To breed, or not to breed?

That is the question, and it’s a big one. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve been curious about the concept of having children. As a philosopher at heart, I pride myself on taking a leaf out of Socrates’ book and questioning the status quo. Having children is a part of life; a rarely questioned given – and those who challenge this biologically motivated milestone are often dismissed as selfish and strange. But as the axis begins to tilt and we start to question our desire to reproduce, from both a personal and ethical perspective, we wonder if unleashing more humans onto the world is really in everyone’s best interest. 

Philosophers have been pondering procreation for eons, and these days there’s a whole philosophy dedicated to the idea that having children is actually wildly unethical, known as anti-natalism. Anti-natalists argue that people should abstain from procreation because it is morally wrong.  Why? Put simply, it causes unnecessary suffering – to our children and to ourselves. Suffering is, of course, an inevitable aspect of existence. But, if we don’t exist then we can’t suffer. Morbid, right? But that’s life! 

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Men think that, by nature and some ancient constitution, it is a matter of necessity to get children. And so, it is plain, do other animals too; for they all acquire offspring by nature and not with any useful end in view – when they are born, the parents suffer and rear each as best they can, and they fear for them as long as they are small, and if they are hurt they grieve. Such is the nature of all living creatures; but for men it has been made a custom that some gain actually comes from offspring.” Having children is not something that we generally dedicate much thought to, because we assume it’s a necessary addition to a life of fulfilment. But is it, really?

These days, there are countless social media groups, articles and personal musings exploring the philosophy that, for a number of reasons, we’d be better off without extra beings. Among them are concerns about passing on mental health challenges to children, the concept of consent (yep – suing your parents for being born is now a thing) and considerations about overpopulation and the environment. Some thinkers even advocate for the extinction of the human race, claiming that, given the destruction that we are causing to the planet, the best outcome would be a peaceful phase-out of human existence. 

Those who may once have been considered conspirators are now mindful millenials making genuine sacrifices for the planet – including going against their very real biological instincts in an attempt to mitigate some of the damage we have done. 

On the flip side, parenting is hugely life-affirming, fulfilling and a necessary step on the journey of life for so many human beings. My friend and fellow writer, Caitlin Cady, is a working mum of three littlies (2, 4 and 6) and the author of the soon to be released book ‘Heavily Meditated’ – a down to earth guidebook for bringing the magic of meditation into your daily life. Not one to make any decision unconsciously, she says becoming a mother was a mindful and yet primal choice that she never questioned, and it has certainly been a rollercoaster ride. She says, “You can’t imagine the love and joy you will feel as a mother, but you also can’t imagine the intensity, the anxiety, the deep sense of duty and responsibility either. The extremes of motherhood – the exquisitely beautiful and outrageously difficult – are unimaginable and indescribable – in both the best and the hardest ways.” She describes the joy of watching them grow and discover the world, and muses over the gift of laugher that infiltrates the everyday mundane, as well as the opportunity to grow through parenting – “Kids have the most incredible ability to bring out the best in you but also to push your buttons and mirror some of your shadows. My kids are the three very high-stakes reasons that I want to be the very best version of myself.”

In many of us, there’s clearly a very deep and real biological desire to reproduce that is supported by the indescribable joy of parenting. Lucky for me, I can kind of perch myself on the fence here and enjoy the best of both worlds. 

I’ve been in the very unique position of playing part-time mama to my almost four-year-old nephew – a role that has piqued my curiosity even more as it has allowed me to see parenthood from the simultaneous and rare perspective of both parent and non-parent. I lived with my sister and nephew when he was born and played ‘mama-Jess’ for over a year. Since then, I have continued to be an extremely hands-on Aunty who intimately understands the ins and outs of what parenting actually involves. Just yesterday I spent my daily walk with a small child in each arm, moderated multiple toddler tantrums and dedicated a mind-boggling amount of time to cleaning up spills of all sorts (I don’t need to spell that one out, right?). 

