Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Breastfeeding Week- an open letter of thanks

It’s World Breastfeeding Week and we are celebrating at Fusion Parenting.  Come back for a new post on breastfeeding every day!

 

In this, my first Breastfeeding Week since becoming a breastfeeding Mum, I would like to express my thanks to a group of women and men who helped me through the biggest emergency of my life. So below is an open letter to my friends at the Australian Breastfeeding Association…

After a beautiful 27 hour labour my little boy was an absolute natural at breastfeeding. Within minutes he had made his way up my tummy and had latched on for his first warm, milky feed. Before he was born I looked as breastfeeding as something that he and I would learn to do together, but after this, I knew that he would be the one teaching me what to do.

Our first few weeks together flew by with no problems with attachment, supply, nipple soreness….by this time I had attended my first ABA meeting and was an avid ‘lurker’ on the ABA forum. I was very proud of the job I was doing- even with my son’s love of comfort sucking, for many, many hours of the day. My husband and I saw this as a great way to catch up on some favourite tv series- with a fantastic excuse.

But when my son was just ten weeks old I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. Further investigation was required to see if ‘it’ had spread. The tests came back…the cancer was metastatic- it had spread to my lymph nodes and liver. I needed to have a number of major surgeries, and right now! By now, the ‘statistics’ predicted that I wouldn’t see my little boys first birthday. I didn’t know whether I would be there to hold his hand for his first day of school, or even be there to catch him as he took his first step. But there was something I could do- I could give him the best start to life that I possibly could.

And so began my journey with cancer. And with expressing. My first stop was the forum. I logged on and tearfully asked if anyone could help me teach my baby to drink from a bottle. An unlikely source of information about bottle feeding, but I didn’t know who else to ask…and these women seemed to have so much information- and compassion.

This proved to be a defining moment in my breastfeeding journey. Not only did these women provide me with the tips and hints I needed to express, bottle feed and return to breastfeeding but they gave me inspiration, motivation and strength. They didn’t just share information- every message came with love, prayers, and positive stories. Every message gave me hope- something that no doctors could.

My wonderful husband knew that focusing on breastfeeding was giving me hope and purpose and he did everything he could to support me. After my operations he was there with the electric pump, at times having to physically hold it up to my chest so I could express the milk out, ridding my body of anaesthetic so I could get back to feeding my baby. And then he would bring my beautiful baby to the hospital and without fail, Toby would latch on, just as easily as he had that very first night when he was born.

The surgeries performed managed to rid me of all the cancer and since then I have become a ‘regular’ at my local ABA meeting. I am also proudly ‘addicted’ to the ABA forum and consider the women there as friends. These are women who have seen me bare my soul, even though we may have passed each other on the street without even knowing.

I have blessed to meet some of the ‘angels’ from the ABA forum- the girls who gave me the gift of encouragement, to keep feeding my baby and to fight for my life.

Breastfeeding – Prepared for LIFE!

It’s World Breastfeeding Week and we are celebrating at Fusion Parenting.  Come back for a new post on breastfeeding every day!

Welcome to the Carnival of Breastfeeding readers.  I hope you enjoy this piece, there are further links to other carnival posts at the bottom.

 

There’s so much that could be said on this topic.  It could be interpreted as preparing the baby by giving them a healthy start in life.  In spite of what some commentators are trying to say, breastfeeding is healthier, and it is important.  And don’t even think that all this is just something those poor plebs in the third world need to worry about – note that one of those references looks specifically at developed nations. 

It could be interpreted as preparing the baby for the rest of their life by looking at the long term benefits, you know the decreased risk for later obesity, diabetes, some cancers and increases in intelligence.  (A variety of references can be found here.)

Then there are they psychological benefits, the bonding and close relationship with their mother, which prepares the whole family for the turbulent toddler years.  Breastfeeding may be protective for child abuse  and abandonment.

Or the fact that breastfeeding decreases the risk of SIDS , which is definitely preparing a baby for life.

And there are all the ways it helps the mother, which keeps her in the best condition and prepared to look after her baby, including reducing her risk of breast cancer, osteoporosis and the (surprising?) fact that exclusively breastfeeding means both parents get more sleep

And then of course there are all the tiny little things that happen normally and naturally, because breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby.  So it does the whole developmental job it is designed for, not just feeding, and prepares the baby’s jaw for talking, gives the mother’s body a break before the next pregnancy, gives the baby the sleep needed for development, allows the baby to experience a wide range of tastes and prepare for family foods, and generally gets the baby ready for the rest of this adventure called life.

Like I said at the beginning, there is so much that could be said on this topic, and I’m sure it will be admirably said by the other contributors to the carnival.  What I want to talk about is Breastfeeding – Prepared for LIFE!  A life that is as big and as bold and as exciting as I can make it.  Because isn’t that how life is supposed to be?  I don’t want a boring life, a mundane life, a routine of an existence.  Sometimes that’s what I get, but it’s not the life I plan and prepare for, and it’s not the life I plan and prepare for my children. 

Because I breastfeed I can be spontaneous, just grab the keys and the change bag and off we go.

Because I breastfeed it doesn’t matter if we’re stuck in the waiting room or a queue for a couple of hours, I’m completely portable.

Because I breastfeed we can camp on whatever beaten track we like, it comes sterile and pre-warmed.

Because I breastfeed I can have dinner with friends and spend the night chatting over philosophy and a nice glass of red, a sated baby cuddled in my lap. 

Because I breastfeed I fit into those ridiculously small airplane seats for a long haul flight, it doesn’t have to be made up and mixed.

Because I breastfeed I don’t worry about the quality of water at my destination.

Because I breastfeed I can live in a cyclone and flood prone area, serene in the knowledge that when the trucks don’t get through for three weeks my baby will be fine.

Because I breastfeed I can take my one year old to a restaurant, certain there’s something on the menu that will appeal to her.

Because I breastfeed I can go to a concert or show, we’re experts at attaching quickly and quietly in the dark.

In other words, because I breastfeed we are prepared for living.  Babyhood is not something to be hidden, scheduled, confined.  It is an introduction to the whole wonderful world, a celebration to be shared, something that allows adults to step back and rediscover life as their children experience it for the first time.  Through breastfeeding we are prepared for life, prepared to begin the new journey with our children in the same way we intend to go on.

 

Other Carnival of Breastfeeding posts:

Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: Breastfeeding in Emergencies
Hobo Mama: Prepared for Life: Breastfeeding in local and global crises
Zen Mommy: How breastfeeding has shaped my toddler’s view of breasts
Pure Mothers: Marketing away real milk
Chronicles of a Nursing Mom: Tips for consistent & long-term breastfeeding success
Cave Mother: Three moments that make me thankful I breastfeed
Breastfeeding 1-2-3: Breastfeeding as a lifesaver in emergencies

Lunch!

I haven’t blogged in a few weeks because I’ve recently returned to work, and it turns out that being at work takes up a lot more of my time than I remember. Some mornings, it really does take ages to get a toddler out of bed and dressed.

Anyway, being that I’m back at work, I’m back in the swing of packing lunches. I have a bit of a thing about lunches – I love packing tasty, healthy foods. Even more than that, though, I like packing pretty lunches.

baby bento - sushi and tomato

The Japanese have a tradition of packing nifty lunchboxes, called bento. The word ‘bento’ simply means ‘boxed lunch’ or something like that, but that’s a deceptively simple explanation. The most simple bento is a box of rice with an umeboshi, but bento may also be incredibly elaborate. Apparently some mothers at certain kindergartens in Japan compete with each other to make the most intricate bento for their children, with the result that they spend hours fiddling about with food.

I don’t do that. I like speed bento. Although I like spending a few minutes on pretty flourishes sometimes, I really don’t want to spend more time preparing a lunch than I do eating it.

There are plenty of resources around on how to pack a bento for adults. Where I find bento techniques incredibly useful though is in packing toddler lunches.

Bento has taught me three things. The first is how to choose and pack foods so that they’ll be safe to eat. The second is how to make the best use of available space – the more compact a lunch, the better, in my view. The third is how to make lunch look delicious.

toddler bento - lots of yummy things!

Everyone eats first with their eyes, and then with their mouth. This is particularly true of toddlers, who are notoriously fussy. Even children like mine, who will eat anything at all, have fussy days – favourite foods suddenly become anathema and are eyed suspiciously. Bento encourages the use of colour, particularly foods which are colourful in their natural state – different coloured vegetables, and the fresher the better. Bento often also incorporates cute touches like miniature food picks or vegetables cut into interesting shapes. Little picks are not just pretty – for a toddler, they can be a way of making some foods easier to eat. Little divider cups don’t just keep food separate – toddlers love investigating containers and sampling the treasures contained therein.

You don’t need a lot to get started with bento. You can spend a lot of money on a purpose-designed bento box, or you can simply use any old plastic container. Because I have a bit of a thing about lunches, I do have quite a collection of bento boxes, but I also have quite a collection of other plastics. The toddler bento pictured in this entry all use containers bought from a supermarket or department store: the first two are Willow containers, about $8 or $9 for a pack of three; and the third are made by Décor and cost less than that, again for a pack of three. I collect plastic spoons from our local gelateria and icecream parlours. Although you can buy vegetable cutters to make flowers or animals, you can also easily and quickly cut fruit into traditional designs.

fruit and sammiches

Reckon you can do it? I reckon you can! Pretty soon you’ll be looking for excuses to pack lunches for your kids – or for yourself.

The octopus myth

When I was pregnant, I spent a long time waiting for the day when I would start to feel like a hippopotamus – large, uncomfortable, waddling and enormously heavy…though I’m sure that if you were to ask any hippo they would strongly dispute such a characterisation. Anyway, I waited and waited and waited, but before I knew it, the baby was born, no hippos in sight. I never felt uncomfortable or awkward or waddling…how I may have looked is a different matter entirely.

A similar thing has happened to me with breastfeeding. When I started breastfeeding my newborn daughter, I soon learned that the recommended age for feeding was a minimum of two years. I looked down upon the tiny little creature nestled so comfortably in my arms and everything just seemed to ‘fit’ so nicely…a newborn baby just seemed to be the perfect size for breastfeeding. How on EARTH would I be able to breastfeed an ENORMOUS two year old???

I looked around to get an idea of what a two year old was actually like and I tried to imagine what it would be like to breastfeed a child of that age and size. I was, to be honest, slightly alarmed – all those ARMS, all those LEGS…all that WRIGGLING about – WAS IT REALLY POSSIBLE TO BREASTFEED A TWO YEAR OLD??? It seemed to me that it would be rather like trying to put a wetsuit on a thrashing octopus…awkward, unwieldy, frustrating and quite frankly, nigh impossible. Nevertheless, I set my goal as reaching the magical age of two and I figured that I would somehow work it out.

I now have an eighteeen-month old daughter. Somehow, somewhere along the way, my newly born baby slowly morphed into this ENORMOUS creature, with all those arms and all those legs and all that wriggling about. Somehow, somewhere along the way, she just FIT. Nope, she doesn’t curl up neatly in my arms like a newborn baby…her legs hang over my lap and she usually fiddles with a toy in one hand while poking and prodding at me with the other. But somehow, it works…it feels comfortable, natural and normal. I now no longer worry about how on earth I’m going to breastfeed a two year old, or even a three year old for that matter. I know that they will still fit. Because they’re meant to.

A few days ago, a friend of mine dropped in for a chat. Somewhere in the conversation (I think we were talking about my desire for my husband to take my daughter camping for the night so I could have an evening in on my own) it became apparent that I was STILL feeding. My friend, a childless male, looked slightly perplexed and then commented “Oh well, she won’t be needing that for much longer”. Then, a short pause, as he cocked his head to one side, looked at me and said “How old is she again?”

And so, in a very subtle, quiet, unobtrusive way, I was given the message, yet again, that YOU MUST NOT BREASTFEED A CHILD AFTER THE AGE OF ONE. The message was so clear that it could have been written in big, bright flashing neon lights. Because, of course, as everyone seems to know, Breastfeeding After the Age of One is Dangerous. Unsafe. Unnecessary. For Your Own Reasons. Weird. Just Plain Wrong.

