Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Archive for the ‘Motherhood’ Category

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.

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The letter

For the last 12 days DH, the children and I have been on holiday. We’ve had a wonderful time staying with DH’s family and having lovely days out. Today we came home and once we’d brought everything in from the car I sat down to check through the post for anything that needed urgent attention. And there it was.

Children’s Services have received a referral from the NSPCC. The referral has raised concerns for your children’s welfare. Please contact the Children’s Access Point on the above telephone number so we can discuss the matter further. You will need to speak to the duty social worker.

Hands shaking, I showed the letter to DH before shutting myself in the bedroom to make the call. The duty social worker was very pleasant and explained that someone had contacted the NSPCC anonymously to report that they were concerned about my children’s welfare. Apparently the complaint was very detailed but of course the social worker couldn’t tell me too much in case it helped me identify who the individual was. Which is fair enough. What he did say, though, is that this person was very concerned because a) DH and I both have mental health issues, b) I am open about my mental health “without considering the impact it may have on the children’s welfare”, and c) because the children suffer from “poor nutrition”.

I have to admit, I find the third one mildly amusing. Anyone who has seen how healthily my children eat and how much they can pack away (second helpings are common and third helpings have been known on occasion) knows that they’re definitely not malnourished or lacking in any kind of nutrition. I’ll be honest, a lot of the time they eat better than DH and me! They’re both slender but full of energy, and no-one in a position of responsibility (doctors, teachers, children’s centre staff etc) has ever expressed any sort of concern about their wellbeing.

I gave the social worker a brief summary of DH’s and my mental health: our diagnoses, that we’re both stable on medication, that we both see our GPs regularly and that DH sees his psychiatrist every month as well as going to support groups each week. I explained that we both have supportive families who we see regularly, as well as some very supportive friends. I gave the social worker the contact details for our GPs and DH’s psychiatrist, and we both gave full permission for them to tell Children’s Services whatever they need to know.

Now, a few hours later, the shock has worn off and to be completely honest, I’m not angry so much as sad. I’m sad that someone who seems to know us had concerns about our children but didn’t talk to us about it. I’m sad that once again the stigma that surrounds mental illness has touched our lives; would the person have called the NSPCC about my physical illness, which actually has far more of an effect on the children? I doubt it. I’m sad because the comment about the children’s nutrition makes it seem as though this is a malicious complaint rather than someone who’s genuinely concerned but perhaps a bit misguided. But most of all I’m sad because Children’s Services are now wasting their precious time investigating me and DH instead of spending it helping children who are actually being abused, neglected and ill-treated.

I have absolutely no intention of keeping quiet about mental illness. If anything, this has made me even more determined to speak up about it. I disagree that being open about mental illness will have a negative impact on my children; I think that hiding our illnesses and lying about them would be far worse. Particularly when there is evidence to suggest that depression and bipolar disorder may be inheritable! The children aren’t aware of mental illness yet but as with everything else we will answer the children’s questions honestly and at an age-appropriate level when they’re asked. And we will continue to teach them to accept everyone regardless of illnesses, disabilities or any other differences.

I’m confident that after the investigation has run its course the complaint will be dismissed. Of course there’s still a small voice whispering “But what if they decide to take the children anyway?” in the back of my mind; this is precisely the kind of situation that my anxiety is centred on but I’m doing my best to ignore that. My children are happy, healthy and well looked after, and I know that social workers aren’t the big bad child-snatchers that they’re often suggested to be. I hope that this will be resolved quickly, and that whoever called the NSPCC can rest easy knowing that my children are absolutely fine.

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.

Sugar and spice and all things nice…

My daughter is 4 years old. Because of her age she receives a free drink of milk at school each day; once she turns 5 DH and I will have to pay if we wish this to continue (only 22p a day as it’s subsidised). I don’t know what the take-up rate for this is but today the company that provides the milk (Cool Milk) held an assembly at the school. From what DD tells me it was a fun assembly with singing and a bit of dancing. At the end of it each child was given a sticker to wear and a booklet was put in their bookbags for them to take home. The booklet had a comic strip in as well as a quiz, poem etc.

However, at the back of the booklet was this:

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Now, you and I know that too much sugar isn’t good for us. And I’m all for encouraging healthy eating in childhood. But do 4 year olds really need to be worried about how much sugar is in their drink? That’s for parents to worry about, surely? As a result of reading this booklet DD is now convinced that consuming sugar will make her fat. DH and I have tried to reassure her, explaining that our bodies need sugar for energy and that some sugar is ok. This is the stance that we’ve always taken, that everything is ok in moderation, but I don’t know whether we’ve reassured her or not.

