And here is a link to our last ABC612 Parenting Panel of the year, containing a rerun of my favourite bit of the whole year, when Brad the Traffic Guy read my parenting traffic update.
Please note that the following is a fictional reflection on a news story that has appeared in the media in Australia in recent weeks.
She had four children. She was young. She had a long history with bad men, painful relationships, loneliness. She was dirt desperate poor, had been all her life. No job, no education, no back up plan. Her kids were really all she had. Her kids were her purpose, her possessions. It was all she knew. She didn’t really have a lot of say in it anyway. She got fucked. She got pregnant. The first time was against her will at the age of 13. The next one just happened and after that it just seemed like the thing to do. After the birth of one child or another, who really knew, she sunk into a black hole so deep she lost all feeling. Even pain didn’t hurt anymore. Even the backhand of her drunken boyfriend didn’t hurt anymore. She lived a robotic cycle of motherwork and housework. As the months passed, things slipped out of her control. The house got messy, then dirty, then squalid. She noticed, but was catatonic with hopelessness. That she did notice made it so much worse. Made her feel that every inch of her was a failure. Things were just so hard. She woke up tired every morning. Not just bone tired but that kind of tired when simply speaking scrambles your mind. The emptiness she felt overwhelmed her and, given her lack of words, she could not explain it to herself or anyone else. So she fell silent.
The kids slipped away from her too. They went to school dirty, then hungry, then not at all. At least, not that she noticed. Her friends used to describe her as kind and sweet, a beautiful soul. Then she got pregnant again. With twins. Suddenly, there was a moment of sunshine. Hope. This was a miracle, something people wish upon stars for, and she, undeserving she, was chosen. Her friends gathered and said, this is what they needed, this will really give her something to live for, bring them together, put a smile on her face, she was born to be a mother. And it did. Just for a little while. Indeed she did smile. She loved them, of course she did, like any other mother.
But there was an unrelentingness to baby twins that she was in no way prepared for. They took turns in feeding and crying through the night in such a way as to leave her stretches of rest no longer than thirty minutes at a time. The stress of waiting for the sound of the next cry left her unable to sleep even in those moments of sheer exhaustion. The black dog momentarily kennelled came back bigger and angrier than ever. The sadness dried up her milk and she felt a failure once again. She struggled to afford the formula so she watered it down and cut back a bottle or two per day. Another shameful failure. Her children begged her to play, to smile, to cuddle the babies. But again, her words were gone, I’ll be better tomorrow, she thought, and seven days slipped by like one.
She had one single thing that was only hers and no one elses. One place she could be someone else and not her pathetic self. She had nothing that was fun, nothing nice, no joy. So it was easy to tell herself she deserved this one skerrick of something close to enjoyment, even if it was just a stupid internet game. In that world she had an escape, a different name. She could invent whatever past she wanted. She felt, not free from her desperation, but at least separated from it, when she played. But when she stopped, she fell back into hell.
Her friends gathered without her and whispered but did not dare say anything. They worried. But they thought, once the babies sleep through the night, she’ll be right. They didn’t notice, but it had been months since anyone saw or heard from her. Just give her time, they whispered, she’s got her hands full, they said. You don’t tell anyone how to raise their kids, they nodded.
While her friends whispered and gathered and worried, she tried. She was desperate to be a good mother, but incapable, utterly paralysed. Every time she failed, which was hundreds of times a day, she hated herself more deeply, more completely, more ferociously. The shame kept her away from her friends, her children, her boyfriend. The babies screamed day and night, cracking her already broken mind. If she ignored them long enough they would quieten and she would convince herself that they were just sleeping and that she’d check them in half an hour, after a little sleep. Just a little sleep. She knew she should probably feed them again, but she was so afraid that if she woke them she would never hear silence again. This is how days disappeared into nowhere. Months and months of soon, later, tomorrow piled up toward catastrophe.
She woke from a heavy nap one black afternoon with a sick jolt of panic. It was a rare moment of sharp rational pain. She realised she could not remember when she last fed the babies. She realised that it was probably weeks since she had taken them out of their room, and her breathing started to come fast and shallow. The house was silent. The smell of the house reached her as her senses woke up, joining her in panicky clarity. She knew before she walked into the room. She knew before she lifted the blanket and saw their quiet, open eyes. And when she saw, her already broken mind left her completely.
Somewhere in the days before this unspeakable moment, the two little babies had slipped away from the fear of abandonment, the pain of hunger and the life altering injury of constantly wanting to be cuddled. Had they lived, they would never have recovered from the hole left by those missing cuddles. They lay side by side, as they were from the very moment their lives began. When it came time to go, they held hands and went together.
She is the mother and will be visciously tried, judged and hung before a word is spoken in the courts. She is the mother and was supposed to protect them. She will stand trial for their murder, every horrible detail printed, and the father will be a side story. The father that failed those babies too. The friends that failed her will shake their heads and cry. The system that failed her will hope their mistakes are not played out in the media the way her failings will be. She will think of it every moment for the rest of her life and every time she does she will die again until there is nothing left of her.
Here’s my own personal checklist. A layperson’s Edinburgh Scale if you will. If you tick off anything on this list, see your family doctor, or another doctor you like and trust, and talk. Please. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not a doctor or psychologist or a mental health professional of any kind. This list just comes from my own experience and I think a lot of women, like me, miss what’s really going on because they put themselves last all the time and they think well, parenting is just hard that’s all. Well, yeah it’s hard. But it’s also joyful and brilliant. Life is supposed to be a mix of both, not all one or the other.
1. Are you sad? Like really sad? If you are awfully, awfully sad, for no particular reason, 80% of the time and the sadness is like a great big hole that stretches into a dark tunnel that has no end? This is not normal sadness.
2. Do you look at your newborn/baby/toddler/child and feel…..nothing much? It takes lots of women a while to bond with their newborn babies, but if you just aren’t getting there and all it feels like is duty, it might be your chemicals out of whack, not your heart.
3. Is going out too much of a chore? Like obviously going out with a baby/toddler/kid is always a chore but if you are actively avoiding your social life, your friends and your family (where you didn’t used to) you may be experiencing a symptom of depression.
4. Is parenting absolutely no fun at all? Does the idea that it could actually be fun seem ridiculous to you? Is it all just duty and work and sadness and surviving? Call your doctor.
5. Do you feel like you missed something when you watch TV ads for baby products? Like, hang on, aren’t I supposed to be wearing a white bathrobe (with no stains) while gazing adoringly into my baby’s face while standing by a window overlooking paradise? Should I shake my head with good natured humour as my baby wakes for a feed in the night for the eleventh time but adore the bonding time such a feeding session affords me as a mother? Why don’t I quiver with motherly thrill as I softly caress my baby’s skin which is as soft as, um, a baby’s? Should I perhaps be taking more time to lovingly rub that expensive baby lotion into my baby’s post bath skin, as seen on TV? Actually no. If you relate to this one you’re actually pretty normal. Note to self: TV representations of motherhood are pretty much without exception, bullshit.
And while I’m at it, TV representations of motherhood do not help those of us who think we are failing miserably because we don’t measure up to some unattainable image. It’s like thinking that the airbrushed images on magazine covers are actually of real people. It’s the stupid idea of the yummy mummy. What? I have to be an organic, earth mothering, homeschooler AND sexy too?
Depressed or not, stop looking at crap about mothers and reading crap about motherhood. Love yourself and your imperfect bumbling attempts at raising your child. Laugh when you screw it up. Laugh at others who reckon they don’t. Cry if you need to. Say sorry to your kids and forgive yourself. Know that you are the only person who is qualified to be the mother to your child. And rock your stained and slightly grey used-to-be-white bathrobe. All day if you want.
It seems to be the culprit for all unexplainable baby and toddler behaviour. Not sleeping, not eating, not drinking, nappy rash, face rash, generally cranky, dribbling, tantrums, rubbing eyes, rubbing ears, head banging, runny nose, runny eyes, fever and the Global Financial Crisis. Honestly, I have to stifle an eye roll every time someone tsk tsks at my grumpy babies and says helpfully, are they teething? And really, how the hell would I know? I long ago stopped paying attention to such things. I have too much on my plate to be shoving my finger in their mouths very five minutes in anticipation of a tell tale bump on the gums. Twin two had a mouthful of molars before I even realised anything was going on. Must have been what all that diarrhoea was about. Robin Barker, author of Baby Love sold me when she said “Teething causes nothing but teeth”.
After a bit of a half hearted google search tonight, I came up with all the usual suspects (see list above) but the best advice was from babycenter.com.au. “Celebrate your baby’s first tooth by taking lots of pictures, and note its arrival date in his baby book”
…….sorry, big pause. Just trying to catch my breath from laughing. Sentimental about teeth and keeper of baby books I am not. One of the biggest milestone celebrations my husband and I had was the first time Archie walked through the lounge room on his way to the bathroom declaring he was going to the toilet. A process which involved neither of us getting up off the couch. Now that’s worth putting in the baby book.