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?

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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.

Truth

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life flow no longer in our souls.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (November 12, 1815 – October 26, 1902) in her speech to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1890.

Truth. This word means a lot to me. I’m having to face a lot of truths at the moment. Truth can be painful. Speaking truth can leave you feeling vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening. Truth can be terrifying.

But fearless truth telling can heal. Not only myself, but others who hear (or in this case read) it.

The truth of the matter is, my depression has been back and there has been absolutely nothing that I could do to stop it. No amount of late night over-thinking, crying, pretending, talking or remaining silent has managed to keep the Black Dog from my door.

So I am going to share my truth here. It might be painful to read and to write, but if nobody talks openly about taboo subjects like this, more and more people will suffer in silence. If one person reads this, and in doing so feels less alone, or seeks help it will be worth the emotional effort that writing a post like this involves.

Each time it returns, my depression seems to have mutated. Like a germ that’s become immune to antibiotics. Like something from a zombie film, lurking where you least expect it.

Seven months ago my biggest problem was anxiety. Crippling, physical, exhausting anxiety. Talk-based CBT helped this, as did medication, and now it’s not such an issue. This time around the relapse has involved a lot more paranoia and the darkest of thoughts. Feelings of being worthless, a burden, a disappointment.

Depression is a very cruel illness. It robs you of the ability to take on board any rational advice or listen to logic. You just can’t believe anything good about yourself at all. You seem to feel too much of everything and at the same time, not enough. Nothing makes sense in my experience, when it comes to depression. Thoughts which to any other person are ridiculous, horrifying or absurd seem perfectly acceptable. During a conversation with a friend who was once sectioned for her own safety, for example, I felt that perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing to happen. At least there would be rest. And quiet. And help.

Last week I had a long conversation with my doctor. He increased my medication and referred me for more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. During my assessment I answered several questions which gave a picture of where I am on a depression scale. Despite all of the feelings I’d been battling I was still crushed to hear that based on the answers I gave, I’m considered to be seriously depressed. The fact that I felt surprised by this news is ridiculous as I’ve been living with this for weeks now. But the truth is, I keep expecting someone to tell me that this has all been a mistake, I’m just a bit tired and no, I haven’t actually got a mental illness after-all.

One of the doctor’s questions covered suicidal feelings. Not a conversation I ever expected to have. But I answered truthfully. My truth is that whilst I would never, ever put my family through it, I can, at this point in my life, understand why people do choose to end their lives as a result of depression. I’m sorry if this is painful and shocking to read, but this post is about truth.

I am speaking my truth here, in the hope that saying this things aloud (or on screen, as it were) will banish them away. In my darkest moments, I truly believed that the world would be better off without me, and that my husband and children would be better off with a different wife and mother. I feel I should stress again, before anyone calls an ambulance, that at no point did I ever plan to act on these dark thoughts. There are too many people whom I love for me to ever do that. But what I am saying is when I read news stories about women who’ve ended their lives, I can understand the feelings of desperate desolation that must have driven them.

After leaving the doctor’s, feeling very fragile indeed, I messaged a good friend who has personal experience of depression herself. I explained my feelings to her. Her response contained the following wise words:

“Please try not to be heartbroken- we both know depression is always there in the background and it’s inevitable that there will be relapses throughout our lives. What’s important it how we deal with them”.

She went on to commend me for getting help. Her message was of great comfort to me at a time where I just wanted to take to my bed and howl.

But here’s the thing. Each time my depression comes under control again, I think it’s gone forever. When it returns, it comes as a massive shock to me. In writing this I realise how ridiculous this sounds, but it’s the truth. I can’t seem to accept the fact that this may in all likeliness be something that comes back again and again throughout my life. The thought terrifies me. I can’t really even bear to think about it.

As I write this, I am thinking about the people who I know, who may read this. What on earth is possessing me to write down my very darkest thoughts and share them on the internet? What will people think? Will it look as it I’m attention-seeking? But then I re-examine my reasons for this post. I am writing not only to help myself, but to try to help others. Not just those suffering from depression themselves, but those trying to support loved ones going through it.

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I “came out’ about my depression through this blog. Before doing so, only a couple of people knew about it. My closest friends weren’t even aware. They sent me incredible messages of support once they’d read my first post. But I admit, and so will they, that after that it became somewhat of an elephant in the room. No-one liked to broach the subject and I couldn’t seem to bring it up. I began to feel paranoid that I’d alienated myself from my friends, who were becoming used to reading my inner thoughts rather than hearing them in person.

I find the subject far easier to write about than to speak about and I’m very good at putting on a brave face to the outside world. But last week, on the insistence of a close friend, my friends and I finally had the conversation. I struggled not to fall to pieces in a busy restaurant whilst discussing it. They offered support and suggestions. They were relieved and so was I. I hope that next time (and I really hope there is never a next time) I’ll be able to reach out to them more and let them in.

