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

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

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I am not home schooling my children at the moment.

That implies a level of competence that far exceeds my attempts to provide a bit of supervision while they do what could pass for some form of schoolwork.

In fact, what I am doing could no more be called ‘home schooling’ than calling what my children’s teacher does when they are at school, ‘veterinary surgery’.

The new educational arrangements have made me ask myself this over the last week:

Are there any professions (apart from teachers) who are being asked to convey how to do their whole job to the general public in a very short time, using only online resources? I can’t think of any.

Yet suddenly teachers are expected to translate their university degree and years of practical experience into a format that parents with no training or experience in education can apply to their unwitting children at home.

And there will be some parents who will anticipate the same results as when their kids are being taught at school by the teacher.

I accepted a long time ago that I have no interest in the intricacies of how my children’s education is delivered. And I am not expecting to suddenly become enthusiastic about it, just because external circumstances have changed.

I do care about my children’s education. But my role and the teacher’s role in providing that education are clearly defined and there is little overlap.

I view these as my roles:

To love my children unconditionally and make sure they know it. To set clear boundaries for them. I am privileged to be able to afford to feed them, clothe them, and buy their educational resources. To do my best to allow them a good night’s sleep in a room free of devices, during the school term. To offer them a decent breakfast and a packed lunch, or at least the ingredients to make them. To offer them support in completing homework or schoolwork set by their teacher.

And to make myself available for communication with their teachers at any time.

I regard teachers with awe for the job they do. I know from friends who are teachers the high levels of empathy, patience, resilience, and emotional intelligence, among many other skills, they draw on to do their work well.

I also respect my children’s teachers enough not to encroach on the territory of their expertise.

When I attend parent teacher interviews, I only tend to ask four questions:

‘Does my child seem mostly happy and engaged? Is their behaviour appropriate? Are there any areas they are falling behind in? And, Is there anything else you would like me to know?’

Do you know what I never ask about?

The curriculum. Because I trust the teacher to know it inside out.

I feel for the parents who ask in depth questions related to the curriculum during parent/teacher information sessions, because right now they may struggle with the concept that they can’t single handedly provide their child’s school education at home, no matter how much they research the curriculum.

From an epidemiology point of view, at the time of writing, I believe the best place for my children is at home. But at the same time, my care factor for the quality of my children’s academic education ranks way below how much I care for not only my mental health, but the collective mental health of my family.

I acknowledge that while the two cares might not be mutually exclusive for many households, in mine – they don’t always sit well together. I may be biased by my own life experience, but that experience tells me this:

If my children fall behind in the curriculum, I am confident they will eventually catch back up to where they each normally sit. And they won’t be alone in that experience.

Yet if I tried to deliver the full curriculum to my children at home, I would transfuse the stress of my unsuccessful attempts into them. Over time, their mental health would suffer. Mine might suffer to the point of me having to be hospitalised again.

It would make as much sense as my children’s teachers attempting to perform surgery on their dog with only my online instructions to guide them through.

So, the alternative of my children having to work harder to catch up when this is over feels fairly benign. And this doesn’t mean they are doing nothing now. It just means I don’t hold myself to the unattainable standard of replicating my children’s in school educational experience at home.

And I could be way off here, but I imagine whenever I eventually return my children to their formal school based education – their teachers may prefer those children with their mental health relatively intact and their academic knowledge lagging, rather than the other way around.

(Additional note: The veterinary surgery analogies were drawn from my experience of working as a small animal vet.)

You may also be interested in:

The Other Curve Being Flattened

The Comparison Trap

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

Not So Body Positive

Big cat on the street in the city

I came across an Instagram image of an obese cat recently (not the image in this post). The accompanying caption referred to the cat as a ‘body positive icon’. And it made me stop and think about whether a cat can, or even should be, an icon of body positivity.

I have never felt qualified to comment on the body positivity movement. As someone who lives with thin, white, straight, (mostly) able bodied privilege, I have been reluctant to wade into the hornet’s nest of opinions the words ‘body positivity’ evoke on social media. Until I saw this.

Continue reading “Not So Body Positive”

The Resignation: One Year On

resignation foto

Just over a year ago I unclenched  and allowed myself to fall. I’d been peering over the ledge of a complete break from veterinary work for a couple of years, eyes scrunched shut against the change. The reality of not being able to do everything at once and do it well, a splinter in my thumb – impossible to ignore.

Continue reading “The Resignation: One Year On”

The Comparison Trap

brown wooden mouse trap with cheese bait on top

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I liken comparing myself to others to a landscape of skin. In some areas that skin is as thick as a crocodile’s. Very little penetrates it. Take social media. I came to it old enough to have a solid sense of myself. My self-esteem and body image didn’t grow up in the glare of Instagram. FOMO generated by someone else’s curated holiday/body/green smoothie/adorable family snaps is foreign to me.

Other tracts of skin are a little thinner but still not easily breached, a bit like a callused heel. My career path and choices have held few twinges of comparison. Maybe in the early years of my veterinary career I did some comparing. But that was part of the trek of working out what sort of vet I wanted to be.

Writing and advocacy work have only evolved in the last few years, and I view other people’s work in these areas as something to either aspire to or steer away from. Yes, it’s comparison, but a cool, dispassionate kind.

Then there are the areas of soft skin, vulnerable, but hidden away too deeply to be strip searched by comparisons. My relationship with my husband fits here, I couldn’t compare us to anyone else, because what we have is as unique as a fingerprint.

Then there’s skin ripped open at unnatural angles.

Continue reading “The Comparison Trap”

My Mental Health Toolbox

PWC keynote image

This week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address for one of the departments at PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). As part of this I ran through some of the things I have found helpful to help me monitor and manage my mental health.

I got some really positive feedback after the presentation and requests for the list of things that help me with my mental health. So I thought I’d share that list as a post here:

EARLY WARNING SIGNS AND INSIGHT:

In this context insight is the ability to identify early signs of mental ill health in yourself. This is much more challenging than it sounds, because signs of mental illness can masquerade as normal feelings and emotions.

For example – irritability and sadness are part of the normal spectrum of human emotions, but if they are overwhelming and persistent and interfere with normal functioning, they can also be symptoms of depression.

It can take time to identify their intensity or persistence as abnormal. The other challenge is that when we are well, we can often think our way out of sadness or irritability. But when they become symptoms that is impossible.

Someone affected by symptoms of a mental illness can no more think their way out of them than someone with a nasty case of gastro can think themselves out of their vomiting and diarrhoea.

But whereas vomiting and diarrhoea are obvious signs of illness (both to the person experiencing them and everyone around them) it takes insight to recognise when symptoms of mental illness emerge.

For me early warning signs can be an inability to sleep even with a lot of medication, intense irritability, and poor short-term memory and concentration.

Early warning signs are different for everyone. By learning what ours are we can be proactive about seeking help rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen.

For further reading on an example of insight into a depressive episode you can go to: Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Continue reading “My Mental Health Toolbox”

Psychology Of A Rescue

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Have you ever tried rescuing someone who doesn’t want to be rescued?

There’s the itchy frustration of being able to see they need help. You do everything in your power to help them, but they want none of it.

We had the following teachable situation take place in our household recently:

My daughter loves birds and started feeding the sulphur crested cockatoos in our garden. Word of the new food source got around. Each day more arrived. One morning the cohort included a scruffy straggler. He was bullied by the others. His point of difference was a plastic cone around his neck, almost identical to the Elizabethan collars we put on dogs and cats to prevent them chewing out their stitches.

But this was a school sports marker. The cockatoo had poked its head through it. I assume out of curiosity or to get to food in the middle of it. And now it was stuck. It could still eat, but not well. We thought hard about how we could help this bird. I suspected removing the cone wouldn’t be difficult if we could only catch it.

It flew off as soon as we got anywhere near it. My daughter phoned Australia Zoo who referred her to a wildlife organisation, who referred us to the RSPCA. I explained the dilemma and sent pictures of the cone headed bird. The RSPCA delivered a large metal dog crate and we rigged the door with string, so that we could close it remotely.

Continue reading “Psychology Of A Rescue”

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

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Have you heard of ‘the mental load’ (also known as emotional labour)?

The term is bouncing about everywhere right now. Google it if you like, but this is my understanding of it:

The mental load is carried (predominantly) by women. It comprises the things that (they believe) are essential to the welfare of their relationship or family, for example meal planning, remembering relatives’ birthdays, or buying toothpaste before it runs out. The carrier of the mental load often feels overwhelmed or resentful because their partners don’t share it.

Now, I am all for the equitable distribution of work, including paid employment, childcare, chores, and general life admin. However, my sympathy for people who complain about their ‘mental load’ nose dives when I hear or read this:

‘My partner should know what to do without me having to ask them. Me having to ask adds to my mental load.’

Continue reading “Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility”

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

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I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a wash cloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.

I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:

‘Are you ok?’

‘No.’

I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:

‘Did I just try to drown my baby?’

Continue reading “My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent”