“Blueprint” – genomics and our children, and what we cannot change

A few years ago, shortly after my parenting book was published, I was sat next to a child psychologist, waiting to give my talk.

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He flipped through the pages of my book and laughed.

“Children come to us almost ready cooked,” he said with a broad grin. “Whatever parents and educators like to think.”

We went our separate ways after that, and I continued to spread my philosophy of imbuing our children’s childhood with love, light, laughter, kindness and all the good stuff, in the belief that how children are brought up will shape the adults they will become.  Indeed, it is still my core beliefs in parenting, namely how we live our lives as parents and the words we speak to our children become their norm.

Sure, Nature plays a part, but NURTURE can shape Nature.

But now, years later, Robert Plomin published a book that states the contrary, bringing to mind my conversation with the child psychologist of long ago.

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Plomin is a geneticist and psychologist, and a Professor at Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre,  Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. This book took him 30 years to write.

According to Plomin, the key to personality traits does not lie in how you were treated by your parents, but rather in what you inherited biologically from them: namely, the genes in your DNA.

Whoa!!!! While there has always been widespread acceptance that genes determine our physiology for good and bad, much greater controversy has surrounded the subject of our psychology – our behaviour and personality traits.

And read this, dear parents and teachers:  Plomin’s argument is that, in a society with universal education, the greatest part of the variation in learning abilities is accounted for by genetics, not home environment or quality of school – these factors, he says, do have an effect but it’s much smaller than is popularly believed.

Indeed, there are many opponents to Plomin’s controversial views, but perhaps that comes from our still immature understanding of genomics – as explained by my daughter – the science of how the complete set of genetic material influences the whole organism (namely the study of interaction between genes). After all, it was only introduced in 1986 by Tom Roderick.

But pieces are emerging to debunk my long-held beliefs, though who knows what the “real” story is. Maybe there is more than one. Maybe it is a combination. Who knows. There is certainly a very strong genetic influence (mine) when it comes to my fifth child. Despite being of mixed race, she looks exactly like me. She also has my affinity for mathematics beyond what that can be taught, my impatience, my flash temper. Her father and I certainly did not nurture those three traits (especially the latter two!!) but she is certainly walking around with them, though she has her father’s sunniness, strong work ethics and stability. And his smile 🙂

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I remember another conversation I had on the grounds of Priory Clinic in London about 4 years ago with a psychologist who told me, “I believe cruelty can be inherited.”

I had laughed at him then. “So you think one should interview the parents and grandparents before choosing a life partner?”

“Yes,” he had answered sombrely. “Human beings are just breathing, walking, talking, living bags of inherited genetic material and we spend our lives trying to over-ride our inherent nature.”

Sobering thought.  But I believe that even if Plomin & Co’s research and expertise are correct, we should still endeavour to create a loving, supportive and kind home for our children, without the expectations that it will lead to greatness (if neither of their parents are Einsteins). After all, one of the true values of parenting is that we become better people ourselves from the parenting process.

Plomin’s book sounds like a good read.  You can read an article about his book and his thoughts here.

E-version of my book is available here.

 

6 Reasons why it’s important to teach children gardening

Naw, I’m not really keen on gardening. Last year, I almost poisoned my whole family by mistaking my mum’s prized alum bulbs for garlic. I chopped a few up and she looked faint, as these babies were heritage bulbs from Royal Horticultural Society. Eegads.

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Photo: the dreaded alums when they finished flowering.

But my mum is not letting me off that easily. She nabs me at opportune moments to do little gardening-related tasks for her that she hopes will awaken my belated love for gardening.

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Now I have three little boys – very boisterous – who would prefer larking around by the sea (it’s such a beautiful summer) than “boring” gardening at home. It’s almost like a punishment, so to engage their interest, I told them that my niece Katie used to dig up the earthworms and ate them with gusto.

“Why is she still alive?” they demanded in disbelief.

And therein lies the reason why children MUST garden:

#1: To get them not to be afraid of the dirt and creepy crawlies.

Jumping on cowpats in wellies is a fun thing to do, I told them. My brothers and I used to do that with such glee, encouraged by our mother.

“Won’t the germs kill you?” the boys asked with narrowed eyes.

On the contrary – it is the lack of germs that might kill you. Getting dirty (good clean dirt) is all about strengthening the immune system, and no where can you get that more than in the garden (nature’s antibiotics). So ditch the hand sanitisers!

#2: It’s all about understanding nature

Children these days have become so distant from the source of life that some think that burgers come from supermarket shelves (not cows are pigs) and potatoes grow on trees like apples. What a shame that we are losing our roots, which is the foundation of our strengths, and several pieces of research have shown that estrangement from our roots is the cause of many modern malaises.

#3 It’s healthy to be outdoors (unless you live in a heavily polluted area)

Children are like plants: they need water, sunshine and fresh air.

They need to be outdoors, moving around barefoot on the grass, instead of hemmed in indoors (house, tuition centre, shopping malls) like poodles. And it’s educational too. Check out this BBC clip – it WILL convince you.

#4 Less fussy eaters

People often exclaim with surprise and envy that my kids eat so much salads and are happy chugging down green smoothies. Well, two factors. Firstly, they know that green stuff is good for you. Secondly, I make it interesting for them by mixing greens (that they pick themselves) with their favourites.

And if your kids grow edible herbs and veggies, they will find what the grow so tasty! (Container gardening is good enough if you don’t have a garden).

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Photo: dandelion and buttercups from the backyard in the salad

#5 Respect time and nature

We have such poor relationship with time. We are either chasing it, trying to catch up, or we are dragging it behind us.  Only few walk to the beat of time. I knew someone who lived in a different time zone from the real world: “Just a minute” was his unconscious often repeated mantra, and he never had time for anything real.

These little boys of mine, they harvested some beans (which they saved from a parched field) and wanted to grow them NOW.

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But I told them they have to wait until May 2019, because it’s too late now to grow beans.

“Why?” They moaned collectively.

Because life beats to its own rhythm, and we best learn how to dance to it.

#6 Better relationship with your child

Gardening build closer bonds: shared afternoons together in the sun, without the distraction of iPads and smartphones, is a wonderful way to spend time together.

You can have a lot of deep conversation with your child when you are side-by-side digging or pulling out weeds. Because here’s the thing: there is no such thing as quality time as we cannot schedule for meaningful moments to happen. You get a lot out of your kids when you spend time together, just BE-ing.

OK, here are the efforts: potato patch (badly planted), mint (from the supermarket vegetable section) and scraggly lavender. Good start anyway, thumbs up x

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“The best classroom in the world”

It is true, the best classroom in the world is the world.  Though books are great for growing young minds, I strongly believe that children (and adults) need to go out there to the world they live in to feel the lessons.

The best teacher is often the parent. What my parents taught me all those decades ago still reverberated strongly in me. And indeed, my biology teacher, Mrs Jenny Woods who took the class out on field trips to Harting and Stoughton.

And so I am back here again, walking in my beloved Hampshire, far from the madding crowd.

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Amongst the golden ripeness, we came across a field where its entire crop of broad beans were devastated by the hot summer we are having.

“Oh no,” I said, with feeling. I remember what my father told me about his childhood: he had grown up in a farm, and one summer, a whole field of crop was ruined, with just one blade standing. A lone tear rolled down my father’s cheek, all those decades later.

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“What happened, Jacqueline?” Little Berti asked. He slipped his tiny hand in mine. The youngest of the triplets, he was particularly in tune with my emotions.

“The sun, it destroyed this whole field. There was no rain, so the plants burned.”

“Why didn’t the farmer water his plants?” Christian asked.

“Because the cost of watering this large field, so far from a water source, would cost more than his crop.”

“Let’s pick the alive ones to eat,” Alex said.

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And with the wisdom of an old soul, Berti (named after Umberto Ecco) said firmly, “We will take the seeds home to plant them, so that they may grow again next year.”

My heart soared at those words for this is the most precious lesson of all, that life is kindness and cruelty, good times and bad times, but we must have hope always ❤

Drying the seeds in the sun for next season, may God bless us:

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The best schooling for your child

This is the Oratory School, London.  It was reputed to be the best.

It rejected my son Kit.

Kit was 10 when we applied for him to attend this school in 2000.  We had lived in nearby South Kensington and all my children attended the Oratory’s feeder school, Our Lady of Victories RC Primary school. We attend the Our Lady of Victories Church regularly – three of my children were baptised at the church – and still attend this church.

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Additionally, Kit’s father was also the head of faculty at St Thomas Aquinas in Birmingham, an Oratory school.

On the day of the interview, Kit cycled to the London Oratory School on his own. He was a confident, sporty sort of chap and though not terribly academic, he was not that bad in his studies.

But The Oratory School rejected him after the interview.  We were flabbergasted, as we were not allowed to apply to the other Catholic school in the area, Cardinal Vaughn. The choice was either or: you couldn’t apply to both.

As Catholic education was very important to us, we decided – with heavy hearts – to send him to school near his grandparents: to St Simon Stock all the way in Kent. He had to take two trains to get to school each day and once, he was picked on very severely by bullies on his journey to school. And my boy had not even turned 12 then.

But with his indomitable spirit, he won medals and trophies in karate and go-carting.

After that, we moved abroad and Kit had three years at an international school. He got his International Awards, did passably well in his studies, collected great experiences as he embraced everything in his robust, enthusiastic and boisterous way.

At 18, he decided to join the Royal Navy. Much to our surprise, he passed the Admiralty Interview Board with flying colours! We knew he would pass the Fitness Selection Test easily, but AIB???? He was up against other 18-year-olds who went to Welbeck College and /or came from distinguished naval families.

And so, Kit began his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Southampton University, fully funded by the Royal Navy. Whilst there, he added on to his arsenal of medals: in boxing and fencing.  After his first degree, the Royal Navy paid for him to do a Masters, and then he went on for officer training at Dartmouth Royal Naval College in the UK and Annapolis Naval Academy in the US. He went on foreign tours of duty (including six months in the Middle East) before being awarded the prestigious job as the Deputy Weapons Engineer on the Queen Elizabeth, a post he held for two years during the building of the aircraft carrier. The biggest accolade for him, however, was when he was picked to be the Day Officer when the crew of 600+ came onboard. When his 2-year posting ended, he was invited to do a second Masters, this time in Guided Missiles Technology, which he is completing now, before his next posting, working towards his next promotion to Lieutenant Commander. He is often on TV and newspapers (the photo on the right was from Daily Mail and the one below is a screenshot from BBC’s recent programme, Britain’s Biggest Warship):

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His whole life is his job. He is ambitious and embraces all the experiences the Royal Navy gives him. He took up every opportunity that was offered to him and did well.

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So this is the boy that the Oratory School deemed to be “not good enough” or “not right” for its hallowed halls. I’m glad it didn’t affect him. It wasn’t the “best” school anyway, but one of the many. And Kit certainly has not lost out by not going to this school.

Ironically, my grown-up children now live within 100 metres from the school, next to Brompton Park, and as I walked past the schoolboys heading for the school today, I want to get this message out to all parents:

The concept of “best” school does not exist. The best is already in your child. Nurture it in the home. School is just part of the story.

 

 

 

 

Adaptogens: for your body’s maintenance

I turned 50 last year and people often ask me what I do and eat to keep my youthfulness. Actually, I am quite a naughty girl: I am partial to dairy (milk and cheese!) and to the odd bottle of wine. And though I live an active and healthy lifestyle, my body does need additional nutritional support (especially in the last two months, where I have been stressed out – and in the next few months, when I go back to work!).  Here’s what I take:

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Our body needs so many things, especially if you live a busy, stressful lifestyle in a polluted city.  You’ve heard of co-enzymes, but what about adaptogens? These herbs and mushrooms have been used for centuries in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine.

Though it is not “hard science” yet, there is increasing evidence that these group of nutrients have the effect of normalising the body’s imbalances (adverse effect of stress, pollution and poor nutrition)  and slowing down ageing effects.

Personally, I incorporate adaptogens into my diet to balance out inflammation caused by dairy, alcohol, sugar and stress. I also use very little products on my skin, choosing instead to nourish it from the inside.

The most well-known adaptogen is of course, ginseng.

For women, these are particularly good:

  • Ashwagandha: Soothing.
  • Rhodiola: Calming.
  • Holy Basil: For vitality.
  • Shatavari: The Hormonal Harmoniser, Queen of Women’s Adaptogens.
  • Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng): For brain alertness and stamina.
  • Reishi Mushroom and astragalus: For the immune system.

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Photo: astragalus, licorice root, ginseng and holy basil stems.

I just throw the roots and barks (of what I need) into a slow cooker and boil overnight with some organic chicken carcass and vegetables. Seen here: fresh stalks from the holy basil.

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Living in Asia at the moment, I can get hold of these roots and barks very easily from traditional herbal shops.

Whilst home in the UK, I use the powder form.

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But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For example, holy basil, which I put in my green smoothies and raw on my spaghetti, is a powerful adaptogen. Turmeric is another powerful one, which functions as an anti-inflammatory.

If you are not feeling 100% but can’t quite put your finger on why, then perhaps adaptogens might be what you need to bring your body back into balance. That’s what people in the olden days do to maintain wellness, instead of pill-popping. So do your research, speak with a few specialists and maybe try this.

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Most precious of all

If I were ever to have an engagement ring, the stone will be some tiny fossil that my beloved finds.

This is because when I was young, I used to go fossil-hunting with my parents. We live on the fossil-rich coastline of Southern England and you can find some lovely fossils here (especially on the Dorset coast and Isle of Wight).

Later, when I became a mother, I would take my children fossil-hunting. I taught them to love fossils, because isn’t it amazing that we can hold thousands (even millions) years of our history in our hands?

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An old lady went on a long journey, and along the way, she found a beautiful piece of rock. She thought her family would love the rock – it would look lovely on the mantelpiece of their simple home to remind them of her when she is gone.

Later in her journey, she met a man.

The man was hungry and she shared her food with him. When the man saw the rock, he asked if he could have it.

Though it broke her heart to give the rock away, she nodded and handed it to him.

The next day, the man came looking for the old lady. He gave the rock back to her.

“I want something more precious than this beautiful rock from you,” he said. “I want to know what’s in your heart that makes it possible for you to give beautiful things away.”

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For more information on where to go fossil-hunting in Hampshire, click here.  UKAFH organises fossil hunts.

Main photo from Isle of Wight Fossil Museum https://onthewight.com/fossil-enthusiast-donates-collection-to-dinosaur-isle-museum/

Save the planet by giving a piece of you

OK, I have been told by my readers to stop going on about plastics and the environment. I agree, there has been too much preaching in both the media and social media. But hear me out – this is about a solution. This is about you making a difference. I promise 🙂

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Back in those days, the greengrocer would put our purchases into my mother’s old-fashioned wicker shopping basket. Occasionally, he would wrap some types of fruits and vegetables up in old newspapers (like the beetroots my father loved, for example, or those juicy cherries). This is the greengrocer in my hometown (Southsea, Hampshire).

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These days, greengrocers are fast becoming extinct, pushed out of business by supermarket consortiums and megastores, which are able to sell products at very competitive prices that independent, family-run stores cannot hope to match. And the worst thing about this subversive takeover of the traditional way of life is that we, the customers, have no say in the packaging. Recently, Marks & Spencers’ was shamed for packaging ONE lime leaf in a plastic bag. You think that’s awful? How about individually wrapped jelly beans?

These are from the Instagram account, Pointless Packaging (@pointless_packaging). Do have a look, feel outraged and get galvanised into taking action!

So, I have joined the crusade against plastics (as if you haven’t guessed!). And thus, I have bought several reusable shopping bags. But to be honest, I don’t always remember to bring them along.

