Welcome To Motherhood

(A letter from the mother I am today to the mother I was about to become)

Hello Anita in 2006,

I am writing to you from fifteen years in the future. You are about to have your first baby. You earnestly believe you have to know it all now.

You don’t and you can’t.

You have imagined who the person you are about to meet will be. But a newborn is full of secrets. It takes time to get to know your child.

I am making cinnamon scrolls and listening to Mozart at dawn on your baby’s fifteenth birthday. I remember her at just a few days old. I looked into the unfathomable darkness of her gaze and felt as though I was being interviewed for a job I had no qualifications for.

What have I learnt since then?

For everything you get ‘right’ parenting wise, you get something else ‘wrong’. Can I make a suggestion? Let go now of the idea of right and wrong. It barely exists. As long as you are not wilfully abusive towards your child, the rest are just lucky bullseyes and unfortunate missteps from which you learn. The things you think are important now will be things you won’t care about in the future.

For example – your baby will be born by caesarean and be breastfed for seven days. You don’t need to know why right now. But I can reassure you that fifteen years on, how she was born and how she was fed as a baby are irrelevant.

I know this information shocks you, because you are welded to the sticky stories you were fed at prenatal yoga and hospital classes. It’s not your fault that you believe this stuff. You don’t know better.

Always remember that even (perhaps especially) in times when you are completely baffled about what to do next, you know your child better than any expert. I remember when your baby moved into toddler age, she would have epic tantrums, that went forever.

I read a parenting book, which advised the best thing to do was to firmly hug your tantruming toddler. The pressure of the hug was meant to calm their nervous system. I tried this with our little girl. It escalated her further, and the tantrums would then take double the time to resolve.

I can smile about it now, because after years of learning who she is, I know that when she gets upset, one of the first things she needs is space. The hugs are helpful later.

Don’t believe the cliches cloaking motherhood. You don’t need to martyr yourself to be a good mother. Unfortunately, you will learn that in challenging circumstances. But you will learn it and be a happier and better mother for it.

Then there are generalisations. For years beforehand I was fearful of ‘the teenage years’ because we are fed horror stories. I don’t assume her remaining teenagerhood will be devoid of challenging times. But so far, I think – give me a teenager over a baby anytime. We can communicate. She can share her sense of humour with me. I know the things she cares about, and what she doesn’t.

I love the physical independence of a teenager. She sleeps through the night, goes to the toilet on her own, can make herself food, can catch a bus, and arrange her own catch ups with her friends.

No one ever tells you that (if you have lived with your child since their birth) you won’t just be dropped into parenting a teenager. By the age of fifteen you will have had fifteen years of getting to know what works for them and what doesn’t.

Lastly please remember – motherhood doesn’t happen in a vacuum for anyone. We are fed images and text and given lectures on the ideal way to parent. But often these are presented in a vacuum – as though nothing else aside from mothering were happening in your life.

As though when you are mothering you are somehow immune to life.

Immune to relationship break ups, job losses, bereavement and grief, homelessness, pandemics, diagnoses you never could have predicted, and all that can go astray in a life.

And while these things may temporarily compromise the ‘quality’ of your parenting, they are also what can make you a better parent in the longer term. They are the things that can teach your children that life is not perfect, and most importantly that their mother is not perfect.

Children don’t need a perfect mother. They need a mother who is genuine. Who tries her best. Who is able to admit when she has stuffed up. Who is vulnerable. Who, rather than sweeping away all the challenges in her children’s’ path, can sit with her child and agree that some things are just shit. And who after sitting with the difficulty can point to something that is good. Whether that’s a stack of banana pancakes, or the child themselves.

Welcome to motherhood!

Love

Anita in 2021

The beginning of motherhood also heralded the beginning of Bipolar 1 Disorder for me, starting with postnatal psychosis on day 7. To read more about this, you might like to check out a sample of my memoir here Book

Other posts of interest may be:

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

On Uncertainty

Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2020

How does uncertainty make you feel?

I ask because uncertainty is having a moment right now. It galloped in with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the further we get into it the more it seems to be digging itself into our awareness.

I used to be deeply uncomfortable with the pebble of uncertainty in the shoe of my life. I liked to know what was ahead. It gave me a (false) sense of control and the misguided belief that just because I couldn’t see uncertainty in my life, it didn’t exist. I deluded myself for decades that when there were no clouds on the horizon, the course of my life was somehow more certain than if I could see trouble ahead.

Then all the certainty in my life was put through a paper shredder within five days of my first baby’s birth.

I got my new baby experience with a side of florid postnatal psychosis severe enough to warrant admission to the locked Special Care Unit of a psychiatric hospital. My sense of certainty and control over my life went down the toilet.

After I’d recovered from this psychotic episode I felt entitled to some certainty. I wanted to know this nightmare was over. And I wanted a guarantee it would never happen again.

So when my psychiatrist mentioned ‘a possible underlying Bipolar Disorder’ and that it would ‘take three to five years to know for sure’, the inside of my head threw a combination of a tantrum and a pity party.

When I got sick again after three years, after seven years, and after nine years and my diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder was confirmed, I still felt entitled. Entitled because: ‘hadn’t I suffered enough yet?’ Entitled to not have to tiptoe through my life with everything clenched, waiting for the next time this thing pounced.

I have only recently acquired some degree of acceptance of the uncertainty this illness introduced into my life. I didn’t enjoy the last two episodes in 2018 and early 2020, but I also didn’t waste energy resisting them. In the same way I no longer spend any of my resources anxiously wondering when it will happen next and how bad it will be, because without wanting to sound nauseatingly Zen, the truth is: It will be what it will be when it will be.

Uncertainty exists in everyone’s life every day. But instead of it floating along in the background, right now it is constantly being rammed down our throats. It’s like having a nasty little gremlin on your shoulder whispering over and over again:

‘You do realise bad things could happen to you at any minute’, when the true risk of something bad happening to you is probably not that different to pre-Covid times.

For our mental health to survive this pandemic we have to learn to live with uncertainty, because the end of it is nowhere in sight. And just like my psychiatrist couldn’t give me any certainty when I first got sick, the smartest scientists in the world aren’t able to accurately answer this question about Covid-19: Will it ever be over, and if so when?

Uncertainty is an uninvited, kicking, snoring bedfellow. So how do we get comfortable with it?

First we tease out what about this situation we can control and what we can’t. For example, we can’t control the flow of information that feeds our uncertainties rushing over us every day, but we can control how much of it we absorb.

And once we’ve done what is in our control to help ourselves, we have to try and unclench from the need to know what is going to happen next. We need to stop trying to know and plan for a future that is like a spiderweb in a storm. Here’s what I mean:

During one of my admissions to hospital I sat staring out of the window of my room feeling as though there was no point in doing the work to rebuild myself because my future was too uncertain, my illness could tear me apart again anytime.

Over a couple of days of intermittent staring I noticed a spider in its web just outside my window. Every night it stormed. Rain, wind, a couple of times hail tore chunks out of the web, at times almost destroying it.

That spider showed me the way out of my tangled thoughts, by not only rebuilding every time after its pristine web was wrecked, but doing so in the face of the risk of the same thing happening again, whether the next day or in a year.

The sword of an uncertain future has hung over every single one of us since the day we were born. Nothing has changed there. It is just up to us whether we choose to battle with uncertainty and lose, or whether we accept that being alive will always mean living with uncertainty, pandemic or no pandemic.

You may also like to check out:

Lessons For A Control Freak

The Other Curve Being Flattened

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness