The Right Questions

20130811-180839.jpg
For some time now I’ve been planning a post centred around supporting loved ones with Post Natal Depression. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that PND has played a big part in the lives of my family, close friends and me for the past two years. It’s something I’ve only spoken publicly about in the past few months and I find it easier to write than to speak about.

I now know what I need when I am at a low ebb. In my case it is usually help with the children and the opportunity for quiet reflection. To lick my wounds in private and to build up the strength to face the world again. Also anti-depressants and therapy featured heavily in my treatment, but for the purposes of this post I’m looking at what friends and family can do to help.

In researching this article I asked some of my readers and friends to share their experiences of depression with me and to tell me what they felt they needed in terms of support at their worst. What really struck me was how similar yet entirely different their replies are.

“I never really asked for practical help. If anyone had offered I would have put a front on that everything was fine and I was fine, even though I was beyond desperate.”

“I used to want to do everything as no one else did it the same as me or not to my high standards.”

“I would have loved someone to help with kids stuff like dinner times and even nursery runs as I really didn’t want to see or speak to other mums.”

“I felt better if someone took the kids and I got the cleaning done. It made me feel as if I had achieved something.”

“I’d have loved for people to have stopped by and offered to run the hoover around, or dropped a casserole off, but I couldn’t ask for those things for fear that people would think I wasn’t coping.”

“When people phoned I’d have liked them to ask after me and not just my new baby. I might not have been able to say anything, but it would have been nice to be asked.”

“What I wanted more than anything was company. Not to be alone with the babies. I didn’t actually want people to take them off my hands – but to come round and help me look after them, and help me to feel normal.”

“I just wanted to be left alone. I felt like there was never a moment for myself but I felt I couldn’t ask for help as I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking (or knowing) that I wasn’t coping.”

“The worst thing for me was the feelings of isolation. I always needed to be around people whether it was friends, family or even strangers at a toddler group. I hated being at home alone.

I could fill pages and pages with quotes like these. Some women desperately need company and conversely others just want time alone. Some are silently crying out for help in the home and others can’t bear the thought of letting anyone else near the hoover. Some abhor the idea of unsolicited advice whilst others just want someone to take over and make everything okay.

20130811-181122.jpg

I have read and re-read this messages over and over, trying to digest them and to think of a way to coherently sum them up in to a neat article to solve everything. I hoped to narrow the stories down in to four easy-to-follow bullet points. These were my first three:
1) Listen with compassion and without judgement
2) Encourage professional help
3) Offer practical help.

I then got to point number four. Ask the right questions.

This, in my view, is absolutely the most crucial, key factor in supporting someone with depression. Without asking the right questions, nothing else matters. My previous three points are, well, pointless really.
Nothing else will work. You could run the risk of scaring the sufferer away or interfering, despite meaning well. If we don’t ask the right questions, we can’t possibly offer the right support.

In my previous life, before children, I spent thirteen years working in advertising. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to ask open questions. They invite the other person to open up more and keep the conversation flowing.

Rather than this type of dead-end conversation….
You: Are you okay?
Them: “Yes thanks.”

It could be an idea to try something like this…
You: “So, is having a newborn what you thought it would be?”
or ” What is your favourite or least favourite thing so far about being a mummy? What has surprised you?” or “Is your partner enjoying being a new parent? What could they do differently to help more?”

You can see that questions like this encourage open dialogue. They offer the sufferer an opportunity to open up, if she is ready to.

20130811-181012.jpg

PND is so closely tied to a woman’s sense of worth as a mother.
Even the most well-meaning of comments can be twisted around in her mind to mean something else altogether. Mentioning that she is coping well, for example, can reinforce the fact that no-one understands what she is really going through. Offering to clean the house will probably leave her believing that you think her house is filthy and that she is a terrible mother. Offering to help with the children and bath time will cause horrible guilt and she will probably feel like a burden. Or, at least, this is how I felt in those situations. And the messages I’ve received show me I’m not alone in this.

This is why it is so, so hard to support someone who suffers with PND.

It is human nature to want to save people who are suffering with illness. We want to rush in and rescue, to take the pain away and to make it all better.
It is my style to offer practical advice or solutions to people in need. I’ll often turn up with a lasagne or offer to take kids to school or to clean the kitchen. It makes me feel like a better person to try to help others. In fact, I was told (rather bluntly, as it happens) by my therapist that this is, in fact a symptom of my own need to ask for help, but that’s another story.

My point being: sometimes these actions make us feel better, but not the intended recipient of our good deeds.

She might just want to sit in silence. She may want company. She may relish the idea of losing herself in the housework or baking whilst someone else watches the kids. Perhaps she wants to talk. But unless you ask the right questions, it’s simply impossible to tell.

20130811-181240.jpg

As the partner or close friend of someone with depression you will in all likelihood feel a combination of helplessness, anger, guilt, frustration and sadness. But it’s important to remember that depression is not personal. The fact that your loved one is not responding to your attempts to help them is no reflection on you. If you think about it, if G-d forbid you were supporting someone through cancer, you wouldn’t expect to be able to cure them by yourself. Depression is a shared responsibility, but not your sole responsibility. Professional help is out there and as the partner of someone with depression, it’s so important to seek out and to take the support that is available.

An old friend of mine, C, has supported his wife through post-natal and clinical depression for sixteen years. He gave me this advice:
” A depressed person ALWAYS sees one MASSIVE problem, but in reality problems are compound and are generally lots of little problems that if fixed (or managed) in turn, make the (not) massive problem simply crumble away.”

Please don’t ever imply that a depressed person can “pull themself together“. In my experience there is no statement more isolating or that further demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is going on. Depression is caused by a number of factors, with the main culprit being a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is nothing a depressed person would love more than the ability to “get a grip”. It’s just not that simple.

More than anything, my research has shown me that depressed people want to be listened to. Really, properly, listened to when they are ready to talk. Not with a view to offering solutions, not thinking about what to say next, just listening. My friend Sarah once sat with me whilst I sobbed. I spoke my darkest thoughts out loud and she just listened. She didn’t offer advice or try to fix me and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Sometimes shining light on darkness goes a long way towards chasing the shadows away.

I’m going to leave you with a passage from an incredible blog post by Andrew Lawes. You can find it in its entirety here, and follow him on Twitter @laweslaweslawes.

Try to imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen. Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.”


I’d just like to say a huge thank you to the women who shared their stories to make this post possible. I am so grateful for your bravery in sharing your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

I’d also like to clarify that I am not a medical professional. I have a list of support organisations here, if you’d like to talk to someone. Please do use it if you need to.

Advertisements

Beyond the Scale

Nothing highlights how your life has changed more than going on holiday with two small children. We’ve just returned from two lovely weeks in the sun. It was our first holiday abroad in three years and we chose a very family friendly resort so that the kids would be well catered for.

Anyone who’s taken their pre-schoolers on holiday will tell you that the days of relaxing on a sun-lounger with a book and a cocktail are long-gone, at least for the time being. But this isn’t the only change I noticed around the pool.

In my late teens and early twenties I went on several girls’ holidays with my friends. The only similarity between those days and the present is the lack of rest! I remember sitting around the pool with my two closest girlfriends, ten years ago. Both were tiny size eights and I was a twelve. I used to feel so paranoid about being bigger than them. Of course if I had a time-machine I’d go back and tell that foolish girl to make the most of her pert figure because gravity and pregnancy would soon take it’s toll and one day her stomach would sway when she walked.

Usually before a holiday I’d be frantically crash-dieting, but not this year. Having recently recovered from a serious bout of depression (which admittedly involved a fair amount of comfort eating) I simply wasn’t in the right place to begin a diet. I didn’t have the emotional energy to dedicate to a diet and I don’t think I’d have handled the stress well. My bikini days are well and truly behind me and I packed my trusty one-piece swimsuits, thanking my lucky stars that they’re fashionable at the moment.

In contrast to the days when I used to look with envy at other girls’ bikini bodies, this time I noticed similarities between all of the women around the pool;

The body of almost every woman I saw on holiday showed signs of having experienced pregnancy.

This was something that I found incredibly comforting. I can honestly say that I think I saw three women out of the hundreds in our resort, whose bodies still looked perfect. I even asked one of them what her secret was. Turns out there’s something to be said for vigorous daily exercise!

Now I have never felt particularly comfortable in my skin. But this has been magnified since having children. I was enormous in pregnancy and I’ve been left with an unsightly “pouch” of skin on my lower stomach. I don’t hide the fact that if I had the courage and the money I’d get it surgically removed.

Why are so many of us surprised and disappointed with our post-baby bodies?

20130525-225301.jpg

For lots of women, a major goal in life is to have children. Whether consciously or otherwise, a great deal of effort goes in to finding a partner to reproduce with. For some, conception is easy and for others it can be a painful journey taking many years. Then comes pregnancy, birth and often breast-feeding. Here is this amazing little person you’ve created, nurtured and sustained thanks to your incredible body.

Yet, once this stage is over, many of us (myself very much included) will look in the mirror from time-to-time and shake our heads. Poke at our once-lovely boobs and prod our jiggly tummies and dimpled behinds, wondering what happened.

Pregnancy happened. Childbirth happened. Life changed forever and beyond recognition thanks to the little person (or people) you brought in to the world. Yet somehow we expect our bodies to remain unscathed. To not show any sign of the miracle they created. We look at the marks left behind and we view them with disdain, as a sign of imperfection. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we compare our bodies with our peers and with air-brushed images of celebrities who somehow make it back on to the catwalk within days of giving birth. (I often wonder about this. Where do they hide the massive brick-sized post-natal sanitary towels in those skimpy outfits, anyway?!).

But who is watching us, when we stand in the bathroom scowling at our reflections?

Our children are watching. They are listening and they’re learning. Their little sponge-like brains are forming opinions that imperfection is bad. That fat is ugly. That image is so very important. That mummy doesn’t like herself very much. Perhaps even that if they get fat too that mummy may not like them anymore, either.

I read a fabulous quote from Kate Winslet, online recently:
“As a child I never heard one woman say to me ‘I love my body’. Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. No one woman has ever said; ‘I am so proud of my body’. So I make sure to say it to Mia, because a positive physical outlook has to start at an early age”.

Now granted, I’d find it easier to love my body if it resembled Kate Winslets. But that’s not the point. Our daughters (and sons) need to hear this. We simply MUST learn to lead by example when it comes to teaching healthy body image to our children. They need to know that imperfection is acceptable. Regardless of their shape, size, colour or countless other factors, they need to know that they belong and are loved.

Through the eyes of our children, we are beautiful. We’re their beautiful mummies. Who are we to argue with their views and to tell them that they’re wrong, to point out the flaws in their logic along with those on our bodies?


20130525-225207.jpg

A friend recently told me how her seven year old daughter came home from school in tears. Another child had called her fat and she wants to go on a diet. Seven. Years. Old. This makes my heart hurt on so many levels. That a child should have this worry on their shoulders is devastating. That another child should use the “F Word” to another child to hurt them is equally awful.

I want my children to accept and embrace people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. I want them to be confident enough in their own strengths of character for appearance to not be their only defining factor. I want them to never be the child hurling insults at others.

This has to start with me.

We women are our own worst critics. If we’re not beating ourselves up by comparing ourselves with others we’re often bashing other women. Discussing or criticising the appearance of our peers. This only serves to make ourselves feel more insecure. If we’re discussing someone else’s weight gain, surely someone else is doing the same to us, right? And who is listening, when we’re sitting in a room discussing how such-and-such lost all that weight and has now regained it all? Who is taking in every word we say, filing it away for future reference? Yep. You guessed it.

Think about the women in your life. Think of who you see as beautiful. Are they all perfect size eights? Are they all jiggle, line and stretch-mark free? Of course they aren’t. There is so much more to beauty than physical appearance and size.

To truly set an example to our children we need to learn to respect and honour, if not love our own bodies. Inside and out.

This is the only body I’ll ever have. It’s seen me through a lot and given life to a two whole new people. That’s amazing. There’s no question about it.

In an ideal world appearances wouldn’t matter at all. What we wear and how we look would pale in to insignificance versus our good deeds and our kind spirits. We’d all be recognised for our talents and strengths and no-one would give a second thought to weight, skin colour or any other physical attribute. But this sadly isn’t the society we live in.

This, too needs to change. But the diet and beauty industries are worth far too much to the media. We and our children will be bombarded with images of how we’re supposed to look. How we’ll only be truly happy if we drop a dress size (or four)/wear this/buy that.

Our ammunition against this tirade of negativity is our own self-esteem and rational mind. We simply must remind ourselves and our children how many qualities we have, beyond looks. How clever and kind we are. How thoughtful.
By pointing out positive characteristics to our children we can take some of the emphasis off physical appearance as the only gauge of a person’s worth.

I just hope that I can put a sizeable deposit in to my children’s self esteem bank: If someone throws an insult at them, they can draw on a reserve of strength. If they see a magazine article which tells them they’re “less-than” I hope they’ll be able to laugh it off.

I can only truly achieve this when I start to accept my body for the imperfect marvel that it is.

Of course our insides are far more important than our outward appearances. I hope that being slim or beautiful won’t be defining factors for my children. I want them to see beyond the scale and the mirror when it comes to calculating their worth. But at the same time I hope they’ll realise that whatever shape or size they are, they’re beautiful. Like their Mama.

20130525-225819.jpg

The Same, Differently

This morning I tuned in to a radio debate and for the first time was compelled to call in and join in. Sadly I didn’t have enough time before the school run to partake, so I’m going to share my views here.

The debate concerned parenting books; the suggestion being that parenting books are responsible for stifling the natural instinct and intuition of parents. Callers of all ages made their points, with some arguing that allowing babies to “cry it out” is the only way to get a baby to sleep through the night. Others argued that Gina Ford’s ‘Contented Little Baby’ routine was both the work of the devil and equally the only possible option for raising a happy child. Several parents from older generations pointed out that none of these books and regimes were available “in their day” and their children turned out alright (even though, when pressed, at least one admitted that her children didn’t sleep through the night until the age of five).

Few topics polarise people as much as parenting. There are so many factors and variables along the rocky road that is parenthood and it’s such an important job. Nothing magnifies irrational thought as much as sleep deprivation and this is where parenting books come in. They can feel like a life-line when your instinct and intuition seem to be failing you.

The one thing all callers had in common was their passion. They all felt so strongly that they were right.

Had I been put on-air this morning, my point would have been this:
“Why does your way have to be the only way?”

Nobody on this particular radio show was able to appreciate that what works for them may not for someone else; all children are different and what works for your first child may not have the same effect on your subsequent offspring. Others may do things differently from you, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you are, either.

The main topic of this phone-in was intuition, which I think is a really interesting point. The suggestion was that anyone following a routine from a parenting book was ignoring their own common-sense and instinct. The reason I felt compelled to join this debate was that this view is so incredibly black and white.

What if your intuition is telling you that you need help? Why ignore the wealth of information in books and online? What if you are seriously questioning whether you were over-looked on the day that maternal instinct and common sense were handed out? What’s so wrong with using a crutch?

20130430-220951.jpg

I admit that I’m somewhat of a parenting-book-junkie. Especially when Madam was born, in the early days and during the onset of what turned out to be severe post-natal depression, I was desperate for help. I bought book after book, determined to shoe-horn my little baby in to a routine that would get her through the night. Looking back, what I really needed was to feel in control. Anyone who’s ever had a newborn will know that control, hormones and little babies don’t usually go hand-in-hand.

The start of my darkest days coincided with trying to fit Madam in to Gina Ford’s routine. I just couldn’t seem to get her to “obey’ the timings that Ms. Ford insisted upon. I felt like an utter failure. Several of my peers had successfully implemented Gina, yet I simply couldn’t make her routine work. I think my baby was four weeks old. Had I been thinking rationally at the time, I’d have realised that either this routine wasn’t for us, or that we’d have to try later when the baby was a bit older. Perhaps I’d have taken some tips or ideas and found my own way. But I wasn’t thinking rationally. I was desperate. I bought several other books, determined to fit my tiny little baby in to some sort of schedule: to make me feel back in control of the situation and in hindsight, my life.

My fixation on routine was in all likelihood something for me to focus on. Of course I now realise that putting so much emphasis on getting little Madam in to a routine was causing me to miss out on so many joyful moments. I even felt resentful of her at times. Of course, much of this is closely tied in to PND. Also, thinking back, the control issue was also probably magnified by my inability to breastfeed her (more on this topic soon). I looked to parenting books to help me regain control as I felt completely unprepared for the spiral that my life had seemingly become.

With this in mind you’d think I’d be firmly in the anti-parenting book camp. But this is not the case. Not at all. My situation was extreme and I am in no way suggesting that any book was responsible for my depression. I did find a routine that worked for us (from Tracey Hogg’s ‘The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems’), and Madam did sleep through the night from eight weeks. I say this not to brag, but to show that with perseverance I found something that worked. For me, the stress of implementing a routine was negated by the rewards. Getting the baby to sleep through the night as soon as she was ready helped me to feel more in control and made me more capable of seeking help for myself. I genuinely don’t believe that she’d have slept as early as she did without the routine.

I’m occasionally asked my views on Gina Ford and her routines. I would never dream of saying “Oh my God, Gina and I don’t get on at all, she nearly sent me insane. Steer well clear if you’d like to avoid taking up residence in a padded cell!”. I realise and accept that all children and all families are different. The reason there are so many books, ideas and baby products on the market is that there is something to suit everyone. I can only offer my own experiences and share what did and didn’t work for us. I try very hard to stick to point number five in my Mummy Kindness Manifesto:

I will only offer advice when it’s asked for. I will do so with love and without judgement.

When it comes to receiving parenting advice, experience has taught me to filter advice and to keep an open mind. It is perfectly acceptable to glean useful nuggets of information from an assortment of media and to disregard what doesn’t speak to or work for you.

There is no reason why reading parenting books should stifle our parental instincts or intuitions. If we have peace with and faith in our own choices as parents, there’s no reason why we should feel threatened by someone else’s different approach. I think this goes for all aspects of life, really, not only parenting. We all simply want to do our best for our families. Hopefully we can all continue to listen to our own instincts and at the same time respect and accept that others are doing the same, differently, and that’s fine too.