HOWEVER, recently, my niece sent some stuff from the UK to me (in Phuket) and she put my goodies in a cloth bag that she sewed. Oh, I cherish the bag so much that I carry it around all the time, folded up, in my handbag. It is so useful for my impromptu purchases, ranging from books to vegetables to picnic food!

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So my suggestion is, how about you giving your friend(s) a nice reusable shopping bag? If it is from you, given with affection, I am sure it will be cherished and used again and again.

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Note: I love this cotton string macrame bags (remember them?). Would love to be able to source them locally. These are from estringbags in Australia.

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A different Christmas

We put so much store into Christmas. I, for one, am guilty. I blame my mother. She would start baking Christmas cakes as early as October and the tree would be up in our house by the first day of December.  And yes, she does go over the top with the celebrations.

“It’s the happiest day in the year!” My mother would say with a big, happy, smiling face.

But what if it’s not?

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When my friend Nico’s wife died 2 years ago, he suddenly became a single parent to their three sons. Before then, he had been a rather hands-off father, having spent most of his life working long hours whilst his wife stayed at home to bring the boys up.

So suddenly, he is plunged into the deep end. And he is often at a loss about what’s the “right” thing to do.

This year, his sons signed a “petition” and presented it to him – they don’t want Christmas!!!!

He was absolutely distraught,  torn, because being Italian, being home with his Mamma at Christmas is very important to him. He had not missed a single Christmas at home, and was so looking forward too, to this time to heal, replenish and recharge with his large family.

“Why don’t you want Christmas?” I asked the boys.

“Because it’s sad. Our Mummy died at Christmas.”

“Christmas is horrid.”

“We hate it.”

I read them The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore,via Skype. It’s a classic, and I grew up listening to my mother read this story to me. Here’s a youtube clip of the story:

 

The three boys listened attentively, despite themselves, because they love stories.

And then…..

“We don’t want Christmas!”

Their father is equally adamant that they will not be sitting at home in a motherless house missing their Mummy either.

Then I had a brainwave.  I suggested, how about visiting the Plum Village, which is near where they live? It’s the home of the spiritualist, Thict Nhat Hahn, whom I’ve been studying, after accidentally discovering his work with my partner about a year ago when we visited Ho Chi Minh City.

Father and sons did their research.

“GOOD IDEA!” They beamed happily at me. 😀

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For more information about Plum Village, please visit the website.  

Photo: Plum Village.

What to do when the youngest child leaves home! Help!

My psychologist-friend told me with grave seriousness, “Read back your last 10 Facebook posts to me.”

Eeek ….. food, food, food, misbehaving teenager, misbehaving twenty-something, food, chemistry tests, medical school application for the youngest, friends, food.

“That’s where you are at,” my friend said smoothly. “Mentally and emotionally.”

“Jac, I hope you are not going to fuss over me instead when Georgina leaves home,” my partner said with a heart-felt shudder. “I don’t need a mother, housekeeper, cook, office manager or tutor, you know.”

“I don’t fuss,” I told him haughtily.

“Yes, you’re right. You don’t fuss. You OBSESS.”

“Well, that has always been my nature. I give 100%. That’s what makes me successful in everything I do.”

“Just don’t make me into what you do,” he muttered.

Truth is, my whole world has shrunk to encompass only green smoothies, bone broths, energy balls, organic food, the forthcoming international baccalaureate exams and running 35 kms a week.

Sure, I am content enough with my life. Who wouldn’t be? It is a blessed existence. And I am fortunate enough too that I write books that win awards that people want to read. But a small voice inside me asked, “Will this be all?”

Yes, a very small part of me miss getting dressed to go to work and not care about food, kids and a properly-run home. I feel like not nagging sometimes or not getting all huffy when my bread goes wrong. Hmm, I didn’t used to be like that…..

I began putting out feelers for the D-day, which is the last day of my youngest child’s all-important exams (May 2018). You know, JUST IN CASE.

What’s out there?

A few years ago, UK’s National Health Service talked about working with Harvard University to train leaders for the health service. That scheme came under a lot of criticism because currently, the NHS is so poorly managed that it is always in deficit. Hospitals are closing, wards face severe shortages, staff over-worked…..there are certainly challenges and opportunities there for reform. With the right training, it could be the perfect desk job for someone who has strong views (and experience) about how the health service should be run.

Mumsnet, the leading UK website to support parents, have a Returning to Work section within its careers area.  The Return Hub is a specialist recruitment agency working with financial firms which are supportive of women returning to work after a career break.  Credit Suisse runs a very interesting programme for senior returnees who undergo a 12-week trial period before walking back into top positions (yes, with lots of mentoring, emotional support and learning new technologies):

If like me, you are thinking of the “just in case” scenario, do get your CV shipshape. Just in case, you know. There are certainly plenty of opportunities out there.

To help you, here’s some good advice I found: https://jobs.barclays.co.uk/how-strong-is-your-cv/

Who knows, I might do another postgraduate degree.

“Just not in my area,” everybody at home gasped, aghast, even my beloved father. My daughter threatens to have extensive facial reconstruction and change her name by deed poll should she find me lecturing at the medical school she intends going to. But you know, the world is my oyster in my second stage of life.

Main photo: in the days I used to get dressed and go to work.

When life and love came into being

When I was at university, I hated Biochemistry. I hated Organic Chemistry. I hated those incomprehensible, complex shapes with significant alphabets attached to them, whose significance I never quite figured out.

I would rush through those sections, praying that none would come up in the exams. Now, thirty years later, I am back again between these pages, amongst these unlikeable shapes. Now, I am doing this for the love of my youngest child, G. I remembered how much I hated studying these, so I want to make the learning experience as joyful as possible for G. I didn’t want her to grow old dreading big molecules.

So here I am, sitting at the kitchen table, rewriting her textbooks. I am adamant that she will not rote-learn the sequences as I did, so I took the story right back to the beginning, beyond the scope of the syllabus and exams, to come up with a system of learning that lights the fire in her.

Where did life begin?

We come from stardust, inorganic material from a cosmic explosion 13.8 billion years ago. But how did those cold, lifeless atoms become life?

She knew that first lifeforms were generally accepted to be cyanobacteria, but how did these ancient ancestors of ours come into being? How was life created from a soup of inorganic broth in the violent, young world?

As I began to retrace the paths of my long-ago days, I was, unexpectedly, suffused with happiness. For hours I sat at the dining table, halfway across the world from my childhood home, but remembering those wonderful days that my brother and I sat at the kitchen table in my mother’s sunny house in a little town in southern England whilst our mother bustled around helping us, making Welsh cakes. She had loved us so such, gave so selflessly, and in giving selflessly to my daughter, I felt the same happiness rising gloriously in me.

I never thought I would be doing this. I grew up believing that I am destined for great things, but I am becoming to realise at the second half of my life that the greatest thing one could do is to raise a family with love, rather than with resentment at the sacrifice. It is in this spirit that G’s father spends a large chunk of his week driving her around, from football practice to friends’ houses to parties.

I hope that in years to come, G will discover this surprise gift when she does the same for her child. I hope I have taught her to give selflessly, as my mother before me had given so selflessly. That is her legacy, transcribed in our maternal mitochondrial DNA.

It is indeed true that if one were never taught to give, one would not know how to do so. Perhaps it can be learned consciously, and it is a lesson well-worth learning because of the riches it brings.

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So what is life?

If we look at the basic building blocks of life, then it is something that has the innate ability to store, replicate and transmit information. At the heart of these processes is the ability to read and write the language of chemistry; all life processes are inherently chemical in nature. It gives us resilience and inheritance.

The simplest row of atoms strung together into a chain known as RNA (ribonucleic acid) possesses this innate ability for living, namely resilience and inheritance; life would be damned before it began without resilience and inheritance. The simplest RNA chains in which these qualities are supported were nucleotides made of a sugar with a base and a phosphate attached. Life began in earnest then.