Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

So what do you do?

I really hate this question. At social gatherings, in the school playground, chatting to people at the park, occasionally even when I’m doing the shopping – it keeps popping up like a particularly persistent meerkat. And I never know how to answer it. “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a stay-at-home mum” are both true statements but they only cover part of what I do. The same goes for “I do volunteer work” and “I write”. The trouble is that people usually only ask this question as a way of politely extending a conversation or so they can mentally file you in the appropriate box. They want a brief, concise answer and I don’t have one.

So what do I do? Well, the main thing I don’t do is have a paid job. I haven’t since the birth of my daughter in 2009, when I had such severe PND that I was unable to return to work at the end of maternity leave and eventually lost my beloved job as a result. Since then my mental health has never been good enough for me to return to formal employment. Many (including myself in harsher moments) would label me a benefits scrounger, someone spongeing off the state and hard-working taxpayers.

And yet I work hard. I work hard to support and care for my husband as he struggles with bipolar disorder and what can sometimes be crippling anxiety. I work hard to look after our two children, ensuring that they are healthy and happy. I make sure our meagre income covers the bills as well as paying for healthy food and adequate clothing for a pair of ravenous, growing youngsters. I keep our home clean and relatively tidy. I do voluntary work a couple of mornings a week, I write, I take the children to playgroups, parties, parks, the beach, days out. And I do all of this while dealing with my own mental illnesses (and hiding that fact from the children), and suffering from chronic back pain. Of course DH does these things too when he can but there are often times when, through no fault of his own, he can’t.

It’s hard. It’s really bloody hard. I’m lucky to have supportive family close by who help out when I need them. I have supportive friends at the end of the phone or online, and a brilliant GP who always makes time to see me if I need her. But I don’t fit into the neat little box that society would like me to. And I still don’t know how to answer the question.

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It’s been a while…

(For the background to this post please read Consequences).

Well, after a month or so without blogging or feeling comfortable talking openly about my mental health on Twitter, I’ve had enough. I refuse to hide any more. The woman who reported us has contacted me in order to confess; it seems that she genuinely (however misguidedly) believed that the children truly were at risk. Thankfully Children’s Services have made it very clear that they have absolutely no concerns and have indicated that they will treat any future complaints from this woman with caution.

So after having a break in order to think things through, I’m back. Through the unwavering support of pretty much everyone I know, whether online or off, it has gradually become clear to me that the importance of speaking out against the stigma of mental illness far outweighs the risk of another misguided report to the NSPCC. That this happened at all (despite the fact that I am stable, that DH and I are both in regular contact with healthcare professionals and that we have family close by who both help and support us) merely shows just how far we still have to go before mental illness is treated the same way as physical illness.

Of course, the irony of all this hasn’t escaped me. My writing about mental illness and its stigma has led to DH and me being accused of being unfit parents because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s almost funny. Almost.

The letter – part 2

A week ago I wrote this post after discovering that DH and I had been reported to Children’s Services. I am pleased to say that today I have spoken to Children’s Services again and, despite a second complaint from the same individual after they read last week’s post, they will not be investigating further. In fact, having spoken to the healthcare professionals who regularly see DH and I, Children’s Services are confident that our children are at no risk whatsoever. Of course I’m sad that the NSPCC and Children’s Services had to waste their precious time investigating groundless complaints but in a way I think it’s a good thing; it’s far better to check out every report than for children who really are at risk to be overlooked. Social workers have a seemingly neverending and often thankless task but their work is invaluable.

The main cause of the calls to the NSPCC seem to be (and I’m quoting from what the social workers have told me) that DH and I have mental illnesses, that I am open about my mental illness, that our children have poor nutrition and most recently that we have “so many bad days” that we are “on the dole”. Now, our children are obviously well-fed and being on benefits is no crime, despite being embarrassing or shaming to admit to at times. Equally, having a mental illness isn’t a crime but there is a lot of stigma and many people don’t really know anything about it. That’s partly what prompted me to start blogging, because I was tired of hiding my mental illness when I didn’t feel it was necessary to hide my physical illness.

I will admit that this incident has made me wonder whether I should continue blogging and tweeting so honestly, or whether I should stop. After careful consideration and discussions with numerous people I’ve decided to carry on as normal. If nothing else this whole sorry episode has demonstrated just how much ignorance there is about mental illness, and if I can help people to be better informed then that can only be a good thing.

To the person who reported us I would like to say this:

I’m sure that you’re happy to hear that my children are well-cared for and not at risk. It’s a shame that you felt unable to approach DH and I before speaking to the NSPCC; we’re nice people and can take criticism, especially if it comes from a place of genuine concern.

If you would like to learn more about mental illness you can access some great information at Time To Talk and Mind, while the Mental Health Foundation has a good explanation of stigma here.

I hope your mind is now at ease as far as my children are concerned. Yours,

Sam.

To my children

I know that you may never see this, but I need to write it even so. Because you are my wonderful, funny, loving children and I feel that I owe you this.

