Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘parenting’

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.

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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.

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…

Mummy, what does dying mean?

DD and I made cakes earlier. We’d weighed out all the ingredients and were mixing them together when she paused, looked at me with a serious expression and asked The Question. The one we’ve been waiting for her to ask while fervently hoping she wouldn’t, not yet. The one about death.

DH and I knew this was going to come up at some point so we’d planned our approach. We’ve always felt that if a child is old enough to ask a question then they’re old enough to get a truthful answer, albeit somewhat simplified (this tactic was challenged recently when DD asked what a universe is. I struggled with that one a bit!). We had decided that we would explain death in a calm, factual manner, emphasising that it’s completely normal and nothing frightening. To start with it went something like this:

DD: Mummy, what does dying mean?
Me: (deep breath) Dying is what happens when your body stops working, stops breathing, and the the part of you that is you disappears.
DD: Oh. Did your Nana die?
Me: (relieved this is going so well) Yes, a long time ago.
DD: Did she know she died?
Me: Um…

I explained in a bit more detail, making sure to reassure her that dying doesn’t hurt (yeah I know, but she’s not quite 4) and that it’s just your body stopping.

DD: So dead people can’t move or talk or breathe?
Me: No, the bit that’s you inside your body isn’t there any more so the body can’t do any of those things.
DD: (indignantly) But dead people can talk, they talk with their hands!

At this point I took a moment to explain the difference between dead and deaf… Then DD asked if DH and I would die one day and I said yes but not until we were very old. After a moment’s thought she asked if she was going to die and when I said yes (but again, not until she’s very old) she burst into tears wailing “I don’t want to die!”.

This quickly passed though as soon she had another question – what happens to dead bodies? I took another deep breath and explained about coffins, funerals (all the person’s friends and family have a little party and tell stories about what the person was like) and burial. She even asked whether the body stayed in the ground forever so I briefly touched on the idea that the body would become part of the soil and help feed plants and insects. She quite liked this idea and decided it was time to resume our baking.

All the way through this conversation I kept thinking how much easier it would be (for both of us!) if I could tell her that when people die they go to heaven. But although my family are Christian DH and I are both atheists. The idea of heaven is a wonderfully comforting one but for us to tell her that it’s true would be hypocritical, despite part of me wishing that I could.

When DD gets round to asking what happens to the bit inside your body that is you, we’ll respond the way we do with all things relating to religion and atheism. We’ll tell her that different people believe different things, explain what the different beliefs are and let her make up her own mind as to what she thinks is true. We’ll do the same with DS when he’s old enough.

But for now DD seems satisfied with the answers I gave (although I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer!) and doesn’t appear to be worrying. I guess that’s the most important thing.

Mumsnet – the marmite of parenting sites

I’ve been inspired to write this after reading this blogpost by the awesome Kraken. It’s not intended as a response but reading her post clarified some thoughts I’ve had on the subject lately. I’ll be honest here – I’m a Mumsnetter so my approach will be a bit different to Kraken’s. 🙂

For those who live under a rock don’t know, Mumsnet is one of the most prominent parenting forums in the UK. They have more than 50 million page views per month and log over 8 million visits per month. There are posters on Mumsnet of all genders, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality and social background. Most are parents but not all; despite the site’s name being a parent is not a requirement to join and there are many members who have no desire to have children or who are unable to.

Mumsnet is often in the news but usually only when someone’s complaining about it. The part of the site that gets most media attention is the “Am I Being Unreasonable?” board which is known to be argumentative and helps lazy journalists write about the “nest of vipers” as Mumsnet was once labelled. Strangely the site’s detractors never seem to report the advice and support members receive on topics as varied as mental health, bereavement, education, special needs and many more.

One of the accusations frequently levelled at Mumsnet is that posters are mean, nasty, bullies etc. Some are, it’s true. Some are saints. Most of the rest fall in between. 🙂 The problem is that Mumsnet is not pre-moderated and the staff rely on members reporting unpleasant posts. If no-one reports nastiness then it’s unlikely it will be seen and deleted. Mumsnet have a strong anti-bullying policy – sometimes they miss things or get it wrong but I have seen posters deleted, suspended and/or banned on many occasions. But of course it’s the idiots who stand out and give the site a bad name.

I realise that I sound a little defensive and to be honest I am. Mumsnet is a site that has supported me for many years. When I was suicidal with PND it was Mumsnetters who talked me round in the middle of the night, who gave me strength and hope. It was Mumsnetters who sent me clothes for my baby son when I was unexpectedly pregnant and we had no money to buy him anything. It is Mumsnetters who spend time and energy and money fundraising for many charities and campaigning for change in many important areas such as miscarriage care and support for victims of rape and domestic violence. It is Mumsnetters who spend time lovingly crafting Woolly Hugs blankets for children who are terminally ill both in the UK and abroad, for children who are seriously ill, for Mumsnetters who have lost a child or partner.

Mumsnet is a site that divides people more than any other. The trouble is that parenting today is scrutinised and criticised as never before and many parents feel insecure. Infant feeding, weaning techniques, where the baby sleeps, discipline, nappies, buggies, slings – there’s always someone to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, whether it’s a stranger online, a journalist, friend, relative or so-called ‘experts’. And that’s just in the first year or two! Most people have the sense to concentrate on their own children and let other people bring up theirs as they will – but there’s always an idiot somewhere willing to judge. Mumsnet is merely a reflection of society at large.

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.

Pain, pain go away…

I first started suffering from back pain in my mid-teens. Initially it was mild and infrequent but it gradually worsened. I tried all kinds of therapies, medications, exercise regimes etc but nothing stopped the pain. Eventually at the age of 23 I was told that I would just have to put up with it, that it was a degenerative condition and I should expect to be using a wheelchair frequently by my early thirties. I was also told not to leave it too long before having children.

I’m now in my early thirties and I’m doing better than expected. I do have a wheelchair but use it very rarely – I use crutches more often but still only a small percentage of the time. Mostly I just hobble around as best I can and stay at home if it gets too bad. However I am in constant pain; if you count 1 as being pain-free and 10 as utter agony then most days I am a 6. Sometimes a 7. Only when my back goes completely (which thankfully doesn’t happen very often) does it reach 10. It still affects my every moment and every movement though. Over the years I’ve become quite good at gritting my teeth and hiding the pain but sometimes it’s impossible.

While there are only a few things that I am completely unable to do (run, dance, walk any real distance etc) the list of things that I can just about do but really shouldn’t (because they increase my pain) seems to grow longer and longer. At the moment it includes:
Picking up my children
Getting things in and out of the fridge/oven/lower cupboards
Sitting on the floor to play with my children
Carrying shopping
Lifting DS in and out of his cot
Walking on uneven ground, including beaches
Walking up or down hills
And so on and so forth.

I refuse to stop playing with and caring for my children. I am very lucky to have a wonderful and supportive husband but I refuse to let him do everything at home. I want to carry on doing all these things right up until I am no longer physically able to. This often exasperates DH. 🙂

Why am I talking about this today? It’s because I saw my consultant this morning and after reviewing my latest MRI he confirmed the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease (I won’t bore you with the specific details). He’s referring me to a surgeon to discuss the possibility of spinal fusion or a discectomy but he’s not optimistic that either procedure will help. Once again I am forced to acknowledge the possibility that I will have worsening chronic pain (and increasingly restricted mobility) for the rest of my life. Every day for another 50, 60, maybe even 70 years.

And worse than that, my ability to play properly with my children is decreasing all the time. There is nothing worse than having to tell your 3 year old that you can’t play with her because you’re too sore. Actually wait, there is – it’s when she doesn’t even ask me to play, but tells me to rest and look after my sore back instead. That hurts most of all.

But I have recently become friends with someone in a similar position and she gives me the anger and fire to fight this instead of merely resigning myself to it. If surgery isn’t an option then I’ll bloody well find something that is. I refuse to just give up. I will beat this.

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