Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘motherhood’

My pain

Today I am angry, I am heartbroken and I am self-pitying. Why? Because after almost a year of bearable pain, the last couple of days have seen me once again reduced to sitting or lying very carefully, walking very slowly while leaning heavily on my stick and trying not to sneeze, cough, laugh or do anything else that will send lightning bolts of pain through my body.

The reason for this sudden degeneration is very simple; on Saturday I bathed the children. That’s it. Usually DH does bathtime because I struggle to but on Saturday I decided that for once I was going to have the fun of doing it. And now I’m paying for it.

This makes me so, so angry. After 18 years of gradually increasing back pain you’d think I’d be resigned to this but no. I want to play with my children properly, getting down on the floor to build farms and railway tracks and roll around with them. I want to be able to sweep them up into my arms without having to steel myself against the pain, I want to run around with them playing football and chase, I want to take them for rambles across the countryside. I want to do normal mum things, I want to live my life without the constantly nagging companion that is pain.

It’s not fair. I know I sound childish and petulant but I don’t care. I don’t want this any more. I have spent more than half my life in constant pain; I had been in pain for 8 years before I had my first MRI scan, it was another 9 before I had a proper diagnosis. I’ve tried osteopathy, acupuncture, all kinds of physiotherapy, pain management clinics, cranio-sacral therapy, experimental therapies, you name it I’ve tried it. Painkillers are either ineffectual or so strong that they make me vomit constantly. My husband and children have never seen me without the spectre of pain and I doubt they ever will.

I know that I am far more fortunate than many, that have much to be thankful for and I am, believe me. But right now none of that matters because I am in pain, emotional as well as the gut-wrenchingly physical. This pain has been wearing me down a little more every day for 18 years and I don’t want it any more.  I don’t want my husband to have to help me dress and get to the bathroom on days where I can barely move, I don’t want my children to have to be careful around me in case they hurt me. I don’t want it and right now I am so furious that I could just scream all this pain and heartache at the universe. Instead I’m typing these words through angry, frustrated tears because I know that there’s nothing I can do to change this. There are no practical treatment options at this time.

And I can’t even have a proper tantrum about it because stamping my foot would hurt too much.

Contentment

In the dark I hear your breathing; calm, soft and deep. I hear your quiet murmurs as you dream. Your small body, heavy with sleep, is nestled against mine and I curl protectively around you as you stir. I lay a soothing hand on your chest; your small hand clutches at mine, gripping tightly then loosening as you trustingly relax back into sleep.

You are warm. You are safe. You are loved.

Reflections on motherhood and atheism

When I was a young child I believed in God. I was christened in the Church of England and until I was 5 or 6 (when my father lost his faith) my family attended church quite regularly. My parents were careful to raise my sister and me in a balanced way though, we were encouraged to explore our beliefs and make up our own minds about religion. As a result my sister is a committed Christian while I am a convinced atheist (well done Mum and Dad!).

I’m not an atheist of the sneering, Dawkins-led kind though; I have no time for that sort. To be honest there are times when I wish that I had faith; I see how comforting it can be in hard times and I wish that I had that extra support. But to me religion simply makes no sense. There are aspects of religion that I love though: the beauty of the buildings, the sense of community, the music, some of the rituals (in fact I recently read a great book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, enthusing about how helpful many aspects of religion could be in secular life – it’s called Religion For Atheists if you want to check it out).

I’ve mentioned before how my atheism can sometimes make parts of motherhood tricky (discussing death with young children for example). I wish that I could tell my children that there is a supernatural being watching over them. I wish that I could tell them that heaven exists, that they will be reunited with lost loved ones after death. But to me and to DH it’s just too big a lie. We can just about manage Santa Claus (although DD already has her suspicions about his authenticity) but not heaven or deities.

However we are being careful to raise the children to be curious and open-minded. When DD asks I explain that Mummy and Daddy believe X, while other relatives and friends believe Y, and some people believe Z. It’s important to me, to us, that the children come to their own decisions about religion as they grow up. It’s equally important that they learn to be respectful of other people’s right to their beliefs, although respecting some of the actual beliefs (those leading to homophobia, misogyny etc) can be nigh on impossible.

As we live in the UK, a culturally Christian country, we celebrate the major festivals of Christmas and Easter. DD knows the nativity story and that that’s why some people have a religious Christmas, but so far we’ve steered clear of the rather more gory Easter story. We don’t do the religious traditions but we do the secular ones (a decorated tree and presents, chocolate at Easter) and celebrate the original purpose of the pagan festivals held at this time (the midwinter feast marking the beginning of the end of winter, and the spring feast marking the signs of new life).

