Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘school’

All change

September is going to be a difficult month for me. There are a couple of very major changes due to occur in my life and I don’t cope with that sort of change very well. In fact I’m feeling overwhelmed and panicky just thinking about it.

First of all DD, my eldest child, will start school. She only turned 4 a few weeks ago and will be among the youngest in her class. I know she’s ready for school; she’s a confident and sociable child and her reading and maths abilities are way ahead of most children her age. It’s a great school, her teacher seems lovely and she enjoyed her visits there last term. She’s a bit unsure and nervous of course but I know she’ll enjoy it once she’s settled in.

I’m dreading it though. I feel, somewhat melodramatically, that school is taking her away from me and our lives will never be the same. Even in the holidays there will always be the spectre of school looming ahead, ready to reclaim her. I love our time together, being able to have days out and pyjama days and do whatever we like. I’m going to miss her dreadfully and we will never have this sort of time together again. I briefly wondered about the possibilities of home educating but I know that DD will benefit more from attending school. Also, if I’m completely honest with myself, my mental health isn’t good enough to be solely responsible for her education.

The second big change in our lives is because DH, after 13 months of unemployment, has finally been offered a job! He’s very pleased of course, and so he should be, he’s worked hard for this. Unfortunately he starts a couple of days before DD starts school so he won’t be able to see her off or collect her on her first day. And after he’s completed his training he’ll be working shifts so life is going to be all over the place for a while until we’re used to the new routine.

So in just a couple of weeks time our lives are going to be turned upside down. In a good way, mostly, but I’m worried about how I’m going to cope. I’m already planning to force myself out to some toddler groups with DS, because it would be all too easy to remain housebound apart from the school run. And maybe I’ll finally get on top of the housework, although I doubt it!

But the idea of looking after everything on my own terrifies me. I feel like such a wimp; lone parents have it far harder than this, parents with more than 2 children have far more to cope with. But this is me and I’m afraid that I will fail. Even simple things like bedtimes will he hard – DS still nurses to sleep but how can I do that when DH is working late shifts and I have to settle both children? I can’t just abandon DD for half an hour or more while I nurse her brother, it wouldn’t be fair. But DS won’t settle any other way, he’s not ready yet.

My mind is whirling. I know that these changes are positive and that in time I will become used to our new life and wonder why on earth I ever worried. But right now I want to just lock the door and keep my little family in our familiar bubble, our familiar life. And I know I can’t.

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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…

A school facilitated a pupil’s self-harm; why part of me wishes mine had done the same.

It was reported by various media outlets today that a pupil at a school in Surrey was permitted to self-harm under the supervision of staff. The child’s gender varies depending which account you read and his/her age has not been made public. The school in question provides specialist education for young people up to the age of 19 who have Asperger’s, higher functioning autism or an associated diagnosis.

This story resonated with me. I began self-harming very young, at the age of 7. I started by scraping a My Little Pony or Barbie hairbrush across the skin of my forearms until it bled. By the age of 10 or so I was using one of my dad’s disposable razors; by the time I started university I was using kitchen knives. I went to great lengths to hide what I was doing – I felt ashamed of it and didn’t want anyone else to know. At the same time I was desperate for someone to notice so that I could come clean, own up and get help.

The first time I ever told anyone about my self-harming was when I was seeing a bereavement counsellor at the age of 19. After a few sessions I hesitatingly confessed the shameful secret that I had hidden for so long. His response wasn’t what I expected – almost jovially he said “Oh don’t worry, if it helps it’s a good thing”. I was stunned and horrified by his response, and never went back.

Looking at it now from a more mature perspective I can see what he was trying to tell me. Self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s a pretty rubbish one admittedly, and definitely not healthy, but it helps the individual to cope with or process feelings and situations that would otherwise be utterly overwhelming. Many self-harmers find that when their families discover their secret they remove anything with a sharp edge in an attempt to stop the harm. However well-intentioned this is it often does more harm than good; the self-harmer has no outlet for their feelings and may turn to far worse coping mechanisms in order to regain control.

Because at its most basic level self-harm is usually about control. When you are feeling overwhelmed, panicky, as though you are suffocating, self-harm is a way to focus and regain self-control. Having this coping mechanism taken away can be devastating and can sometimes cause a downward spiral leading to suicidal thoughts.

I suspect that this is what was uppermost in the minds of the headteacher and principal of Unsted Park school when they implemented their support scheme for the pupil in question. Apparently staff were told to give the pupil (who may be a boarder) access to sterile razor blades and accompany them to the bathroom, checking they were ok every couple of minutes. The wounds would then be cleaned and dressed.

Obviously this isn’t an ideal solution and teaching staff should not have to bear that sort of responsibility. But as far as I can see once the school became aware of what the pupil was doing they only really had 2 options; to try to put a stop to it and risk the pupil spiralling downwards or to make sure it was done as safely as possible while finding a better way to support and help the pupil.

By the time this policy had been in place a few days several staff had complained. The school, its headteacher and principal are now under investigation. There has been no mention of whether the pupil is getting more appropriate support, or indeed any support at all. I hope they are.

When I was young the thought of someone finding out about my self-harming both terrified and tantalised me. The thought of being escorted to the bathroom by a teacher so that I could cut myself would have been horrifying and humiliating, I didn’t want anyone to find out what I did. And yet if someone had told me that they knew I would probably have clung to them, sobbing with relief and begging them to help me stop.

There are no villains here, no wicked teachers encouraging children to mutilate themselves. There are only staff who, I believe, were doing their best to cope with an extremely difficult situation and fulfil their duty of care towards a pupil. Whether the policy in question was the best course of action is debatable. But a young person was supported and cared for and that’s the most important thing.

I wonder. If my school had been this aware and responsive would I still be a self-harmer 25 years after I first began?

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