I know that I have now entered that territory in which I feel that I need to be a little bit more secretive about the fact that I am STILL breastfeeding. In the small town where I live, many mothers do breastfeed, but the age of 1 is definitely seen as the upper limit. To venture beyond this point is seen as being, well, quite frankly, weird…perhaps even bizarre. Why on earth would you keep breastfeeding when they can have cows milk at that age???

Personally I’ve got nothing against cow’s milk…when it’s given to baby cows that is. But the idea that I would wean my child from my milk on to the milk of an animal…well, quite frankly, I find that weird…perhaps even bizarre. I feel slightly ashamed of myself that I am not more open about breastfeeding my toddler. I have told some friends who I know have breastfed past the age of one and I’ve mentioned it casually in conversations to strangers, but I don’t feed my daughter ‘in public’ anymore and I am careful about what I say and to whom. Partly this is because we are still fairly new to this town and I know that whatever I say will eventually do the rounds. I’d like to think that if I had the anonymity of life in a big city I wouldn’t care less about where and when I fed my daughter and whom I told.

I’ve never yet been openly and directly challenged by someone about why I’m still breastfeeding my daughter, but I thought that if and when the moment arrives, I’d like to be really clear about it….so here’s a short list of MY reasons…

*Because the World Health Organisation recommends that babies are breastfed for a minimum of two years, and thereafter for however long the mother and child desire. To be honest, I’m not usually one for following ‘the rules’ – they have to make sense to me first and be backed up by good research (hopefully one of my fellow bloggers will blog about ‘the rules’ of starting solids and how Baby Led Solids turns all that on its head). Anyway, this is one recommendation that does make sense to me and is backed up by good research.

*It provides immunological support. I suppose I see my breastmilk as being almost like the ‘other half’ of my daughter’s immune system. Children are so susceptible to infections and illness in their early years of life and the consequences of recurrent infections can be quite serious for bodily systems that are still developing (think ear infections here). I know that breastfeeding has ensured that my daughter has had an amazingly illness-free start to life – she has been sick just once in eighteen months – no ear infections, no gastro, no vomiting, no skin problems. And she isn’t ‘protected’ from snotty-nosed kids either. She recently picked up and sucked on the dummy of a child who had two rivers of green snot streaming from his nose…she didn’t even get a sniffle. So the other part to this story is that my daughter has never needed medication or a trip to the doctor and I haven’t suffered sleepless nights tending to a sick child.

*It provides ideal nutrition. Everyone who has a toddler knows how fussy and finicky they can be about food. By continuing to breastfeed my daughter, I know that even on days where she hardly eats, she is still receiving proper nutrition and isn’t likely to starve!

*It provides comfort in times of distress and it is still a surefire way to calm her and soothe her into sleep – even if she rarely feeds to sleep nowadays, it does slow her right down before bedtime and makes the night-time routine that little bit easier.

*It provides some quiet spaces in the day where the two of us can just be peaceful, still, and enjoy some beautiful mother-daughter moments together. Actually this is more of a ‘perk’ than a reason for breastfeeding per se.

*OK, this is an aside, but if we were ever caught in a natural disaster situation where we didn’t have access to food or water for a while…well, my daughter would be fine.

I’m sure there’s a lot more reasons that others could add to this list and I’d love to hear from any other mum’s who have or are breastfeeding past the age of one. What have your experiences been and why did you decide to keep going past the age that our society considers to be the ‘norm’?

For my part I’m just glad that I’ve experienced the seamless transition from feeding a newborn to feeding a toddler, without letting my preconceived notions (about the octopus) get in the way…

This week in Australia

I’m sure everyone is aware of the major social debate in Australia this week, the Four Corners expose on Rugby League and its “series of startling allegations relating to alcohol, women and sex.”    This type of social debate is a vital part of parenting, because it is how we determine the society we are going to bequeath to our children.  So I haven’t been tossing up whether to blog about it, but which angle to take.

There are so many.  The issue of consent has taken centre stage, which in many ways has made it a debate about morality – do nice girls have group sex?  Should anyone have group sex?  Should celebrities be held to the same standards as other people?  Should men and women be held to the same standards?  Which is where it starts to slide from morality into gender issues and feminism.  What does this say about men’s attitude to women?  The flip side of that is what it says about masculinity – is this a rough, tough sport and you can’t expect manly men to just switch it off?  Or can you be masculine without needing to masturbate with your mates?  Somehow I just can’t picture Peter Brock doing it.

 So many large issues and I only have a small blog, so I’ve picked a tiny section that’s relevant to my parenting.  Maybe some of my fellow authors might add their own perspectives in their posts and comments.  My concern is parochial, I am a mother of two little girls.  So what am I going to teach them?

 

First off I need to be absolutely clear.  No-one asks to be raped.  No-one deserves to be raped.  No-one bears any responsibility for anyone’s actions but their own.  It sounds like there’s a but coming, doesn’t there?  But there isn’t really.

 Let’s use a hypothetical situation to help think about it.  One Saturday morning it is fantastic weather with a blue sky and gentle breeze, perfect for walking and hot enough to wear your new shorts.  So you decide to walk into town to meet your friends at the movies, as you do regularly.  While you are in the theatre it gets cooler and cloudier, but it still looks fine so your friends hop in their cars and drive home.  Gradually as you walk it gets windier and the clouds build up, so slowly you don’t really notice.  You are looking at the beautiful river the footpath runs along and relaxing.  It isn’t until you are almost home that there is a flash of lightning and driving rain starts suddenly.  You are racing to shelter because you don’t have an umbrella when you slip on some gravel and seriously graze your leg and you end up having to hobble home, cold, wet and hurt.

This is a pretty obvious analogy, but the reason I set it up this way is that I think it’s fairly easy to see there is no blame.  When you first read it through it might not look that way, but think about it closely.  No-one can control the weather, otherwise we wouldn’t be having a drought (or floods)!  You do this regularly.  It was fine when you started.  The weather report said that it would be fine.  Several people knew you were walking and they all thought it was fine.  But no-one can control the weather.  And tripping is something that happens.  You might ‘control’ it insofar as some people are clumsier than others (me! me!) but it’s not something you really have control over, or we wouldn’t do it.  So in this situation you should have been perfectly alright, as you have been many other times, and through bad luck you were hurt.  Reality happens.

But even though it was in no way your fault, there are some things you could have done, and will probably do next time.  Organise a lift as soon as it looks cloudy.  A small umbrella that fits in your bag and stays there permanently.  A larger bag so you can carry a jumper with you.  Enough money in your pocket so you can always get a taxi.  Walk carefully rather than running on gravel.  Run on the grass if you need to.  You could have been prepared before you left, then there were several points when you could have stopped and re-evaluated, if you were aware of what was happening.

So let’s run that show again with the ‘real’ scenario.

One Saturday evening it is a fantastic time for going out with a great band playing, perfect for dancing in your new skirt.  So you decide to meet your friends at your local pub, as you do regularly.  While you are there you have a few drinks, then your friends need to leave because they work the next day.  The band is still pumping so you stay.  Gradually over the evening you drink a bit more, so slowly you don’t really notice.  You’re not drunk, just happy.  You are having a great time dancing, meeting people and relaxing.  It isn’t until you are about to head home that someone offers you a lift.  You hop in the car with him.

And now I’ll do exactly the same analysis.

This is a pretty obvious analogy, but the reason I set it up this way is that I think it’s fairly easy to see there is no blame.  When you first read it through it might not look that way, but think about it closely.  No-one can control another person’s behaviour, otherwise we wouldn’t be having a war (or fights with my toddler)!  You do this regularly.  You were safe when you started.  Several people knew you were getting a lift and they all thought it was fineBut no-one can control another person’s behaviour.  And meeting people is something that happens.  You might ‘control’ it insofar as some people are more outgoing than others (not me! not me!) but it’s not something you really have control over, or we would be agoraphobic hermits.  So in this situation you should have been perfectly alright, as you have been many other times, and through bad luck you were hurt.  Reality happens.

It’s pretty close, isn’t it.

And just as there are things you can do about the weather, there are things you can do for your safety in other ways.  Go out, but organise a lift.  Have a few drinks, but keep an eye on it.  Enjoy sex, but in a place and with people you trust.  It won’t necessarily keep you safe, that requires luck as well, and reality will always be there for some of us.  But it makes sense to give luck as much of a helping hand as you can.

There is a lot of debate about exactly how to be safe – clothes and behaviour are part of the social rules and change over both time and space.  Think how our grandmother’s would have reacted to what we consider a modest, demure outfit!  So the most important thing I’m going to try to teach my girls is to be aware.  To think about situations before they get into them, to plan.  To treat luck like a frail relative who needs to be helped and looked after constantly.

And really hope that reality doesn’t happen to them.

Naughty or Nice?

More and more lately I’m hearing about naughty babies or naughty toddlers. The phrases “is she being naughty today?” or “she was up all night, she’s so naughty” really get my goat. I don’t know why. You can call your child whatever you want I guess. I just don’t understand the point in negatively labelling a child for age appropriate behaviour and then making some kind of “naughty child” contest out of it amongst your friends.

 Naughty adj: Behaving disobediently or mischievously: a naughty child.

 The second part of that definition is easy for me to disregard. Mischievous is fun! A child is supposed to be mischievous – that’s not naughty, that’s pure 3 year old! Disobedient is a whole different kettle of fish though. To me that is straight from the school of parenting that believes children should be seen and not heard. I was going to say that it was from my parent’s era but actually I know plenty of 2009 parents who are enrolled in the same school. If you’re heard too often then you’re being disobedient and by the above definition you’re also being naughty. So I guess that’s why the screaming 12 week old is being naughty at 3am because her parents have asked her to be quiet, she’s not complying so therefore she’s being disobedient. Naughty little thing.

 In the same category is the manipulative child. This is the child who cries but then mysteriously stops crying when you pick her up or breastfeed her. Well of course she has stopped crying – you have met her needs! Crying is communication and although I know too well that it can sometimes seem incessant and never-ending, in my experience it always has a purpose and what’s so bad about that purpose being a cuddle? If you pick up a crying baby and they stop crying then look out! They obviously have you wrapped around their little finger and you’ll have hell to pay in weeks/months/years to come. Best to leave them to cry so they learn whose boss and you can avoid another rod for your back.

 What ever happened to kids being kids? I don’t need to know the second my son opens my Tupperware cupboard – I know where he is even if I’m not standing right next to him and I know he’s in my Tupperware cupboard. He’s allowed to be there and he’s allowed to pull the plastic out – that’s why it’s in that cupboard, in his reach! If I’m not panicking then doesn’t it stand to reason that my visitors don’t need to panic either? Perhaps they think they’re being helpful but the dramatic “Oh no he’s messing up your house…….again!” and then “he’s such a naughty boy” really does drive me slightly mad. Actually it annoys the heck out of me. If you think it’s problematic then feel free to tell him “No Samuel, shut cupboard” but quit it with the labeling and the shrieking at me that implies I’m not on top of my game. Call me overly sensitive but if you hear it a million times a day it really does seem that that is what is being implied.

 If my daughter is tired and has a meltdown she’s not being naughty she just needs some help dealing with her emotions. I don’t believe we’re born knowing that we can take some deep breaths or use our words to help explain how we feel, I believe this is a learned skill and I believe that 3 is perhaps a bit young to have a handle on this all of the time. And what’s with having to kiss and hug every relative every time you see them for fear of otherwise being labeled naughty? I have one family member who if they don’t get a kiss every time they see my kids will claim “What is he/she in a bad mood about today? Or are they just being naughty?”

 The flip-side of the naughty child is the good child. The child who sleeps well, eats everything on their plate, never screams and shrieks, kisses and hugs upon greeting, and is never overly tired or emotional. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing if your child meets the good criteria it’s just a bit much for everyone to expect everything from every child.

 I have a daughter and a son. Their names are Isabelle and Samuel. They are not called “naughty girl” or “good boy” they are a beautiful mix of everything that makes a child perfectly wonderfully all rolled into one.

Whatever Works

I went to a mothers group meeting once. I was quite new to the group, and I felt a bit nervous. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but one of the other mothers asked me how the Dumpling, then four months old, napped during the day. I explained that we’d moved a mattress into the lounge, so I could lay down with him and feed him to sleep there; and the moment he stirred I’d lay back down beside him quickly to feed him fully to sleep again. I was a little bit apologetic I think as I said, “It’s just easier that way.”

She just smiled at me and said, “Hey, whatever works.”

I remember feeling very relieved at her attitude. It’s something which has stuck in my mind, though, and I refer back to it often. You see, I frequently find myself in a position where I need to go with the “whatever works” option, rather than doing what I think I “should” do as a mother.

You see, I have a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder – Type II Bipolar Affective Disorder, if we want to get fancy about it. Actually, like Stephen Fry, I prefer the term ‘manic depression’, but that name has largely fallen out of use and it seems a bit pedantic to swim against the tide.

People don’t often talk frankly about mental illness, particularly not as it relates to parenting, so I thought I’d share some thoughts from my perspective. Heck, I don’t even talk about it much, mainly because mental illness is largely stigmatised still. If you watch a soap opera and a character has a mental illness, almost without fail they’re dangerous to other characters in some way. Schizophrenia is a convenient excuse for criminal insanity on television and in books. Actually, criminal insanity is a convenient excuse for just about anything, or so it seems sometimes on the 6 o’clock news. It’s not hard to see why people are often uncomfortable with the concept of mental illness.

Even setting aside the all pervasive media for a moment, in reality mental illness carries with it a number of slightly unsettling ramifications. There are several professions which are basically off-limits to people with certain mental illnesses – positions of critical responsibility, like the police, or ambulance service. There are some good reasons for this, and I don’t dispute that even if I sometimes think these policies could be a little more flexible. But the message we receive from these kinds of limits are that people with mental illness can’t be responsible people – they could go nuts at any time.

And have you spent much time with a person who’s having a psychotic episode? It’s disturbing, to say the least. By definition, a mental illness screws with the way a person thinks and behaves. This is way outside many people’s comfort zone.

So if societal attitudes carry an undercurrent (and sometimes a tidal wave) of fear: that people with mental illness are dangerous, crazy, incapable of shouldering responsibility, and just plain weird; it’s no wonder we don’t talk much about people with mental illness becoming parents. Parents are supposed to be stable, and responsible, and people to emulate.

According to SANE Australia, approximately 20% of adults are affected by some sort of mental disorder every year. (SANE factsheet: “Facts and Figures”) Twenty percent. That’s one in five. It stands to reason that there are awful lot of parents out there who suffer some kind of mental illness. I assume most of them are doing a relatively good job, given that civilisation isn’t crumbling around us.

Basically, people with mental illnesses are just like everyone else. Well, as similar to everyone else as everyone else is, anyway. We’ve all got our idiosyncrasies, we’ve all got our peculiar set of problems, and we’ve all got interesting families. Mental illness presents its own particular set of problems, especially where parenting is involved.

It’s not always simple. I have a particular responsibility to balance my health needs with my child’s. I need to pay close attention to my mental health and be compliant with treatment plans, because my son’s wellbeing is directly affected by my own. But there’s room for flexibility, which is good because even when my condition is well managed, episodes are still inevitable.

This is why I return, time and time again, to that mother’s words: “Whatever works.” The truth is that I can’t always be the parent I want to be. When I’m having a depressive episode, my toddler watches a lot more TV than I’d like. I read fewer books to him. We don’t walk to the park, because it’s too hard to get off the couch.

So what do I do? I call in my in laws, and he spends some more time than usual with Grandma and Grandpa. I leave the dishes in the sink, and I remember that he doesn’t care if he eats baked beans on toast for dinner. To be honest, he kind of likes it. Even if he has it three days in a row.

On the flip side, if I’m hypomanic, we have a great time. We dance a lot, and we run around in the playground together. I’m sure that other parents watching us in the park think I’m a little strange: my toddler just thinks I’m awesome. We draw and paint and cut and paste and make cars out of boxes and I run with him in the shopping trolley through the supermarket making “broom, broom!” noises. We sing and dance in public and I don’t care. So I suppose it all balances out.

I worry, frequently, that I’m not a good enough parent. I’m not stable enough, I’m not consistent enough. But the thing is, if I put aside my worries and just look at my child, I see a happy, healthy, confident child who’s developmentally well on track. So my ‘up’ days and ‘down’ days don’t seem to be having a negative effect on him.

Hey, whatever works, right?

Further info and some useful resources:
SANE Australia
COPMI – Children Of Parents with Mental Illness
Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute