?

How can we address mental health stigma at work?

Interest in the stigma surrounding mental health difficulties has been increasing amongst researchers and health practitioners, and with good reason. Experiencing discrimination and negative attitudes as a result of mental health difficulties can lead to social isolation and reduce the chance of recovery. Those who have experienced psychosis have even been presented by the media as dangerous , with some sufferers describing the prejudice they have faced as worse than the symptoms themselves. This stigma can have a serious impact on all areas of life, as well as on business and employment, both for individuals and for the wider organisational culture.


Much effort has rightly focused on calls for funding to decrease stigma and improve attitudes. However, if the budget were to double, or even triple, tomorrow would we know how to spend it? How much do we know about which specific attitudes are most harmful to well-being and recovery, and how to change them? Researcher John Read, along with Clinical Psychologist and voice-hearer Jacqui Dillon have questioned the efficacy of many well-intended campaigns to reduce stigma that have been based on promoting the idea of  equivalence of mental illness with physical illness. The “illness like any other” approach can lead to decreased stigma around help seeking, but can also lead to a reduction in the perceived potential for recovery and an increase in perceived dangerousness and unpredictability . One 1997 study (harking back to the dark days of the Milgram Experiment) even found that emphasising biomedical ‘illness’ type explanations leads to a higher amount of ‘electric shocks’ administered to a research confederate posing as someone who had experienced mental health difficulties. Still other researchers have found that concentrating on whether mental health difficulties are ‘real’ biological illnesses or not has no impact on stigma at all (as did our own online experiment).


And then we have the equity versus equality debate. Is our goal for employers and colleagues to be ‘blind’ to cognitive and emotional problems the way we might talk about being ‘colour blind’ when it comes to race issues? Or is it more about providing the necessary supports to increase individual performance and fulfillment at work for individuals who might have specific needs? Mental Health issues are covered under the term ‘disability’ in employment legislation in Ireland. Are those affected comfortable with the perception of their experiences as a disability?


What are your thoughts on what reduced mental health stigma should look like in employment? And what are your ideas on how we can get there?