At the time of writing you, DD, are just a couple of weeks away from your fifth birthday; you, DS, are two and a half. You’re both loud, boisterous, confident and happy children and I love watching you play together. Your peals of laughter and the tenderness you show each other melt my heart; so too does the way you snuggle up together with a storybook. I love you both more than I can ever say, and more than you can ever imagine (and yes DD, even further than the edge of space).

At the moment Daddy and I are having a tough time because we’re both a bit poorly. We’re both a bit grumpy at times, Daddy often can’t play with you as much as you would like and I’m not as good at funny games as I used to be. You’re both very accepting of this but I know you don’t really understand. And why should you? You know that I always have a sore back but how could you possibly understand the vagaries of mental illness?

I can’t figure out a way to explain to you what bipolar means, or that Daddy’s medicines keep changing because his psychiatrist is trying to find the right balance to bring him back to himself. I don’t want to tell you that sometimes medicines can make you feel worse and not better, and that that’s why Daddy has barely left the house for the last fortnight. You don’t yet need to know about anxiety, or panic attacks that are sometimes so bad that Daddy has to shut himself in the bedroom for a while so you don’t see him shaking and crying for no apparent reason.

If this was all that was wrong, if you had a mentally healthy mother, perhaps I wouldn’t feel so bad. But having to look after Daddy all the time as well as trying to stay bright and cheerful for you is taking its toll.  My cyclothymia, usually fairly well controlled by anti-depressants, is flaring and my moods are all over the place. I can be happy one day, one hour, one moment, and cast into the depths of despair the next. It makes taking care of two lively children very difficult at times and I hope you never realise just how much I sometimes want to scream at you to leave me alone because your questions, bickering and noisy games make me want to claw off my own skin. I’m deeply ashamed of feeling this way and I worry that occasionally you might have an inkling of what I’m thinking, that you might catch a glimpse of the distress I’m trying so hard to hide from you.

I know that I’m not a dreadful mother and that you could be in a far worse situation (and that many children are). On the whole you’re happy, bright and playful children who are capable of making me laugh until the tears roll down my face. I know you love each other (even when you’re arguing) and that you know that Daddy and I love you very much. I just can’t help wishing that things were different, and feeling guilty because they’re not.

The day’s not far off when “Daddy’s just not feeling well” and “I’m a bit poorly today” won’t be enough of an excuse. DD, already you’re questioning why Daddy is ill so often and soon I’m going to have to work out how to explain a little bit more of what’s really happening. But I want you both to stay ignorant of this reality a little while longer. I don’t want you to know that there are some things that can’t be fixed, and that having a kiss and a cuddle doesn’t always make everything better. I want to protect you from this difficult truth, because once you learn it your innocent trust and faith in the omnipotence of your parents will be forever tarnished. And I’m not ready for that just yet, so please let us carry on this deception a while longer. I love you both, always.

Mummy.

Move the misery magazines

Taking my 4 year old daughter shopping has become a bit of a minefield lately. Not because she doesn’t behave; she’s always good and enjoys helping to choose what we’re going to eat that week. It’s not because she pesters for things either (although sometimes she does, of course – she’s 4!). No, it’s because of magazines like this:

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And this:

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Although she’s not yet 5, my daughter is an exceptionally fluent reader and these magazines are almost always placed at child height in supermarkets. Not just in the magazine section either but also at tills. Is this appropriate? No. I don’t think any reasonable person would consider that this kind of trash magazine should be placed where children can see them, yet in some shops not only are they at child height but they’re right next to the comics. Soft porn magazines like Nuts, Zoo, FHM and their ilk have been covered in shops for a while now, so why not magazines that gleefully publish misery porn?

Here are some more examples from the last couple of days:

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Are these really the messages that our children should be exposed to?

“My toddler, killed as she watched Peppa Pig”
“Drowned in the bath by his killer gran”
“My brother raped me but I still love him”
“Paedo uncle abused me: little girls always lie”
“Burnt at the stake by jealous mum-in-law”
“I threw my baby out the window”
“Forced to kill my dad”
“Rapist lover snatched my sick baby”

Don’t these headlines just sicken you? It’s a constant barrage of misery and pain. Personally I find these magazines extremely distasteful and repulsive. But to a child they’re just utterly bewildering, with concepts that they’ve never heard of (“Mummy, what does rape mean?”) or shouldn’t have to consider (“Mummy, was the toddler killed because she was naughty?”). I don’t want my children to know about these things until they’re considerably older. To be completely honest, I really don’t understand why anyone would want to read these magazines. But there seem to be more and more of them these days, so presumably a large swathe of the population finds them simply delightful. Each to their own, I suppose. Whatever your opinion on these publications though, I doubt that there are many who would disagree that it’s wrong for children to be exposed to these horrific headlines.

When the UK group Child Eyes started out they were campaigning against sexualised images being displayed where children can see them (magazine covers, newspapers, billboards etc). Now however they’ve also begun to campaign for this type of magazine to be stocked out of a child’s line of sight. One British supermarket, Morrisons, has already agreed to take steps towards this; I really hope that other retailers soon follow.

