Mother of three Sandra Torrance, 44, looks like a picture of health – glowing, gorgeous, stylish and toned. You would never guess the struggles she faces on a daily basis.
At the age of 21 everything was looking up. She’d met the love of her life, was fit as a fiddle, and was working as a PE teacher at Kardinia College.
But Sandra was to be hit by a life curveball. She was struck down by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
Her dreams of being a successful teacher who would then go on to do a masters and teach in a university began to fade away year by year, as she grieved the loss of her plans and surrendered to the reality that life had changed for good.
Twenty years down the track and Sandra has discovered the silver lining. Whilst looking for a way to work that would accommodate her changing energy levels, she turned a hobby into a thriving niche market – a crochet pattern design business called Little Golden Nook.
Sandra oozes kindness and compassion. Her effervescent 16-year-old daughter Malya bounces in while we’re chatting and declares, “I want to grow up to be just like mum. She’s my idol”. I think this sums up the kind of parent Sandra is.
How did you and hubby meet?
We actually went to school together, although I was five years above him! He was mates with my little brother, and when I became unwell with a post-viral illness (ME/CFS) after my first year of teaching, I moved home for a while and that’s when we got to know each other as adults and started dating.
What makes Blake so special to you?
He has always loved and accepted me as I am, disabled or able, up or down, weak or strong. He has a strong faith, and he puts us first even with business decisions and ultimately holds us together.
Can you tell us about your birth experiences?
I had a caesarean birth for our first-born due to my illness, and health deterioration during pregnancy. My sister was in her final year of midwife training and we were very lucky to have her present at the birth of Malya.
Harper was born in Cairns in Queensland and although we aimed for a natural birth, she ended up being a beautiful caesarean baby too. And that was it, more than enough for us. We had said, no more kids, after Malya!
Seven years later our little ‘bonus baby’ George was born – amazingly he was a VBAC2C, vaginal birth after two caesareans, and he arrived on Christmas Day!
My sister Judy fully supported me through this pregnancy and birth, and while the labour was incredibly hard the entire journey is a beautiful memory, and the courage it took has very much added to my strength as a person. I suffered from perinatal depression with all three babies, and with George I felt that the support I had and courage I found in myself helped me to walk through the process with more awareness and growth, and this newfound strength really inspired the birth of my creative outlet, my little business.
Having babies must have been a big decision with your health. Can you share with us how your health took a turn for the worse?
In my final year of uni, I ran my first half marathon here in Geelong and was busy working part-time and commuting to Ballarat in pursuit of becoming a Phys Ed Teacher. After this run, I felt a shift in my energy levels and stress levels, but I pushed through for a few months, I’d never been prone to illness, and never had reason to stop and rest. Towards the end of the year my symptoms of unexplained fatigue, and muscle pain and weakness meant I had some blood tests which revealed I’d recently had Glandular Fever and currently had CMV (cytomegalovirus). By then I was under even more stress, juggling casual jobs and job applications, and was carrying a growing weight of unresolved issues from my teens. All of this was an excellent recipe for post viral illness, and despite fighting hard and beginning my teaching career the following year, I never recovered and was eventually diagnosed with ME/CFS which I’ve now had for 20 years.
How does CFS affect you on a daily basis?
Each day is a little different so it’s really difficult to plan ahead.
I’m not like any of the other mums. I’m not the one who can drive to school, then gymnastic, then swimming, then home. Blake does all the taxiing. Without him having such a servant heart I don’t know where I’d be. He just accepts that I will do whatever I can.
Blake has done all the nights with every baby and even now with George. He just knows that if I’m awake I’m awake for hours and then my next day is over.
If I’m having intense symptoms like light and sound sensitivity, migraines, nausea, dizziness and upper body myalgia I’ll stay home, and be happy to manage a short walk late afternoon.
Requests from each child take a huge amount of effort to comprehend and manage and George’s energy means when he comes near me I have to defend myself from a playful punch or accidentally being used as a landing pad for his ninja leaps because everything hurts on those days.
I like to think that the other two thirds of the time my days are better. I’ll manage half days with George and we craft or go to the park or see some friends.