DD will start school in September and as we are in England a daily act of worship is required by law. A lot of non-faith schools get around this by having daily assemblies where stories are told – stories from religions, stories such as Aesop’s fables and so on – and having prayers almost as an afterthought, or instead having a minute for being thoughtful. This will be DD’s first real exposure to organised religion (I’m not sure an annual Christingle service with my mum and sister really counts!) and I expect that she will have lots of questions. I just wish I had all the answers…

Verdict: guilty

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are here today to consider the case against Sam Candour. The charges are as follows:

1) That she often lets down friends because she cannot face leaving the flat or seeing people – this makes her feel guilty.

2) That sometimes she really doesn’t want to play with the children – this makes her feel guilty.

3) That she struggles with anxiety and finds it hard to talk to people offline, which is beginning to impact on her daughter’s social life – this makes her feel guilty.

4) That she isn’t the kind of mother she wants to be – this makes her feel guilty.

5) That she has a flat far more cluttered than it should be but rarely has the energy to tidy – this makes her feel guilty.

6) That her anxiety makes it impossible to work at the moment, meaning that money is very tight while her husband is unemployed – this makes her feel guilty.

7) That she is rarely unable to cope with any kind of stress without binging – this makes her feel guilty.

8) That her husband always has to pick up the parenting slack when she is too depressed, tired or overwhelmed to cope as a partnership – this makes her feel guilty.

9) That her children deserve a far better mother but won’t get one – this makes her feel guilty.

10) That she fights against the stigma surrounding mental illness but nonetheless feels that her own illness is a sign of weakness and a character flaw – this makes her feel guilty.

Evidence to support and prove these charges is contained both within the defendant’s own chaotic mind and her blog. The defendant has chosen to enter the only plea possible under the circumstances.

Sam Candour is GUILTY.

(This post was written as a contribution to a blog hop about guilt, hosted by PremMeditations).

Lost: me, myself and I

Last night I told DH that if I could have 3 wishes the first would be to get rid of my mental health problems (or “lose the crazy” as I actually put it). DH shook his head and said “But then you wouldn’t be you!” and this has got me thinking. In a way he’s right, my mental health issues are a part of who I am. I’m gradually stumbling along the path to accepting that this is nothing to be ashamed of, that I am not weak but just not as healthy mentally as the majority. I have already accepted that it’s likely I will need some kind of medication for the rest of my life and that’s ok.

But my mental health is far worse now than when DH and I met 11 years ago. Back then I was already anxious and had suffered from bouts of depression for almost a decade, but I was confident. I was good at socialising, I had a wide circle of friends and a bright future ahead of me. I even went to live in a city where I didn’t know a single person in order to study for my Masters degree.

But now? I only have a small circle of friends and have withdrawn from most people from my old life because we have nothing in common these days. They’re successful, confident people while I’m an impoverished failure. I rarely socialise and if I do it’s via the children, taking them to friends’ houses to play. I am not confident in how I look, I care far more deeply about what people think of me than I ever used to and to be honest I barely recognise myself.

I don’t know who I am any more but I’m certainly not the same person that DH fell in love with 11 years ago. I feel like a shadow of that woman, a pale imitation. I’m good at putting on my mask and seeming confident, I’m good at forcing myself to chat to people I don’t know well – but inside I’m curled in a ball, trembling, counting down the moments until I can escape and get home to safety.

11 years ago I knew who I was; today I’m not so sure. I am a mother and a wife, a daughter and a sister, but I have lost my central identity. I exist on the periphery, orbiting my family’s lives like a lonely hydrogen electron. There is nothing in my current life that is interesting or sets me apart from the masses; there is nothing that I can point to and say “Look, this is who I am, what I do, this is what is important about me”.

In fact the only place where I feel even remotely like my former self is online. There I can hide behind a pseudonym, safe in the knowledge that no-one can actually see me and confident because I don’t have to speak to anyone face-to-face. I can chat to anyone about anything and I can be utterly honest in a way that I shrink from in everyday life. Talking to strangers online I begin to hear echoes of my former self. It’s like gazing into a fairground mirror – the reflection may be distorted but it’s still just about recognisable.