First steps

DH and I have been together for 12 years now, and for all bar the first few weeks we’ve known that we both wanted children. At least 2, preferably 3 or 4 or even more. We decided on our favourite names in 2003 (our eldest wasn’t born until 2009!). For over a decade the prospect of having a large, chaotic, loving and happy family has always been a part of our plans. But not any more. Today, as a 33 year old mother of 2, I asked my GP to refer me to the local hospital to discuss sterilisation.

This is something I’ve discussed with my husband and my mother and I think it’s the right decision. I hope it is. The reason is very simple – as much as I yearn for more children I know that another pregnancy, another child, could endanger my life. My mental health has deteriorated over the last few years. I have suffered with post-natal depression after the birth of both my children, each time severe enough to make me suicidal. During my second pregnancy I had ante-natal depression which, while not as severe as the PND, still meant I was barely functioning. I wasn’t able to care for my daughter (then just 2) properly, I wasn’t able to care for myself and I certainly wasn’t able to care for the child I was carrying. As recently as March this year I was in crisis and suicidal; although I’ve recovered from that and feel stable again there’s always the possibility of a recurrence.

In addition to this, my physical health is poor. I suffered from awful PGP (pelvic girdle pain) in both pregnancies – the first time this meant I needed crutches to walk, the second time I was barely able to move by the third trimester. There’s also my spine to consider, as I have degenerative disc disease. I’d previously been told that if I wanted children I should have them before I was 30; the last consultant I saw was even more blunt and told me that if I wanted to retain the ability to walk I would limit my family to the 2 children I already have.

I know that sterilisation is a huge step to take, but to me it seems the logical one. For all the reasons listed above, if I should accidentally conceive I would have to abort the pregnancy. And I honestly don’t know if I could do that. But having conceived my son while correctly using contraception, I have very little trust in the usual methods of birth control. While I know that sterilisation isn’t a guarantee, it has far better odds of successfully avoiding pregnancy than anything else. My husband, lovely man that he is, has offered to have a vasectomy so that I don’t have to undergo a fairly major operation. But that seems unfair, to me. I’m the problem here, I’m the reason we can’t have more children. If DH and I ever split up or if I died, I would like him to find someone else and have the option of having more children if he wanted to. So I’ve said no.

I know that there will be people reading this who can’t have children, and who are probably screaming at the screen that I should be thankful for what I have. And I am, I really truly am. I realise that my pain is in no way comparable to that of someone unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term. But knowing that I will never have another child is very painful for me and I refuse to pretend otherwise.

DH and I have always been keen on fostering and that may be an option for us later on, if our mental illnesses aren’t a barrier. But I will never bear another child and I need to come to terms with that, somehow. Last week I took the first step and disposed of all the baby clothes and everything that DS has outgrown. Today I took the second. I’m not sure what the next step is but I hope it leads to not just acceptance, but peace.

Confusion in Cymru

I love Wales. I went to university in Cardiff aged 18 and lived in south Wales until I was almost 30 (apart from 8 months in Sheffield while I studied for my MSc, and even then I spent a lot of weekends visiting friends and my now husband in Cardiff!). I met DH in Wales, he proposed in Wales. My daughter was born in Wales.

We moved away extremely reluctantly at the start of 2011 following our bankruptcy and the repossession of our home. DH and I were both desperately unhappy at having to leave but promised ourselves that we would return soon, even if it was only for a visit. Circumstances conspired against us however, and it’s only now that we’ve been able to come back for the first time, having saved up for almost 2 years in order to afford it.

So here we are. I have been unbearably excited for weeks, ever since we booked the cottage we’re staying in. I even cried as I drove across the Severn bridge for the first time in 3 years and in a lot of ways it feels as though we’ve only been away a few weeks. But in other ways there is a yawning gulf between who I was when we left and who I am now. We have an extra child, for a start! DS was conceived and born in England; although this beautiful country was home to DD, DH and I, he’s never seen it before. As well as this I feel like a completely different person, just a shadow of the confident, sociable woman I used to be. My physical appearance, my mental health, my path in life – these have all changed and none of them for the better.

Yesterday we met some old friends, most of whom DH and I have known since university. Although I was really looking forward to seeing them I was also dreading it because I’ve changed so much. I’m ashamed of who I am these days – an obese recluse who only seems able to engage with other people through blogging or on Twitter. In the end it was actually a great afternoon but it brought home to me just how different I am now and how I feel about myself.

This trip, this holiday, our long awaited return to Wales, was supposed to be a joyous occasion. DH and I have both suffered from hiraeth, that heartsick longing for home and Wales for which there isn’t really an equivalent in the English language. I hadn’t foreseen that being here would be so confusing and upsetting, that it would strike at the heart of who I am and how I perceive myself.

I am so unbelievably happy to be here, to have returned home to Wales even if only for a week. I’m enjoying taking the children to places that we used to go and it’s good to meet up with people that DD doesn’t remember and DS has never met. But I’m also sad because already I’m anticipating having to leave again; most of all I’m grieving for the life we used to have and for who I used to be. And I’m feeling all of these things at once.

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