The beauty of my work is that I can do a lot of it while I’m resting, so on a good day I’ll do half a day of parenting and half work/rest.
So in your hunt to find sustainable work that complimented your health needs, you found it in an unexpected place?
That’s right. So I taught myself to crochet about 10 years ago while a friend and I were having fun crafting for markets. Meanwhile Blake renovated our little Highton home into a spacious vintage provincial space complete with a sunny reading nook which inspired my Instagram handle @littlegoldennook where I shared my creative makes and family life. After George was born I stumbled along for a few months, crocheting a few stitches here and there with one hand while he was permanently attached. I had no plans at all to make an income from my craft. I saw a knitted jumper one day, and decided to try to make a crocheted version for myself. It worked, I loved the process of designing, and was a big hit with my followers which gave me the drive to write the pattern down. The pattern writing and testing process was a big journey for me, but once I started the ideas kept coming and I’ve been fortunate to have collaborated with some wonderful yarn companies both locally and all over the world.
I just couldn’t believe this had turned into a job. I was just so thankful that I could have a job when I had given up on all my previous dreams. I had three beautiful children to raise and a job that people were interested in.
How do you look after your health these days?
I have two jobs now (as many mums do), and I have very little spare energy. I never go out at night, and social events are extremely rare. I’ve dreamt of managing a full day of teaching to re-enter the education system, but even a half day would involve recovery time so that never fully worked out. But I don’t dwell on the limitations. I have a beautiful family, a creative outlet, and I can walk and find joy in nature and smaller social connections. I eat well and stay away from most inflammatory foods (gluten, dairy, sugar), I have a constant battle with iron storage, and have to work hard to avoid anaemia. I have a complex lists of supplements and medications now, but it’s all manageable.
I believe you also had a more recent life-changing discovery. You joined me in the ADHD tribe!
Yes! So two years ago, I was describing some issues I was having to my GP and she asked, had I ever been tested for ADHD. I said no, and was doubtful because I knew nothing about it aside from the (usually incorrect) stereotype of the hyperactive child. She referred me to a specialist and that led to a diagnosis and with treatment, a real change in my ability to focus, and distribution of energy throughout the day. For me it was another layer of understanding of myself, another reason for some of my struggles as a teen, and of my anxiety as an adult.
My ADHD means I’m impulsive so I’ll plan things on the fly and then have to cancel or really struggle to recover from something that seemed like a great idea at the time.
One of the hardest things is regularly talking myself out of making plans, it feels like I’m doing the opposite of what life is about.
But in order to have energy for my kids and husband and home and work I have to be painfully stingy with other things.
Do you have a parenting philosophy?
If I was put into a parenting category it would be gentle parenting for sure. And it’s taken years and our ‘bonus boy’ to land in this space. I’m grateful that our eldest daughter is so resilient and strong because we were definitely tougher on her, and my only parenting regrets were from when she was little.
After having two perfect sleepers, and patting ourselves on the back for their ‘achievements’, George came along and taught us a huge and most valuable lesson, that we can’t control his needs and force him to be independent (like his sisters) before he is ready. We learned that he needed us to help him sleep, long after the old parenting books said it was ‘normal’, and we found out that this way was normal and gentle, and nurturing.
As the girls have grown, we’ve worked hard on three things:
Teaching them about our faith, and giving them the opportunity to know they are adored no matter what they do. The things they inevitably absorb at school and on social media tell them they can’t ever really measure up. So the chance to understand that they are completely accepted as they are is a gift we feel honoured to share.
– Apologising to them regularly for our parenting mistakes. Blake and I are far from perfect, and it’s so important for the kids to see how imperfect we are and also to see us apologise and ask for their forgiveness for when we hurt them or confuse them with anger or unreasonable expectations or missing opportunities to say yes to them. They also need to see that we are human too, and modelling openness and willingness to be wrong is really important.
– Honesty is a biggie in our house. Kids can be secretive, some more than others, depending on how sensitive they are to disapproval. We’ve tried to encourage our kids that telling the truth about small things means they won’t get in trouble. Sometimes the confessions are hard enough for them, so giving them a hug and saying thankyou for being honest is the best thing we can do. We can then build on this when they are tempted to be dishonest with the bigger things.