Independence day

My daughter is a wonderful child. She’s bright, cheerful, has a wicked sense of humour and is very loving (although at the moment she doesn’t do hugs and kisses very often). She’s confident and outgoing and will happily walk up to people in the park or wherever we happen to be and introduce herself, saying “Hello, I’m DD! What’s your name?”. She’s very kind towards her little brother and is usually fairly tolerant when he rampages into the middle of one of her games.

But for the last week or so my happy smiley laughing girl has been mostly absent. Instead DD has been bursting into tears at the drop of a hat (literally, on one occasion) and for the smallest of reasons. Yesterday she cried because she’d picked up a red Lego brick instead of a blue one. DH and I have been at a loss as to what the underlying problem might be – she had a nasty cold last week but is over it now, and she’s sleeping well so she’s not tired. When I enquired at preschool the teachers reassured me that she’s not being bullied or picked on in any way, but asked whether something had happened at home because DD’s been bursting into tears there too.

So this afternoon DD and I left DS at home with DH and walked to the recreation ground round the corner for some girl time. It’s a huge playing field with little thickets of trees planted around the edges that DD calls her woods, and a small park with swings, a slide etc. We had a lovely time being explorers in the ‘woods’, playing in the park and blowing lots of dandelion clocks.

As the time to head home approached I asked DD if she was happy. A beaming grin was the response. I asked if anything had made her sad this week and she scrunched up her face in thought. Is she happy at home? Yes, she said. Is she happy with DS? Yes, she said, except when he interrupts my games. Is she happy with how Mummy and Daddy look after her? No, she said, and emphatically shook her head. Oh dear, I thought, and asked what the matter was.

“Well”, she said, “You and Daddy are very good at look aftering me and DS. But I don’t want you to look after me, I want to do it all by myself”. So there it is – at the grand old age of 3 years and 10 months my daughter wants her independence.

She has a fair amount of independence I think – she chooses what clothes she wears (unless the choice is vastly unsuitable, such as shorts when it was snowing), she chooses what she eats (from a choice of 2 or 3 things usually), she decides what to play or read and when. We allow her the freedom to run off when we’re out and about at parks, the beach etc, as long as she remains within about 20m. She also helps out around the house with tidying and washing and she’s an awesome little baker.

But this isn’t enough for my fiercely independent little girl. So we’ve negotiated and come to an agreement. From now on she’s in sole charge of brushing her hair and teeth (although of course we’ll supervise to make sure it’s done thoroughly). She already helps with the cooking on occasions but we’ll encourage her to do more. We’re already planning to start giving her pocket money on her birthday but I think perhaps we’ll tie it in with chores so that she feels she’s being rewarded for helping out and “look aftering” herself.

But she’s still so young, not even 4 yet. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that she’ll start school in September (which she’s extremely excited about) and here she is demanding to look after herself. I want to scoop her up and cwtch her on my lap while I read her stories and she wants the right to cook her own dinner! I know that an essential part of motherhood is knowing when to loosen the ties a little and allow more independence, exploration and freedom – I just wasn’t expecting this sort of demand so young.

I don’t know whether this strong desire for so much independence is normal at this age or whether DD is an unusual case. But she’s my first, my awesome girl, and she’s already champing at the bit to strike out on her own. I don’t know whether this is a phase or whether it will last, but I think that this is merely the first of many small steps to being in charge of her own life. And I’m pleased about that, I want her to grow up to be able to look after herself and be confident in who she is and what she’s capable of. But I also want my little girl to still want to cwtch in bed with me and read stories, and to share baths and let me kiss her scrapes and bruises better when she falls. And the opportunity to do these things suddenly seems all too fleeting.

Motherhood from a different perspective

I started this blog intending to talk about mental health and being a mum, but today I want to chat about motherhood from a different perspective – that of a daughter. I want to tell you about my mum.

Today is her birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is, although if you were in the restaurant at lunchtime you’ll have heard DD shriek “Nana you’re XX years old now!” at the top of her voice. Luckily Mum has a sense of humour! Mum is very much the matriarch of the family and it was lovely seeing how happy she was having us all together for her day.

My mum’s a pretty awesome lady. When I was born she was a nurse; by the time my younger sister was born she had turned down the post of Matron and left the profession to look after us. When my sister started playschool they needed extra help so my mum volunteered. Within a short space of time she was running it and doing so extremely competently. Mum kept the household going through the recession of the 1980s, when the interest rates on the mortgage became so high that some weeks there was only a few pounds for food despite my dad working full-time and gigging in the evenings to bring in extra money.

When my sister and I were both at school Mum started going to evening classes and gained an A-level in English, which meant that she could fulfil a long-held dream and train as a teacher. For the next 4 years she studied full-time, did exams and teaching practices, ran a Brownie pack and kept us all fed and clothed. Not only that but I never once felt that she was absent or that she wasn’t there when I needed her; I never felt that we were missing out in any way.

Mum qualified as a teacher when I was 14 and is still teaching now. And it’s only now, as a mother myself, that I can appreciate how incredibly hard those years must have been for her. How torn she must have felt, how difficult it must have been studying full-time as well as running a house and family (with 2 daughters who had lots of extra-curricular activities) and how hard she must have worked.

Mum is my inspiration. When I feel low, when I’m worrying about finding work once the children are in school, when I fret that I’ve lost my chance at a good career – that’s when I remember what my mum did and how well she did it. And I take a deep breath and vow that I can do it too, I can be strong and dedicated as well. Looking at what my mum has achieved gives me hope that I can do the same.

Happy birthday Mum – I love you.

Motherhood and my secret shame

I was recently asked to write a post on the topic of ‘Mum Shame’ for the wonderful website Story of Mum. This is that post.

What, as a mother, am I ashamed of? Well there’s quite a lot, as it happens.

I’m ashamed that my house looks like a cross between a toy factory explosion and the place where clutter goes to die. I’m ashamed that I always seem to be running late. I’m ashamed that I’m not as patient with my children as I feel I should be. I’m ashamed that sometimes I just wish they’d bugger off and leave me in peace for half an hour. To be honest I think most mothers (and probably a lot of fathers) would agree with at least one of these so I’m not unusual.

But the secret I feel deeply ashamed about, a white hot shame that sears me to the bone, is the fact that my children aren’t enough. I have two – a wonderfully kind, clever and articulate 3 year old girl who has a wicked sense of humour, and a sweet, funny and bright 14 month old boy. They bring joy to my life and I love them fiercely. I watch them play together and with other children and I marvel that my body brought forth two such amazing individuals. But they are not enough for me, I want more children.

My husband and I had always planned to have a large family – at least three, maybe four or perhaps (discussed in hushed tones when a little too much alcohol had been imbibed) even more. But circumstances change and at the age of 32 I have finally had to admit to myself that I can’t have any more. My body wouldn’t be able to cope with another pregnancy; my mental health is certainly not robust enough to go through the stresses of pregnancy and the newborn months again. Financial constraints are a big factor too.

But oh, how I yearn for more children. I suffer an almost physical pain when friends announce pregnancies or births, although I’m getting very good at masking the pain and giving smiling congratulations. Large families aren’t unusual where we live and I feel bitterly envious when I see a mother with her crowd of children while I just have my two, incredible and amazing though they are.

I know my feelings aren’t particularly unusual. But if I’m honest the real reason I feel such burning shame over this is the thought of how my children would feel if they ever realised that they aren’t enough for me. I am ashamed that I feel there are people missing from our family. I am ashamed that I could look at my exquisite, loving, wonderful children and feel that they are in any way inadequate. I am ashamed that I feel this way when there are so many women who struggle to have children at all.

This is my secret shame.

There are different kinds of pain

Tonight I am feeling both sad and angry. Earlier today my daughter asked me when my back will be better – because when you’re 3 everything gets better eventually, whether it’s a cold, chicken pox or a bumped head. I had to explain to her that my back won’t get better, that I will always have a sore back. “But I don’t want you to be sore any more Mummy!” she cried, and I had to comfort her and tell her that it’s ok, I don’t mind having a sore back.

But I do. Of course I do, no-one enjoys being in pain, let alone chronic 24 hour pain. Yes, the levels vary, and some days I am more mobile and flexible than others. But the pain is always there. Sometimes it’s a dull, nagging pain like a weight dragging me down; sometimes it’s a sharp stabbing pain like white hot lightning. Most days it’s a combination of the two although the intensity varies.

This pain has been a constant companion for almost 17 years now. It has worsened significantly during that time, as degenerative conditions do. And so now I find myself aged 32, with 2 small children, and decreasing mobility. And I am angry.

I feel angry every time I struggle to pick up my 1 year old son and every time I barely manage to pick up my 3 year old daughter. I feel angry every time I have to explain that I can’t get down on the floor to play today because my back is too sore. I feel angry when my husband has to help me up from the sofa or out of the bath; when I struggle to make my bed because the weight of the duvet is too much; when I have to explain to DD yet again that I can’t run with her.

And I feel incandescent with impotent rage every time I see her looking at me with concern in her eyes, every time she tells me that she’s sad I’m sore, every time she gets out her doctor’s kit “to make Mummy better”. She’s only 3 and already I’m letting her down, already she’s learning that her Mummy isn’t the super strong person she needs, that I can’t always be the Mummy she wants me to be, who crawls around the floor and runs outside with her.

Before I had children I thought that there couldn’t be anything that hurt more than my back does on its worst days. I was wrong – this pain in my heart is far harder to bear.

Musings on motherhood and mental health

When I discovered I was pregnant with DD I was thrilled. DH and I had wanted to start a family for years and so we spent the next 9 months in a state of perpetual excitement and anticipation, acquiring baby clothes and a cot and a Moses basket and a buggy and toys and all the other random paraphernalia that first-time parents are encouraged to think they need. We spent hours poring over my pregnancy book, looking at the pictures of the baby as she was at that moment (even from the early stages when the embryo resembles nothing so much as a mutant space prawn). We were prepared. Except – we didn’t think to do any reading about what it would be like to have a newborn. I mean, these things come naturally don’t they?

The labour was relatively uneventful and when DD was 9 hours old we found ourselves at home again, this time with a tiny person. That’s when the panic started to hit – we were responsible for keeping this tiny little creature alive. The only time I had been solely responsible for keeping anything alive was when I had a hamster at university. I looked down at baby DD and wondered just how transferable my hamster-looking-after skills were.

That first night was a blur. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that the baby wouldn’t sleep in the Moses basket – that’s what babies did after all! So why wouldn’t ours? DD fed well and grew well but continued to refuse to sleep in the basket for more than an hour at a time. Well-meaning friends and relatives gave us books about babies and being a parent. Great we thought – but all the books had conflicting advice. As did the aforementioned friends and relatives. Everyone had an opinion on what we were doing but no two people agreed.

By the time DD was 6 weeks old I was deep in the grip of postnatal depression. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I have a long history of depression, so DH was on the lookout for any warning signs. The health visitor was less than helpful – she stood over me as I cradled my crying newborn and ordered me to put her to bed and leave her there. I refused. By the time the health visitor left I had the feeling that I had been marked down as trouble. For the next year if I went more than 4 weeks without taking DD to the baby clinic for weighing I would get a concerned phone call asking me to bring her along so she could be checked, or the health visitor would just turn up on my doorstep with the scales. I felt that they didn’t trust me to look after my own child – and I understood that because I was convinced I wasn’t capable of looking after her either.

I remember very little from DD’s first year but I do vividly remember one night. I remember DD screaming, and DH waking to find me crouched in a corner sobbing. I remember feeling thoroughly overwhelmed and despairing and convinced that it would be better if I died, that DD would be better off without any mother than she would with me. I was lucky – DH convinced me to seek help and I had a very sympathetic GP. She understood that I was extremely reluctant to take anti-depressants while breastfeeding and instead referred me for talking therapy and a course of computerised CBT. These helped a little.

But what helped most was the dawning realisation that although DD wasn’t a typical baby, there wasn’t anything wrong with her. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way we were looking after her. She just required more attention, physical contact and less sleep than most babies. (It wasn’t until DS was born and was exactly the same that I discovered the term ‘high-needs babies’. It was such a relief!). The pressures on new parents are immense. From the expectation that the mother will instantly regain her pre-baby figure to the endless (and ridiculous) ‘Is she a good baby?’ questions, from sleep deprivation to the endless stream of well-meaning but conflicting advice – well frankly I don’t know how anyone navigates the first few months of motherhood without cracking up!

I have gained confidence over the years and these days I have very little patience for society’s expectations of how my children will be. I do what works best for us and to hell with what anyone else thinks. I have no time for the competitiveness that seems so beloved of some parents – breast vs formula, cot vs co-sleeping, purée vs finger foods, strict routines vs benign neglect and all that. While it’s great to have confidence in how you are raising your child, thay doesn’t mean that someone doing it differently is doing wrong.

I am convinced that my lack of knowledge and the endless stream of conflicting advice and methods compounded my PND. Every time I thought I knew what I was doing there was another book or friend or ‘parenting guru’ (usually childless) to tell me otherwise. This is wrong. As a society we need to be more supportive of new parents, especially mothers on whom the main burden of care usually falls and who are recovering from the physical process of labour and birth. We need to care for their mental health as much as we care for their physical health, perhaps even more. The stitches I had after DD’s birth healed within weeks – I’m still recovering from the mental wounds.

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