End of an era

Yesterday I officially returned to work after over nine months of maternity leave. It was the end of an exhausting, busy, fleeting, yet endless time of frustration, joy, tea, cake, sleep deprivation and laughter. As it is Easter holidays I am not actually back at work but it seemed a good moment to reflect on what I have and have not achieved.

Lots of mums see maternity leave as a challenge – or possibly a void of days empty of adult company to be filled with something, anything. Or they want to make something meaningful of their time, which is obviously a laudable aim. I’m not sure I set myself any particular targets, but just for fun here is a list of things I did NOT manage to do during maternity leave:

Write a book
Learn a new language
Take my daughter to a regular, educational group involving more than tea and biscuits for myself
Put make up on before leaving the house
Shower and wash hair every day
Carefully coach my baby to learn new skills such as clapping, waving, crawling and meaningful babble
Visit museums, historic buildings and places of interest so my daughter could absorb culture by osmosis
Plan an activity to take us out of the house every day
Teach my elder daughter to ride a bike
Dress myself and both children in tasteful outfits which complement each other
Leave the television switched off except for specific occasions
Keep the house clean and tidy and the clothes beautifully ironed and pressed
Sort through and selectively dispose of the thousands of pieces of ‘artwork’ my daughter has created

But on the plus side, here are a few things I DID do during maternity leave:

Feed both children, myself and my husband every day
Get the children up, dressed and to school during term time
Get the children up and dressed the rest of the time
Experiment with new breakfasts – thank you eggy bread for coming into my life
Manage a possible reflux/ dairy intolerance
Hold it together while my husband was suffering from a serious mental illness
Wash, dry and put away everyone’s clothes
Use reusable nappies
Read with my elder daughter every day
Venture to new places to meet new people
Make dozens of virtual friends who have become very real
Hold a million beautiful babies
Hold my beautiful babies
Help my daughter sleep through the night (which is the subject of another post)
See my elder daughter grow into a proper schoolgirl while attending parents’ evenings, literacy and numeracy workshops culminating in her shock win at the Easter bonnet competition
See my baby grow from a tiny newborn to a person in her own right with her own unique personality
Soothe a thousand tantrums, wipe away a river of tears, kiss away pain that I cannot see or understand and rock and cuddle sadness into oblivion

I think I can find meaning enough in there. Maternity leave is not housework leave. Most of us will not have time to start anything new or complete any big projects or fulfil any ambitious goals. The mothering part of maternity leave is pretty full on and full time. And it won’t stop with my return to work, although I can thankfully relinquish some of those tasks to others.

It has been a blast. Filled with cuddles and kisses, laughter and tears from all of us, minor and major crises both averted and confronted. I won’t ever have this time back again and I don’t regret any of it. The next phase will have new difficulties, frustrations, excitements and rewards. I hope I am up to the challenge.

A support network

We often talk about support networks when someone has a problem. If the person, for example, has a drinking problem, that would include perhaps medical professionals and charity support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If your partner is the one suffering, there are groups such as Al Anon. Mental health is also covered by a raft of charities which offer everything from sewing classes to cognitive behavioural therapy, along with the host of doctors, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in some way on board. But a key part of any such network is the normal people in your life. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Employers, if you’re lucky.

It is that home network which is perhaps most important when it is a loved one who is in the crushing grip of a mental illness. While I have seen my GP twice and she has offered suggestions and support to a varying degree, I cannot make an appointment to simply moan and groan. And if I did not have a history of depression myself  I am not sure if that would be an option for me. Doctors are there for your health. They are not there just to be a sounding board or indeed to pick up some of the slack when you are struggling.

I am lucky. My family lives less than an hour away. I like them. They like me.  I have many friends who live close by.  I have a sympathetic employer. For the most part they cannot do all that much. They cannot breastfeed my baby to sleep or do the school run once in a while. They cannot pop in and do all my washing and make my dinner. And yet they can support me. For example, when I go to stay at my parents, my daughter sleeps terribly. I don’t get to finish any meals while everyone else is eating. I still rise when the girls do. But I don’t have to worry about cooking or clearing up. My father will happily entertain my elder girl. They will both talk and listen to my husband. There is a sense, an atmosphere, of loving support. They have my back. I am not alone.

Last week a friend invited me to stay for a couple of nights. Someone who, due to the weird virtual lives we lead, I know pretty well but had only physically met once. It was a daunting drive alone in an unfamiliar city with two potential troublemakers in the back. But once I arrived in what some would describe as a stranger’s house, that same atmosphere of safety was there. Despite her baby trying her hardest to eat mine. Despite my four year old being so in love with her new six-year-old friend that her behaviour went a few degrees south of what I would usually expect. Despite being surprised in the shower twice by my daughter’s curious new friend. And even though her best efforts to allow me a little extra sleep were met with the unexpected and sudden arrival of separation anxiety, it was so much easier than being at home. Because I felt supported. I wanted to have a couple of glasses of prosecco and a chinwag even though I was no less tired than any other day. I’ll probably never be able to return the favour but I won’t quickly forget either.

Then there’s the friend who turned up a day early for a meeting with others expressly to help in any way she could.  I couldn’t quite offload the children, who had never met her, on her so I could retire to my bed but I knew the offer was a genuine one.

The little things do count. So do the big ones. A network of support may not be what you think it is and may come from unexpected sources. And it can be hard to draw on it – to cash in on offers. To ask in the first place. But it can be the difference between coping and not coping. I am coping.

The log in my own eye

I had a bit of a wake up call this week. I was discussing my husband and his illness with my mother. And, in a perfectly kind, non judgemental and non critical fashion, she pointed something out. I talk down to him. On occasions, I treat him like a child.

I have been so focused on his condition, his ‘issues’, his challenging behaviour, how hard it is and how unreasonable he can be, I have missed something both fundamental and important. I have been failing to treat him with the respect he deserves. I have been thinking so hard about the speck in his eye I have failed to address the log in my own.

A few days ago, he was trying to tell me something. My four year old interrupted, with a noisy toy, and he told her to wait. She waited as patiently as any four year old does. He appeared to have finished – I asked if he was and he said yes, so I said she could do whatever it was. He took the toy away from her. I was so angry with him at treating her in what I felt was a cruel and unfair fashion, I sent him to the shed.

That’s right. I essentially put a grown man on the naughty step. Oh, I have excuses –  I didn’t want to undermine him in front of the girls, I didn’t want a shouty argument with them around, and I wanted him to cool off. The shed is his man cave where he makes models – so not a nasty place to be. But that is not how you treat an equal.

I can be forgiven, you might think, for being under a lot of stress. His condition infantilises him. All well and good, but it wasn’t this incident my mother was referring to. It is something I have got into the habit of, over time, and from time to time. He enables it – if you act the child you get parented. He is happy for me to be the grown up. But successful relationships are built on mutual respect. And one of the big issues that has contributed to the depressive element of his condition is a huge lack of self esteem. He thinks I am more clever, more successful. His mother brought him up with zero expectations for his future. Therefore he has no expectations. And unwittingly I have been continuing this.

I felt mortified. In general I believe I am up for debate about most things, even those where I have strongly held views, and am willing to listen. I even change my mind sometimes. But when it comes to things like parenting, I think I am right. I may ‘listen’ to his views. But I am rarely prepared to accept I could be wrong. Yes, I do a great deal more reading and research. Being at home all day means I am in many ways the expert. That does not mean I am always right. He is an adult. I should consider what he has to say. I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Our children are half him too and I was  impressed enough with him to pick him to procreate with twice over.

I got very upset a while ago because I felt that he was treating me as ‘lesser’ than him. I felt downtrodden. His needs were always more important than mine. I had to beg him to take the girls out while I was suffering from mastitis. Unwittingly, in a slightly different way, I have been treating him with a similar lack of respect.

His condition means, actually, for now, this will continue in a small way. But that respect needs to come back. If you treat someone like a child, they will continue to behave like one. He too can and should be an expert on his own children. I plan to start asking his opinion more – and taking it into consideration – passing some decisions on to him. Treating him as an equal.

For now

We all have things we need to ‘cope’ with. You might have to cope without a dishwasher because yours is broken. You might have to cope with four hours’ broken sleep because your beloved children wake repeatedly in the night demanding your attention. You might have to cope with camembert in your tartiflette because your Tesco delivery substituted it for the  reblochon you ordered. Or maybe you have to cope with your in-laws second guessing and questioning every parenting decision you make. Or cope on maternity pay when your full pay just covered the basics.

Yesterday I went to see my GP to discuss coping strategies. I have a lot of different demands on me at the moment. All individually manageable, but put them all together and everything is stretched. Very stretched. A few weeks ago, with a breastfed baby waking at least every two hours only to be settled by me and a four year old demanding my attention for my every waking moment, I thought I was at breaking point. I NEEDED my husband to step up and do more – to allow me a break at weekends without me having to beg for it, to learn how to settle the baby, to do more than hold the baby for five minutes in the hour between him returning from work and bedtime. Unfortunately at that point it became clear that actually while yes, he was being a bit rubbish, in the grand scheme of things, this was rendered completely irrelevant by the fact he was suffering from extreme paranoia and something beyond my ability to diagnose.

I didn’t break. I found reserves I didn’t know I had. Because I suddenly found I had to do more, and do it if possible with a smile on my face. Because how do you drag someone out of bed and demand a lie-in when his anti-psychotic medication has such a sedative effect that he would sleep 11 hours if nothing interrupted him? How do you ask someone to remember to do their share of the housework when his short-term memory means he cannot remember whether or not conversations have taken place? How can you criticise them for doing a shoddy job at hanging out the laundry when the most important thing for their mind to be doing is quite simply getting better?

As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, has caring responsibilities and is not getting any sleep I have a fairly high risk of developing post natal depression. That is something this family does not need. And I can see some of the symptoms are there. I am struggling to sleep when I first go to bed as my mind refuses to switch off, pondering the ‘what ifs’ and worrying about the future. I am so tired I sometimes find myself nodding off during night feeds. And I find myself getting angry when my husband’s illness means he does something wrong, or fails to see something which needs doing, or turns it back on me and suggests that I am the one with the problem. But I don’t feel depressed and for now I feel strong in myself.

Still I need to find a way to cope. My doctor is not, apparently, worried about me. I am showing resilience.  It’s okay to ask my husband to help. But it should be tasks where I don’t mind if things aren’t done quite as I would want them. I should try and get away for a couple of nights with the girls – but make sure a friend stays over with my husband so he doesn’t descend into a dangerous spiral of delusion unchecked by real life human company. I need to have as wide a support network as possible, so it doesn’t all fall on me. Not just the mundane physical tasks, but also dealing with the emotional side. It cannot always be me who has to listen to paranoid sniping. And I need someone to listen to me whinge and moan about my life too. Hopefully this will always involve tea and cake.

So I will cope. I do not have unlimited reserves of resilience, patience, time, or energy but I have enough for now. And every now and again, if someone can lend me theirs, then that will give me that bit extra for a day when I am running low and hating the world for throwing this at me. For now, I am blessed with perspective. I smiled and laughed (and cried) today. I’m okay. For now.

Actually going insane

We are often too casual with words relating to mental health. The traffic is ‘mad’, Primark is ‘mental’ on a Saturday, the teacher is a bit of a ‘nut’, our children drive us ‘ crazy’. My friends and I used to regularly joke about how we had actually gone insane. Then half of us did, a little bit.

Two years ago I lost a baby. It was an early miscarriage. I thought I dealt with it quite well, to begin with. I cried a lot. Took some time off work. Had some counselling. Then my already stressful newspaper job became more pressured. I found myself unable to get to sleep at night because my mind would not switch off, constantly running over things I would need to do at work the following day. I felt I was failing at everything. I often felt distant and removed. I could not look forward to anything. I struggled to think of things I enjoyed or occasions on which I was happy.

My husband persuaded me to go to the doctor’s and I was diagnosed with depression, signed off work and given anti-depressants. I wouldn’t take the help initially – I didn’t want to let anyone down. I worked for another week, untreated, to complete a significant work day. I got through that week knowing it was temporary, I would be able to have time off afterwards and maybe the drugs would help.

I met up with close friends at a hen weekend soon afterwards. It transpired one was having NHS counselling for issues with men – another was in therapy for being a perfectionist. Even then we joked about actually going insane. Humour is always a good defence mechanism. We still hadn’t learned.

I couldn’t tell you when my husband first became ill. With a challenging four year old and a sleep-refusing baby born in June taking up much of my attention I probably didn’t see it as soon as I should have. After all, when you wake frequently and randomly in the night for months on end, the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred. I found a very cold spoon in the freezer once – no clue how it ended up there. Sleep deprivation means tempers are fraught and of course for a mother in particular a mewling, puking infant is all-encompassing.

Psychotic depression is hard to diagnose. Psychosis is often rooted in reality. Everyone can be paranoid sometimes. So when I first listened to tirades about work colleagues I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until he brought me into those delusions – accused me of talking behind his back, hacking his phone – I realised something was very wrong. Throw in a few tearful fits and a complete lack of appetite and I was very concerned.

I didn’t know what I would be accused of next. I ended every conversation pleading with him to go to the doctor. I asked my mum if she would come and pick me and the girls up if he wouldn’t seek help. It was genuinely frightening. But he went, with me, to the doctor. He was seen by a consultant psychiatrist the next day and on anti-psychotic medication and anti-depressants within 24 hours. After he was seen by the GP and before his assessment with the adult mental health team, I was given a 24 hour number to call if his paranoia increased – so he could be taken away in an ambulance if necessary. Send in the men in white coats!

I no longer find mental health a laughing matter. Although we do still try and laugh about it. How else can I deal with the heart-sinking moments when that paranoia rears its ugly head again? I want to remove casual use of mental health terms from my vocabulary. It’s surprisingly hard to do. But just as you don’t casually talk about a physical disability nor should you with a mental one. I am told one in three of us will have a mental illness at some point in their lives and at any time one in ten of us will be suffering from one. That’s a lot of ‘fruit loops’. Doesn’t sound so pleasant, does it?

I don’t want to dwell on this too much here. But I wanted to paint an accurate (if subjective) backdrop to me today. Give me some time and I’ll paint in the light and shade – the glorious detail of motherhood, being a wife, being me.

Mostly….

What name do you answer to? I have a few. But the one I hear most often – multiple times a day, hour, even minute, is mummy. I was someone else once. I used to introduce myself with that name dozens of times a day. That person is still there somewhere – taking a bit of a break. And that’s just fine for now. It won’t be forever. Although I will forever be a mummy and that is scary and wonderful. It’s not a part-time job or even a job at all really or a calling or an occupation. It just is.

So, I am mostly a mother. Even now as I write this inaugural post I have a small warm arm linked through mine as my four-year-old daughter snuggles up to me while watching CBeebies. And I can hear the white noise coming from the bedroom as my seven-month-old baby girl has a nap. I will pause here to allow you to pass judgement on the revelation that I am 1)letting my daughter watch television and 2) relying on naughty ‘props’ such as white noise to get my baby to sleep. Feel free to pass on and find a correspondent more worthy. I won’t take it personally.

But that is of course just part of the story. A new chapter began before Christmas when my husband was diagnosed with psychotic depression. That adds a new dimension to all our lives. This blog is not about him, or even about my girls. It’s about me. Being a mother. Mostly.