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I sometimes wonder whether I actually feel too much. Too much of other people’s pain as well as my own. At the moment I have close friends going through horrendous divorce, serious ill-health and parental cancer. I spend so much time worrying about them whilst feeling incredible guilt for not being a supportive enough friend. Because at some point, like this past few weeks or so, I can only focus on myself and my family. I have to put our needs first but that feels so selfish. I have to concentrate on myself more and stop worrying so much about others.

Yesterday my friend’s one year old daughter broke her ankle for no apparent reason. The photo of her in her cast was enough to have me feeling low for an entire morning today. Other people would of course worry about a baby in distress. But for me, it seems to consume me. I internalise it and find it hard to switch off the worry. I suppose this is something for me to address once the therapy resumes again.

I’m really struggling with whether or not to publish this post. It still feels to raw and I’m worried about upsetting my family and friends. I’m also worried about what acquaintances will think.

So I’ll share this quote, to give myself a bit more courage:
“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”
Bernard Baruch (Often incorrectly attributed to Dr. Seuss, apparently).

So, if you’re a friend or acquaintance of mine and you’re reading this, don’t feel awkward when you see me next. I’m determined to get through this again and raising awareness is part of the process for me, it seems. In writing this I can feel a few subtle sparks of positivity somewhere deep inside, some flickering enthusiasm building slowly. It will be OK again. I will get through this again, bit by bit with the support of my loved ones. I have asked for help, and of that I am proud.

Before I hit publish, I’m going to take a deep breath and remind myself once again of my reasons for sharing this. To help myself to heal, and to help heal others.

If you’re reading this and you’re suffering, please do get help. Speak to someone. If you’re worried about someone, please offer support. Only by being supportive to one another can we break the stigma and help one another. And that’s the Truth.

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All pictures credited to the Brave Girls Club

Easier Said Than Done.

I feel the need to write this down so that hopefully I’ll feel better afterwards. I have a knot of emotion in my chest and I need it to go away. Whilst it doesn’t feel as if the Black Dog is looming, I do feel as if I good cry is on the horizon.

The past month has been very tough. My PND relapse episode lasted a full fortnight and immediately afterwards followed two weeks of the usual childhood illnesses that come with winter time. I don’t recall my last good night’s sleep.

Now, even in writing this, I feel the need to apologise to the millions of other parents out there who have children who don’t sleep. It comes with the territory, I know. But it feels like I’m the only one staring at a computer screen on the verge of tears.

But then I remember that others don’t have the monopoly on exhaustion. I am entitled to feel how I do. I’m not alone in feeling this way. It’s OK not to feel OK sometimes, remember?

Sleep deprivation does magnify things, and when I’m feeling a bit emotionally fragile, this is even more apparent.

You see, Monkey has been behaving like a cross between a surly teenager and a Tasmanian devil for the past couple of weeks. It has been meltdown central in our house and I have heard lots of “I don’t like you, mummy. I don’t want you. Go away from me”. I do know these are not his true feelings. He is three and a half. I’m the one he runs to when he is sick or hurt and I know he loves me. But still, words like this cut like a knife to my heart.

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I know that Monkey feeds off my energy and I’m pretty sure my energy has been off-kilter during the past month. What this boils down to is I feel his behaviour is my fault. But if my energy causes his meltdowns and his tantrums cause me to feel even worse, how will this stop? It’s a vicious cycle, surely?

There are lots of strategies I employ to cope with meltdowns. I like to lead by example by not shouting over him when he is losing it, as I don’t think that teaches anything. In fact I prefer to drop my voice very low when he is screaming and shouting. I try to head the tantrums off-at-the-pass if I can and will intervene if I see one coming. This often works. I also like to use humour to distract him from a diva strop, and I’ve been known to return from the shops on a make-believe broomstick to prevent an outburst. But sometimes nothing works. I guess sometimes he just behaves like a normal three and a half year old boy, who is recovering from a nasty virus and several nights of broken sleep.

Even in telling you these tricks and strategies I realise that I am trying to prove something. I am trying to show you, dear readers, and remind myself, that I am a conscientious parent. I’m demonstrating that I am not a bad mum. That I’m not modelling aggressive behaviour and in doing so creating a future menace to society.

I’m trying to tell myself that my own struggles are not damaging my child.

I don’t think there is a parent in the world who has not had to deal with a meltdown from their child. I know that it is normal, developmental behaviour. I also know lots of parents of children with special needs who cope with far more difficult situations and make it look easy.

I suppose what I really need to do is read back through my previous posts, have a word with myself, take some of my own advice and practice what I preach. So here goes…

“I will be true and authentic and not pretend all is perfect at all times”. Check.

“I will always remember that I’m the best mum for my children, that I know them better than anyone else. I will discount any thoughts that suggest otherwise”. Hmmm. Perhaps I need to read this one a few more times.

“I will remember that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes”. Yes.

“I will be kind to myself.” Easier said than done, though, isn’t it?

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