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

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

A couple of weeks ago I found myself being shouted at by another parent.

Someone semi well known, a parent to several children. This person has their fingers in a few pies, some might be called parenting advice adjacent, but to my knowledge they lack formal qualifications.

They delivered their passionate message via Facebook couched as a public service to ALL parents. I am wary of all unsolicited parenting advice. My aversion to it stems from my first pregnancy and early first-time motherhood.

Back then I eagerly soaked up all the information, like a stray kitten lapping up a saucer of milk. The need to have a vaginal birth. How essential breastfeeding would be for my baby.

I made myself sick on information.

In fact, had I stubbornly clung to it, that information could have killed both my baby and I. (A baby in the posterior position, postnatal psychosis brought on (in part) by sleep deprivation, a lot of medication to treat the postnatal psychosis that passed into breastmilk).

But back to the Facebook tirade I found difficult to look away from.

The message was completely overshadowed by the breathless anxiety in its delivery. I’ve never been a proponent of parenting out of the fear of what could happen based on general information. The topic of this particular rant is almost irrelevant because it could have been about anything. It happened to be about Tick Toc. More specifically a call to ban it from our children’s devices.

Personally, I would not give my primary school student access to any social media. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Personally, I believe banning Tick Toc from high school students’ phones rather than letting them have it and teaching them about the dangers, is a bit like banning sex instead of providing good quality sex education. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Reflexively banning anything because you’ve come across some frightening information about it will just make it more appealing to many teenagers. Like the kid who has never been allowed sugar… But stop I am straying from the point I am trying to make, which come to think of it can still be made with the kid who has never been allowed sugar.

Take two kids with the same parent and apply the No Sugar rule.

It might work perfectly for one kid who is pretty compliant, naturally eats a wide variety of foods, and happens to love taking vegetable muffins for lunches. They grow into an adult who carries their childhood eating habits into adulthood and live happily ever after.

The other kid might be more rebellious. They might gorge on sugar at every birthday party they go to and resent their parents’ strict (though well intentioned) food rules. They trade their vegetable muffins for chocolate bars at school lunches. They feel guilt and shame associated with eating sugar and grow into adulthood with disordered eating that takes years of intensive therapy to manage.

Whether it is sugar or social media – I no longer make blind decisions based only on external information (be it expert or the anecdotal variety hurled at me by social media). I aim to interpret parenting information in the context of my child(ren) and my family before I lay down any laws.

Favouring my intuition over information isn’t easy. In other areas of my life – such as my veterinary work and the management of my Bipolar 1 Disorder, I have always relied heavily on information to help me make decisions.

But I can’t count the number of times information (even expert information) has failed me as a parent.

In this age we are assaulted by information wherever we look. It can overwhelm and make us doubt our knowledge of our children. And if we let it, the information and opinion overload becomes a stick to beat ourselves to an indecisive mess with.

It has taken me years and plenty of mistakes to marry my intuition and knowledge of my children with a scant amount of trustworthy information to find the formula that works (not all but) a lot of the time, for this family.

I am not against parents sharing information and opinions. I share my own frequently. This post is a case in point. But I find it helpful to remember that ultimately we need little information to parent well, and it is information most parents agree on anyway:

Love your children unconditionally; provide them with food, water, shelter, the opportunity to exercise, and the best medical care you can access; don’t expose them to any forms of abuse; teach them how to navigate the world they inhabit; and if you are fortunate enough to be able to – provide them with an education.

Beyond that, you can ignore what everyone else is doing. It’s down to what works for you and your child.

You may also like to check out:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

If you enjoy my writing, my recently published memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life is available on most online bookselling platforms including Amazon, Fishpond, and Booktopia. You can find an excerpt here: Book

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?