If you don’t know already – let me tell you, parenting is both the most rewarding and thankless job you will ever do. It is, in equal parts, terrifying, exhausting, boring, enlightening, heart cracking (in good ways and bad) and utterly blissful. And while it’s certainly not the case that choosing to abstain from baby-making is selfish, having children absolutely teaches you about selflessness in ways that you otherwise may not quite comprehend. Suddenly, you just don’t care all that much about your own egotistical happiness – and that can take you to incredible places – ones that might even inspire you to be a better human being. 

But, when I tell my parent friends that I’ve decided not to go down the motherhood road, they look at me a little seriously, nod and say, ‘yeah, I get that.’ 

10 questions to ask yourself before having children

Am I ready to let go of my current identity?

Am I prepared to give up time for myself? 

How do I feel about criticism and judgement?

Do I have the patience to tolerate constant requests and demands?

How much do I need to be in control? 

Is this world a safe, harmonious place to live? 

What challenges might my child face in their lifetime?

Is my relationship with my partner strong enough to withstand the pressures of parenting?

Am I ready to be confronted by my own flaws on a daily basis?

Do I have the strength to let the person that I love more than anything else in the world feel pain, make mistakes and walk their own path? How easily can I manage the constant challenge of letting go?

Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Wild magazine

The Power of Gratitude

Can being thankful really make you happier?

Recently, I began a daily gratitude practice. Every morning when I shower, I list ten things I’m thankful for. On a good day, it might be my relationships, the glorious weather and a recent, delicious yoga practice. On a bad day, it may simply be the roof over my head and food in my belly. It doesn’t always come easy – but it does somehow allow me to see my life through a slightly different, more expansive lens (you know, one where I realise for a moment that I’m not actually the centre of the universe). 

On the surface, having a ‘gratitude practice’ sounds a bit irksome – like the kind of thing your mum would have insisted upon when you were a kid complaining about eating your broccoli (‘don’t you know how lucky you are? There are kids starving out there!’). But, there’s no denying that gratitude can contribute to your happiness. In 2011, researchers found that grateful contemplation resulted in a physiological response. It activated the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and decreased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), indicating that gratitude can increase wellbeing and reduces stress.

It’s not always easy to muster up a sense of thankfulness though, and at times it may actually be counter-productive, bringing up conflicting emotions and making you feel worse (‘I’m a terrible person for not being grateful’). Recent research, which analysed 27 different studies, showed that gratitude interventions had limited benefits for depression and anxiety. This doesn’t mean that gratitude can’t be beneficial, just that it’s not a cure-all, especially when it comes to some mental health challenges.

However, gratitude can create a shift in perspective. Dr Lauren Tober, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, has experienced this shift firsthand through her photographic project, Capturing Gratitude. In 2012, after having read the positive research on gratitude, she began taking a photo every day of something she felt grateful for. She was surprised by how instant and profound the effects were. She says, “Almost immediately I was tuned into all that was wonderful in my life, and I found a deep sense of joy and contentment…In this personal longitudinal study, what has been most profound is that not only have I felt happier and more connected to myself and others, but that I am able to ride the waves of the ups and downs of life with more grace and ease.” 

When reflecting on my own gratitude practice I have undoubtedly experienced shifts in the way that I view my life and, in turn, make better decisions for myself. For example, when I began to see glimpses of comparison showing up in my gratitude practice (‘that person on instagram has a better house/body/yoga pose than I do’) I decided to spend less time on social media and replace it with the things that I feel fortunate for – like sitting with my chickens while drinking my morning cup of tea. When I’m aware of the things that feel good in my life, I’m more likely to dedicate energy to them. During times of turmoil and overwhelm, my gratitude practice hasn’t necessarily eased my anxiety, but it has provided an opportunity to press pause for a brief moment and come back to what truly matters. And for that, I am sincerely grateful. 