I’m livid about this. Children live in a society where appearance is valued above all else and this has enough of an impact on them. A survey carried out last year by GirlGuiding UK found that 71% of girls aged 11-21 would like to lose weight and that a fifth (a fifth!) of primary school girls have been on a diet. I have no doubt that similar pressures are felt by boys as well, though probably to a lesser degree. Children need to be encouraged to value who they are as individuals, to value substance over appearance, and yes they do need to learn about healthy, nourishing food. However they do not need to be fretting at the age of 4 about whether what they eat and drink is going to make them fat. They certainly don’t need to be told things like that by a company who are merely trying to increase their profits by encouraging children to keep drinking their milk. (I concede that there may be a genuine desire here to help and educate children stay healthy but my cynicism leads me to suspect that money is the overriding concern).

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that in 2010/11 more than 6,500 children were treated for eating disorders (up from 1,718, in 2007/8). This includes 79 who were less than 10 years old when they began treatment, and 56 children who were aged 5 or under. Of course the causes of eating disorders are many and nuanced, but idiotic marketing ploys like Cool Milk’s certainly aren’t going to help matters.

I appreciate that these children are far from the norm, and I also realise that I may be over-reacting a touch here. But I was one of those children who don’t make it into the HSCIC’s statistics, the ones who have an eating disorder but remain undiagnosed. I’m not sure when it began but I clearly remember secretly bingeing at the age of 7, gorging on any kind of food I could lay my hands on. I also remember tightening the belt on my school dress until I could barely breathe, convinced that I was fat. I don’t want my children to walk the same path as me and if that makes me over-sensitive to things like this booklet then so be it.

Hollow and hopeless

I admit it – I’m struggling. I’ve not written about my mental health for a while because I’ve seemed stable on the medication I take and it felt like I was coping ok. But I’m starting to realise that I’ve been fooling myself and using too many crutches to get through each day.

This last week has been an eye-opener. 2yo DS had surgery on Monday; it was only a minor operation but involved general anaesthetic and that pushed all my anxiety buttons. Then he developed a stomach bug the same night and the next 3 days were filled with more vomit than a high street on Saturday night. After a few days DH and DD got it too. Everyone’s pretty much recovered now but I’m still struggling. I feel like I’m constantly full of adrenaline, buzzing and unable to sit still, but at the same time lethargic and morose.

I hadn’t realised until recently just how much I rely on DH to take the strain when I’m having a hard time. We’ve always done equal shares when it comes to parenting and running a home (especially while he’s unemployed), but there are times when I just cannot cope and he takes over for a bit so that I can be alone or whatever it is that I need at the time. However, just before Christmas he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and is now on new regimens of drugs and therapy while the doctors explore what works. I think this has prompted him to be far more open with me about his mental health than before and it seems that he’s been hiding a lot from me. Now that I know how he feels, how he’s been fighting his own battles, I no longer feel that I can rely on him as much as before. Not because he’s suddenly unreliable but because it seems unfair to give him sole responsibility for the children when he’s having as hard a time of it as I am. I feel guilty and selfish that I didn’t realise before.

I’ve been trying my hardest to put on a bright and smiley face for everyone, particularly the children, but the mask is cracking. I am cracking. I have a very short temper atm and the slightest thing makes me rage (internally, thankfully). The children’s chatter is like fingernails on a blackboard. Their bickering makes me want to break things. Their simplest request, for a toy or a hug or help turning on the light, is infuriating because I just want to be left alone.

I try to hide how I’m feeling and be their kind, playful, loving mother but I think I’m failing. I think they’re starting to realise that I’m hollow – fake happiness on the outside, a yawning chasm of despair inside. They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve a mother who has to bully herself into playing with them, who counts down the hours and minutes until bedtime. They deserve better, the best.

I’m not entirely sure if there’s anything in particular that’s prompted my plummeting back into darkness but it has been a stressful time lately. If I’m completely honest there’s a part of me, a very small part, that is angry with DH for being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. How ridiculous is that? It’s hardly his fault. But in the past I’ve always been comforted by the thought that when things became too much to cope with and I eventually killed myself (I’ve come dangerously close to this several times) the children would have a strong, stable parent to take care of them. But I can’t do that to DH when he’s having his own problems. I feel as though my safety net has vanished. I’m not saying that I’m suicidal at the moment, I’m not. But it was always reassuring to know that if things ever became that bad again, I had an escape route. Now I don’t and there’s no hope of oblivion for me any more. I’m stuck in this defective body, in this tormented mind, until age, infirmity or an accident carries me off.

I really don’t know what I want this post to say, I’ve rambled a long way from my first paragraph. I’ve been far too honest and I’m not sure whether I should even publish it. But this is who I am and how I am. Bright on the outside, black as pitch on the inside and utterly without hope of escape.

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