The Four Minute Teacher’s Gift

A giant digital clock rules the room. It ticks down the allotted six minutes in seconds, and an unignorable alarm leaves no one in any doubt of when their time is up. The space has a frenetic speed dating vibe.

But this is not speed dating. These are parent teacher interviews. And many of the parents are there to squeeze the most out of the teachers and every second they have with them.

I admire the teachers for being able to give the right information about the right kid to the right parents, respectfully and diplomatically. And I feel compassion for them because they are the shock absorber for a new parent’s emotions every six minutes. I’ve heard (from teacher friends) those emotions can be intense and not always politely expressed.

Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and too often disrespected by parents who should know better than to take out their frustrations on those who dedicate their career to educating our children. Parents should have the insight to recognise that their child’s learning outcomes are the result of many factors. What the teacher is doing is only one variable.

A child’s ability to function happily at school is affected by many things that their teacher has no control over.

Teachers (generally) have no control over whether a child has had a decent breakfast, no breakfast, or a slurpie for breakfast before they arrive at school. They don’t control whether that child is given the space to express their emotions safely at home, and whether they are given unconditional love and support in challenging times. Teachers often have no control over whether they have an adequate number of teacher aides and other support staff for the class they are allocated. Teachers don’t control whether a child has an undiagnosed and/or unmanaged medical condition that affects the child’s behaviour.

I appreciate that for many parents giving their child food, a safe home, and appropriate medical care, is something they are unable to provide. If a child lives with a medical condition or disability that is poorly understood or inadequately supported by the school, or if a parent suspects their child is being abused by a teacher, of course they must advocate for their child. But these instances are not what this post is about.

This post is about the parents who live with none of the above circumstances, stopping to appreciate what a fantastic job most teachers do with our children. This post is about stopping before you abuse or accuse a teacher of being responsible for aspects of your child’s development that they are just not responsible for.

I approach parent teacher interviews with empathy for my children’s teachers, even the teachers who other parents whisper sharply about. Over the ten years that I have had a child or children at school I have learnt that some years my children have brilliant teachers whom they love and work well with.

Some years their teachers do a good, solid job. And some years they have teachers who they don’t click with, who may not handle difficult situations in the classroom as well as one of the brilliant teachers might have. These last teachers may not be my children’s favourites, but they haven’t broken my children either. Because (unless a teacher is abusive) the ‘not breaking the children’ responsibility is largely mine and my husband’s.

I generally keep my parent teacher interviews to four questions:

How is my child’s behaviour?

Are they making an effort?

Are there any areas where they are falling behind enough to warrant additional support?

Does the teacher have any concerns about my child?

The answers tell me more than a six-minute gallop through their work books would.

I’ve found high school involves fewer parent teacher interviews. So, when the notification option to book in for parent teacher interviews was emailed out recently, I asked each child if they wanted me to book any interviews. The year 7 child nominated a teacher he wanted me to catch up with. I asked if there was anything in particular he wanted me to mention, and he said:

‘No. I just really want you to meet my favourite teacher.’

The interview was last night. Just after the screech of the alarm ending the previous parent’s time, I sat down opposite my child’s favourite teacher. We introduced ourselves. She sipped hot tea from a big, green mug. Her voice was a little hoarse. A Covid leftover. She asked me what I’d like to cover. I told her:

‘He just wanted me to meet his favourite teacher.’

The teacher’s whole face smiled: ‘That has made my day.’

We briefly touched on my usual questions and as I stood up, I said: ‘Thank you for everything you do.’

The whole interaction took exactly four minutes.

The teacher stood with me and smiled again: ‘I’ve got two minutes left to get a fresh cup of tea before the next one.’

You may also like to check out these other posts:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Gentle Shoots Of Hope

I entered this year softly. Sparkling into it from one minute to the next, without expectation. But finding joy on the other side of the second hand.

I could now spend a paragraph on the 2020/2021 disclaimer for happiness, the guilty acknowledgement of everyone who may be suffering, that feels as though it has become mandatory whenever you write or talk about anything remotely good happening to you in pandemic times.

But I won’t, because in this moment it feels disingenuous. The events of the last couple of years may have thrown it into sharper relief, but virus or not there have always been people who have it worse than me and those who have it better.

So – no disclaimers. We’ve all had challenges from the dung heap of life thrown at us. I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason. But I do believe that it is the rubbish times that make magic moments shine when we happen upon them.

I spent New Year’s Eve last year (2020/2021) in hospital – just one day in a holiday package that started with an admission on Boxing Day. I didn’t feel well enough for people. Including my husband and children. Dinner came with a serve of ‘seasonal vegetables’ leached of colour and boiled into malodourous oblivion. Dessert was my nightly mouthful of dry medications washed down with tepid water. Long before midnight I was obliterated by that medication and happy to be so. Joy was not part of the equation.

When it came to thinking about New Year’s Eve plans for last year, I had only recently discharged from hospital after another Bipolar flare. A brief 3 week admission starting in late October that bled well into November.

I juggled the idea of having friends join us for what is a special evening for me.

From the ages of six to thirteen I grew up in Germany, in a culture that celebrates New Year’s Eve joyfully and raucously. I remember towers of champagne glasses filled and overflowing with bubbles from the top tier down. There was music and animated conversation, which gave way to the fireworks at midnight. People bought their fireworks from the supermarket and let them rip into the newborn year from their snowy backyards.

On New Year’s Eve 2000 I introduced my (then new) husband Michael to this way of celebrating. We were living in the UK, but had travelled back to Germany for the holidays. We spent that New Year’s Eve with Sandra, one of my closest friends, and Thomas – her partner, and their friends. We had raclette, lots of drinks, and laughed so hard. Just before midnight, we climbed into our coats, boots, hats, scarves, and gloves and walked, stumbling ever so slightly, down to the beautiful lake Sandra and I had spent childhood summers swimming in and childhood winters ice skating on. It was freezing. Too cold to feel our faces. The whole village was there. The air smelt of nothing but fireworks. We were in our twenties and euphoric.

Thomas died barely six weeks ago. The loss of someone we loved has been compounded for me because I can’t hug his wife – my lifelong friend whose hand I used to hold as we jumped into a New Year.

New Year’s Eve in Australia is different. It is the hot afterthought to a showy Christmas. The vibe around New Years for many Australians is ‘Meh – can’t be bothered.’ or it’s a night of heavy drinking that culminates in a headache on New Year’s morning and a set of resolutions, which won’t last past January.

And yet I celebrate the ending and beginning of years…when I can. In part it is fuelled by nostalgia. It is also because I have learnt to celebrate things while I can, because there will be times when I have no choice whether I get to celebrate or not. There are times when I am too unwell. Times when it’s overboiled vegetables instead of home cooking.

Not celebrating can also be a missed opportunity for making memories. Memories of joyous hours, which become part of everyone’s narrative. Memories that become unspeakably precious in hindsight when we have lost those we shared them with.

And so, I sent out some invitations and had a beautiful night.

There were candles and sparklers and laughter across an increasingly messy tablecloth as the night moved on. We ate pistachio baclava with mint and rosewater syrup and white peach sorbet for dessert.

By 2 am the house was buzzing. I had picked up my older child and two of their friends from another party to join the other couple of kids already at home for a sleepover. In the early hours of this New Year my house was steeped in happiness.

For me, 2022 has started with love and energy, and out of the losses and difficulties of the previous year I sense gentle shoots of hope are emerging.

One of the positives of 2021 was that my memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published. For an excerpt and more info click here Book

You may like to check out how some of my other years have gone in these posts:

2020 Ends In Hospital

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

2018 – The Year I:

Invisible Damage

9.30 pm at the medication station.

I confirm my name and date of birth. A nurse hands me a tiny paper cup. It rattles slightly, this mix of yellow, white, and orange lolly shapes.

‘See if that looks right.’

I never go on looks alone. I recite the contents of the 13 tablets back to the nurse, as though I were the one prescribing and dispensing:

‘750mg Lithium, 50mg agomelatine, 100mg quetiapine XR, 150 mg regular quetiapine, 1mg clonazepam, and 10mg of temazepam (prn)’.

Just before I swallow them, my mouth feels full of loose teeth.

And then I drift down a dimly lit blue carpeted corridor that ends in an opaque glass window covered in giant blown dandelions, until I am back in my room.

I feel so removed from my life I may as well be orbiting it in a spaceship.

I feel the anxious tug deep in my belly, knowing the longer I orbit, the longer and harder my earthling reintegration will be.

Outside of these corridors, this mission to heal my brain, my family pushes and pulls itself into an unnatural, temporary shape. Each member forced to stretch and thin out to cover the hole of my absence.

My family hurts in ways I can barely imagine, while the hurt in my brain lands me in this other world.

It feels as though my family is the only family to contort itself for as long and as often as mine does every time I get sick. It doesn’t matter that they are all resilient and used to it. It doesn’t matter that we manage it as well as anyone possibly could.

I don’t want my illness infiltrating my children’s’ growing years. But it does. Each time a little more.

This frustration doesn’t negate my gratitude for having access to a hospital that allows me whatever time it takes to treat acute episodes of this illness. But at the same time my gratitude sometimes feels like petrol when I attempt to douse the flames of frustration with it.

I know people feel relieved when I announce I am coming home. I don’t share their relief because it is not an easy slotting back into place. It is tearing my way back into a family that has been forced to operate without me. It is blinding and muting myself to all the tiny little things …and the bigger ones that they have had to do differently to survive the lack of me.

And yet, I know that my absence from my family is less damaging to them than my symptomatic presence would be, when I am barely safe in my own company. My distress at having no memory or concentration, at being loaded like a gun with pathological irritability, losing touch with reality – these are not things I want to subject my husband or children to.  It would shred us into irreparable pieces. So, I choose the lesser of the damages.

Even as I hate to think about the scar tissue left behind, I know I can repair the stretching, thinning induced by my absence, given time.

That time starts at discharge.

I will be home to begin work to repair while I work to reintegrate…possibly within days.

PS: The list of medications included in this piece is a snapshot of one evenings’ medications for me in hospital. It should never be used as a comparison to anyone else’s medication. Psychiatric medication regimes are highly individualised and often change over time. A medication combination that works well for one person can be a disaster for someone else, even if they share a diagnosis. Always consult a psychiatrist before taking any psychiatric medications. If that’s not an option, then a GP

You may also like to read:

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

Deciding To Hope

To hope or not to hope?

In one week my immediate family and I are leaving for a holiday on Heron Island. That was a difficult sentence to commit to. Not the sentence, just one word.

‘Are’

The certainty inherent in those three letters. Articulating it feels like I am going to jinx it, like I will alter the course of history, even though I know that’s impossible.

This is our third attempt at this holiday. The first was over Easter 2021. I almost needn’t follow that up with any explanation. To use a recently much reworked cliché -everyone was in the same boat…or in our case not in the boat bound for our holiday destination.

It was a time of global holiday cancellations. We were all still invigorated by the adrenaline of the early days of a pandemic many believed could be conquered and left behind.

We rebooked our holiday for Easter this year. But in a twist of acutely painful timing our city was locked down. Ironically only for 3 days. But they were the exact 3 days we were meant to travel to Heron Island.

By the time that little lockdown ended, everyone else was off to enjoy their Easter camping trips. We were left feeling slapped, as though we had been singled out by the universe to miss out on our holiday.

But we rebooked again. For next week. Knowing it might not eventuate this time either.

And about three weeks ago doom crept into the family. We began to censor ourselves and each other. Snapping ‘If it happens!’ if anyone dared mention anything to do with the holiday. We shot each other down with sarcasm and repressed feelings as though expressing any plans, hope or joy associated with this holiday would save us the disappointment if it had to be cancelled again.

So, just under three weeks ago our family decided – that instead of clenching everything, and white knuckling it through this will-we-wont-we time, we would allow ourselves to feel the joyful anticipation of this holiday.

We began to talk about what snacks we’d take on the car trip. What we were looking forward to most. We wondered if we would see clown fish. We started making packing lists.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about mindlessly Pollyanna-ing the reality we live in. All four of us are abundantly aware that things can look like they are going ahead one day only to have them snatched away in a minute.

While it is true that right now we have no control over whether our holidays or special events will be cancelled at the last minute – it is also true that we never did, we just weren’t as acutely aware of it.

But we can choose how we feel in the lead up to planned events. We can choose to anticipate disappointment or anticipate joy. Whether it ends up being disappointment or joy is almost irrelevant because it isn’t about the eventual outcome. It is about how we feel right now.

We can choose to scrunch ourselves into a ball of anxious negativity. But for what? Being able to say ‘See I told you it would be cancelled’ if it is cancelled? Like a sort of sick Schadenfreude directed at ourselves.

Or we can choose a more relaxed, positive attitude that coexists with the knowledge that it may be cancelled, but that the anticipation is pleasant. If the holiday goes ahead we will have had a much nicer lead up to it, than having to spend the first few days unclenching from the negativity.

If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t have wrecked the preceding few weeks with dread.

Choosing to have low expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment is not only flawed, but in these times of immense uncertainty it doesn’t serve us well. It robs us of joy. The brave thing to do is hope in the face of uncertainty regardless of whether that hope ever grows into reality.

That said, I have two disclaimers for the hope approach.

The first is that the ability to conjure hope relies on reasonable mental health. Someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially those featuring depression or anxiety will no more be able to think themselves into hope than a diabetic can think their blood glucose levels into the correct range. They will need the right treatment for them before hope can become a choice again.

The second is that if you are attempting this with children, they need to be old enough/emotionally mature enough to understand that the hope does not guarantee the holiday.

For today, everyone in my family is well enough to hope that by mid next week we will get to see those clown fish and soak in the endless blues of the sky and the ocean surrounding our tiny Island destination.

You may also like to check out:

On Uncertainty

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Welcome to year 2.

The frantic newness of the pandemic has worn off, although the announcement of a lockdown still triggers an anxiety that (for some people) expresses itself in toilet paper hunger.

As we move into the second year of life with Covid I feel as though I am part of sick game of involuntary musical statues. During intervals of relative local stability we all dance to the music of few restrictions. But there is a sinister undertone – our movement can be stilled instantly when the Covid puppet master stops that music and we are all turned to stone for a while.

When Covid cancelled our family trip to Heron Island this time last year it was disappointing, but I countered it with perspective, a stiff upper lip. After all what was a lost holiday in the big scheme of things? So many people were worse off.

So, we rebooked the Heron Island trip for this year. We’d been due to leave on March 30. The anticipation of it had built joyously for the whole family. I was particularly looking forward to it. Our last family holiday in December was marred by the onset of a bipolar episode the day after we arrived that saw me unable to enjoy it and heralded more hospital time. 2020 Ends In Hospital

I am stable now.

Over the weekend two of us dutifully took Covid tests for minor sniffles, both of which returned negative with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled departure.

When I woke up on Monday morning, the day before we were due to leave, I actually thought we would make it. And then news of the 3 day Brisbane lockdown broke, and my joy turned to misery. Our household was plunged into mourning. There were tears, cries of shock, and lead filled stomachs as we processed this loss for a second year in a row.

Is my wording a bit dramatic?

Are you itching to respond with the catch cry of this first world country, the mantra of our year?

 ‘It’s ok because others have it worse than you.’

Does that make it ok?

Should this fact completely invalidate our experience or feelings? Does our disappointment, grief and anger have anything to do with someone else’s (potentially worse) experience?

No. It is totally unrelated.

 And often swallowing our feelings through gritted teeth can be unhealthier than just vomiting them out and moving on.

I first encountered the results of suppressing my emotions because ‘others had it worse’ the night before my daughter’s first birthday, thirteen years ago.

The condensed version of the time surrounding her birth (if you haven’t already read about it in some of my other posts) is this: A 32 hour labour on 2 hours sleep, developing postnatal psychosis 7 days later, a month later catatonic depression, months in a psychiatric hospital, electroconvulsive therapy and much medication, and finally home by the time my baby was 4 months old.

As I recovered, I practiced a lot of gratitude for my healthy baby, which in itself is not a problem, but I had not allowed myself to process my feelings about that time before I plunged into gratitude.

The night before her first birthday I was out to dinner with friends. I could not stop thinking about what had been about to happen to me the year before. On the way home I pulled into the maternity hospital car park and lost it.

I wailed, tears and snot streaming down my face. It was ugly. But I finally owned my grief, and silenced the pernicious little voice in my head that had been telling me that I had no right to my feelings because I had a healthy baby and  ‘others had it so much worse’.

It was only once I’d allowed myself to feel my feelings that I could move on baggage free and feel genuine empathy for those who, in the big scheme of things, had experienced worse.

I am not naturally inclined to drama. I am all for perspective. At times I have been quick to paper over my children’s strong emotions with perspective, not because it is helpful to them in the moment, but because it lessens my discomfort at their distress.

Perspective serves an important purpose. If it is timed right. Once the initial urgent feelings have been dealt with and released, perspective can help us move on with our compassion for others intact. But forcing it too soon can trap us in resentment and on the exhausting hamster wheel of pretending we’re ok, when we’re not.

 Perspective (however well intentioned) would have been an unwelcome guest in our house just after the news of the holiday cancellation broke. However, 2 days later it had just started to soothe me with the knowledge that it could indeed have been much worse.

Proof that this could have been much worse came just now. The Brisbane lockdown ends at noon today. Covid has pressed play again. Brisbane people get to dance into their Easter holidays.

For me? Right now? Perspective has again momentarily retreated.

Excuse me while I go away and vomit up my feelings about the military precision with which our holiday was assassinated. We were turned to stone over the exact two days when we needed to be dancing.

I will welcome perspective back once I have emptied myself of this minor resentment and am keeping everything crossed, that maybe the music won’t be stopped on our third rebooking in September.

You may also like to check out:

Making Sense Of It (introduces the concept of a ‘tantrum allowance’)

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

2020 Ends In Hospital

I am going into hospital later today.

And I am aching to get there, straining towards the moment I close the door to my hospital room on a world I am the wrong shape for right now.

How did I get here this time?

Fourteen days ago I had a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Just a Bipolar 1 Disorder monthly maintenance appointment. I was completely asymptomatic.

Thirteen days ago I left for our beach holiday and forgot to pack my swim wear. Subtle. I mean that could happen to anyone. Right? But by the following morning I was symptomatic alright. My short term memory and concentration were dissolving like sugar cubes in boiling water.

A buzzing pressure behind my eyes radiated up my forehead. I knew from bitter experience, if I did nothing, soon that buzzing could make me second guess what was real or not.

That was symptomatic enough to page my psychiatrist on a Saturday morning. It’s only the second time I’ve paged him out of hours in 14 years. He called back in under three minutes.

Over the last nearly two weeks, the first of which I stayed at the beach, he telephone consulted with me every second day, adjusting medications, a little more of this, a little more often of that. I slipped from my bed gratefully into the ocean, timing the most sedating medications for times when I’d be in bed not the ocean. I seemed a little better, maybe? But then not.

Back home we continued every second day phone consults, adjustments. This is by far not the sickest I have ever been (although psychosis and catatonic depression requiring ECT to reverse, do set a very low bar)

So why would I want to go into hospital, rather than continue treatment at home?

Here’s why:

The surface of my brain feels as though it is covered in papercuts and being surrounded by people and noise is like having lemon juice dribbled over the cuts.

Trying to hold in the irritability of being around people and noise (including my close family) is like being intensely nauseous with someone threatening to punish you if you vomit.

One of the parameters I use to assess how close I am to needing to go into hospital is ‘the sandwich test’. Think about the amount of concentration and short term memory it takes to make a sandwich – nothing fancy, just two slices of bread, some butter and one topping. For most healthy, able bodied, able brained adults, this is not a challenging task.

Right now – I can still make a sandwich, but it’s a challenge. I am making a decision, based on past experiences, not to wait with hospitalisation until challenge becomes an impossibility.

As for the seasonal timing – Christmas and New Years celebrations? I am veteran enough in the management of this illness to know it has no knowledge of nor respect for holidays and anniversaries. I could list my tenth and fifteenth wedding anniversaries as times spent in hospital, a longed for trip to Paris cancelled because of recent hospitalisation, and that would be the beginning of a list so long I’ve forgotten most of it. These times are just human constructs. If it swallows them I don’t dwell on them.

Instead I celebrate the unscathed special occasions extra hard, to make up for the times there is nothing.

The final reason for going into hospital now, is because I can access this level of care. I am fortunate to have the option of going into a private psychiatric hospital when I am sick. The standard of hospital care I will receive will be excellent. It will far exceed anything the public psychiatric hospital system has to offer.

I loathe getting sick enough to need hospital support. But perhaps even more than this I loathe the hypocrisy of someone with my privilege not utilising that support because of some misguided stigmatising ideas about what it means to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

I am profoundly grateful I can afford care in a good private psychiatric hospital. And part of my own recovery, once I’ve stabilised medically, is to remember there are many people living with this illness, and other severe mental illnesses, who are learning to live with them with far less support and privilege than I have. When my recovery feels hard I focus on this:

If I access the supports I am fortunate to have, I am more likely to be around for long enough to help raise awareness of the inequality between our private and public mental health hospital systems, and work towards our public mental health hospital system actually supporting some of our most vulnerable when they need it most.

If you are new to Thought Food and would like to know a little bit about who I am when I am well, you may like to check out:

Who Am I ?

Radio And Podcast Interviews

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

I had an interesting conversation with one of my children this morning.

They opened with this:

‘Why don’t you give me something to celebrate my report card?’

 They paused briefly before elaborating: ‘It’s just that my friends who also got good marks are all talking about the presents their parents gave them for it, and they ask me what I got and I have to tell them I just got a pat on the back and a “well done”.’

Where to begin? Maybe with a little context:

For their entire school careers (so far) I have placed no pressure on my children to achieve academically and almost no importance on the marks they get. Providing they are not falling so far behind that they need additional support, and they are doing their best – I am not invested in the outcome. The only two report parameters I care about are their effort and their behaviour.

So far neither of my children have needed additional learning support. This is something I am grateful for, don’t take for granted, and I definitely don’t take any credit for.

I do my best to make sure they get enough sleep and have a decent breakfast before school. I pay for their uniforms, books, excursions, and other school related expenses. I try to give them an emotionally healthy home to return to after each day at school. And while their academic achievements may be built on this foundation, they are very much their own.

The child who began this conversation with me this morning happens to consistently get very high marks across their report card. None of these marks, or the awards received because of them, have ever been incentivised by my husband or I.

Of course, we are proud of our children when they do well, and we tell them, but we are not about to start rewarding high marks with extravagant material possessions. Here are some of the questions I asked my child to help explain why:

‘Do you feel good about getting a fantastic report card, just for the sake of it?’

‘Do you think the most important thing about you is the marks you get?’

‘For the kids getting the fancy presents for getting good marks – do you think they might feel pressure from their parents to get those marks? ’

‘And what happens if one of those kids has a really ordinary year – for example they get sick, or they have a rough time with their friendships and feel sad, and their marks slip below excellent? How will it make those kids feel if they don’t get the good marks and the presents, because of things that are out of their control?’

‘When those kids grow up and do something really well at work and don’t get presents for it, – because that is not the way the grown up world works – will they feel let down?’

‘And say for example I did give you a fancy big present for getting great marks, would you go to school and tell everyone about it?

I got different answers for each question, but the answer to the last one was (thankfully) a resounding ‘No.’

Whether you choose to reward your kids materially for academic achievement is your decision.

I don’t, because it feels like a slippery slope. It adds pressure. I don’t believe getting top grades at school is a marker for future happiness or success in life. I place more importance on developing my children’s emotional intelligence and mental health than their academic achievements.

I want my children to know that their worth as a person has nothing to do with the marks they get at school.

Living vicariously through your children by either shoving them into the same life path as you followed or wanting them to do better than you did, or (even worse) validating your parenting through your children’s achievements, can all present as pushing them to achieve academically. The problem is these motivations revolve completely around the parents’ needs. They have nothing to do with the child.

But if you want to give your kid a Nintendo switch for their straight A report, please give it with a side of humility and sensitivity. Teach them that doing well at school – while yes it may be the result of their hard work – is not a given for all kids.

Some kids work harder than your kid ever will and will never get top marks. Other kids are not privileged enough to get the basics for good academic achievements (breakfast, a desk to study at). Still others live with a diagnosis whose symptoms make it impossible for them to win any awards.

And none of those kids need to hear yours bragging about their report rewards.

You may also like to check out:

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

Written for Queensland Mental Health Week 2020

At some point you will get it wrong.

It will be well intentioned. It may come from a place of not wanting to replicate your own upbringing or the mistakes you think other parents are making. And it will probably be informed by your experiences and biases.

I’ve always known this…in theory.

But the other day my fourteen-year-old daughter courteously yet clearly served my imperfections in this area up to me. This was no teenage tantrum. It wasn’t even an argument. It was simply a conversation in which I was presented with unpalatable information about myself, and then had to choose what I did with it.

It started simply:

‘Mum, can I please get TikTok? Remember I asked you about it a month ago, and you said you’d think about it.?’

‘Mmhm.’

For context – she gained Snapchat and Instagram over the last few months, to my knowledge has not abused any of her privileges, and right now appears to be in good mental health.

So, we talk about how she’d manage seeing distressing content if it popped up. I probe her with her worst-case scenario.

‘What about animal cruelty?’ I say and follow it with a graphic example.

‘I’d talk to someone about it.’ She answers calmly.

‘Who would you talk to?’

She doesn’t hesitate: ‘Well definitely not you! Probably Dad.’

‘Why not me?’ I ask,

‘You and your mental health stuff – you’d blow it all out of proportion, take me to a psychiatrist, have me medicated and force me into years of therapy.’

I did ask.

And while she is wrong about the imagined consequences of telling me she saw some distressing social media content, she is right about something else.

I am hypersensitised, filled with knowledge of the very worst mental illness has to offer. And not just my own. Every time I go into hospital, I share that space with others who are going through their own worsts.

When I see young inpatients often only four or five years older than my eldest child with bandaged wrists or cutting scars, bolts of fear shoot through me. Fear that one day my children could hurt like that.

Every time after my Bipolar 1 Disorder has put me through hell I am frozen by the threat that I will have given this illness to my children. I know that (beyond not introducing significant trauma to their lives and warning them of the dangers of drugs that can trigger the genetic component of this illness) there is nothing I can do to outparent it. But I still try.

After I got sick I was determined my children would grow up in a family that was open about mental illness. There would be no shame and no stigma. They would know from a young age where I was going when I went into hospital and why.

The knowledge that sometimes mental illness sprouts in childhood and adolescence is heavy and made heavier by the fact that sometimes it is fertilised (even in the absence of major trauma) by parents unwittingly invalidating their children’s’ feelings or experiences.

I never wanted to be that parent. And I am not. But I may have made the opposite mistake.

 By unintentionally force feeding my children my concerns around mental health, could it cause them to turn away from the very tools that could help them should they run into a mental health crisis?

Mental health is stitched into the fabric of our family’s conversations partly due to my lived experience, but also because of what I do. My children have never known a time when I haven’t been a vocal mental health advocate. I write about it. I talk about it frequently – sometimes quite publicly.  

And if I dig deep into my motivation for wanting to change the way mental illness is perceived and treated, my children are at the core of it. That motivation is as simple as it is unrealistic:

I want to fix our mental health system so that it can help rather than harm my children should they ever experience mental illness.

I am loathe to admit it but yes sometimes all my motivation, knowledge and focus, can morph into hypervigilance, ready to pounce on the very whisper of something not being right with my children’s thought patterns.  And in my futile efforts to protect them from my worst nightmares, at times I probably veer dangerously close to pathologizing their emotions, which can be as damaging as not acknowledging them at all.  

I do this reflexively even as I know that parenting out of the fear of what could happen is even worse than living your own life ruled by fear.

And yet, deep down I know that if either of my children get sick it won’t be my fault or TikTok’s. If that happens, hopefully their father’s less informed love will be the perfect counterweight to remind me that while my knowledge might be useful in some situations, at other times applying the full weight of it can be like attempting to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Ineffective and potentially damaging.

Post scripts:

It was a yes to TikTok.

While I am deeply grateful that right now neither of my children require psychiatric care, my advocacy work will continue, because it is grim out there. I caught up with a friend recently whose child does need a child psychiatrist urgently. The waiting time to get an appointment with a private child psychiatrist is currently twelve months.

Or there’s the public hospital Emergency Room if symptoms become life threatening while you wait…

Published with full permission from the fourteen year old who also helpfully pointed out I’d misspelt TikTok in the previous draft.

You may also like to check out:

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

As Mothers Of Sons

As Mothers Of Daughters

Is YouTube Rotting Our Brains?

The ‘Breast Is Best’ Myth

Alex baby foto
Alex March 2010

Last week was breastfeeding awareness week, and the irritation I feel when I see strong pro-breastfeeding messaging flared. I usually bite my tongue and suppress my politically incorrect opinions about this emotive subject. I don’t care about how anyone chooses to feed their baby. But I do care that the ‘breast is best’ myth is still being drip fed to (especially first time) mothers like a sugary subtle poison.

Fourteen years ago I had my first baby. I lapped up all the breastfeeding propaganda from the hospital antenatal classes and my antenatal yoga classes. Because I trusted these sources.

And they didn’t exactly feed me falsehoods. But they did imply a mother who switched to formula before she had exhausted every possible option to keep breast feeding was not doing the best for her baby. Posters in the maternity hospital told me that exhaustion, blood streaming from cracked nipples and tears streaming down your face were all worthwhile prices to pay to feed your baby this liquid gold.

After going into thirty three hours of labour on two hours sleep, my daughter was delivered by caesarean. I fell asleep as I was being stitched up. The midwives wasted no time. I woke with a start, in recovery to find my baby attached to my left breast. It was so important to these midwives that my baby attached ‘immediatley’ that they didn’t even do me the courtesy of allowing me to wake up before making this most intimate of introductions.

The focus on the holy grail of establishing breastfeeding in the maternity hospital was so strong that I sat up for three hours at a time thinking I was feeding my baby, when she was comfort sucking for most of that time. It left me exhausted and my back a wall of pain from sitting in the ‘feeding chair’.

Now, if that were the worst of it, I would have probably gullibly pushed through all further discomfort to establish and continue breastfeeding. Had I succeeded, I would have probably felt proud of myself. And after being told time and time again children who are breastfeed are healthier, smarter, more empathetic, and more likely to poop rainbows, I may even have been arrogant enough  to attribute all of my daughter’s future, health, smarts, and empathy to my valiant efforts to persist with breastfeeding. (She has yet to poop out a rainbow – but I can live with that.)

But within a week of her birth, whether or not I breastfed was injected with some desperately needed perspective. She was at home with her father, contentedly guzzling formula while I was tipping my breastmilk, tainted with antipsychotics, down the sink in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital. I had come down with postnatal psychosis and I was clinging to my life with my fingernails.

To my credit, I quickly forgave myself for ceasing my ‘breastfeeding journey’ 7 days into motherhood. And I didn’t look back. I had been too sick to ever be riddled with the guilt I saw in other mothers who had been less unwell but had also made the smart choice (for them) to stop.

But we shouldn’t need extreme circumstances to justify feeding our baby formula to anyone. Breastfeeding is a personal choice. Nothing more. Nothing less. But our society has turned it into a religion. And it’s opt out not opt in.  We are all automatically given anti formula education classes antenatally and then baptised in breastfeeding once the baby is born.

The high priests of this religion are lactation consultants and midwives who set ironclad commandments and rule with fear. The fear of harming our babies with our actions.

The pressure to breastfeed is a known contributor to and risk factor for developing perinatal mental illness. Mental illness that can leave a baby motherless if it is severe. Unlike the maternity hospital midwives, the nurses in the mother baby unit in the private psychiatric hospital I was an inpatient in don’t pressure new mothers about how to feed their babies.

But they do spend a lot of time undoing the damage done by overzealous midwives and lactation consultants who have bullied new mothers into believing they will hurt their baby if they consider formula anytime earlier than as a last resort.

For my second baby I had one breastfeeding aim: Get some colostrum into him. He went onto formula at day 7, just like my daughter. And just like my daughter, now you wouldn’t be able to pick what he was fed as a baby.

Breastfeeding is cheaper than formula feeding. It is more environmentally friendly. It is the safest and most convenient way of feeding a baby in a third world country and/or if you don’t have regular access to clean water or formula. If your baby is premature and/or has underlying health conditions for which a paediatrician has recommended breastfeeding or expressed breast milk, then – for that baby – breast is best.

But if your baby is full term, healthy, you have access to clean water and can afford to buy formula, then (beyond the first few days’ worth of colostrum) whether you choose to formula feed or breastfeed is as irrelevant to your baby’s wellbeing as the colour of your underwear while you’re doing it.

 

You may also like to check out:

World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Modern Martyrdom

My First Time

Honoured, Grateful, And Guilty: A Tangled Family History

image tangled family history

The strands in my children’s heritage are tightly intertwined, multicultural, and impossible to untwist from each other. History labels their predecessors perpetrators and victims, depending on which of their ancestral branches you examine.

A photograph of my maternal great grandmother hangs in my hallway. She looks serious. In mid 1920s Warsaw. Dark haired and dark eyed. My grandmother, aged three or four, stands next to her in a light dress, their arms linked.

My maternal great grandmother was too attached to her country. Fatally so. To me, she is a cautionary tale of the danger of fastening yourself too tightly to one part of the world.

But I only know fragments of her story:

My grandmother (in the light dress) was about nine or ten when she emigrated from the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to Australia with her parents.

Shortly after their arrival, my great grandmother looked around at the vast, bright country she found herself in and decided it was too foreign for her. She pressed some coins into my grandmother’s hand and sailed back.

To Warsaw.

In doing so she inflicted a lifetime of trauma on my grandmother and signed her own death warrant. Her life was erased by the Holocaust that ripped through the country she chose over her daughter. A daughter who would be orphaned in the vast, bright country at twelve, when her father died just a couple of years later.

My parents’ wedding photograph also hangs in my hallway. Taken in Duesseldorf, 1971. My mother’s dark hair. Dark eyes. My father’s white blond hair. Blue eyes.

I was born in Germany, lived in Saudi Arabia from ages one to five and returned to Germany just before my sixth birthday, in time to start school.

Many German born children of my generation were infused with guilt. We read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr in primary school. The older grades took school excursions to former Nazi concentration camp sites. This shameful chapter in Germany’s history was rightly not denied or underplayed.

And the whole world pointed its finger at us. At least it felt that way when I moved to Brisbane with my family aged thirteen.

Almost as soon as I started school, a chunky, pimply, blond boy in my year began greeting me with a Nazi salute and yelling ‘Heil Hitler!’ every time he saw me. The other kids stared as though I were personally responsible for Hitler’s actions. Each time it happened I was swallowed by a boiling pit of mortification and anger.

I already owned my German guilt. Guilt with a twist. The country I’d been born in, whose language I spoke flawlessly, that was home to all of my friends, whose seasons, landscapes, and culture I loved, had in recent history been responsible for the genocide of my mother’s family’s people.

My guilt and that knowledge had already curdled uncomfortably inside me, before that boy began hurling the only, and highly offensive, reference point he had for German people, at me.

My maternal grandfather’s Jewish roots can be traced back to 16th Century Portugal. It is one half of where my children’s dark eyes come from. Their high foreheads and cheekbones travelled from Latvia and Germany via my father. The shape of their chins can be traced back to English ancestors from my husband’s family.

My children are both first and seventh generation white Australians.

It is messy alright.

My ancestors didn’t happen to be in Australia when white people invaded and began inflicting trauma that is still ongoing on the First Nations People. But my husband’s predecessors landed here as missionaries ten years after the first fleet.

Does any good ever come from entering a foreign country aiming to convert its peoples to a belief system not their own?

I don’t believe so. No matter what the intent.

And no matter how much I love the descendants of those missionaries, my guilt echoes around that family history. It feels similar to the guilt I felt as a German child of the early eighties.

Yet, guilt on its own achieves nothing unless it pushes us towards acknowledgement and action.

Over the last weeks I have researched and asked advice from people with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage on wording an acknowledgement of Country and its First Nation Peoples to include in my book. I am so grateful for their time and knowledge.

I am still working on the exact wording. But I plan to include this (slightly reworded) content from an acknowledgement by the Climate Justice Union:

‘I appreciate I have much to learn about the oldest continuous living culture. I am listening, seeing, and learning.’

We are all capable of listening, seeing, and learning – in some form.

And when my children look at their own hallway photographs one day, I hope they will be proud of their incredible hybrid vigour, know where they came from, but also that they are honoured and should be thankful to travel safely over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

You can find an excerpt of my book, which is due to be published this year (Covid permitting) here:  Book  and the story of  the book’s journey here: Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf

 

 

 

 

 

 

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