5 ways to integrate a gratitude practice

  1. Habit stack – contemplate things that you’re grateful for while showering, brushing your teeth or doing another daily task
  2. Journal – write a list of things you are grateful for daily 
  3. At the beginning/end of a yoga/exercise practice
  4. Bed-time reflection – before you drift off to sleep, ask yourself, ‘what went well today’?
  5. Take a picture as a keepsake 

Benefits of gratitude

A 2003 study on gratitude discovered that those who practised gratitude:

  • Reported more happiness and joy
  • Experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness
  • Spent more time exercising
  • Were more optimistic and satisfied with their lives
  • Reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect
  • Were more likely to offer emotional support to others
  • Felt an increased sense of connection with others
  • Slept more hours with a better quality of sleep

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine


Backyard Bliss: The joy of keeping chickens

A flock of feathered friends brings so much more than just eggs

Every morning I wander into our backyard, cup of tea in hand, and find a sunny spot to spend a few moments soaking up the bliss that is poultry parenthood. I admire our six ‘girls’ enjoying their snacks, searching for hidden treasures and grooming their feathers. Every now and then they have an amusing interaction that warrants a text to my partner at work (Babe, wait till you hear about the cute things the girls did today!).

It’s not all scrambled eggs and cute clucking, but any chicken owner will tell you that they enhance your life in ways beyond the breakfast bench. One of my good friends swears by her chickens’ grounding powers. She says, “It doesn’t matter what’s going on for me. Whenever I sit and watch the chickens it just brings me back into the present and makes me feel good.” 

Organic farmer and founder of Byron Grass Fed, Andrew Cameron, knows the many benefits of keeping chickens. He says, “they fertilise your garden, help reduce fruit flies, scratch around creating a positive impact on your soil, help give life to fruit trees, make use of your leftover kitchen scraps, help make compost and give you fresh, delicious eggs every day! They’re also a great way to introduce children to nature, and just so nice to have around.” 

Before you buy

Andrew explains the importance of having the right set up before you buy your feathered friends. He says, “shelter, laying and roosting spaces, and places to forage on fresh grass and weeds and take dust baths” are essential. “Chickens love shade and scratching around trees so keep that in mind when placing their home…Make sure your chook pen is snake proof as well as having protection at night from any predators”, he says.

If you’re in it for the eggs, you’ll want to buy them at around 18 weeks (they start laying at around 20-22 weeks). In terms of costs, the chickens themselves will set you back around $25, and then it’s about $5 a month per chook for food. Apart from that it’s just the set-up costs, which will vary depending on how luxurious your coop is. 

You’ll need:

  • A safe and comfortable coop, with plenty of shade, roosting space and access to greens and dust
  • Comfortable laying boxes (filled with straw/wood shavings) that are dark and safe for laying
  • A roosting spot to perch on at night (high up from the ground, the right shape for their feet and level)
  • Plenty of space so that they’re not overcrowded
  • Easy access to food and water
  • Diatomaceous earth – add to their nesting boxes and dust bathing areas to deter mites
  • Pellets (in addition to food scraps)

Choosing your chooks

When choosing your chooks, you have a few options: Heritage, Hybrid or Retired. 

Andrew explains that heritage have been less impacted by commercial breeding and so hold more genuine characteristics of older breeds. They tend to lay less but live longer and are a good option if you’re thinking of eating them down the track (provided you don’t grow too attached like me!). Heritage breeds include Sussex, Australorps (Australian breed), Orpingtons, Anacodas, Pylmouth Rocks, Silkies etc.  

Hybrid layers are more common and lay a lot in the first year or so before slowing down. Some common hybrids include Lawmans, Hylines and Isa Browns. 

If you ask Andrew what he recommends, he’ll always say retired girls. By buying a chicken from a local, commercial farm or hen rescue group, you’ll give them a chance to live a longer life after doing their job for a farm, and you’ll still get plenty of eggs.

We’ve experienced many ups and downs along the journey of poultry parenthood – from angry neighbours who received a few too many visits from our feathered friends, to the sheer joy that comes with your flock frantically waddling towards you when they’re called. But one thing’s for sure – I wouldn’t trade my girls for the world. 

For more about Andrew and some cool resources, check out www.byrongrassfed.com.au

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Parenting across the globe

What other cultures can teach us about raising well-rounded human beings

The proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a widespread sentiment throughout African cultures. Though there are many variations of the phrase, they all point to one philosophy: having an abundance of parental figures and influences is essential for raising happy, healthy kids. 

Let’s be honest, no matter where in the globe you reside, parenting can be a tough gig. I would know – I’m the world’s most hands-on Aunty to two wild little boys. I’ve been called ‘mama Jess’ more times than I can count, and spent more hours than I’d like to admit hanging my head in my hands, post toddler-tantrum, pouring over where I went wrong. I’m intimately aware that parenting is simultaneously rewarding and thankless; equally terrifying, boring, exhausting and exhilarating. And that’s just the beginning. 

In my family, the kids have more mum and dad-like figures than your average Joe. Just yesterday I asked Mr 4, “Who’s in your family?” to which he answered confidently, “Grandma, Aunty Jess, Mum and Dad.” Of course there are more, but this is the core crew – the every-damn-day parents. Each day the whole tribe bands together to get through this rollercoaster ride of child rearing. This is, however, a rare picture in our society, with many parents finding themselves far less supported on the journey.  

Not only do we tend to be more isolated than other cultures, but our approach to raising children is vastly different. We helicopter (helicopter!), wrap our kids in cotton wool, deny our intuition in favour of the latest parenting podcast and constantly acquiesce to our children’s ever-changing whims. The times are changing, and while we’ve definitely made some positive changes (when I was a little girl, a smack was standard punishment), there’s much to learn from other cultures and their traditions. 

How in the world do they do it? 

Like my own family, many societies approach child rearing in a community-focussed fashion. This is one of the major differences that paediatrician and author of Feed the Baby Hummus: Paediatrician-backed secrets from cultures around the world, Dr Lisa Lewis, has observed. She says, “One major difference that stands out is our push for independence as opposed to interdependence...Many countries around the world prioritise helping out family members daily, with extended family members living together on a regular basis. Commonly in the west, when a mother delivers a baby she is expected to go home and care for the baby on her own.”

In traditional Chinese culture, for forty-days post-partum the extended family follows a strict set of rules that involves helping out and nourishing the new mum. In her book The First Forty Days, Heng Ou says, “In traditional zuo yuezi, it’s said that birth leaves a mother in an extremely open state, more susceptible than normal to physical and emotional strain…The traditional justification for conserving and building chi, or energy, through rest and excellent nutrition is equally relevant today. Forty days of care today is thought to lead to forty years of vital womanhood tomorrow.”

Community, unity and questioning the norm

In many traditional African communities, the child is seen as not just belonging to the family, but to the whole society. Here, the entire extended family takes responsibility for raising the child and everyone is an aunt, uncle or grandparent. 

For Lisa, one of the greatest lessons we can learn from other cultures is to foster a sense of community and family unity. We could, for example, take a leaf out of the Batek people’s book and loosen our grip on typical roles. Lisa explains, “In Batek culture, there is no concept of a primary caregiver in the early years. Both mother and father spend a lot of time nurturing their babies. Batek husbands and wives together decide where to live and what kind of work they will do.”

Jessica Joelle Alexander (@jessicajoellealexander) is a Danish parenting expert, cultural researcher and author of The Danish way of Parenting: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids. One of the inspirations for her book was her observation of the differences between how Scandinavian countries and Americans raise children. She says, “In Italy children are allowed to stay up late and even stay out until 11 or 12 at night. In Norway kids are put to sleep outside in minus 20-degree weather. In Belgium parents let their children drink beer. For all of these cultures it seems like the “right” way and other ways seem strange. Being an American married to a Dane I always saw something special about the Danish culture. The children were so calm and serene and happy and I began to study the parenting model. I discovered many things that were very different from the American ways and when I had my own children I began to implement the Danish model into my own parenting with great success.” (See breakout box for details). 

What can we learn? 

The idea of taking notes on how other cultures parent feels a little ironic at this point – parenting isn’t just about ticking boxes and smashing goals. It’s deeply intuitive, requiring a sense of self-reflection and the curiosity to grow and learn as much as your children do.  

If we want to integrate lessons from other cultures into the way we raise our own families, we need to both philosophically resonate with the ideas of that culture and be willing to question (and possibly let go of) the norms of our own society. Lisa uses the example of how Japanese parents respond to crying babies to illustrate this point. She says, “Japanese parents respond very quickly to a distressed infant, and in Japan there is no concept of a baby “crying it out.”  Co-sleeping is common in Japan, as well.” If this is something that resonates with you, she says, then behaving in this way will come naturally, but it doesn’t mean you will go uncriticised (welcome to parent-hood!). She explains, “Often changes not widely accepted by society or a parent’s extended family can be frowned upon by others.” So what’s a girl/guy to do? “To this problem I would say gently educate those in your life about the importance of understanding both cultural and parenting differences. If a parenting style is not harming a child, why not respect the difference?”

For Jessica, it’s all about being open minded enough to take a closer look at your own social programming, and seeing how the way you were raised deeply influences your own beliefs. This is the way, if we choose, to implement the positive changes that resonate with us.  She says, “I always tell parents to try to choose two things they would like to change for their children from the way they were raised. Whether that is not spanking or being less controlling or being more affectionate or more empathic-everyone is different. But only by examining these default settings and doing some introspection can change ourselves and the future for the better.”

Without judging our own way of being, there are so many gems of wisdom available to us through observing the parenting styles of other cultures. The one thing we all have in common? Love for our children! Jessica puts it perfectly, “I think the belief is that- if I am doing things right (breast feeding or not breastfeeding, working or not working -just to name a few of the big divides) then I am ok. But the truth is we are all struggling in this magnificent journey and there is no right way to parent. The more we connect in empathy and vulnerability, the more connected and happy we will be.”

Lessons from the Danes – Advice from author of The Danish way of Parenting

  • Don’t overschedule kids lives. They need time to play. This is how children learn and build life skills.
  • Be honest and don’t over praise.
  • Build a growth mindset-teach them they can do anything with hard work and that intelligence is not fixed.
  • Help them reframe. That is -how to find the positive details in an otherwise negative situation. This becomes a habit they can use for life.
  • Don’t ever use physical punishment and try to yell as little as possible. We can’t expect our kids to control themselves if we can’t control ourselves.
  • Be empathic. 
  • Practice “hygge”-the Danish art of cozying around together. It’s not mindfulness-it’s “we-fulness”.
  • Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected.

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Surrender to simplicity

How living with less can create more

I still vividly remember a conversation I had with my best friend 10 years ago. We were on a six-month sabbatical from our corporate jobs and travelling through Southeast Asia. One night, whilst sitting on our bungalow balcony, she looked at me and asked, “How much money do you want to be making in ten years?” I considered the question and answered something along the lines of “Probably around 80K.” But then I paused, considered a little more and piped up, “Wait, no. I don’t think I care how much money I make. I just want to be happy.” Epiphany had! 

Less than a year later I left my 9-5 city job in Sydney and moved to the humble Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Ten years later and I’ve barely looked back, slowly transitioning from ambitious career-gal to part-time yoga teacher, writer and Aunty. Each morning I wake up, do my yoga practice, perch myself in a sunny patch in the backyard and watch my chickens frolic, then go about my day pottering around the house, helping my sister with my nephews, visiting family and friends, taking care of life logistics and occasionally (about 10 hours a week) writing a story or teaching a yoga class. This earns me enough to pay off a humble mortgage with my partner and generally get by. Occasionally I’ll have a busy week or two (or three!) where the sun’s shining and I make hay. I’ve had to overcome a lot of insecurities along the way but it’s a good life, let me tell you! 

While I know the simple life is not for everyone (I’m sure many people would find it impossibly dull), if you’re craving simplicity, it’s absolutely yours for the taking, and not nearly as terrifying as you might think (or others would have you believe).  

Even for those of us who crave a simpler existence, somewhere in the evolution of our crazy consumer culture we’ve managed to convince ourselves that more is less. We buy the books that tell us how to simplify, the storage solutions to tidy our space and the label maker so that we know what everything is (no judgement – I actually did this last week) only to look around a few months later and realise that not only do we have more “stuff”, but we’re no closer to feeling peaceful than we were at the start of our simplification goal. But you see, the goal in itself is part of the problem. For as soon as we fulfill one desire, another one promptly appears to fill its space. So, instead of working so hard to accumulate all the things so that we can finally relax, wouldn’t it be easier to minimise our material cravings? Trust me, I say this as much for me as for you (I have been known to drift off at night dreaming of homewares): simplifying is a largely internal job. 

Dealing with desire: Wise words from Buddhism 

According to Buddhism, desire is the root of much suffering. By craving pleasure, material goods and immortality, we inevitably put ourselves in a position to suffer by becoming attached to things that are impermanent. Imagine if, when you went to buy something new, you considered what condition it would be in in another 10- or 20-years’ time. That shiny new toy may one day be the same object that arouses contempt as it’s thrown in the ‘throw-out pile’. The Buddhist points out that everything you are attached to is temporary, and ultimately the source of great suffering. Anything that we crave, desire and attach ourselves to is temporary, and so its loss creates pain. Attachment, of course, cannot realistically be completely avoided (except, perhaps, for the monk who spends his life in a cave) but exploring our attachments may allow us to become less tied to them and therefore, in a sense, freer. 

Embracing less

Annie Raser-Rowland can vouch for the benefits of living simply – she even co-wrote a very entertaining and inspiring book on the topic. The Art of Frugal Hedonism is all about how to lead the best life without selling your soul and giving into the grind. The best parts of choosing to embrace living with less (money, that is!)? “Getting to do work you love doing because you don’t need much income really is indescribably luxurious, taking holidays at least three times as often as most people, and staying healthy – because home cooking with whole ingredients plus no car really makes that much more likely”, she says.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you get rid of your wheels – just maybe think twice next time you go to buy yourself a treat after a long week at the office. Annie agrees, “Don’t fall for the ‘treat yourself – you deserve it’ spin that has become a mainstay of advertising these days. Usually, the treats being marketed make you feel somewhere between unfulfilled and distinctly worse once you’ve consumed them. Most people actually find greater satisfaction in pushing themselves to do something challenging than they do in consuming yet one more product that our planet can’t afford and that our ancestors would’ve considered obscenely extravagant.” Hear hear! 

The quiet life

One of my favourite modern philosophers, Alain De Botton, has dedicated an essay in praise of the quiet life(aptly named, In Praise of the Quiet Life)via The School of Life (www.theschooloflife.com). In it, he says, ‘There are for many of us plenty of options to take up certain career paths that carry high prestige with them. We could have something deeply impressive to answer those who ask us what we do. But this does not necessarily mean we must or should follow these possibilities. When we come to know the true price some careers exact, we may slowly realise we are not willing to pay for the ensuing envy, feat, deceit and anxiety. We may – for the sake of true riches – willingly, and with no loss of dignity, opt to become a little poorer and more obscure.” 

We are, it seems, in a bit of a habit of piling an endless amount of stuff on our plate and then wondering why we’re overwhelmed. This ‘stuff’ is not always material, but exists metaphorically in the workplace, in our social lives and at home. We over-commit ourselves because, perhaps, we’re a little bit scared of what other people might think if we don’t appear very busy or own lots of nice things. But in order to reap the rewards of a simple life, we must be willing to look into our psyches, and realise that these concerns are actually kind of silly when it comes down to it.   

You don’t need to give up all your worldly possessions and move to Byron Bay to embrace simplicity. You might turn off your phone for a day in the bush, spend a little less time with your notoriously unreliable friend, or swap your Sunday morning café brunch for some bacon and eggs around a backyard fire pit. Or, you might completely change your life. Either way, at the end of the day, you won’t regret it – I certainly never did. 

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine