Ok, let me get this straight. It’s going to take me a second, but I think I have it: I am allowed to play with the wooden oven in the living room, turn the buttons, touch it, and place whatever (a block, a toy car, my water bottle) I like on top of it. However, I am absolutely forbidden from playing with the oven in the kitchen, even though that one lights up when I turn the dials and the one in the living room does nothing. Nada. Okay. Sure. What? Wait! That’s not okay.
And just to be clear, I am allowed to turn the dials next to the dials on the oven, the ones on the round and round spinning machine that makes all the clothes wet, as long as I don’t pull out the draw where the powdery stuff goes despite the fact that it’s fine when I open the bigger drawers further along where all the plastic stuff lives?
There’s another thing as well. How come when dad says bad words you say, “not in front of the baby” (that’s me, right?), yet when you stub your toe or drop your phone in front of me, you say the bad words? That doesn’t seem fair. I will tell him one of these days, you know.
My confusion continues: It is okay to climb onto the sofa but not the coffee table. It’s fine when I jump on dad’s belly but not on yours. I should eat my vegetables except when you want to stay longer at a cafe, then I am allowed to eat the biscuit that comes with your coffee.
Then there is throwing. I get a round of applause for launching the big round thing across the living room, but throw something that isn’t round, like the glasses I just pulled off your face, and I get in bother. That doesn’t seem fair. I am good at throwing. I like getting clapped at.
Then finally, there is the beep, beep nose thing. It’s all fun and games most of the time, but when I stick my finger up (ah, it’s the up that’s the problem, isn’t it?) your nose as you try and put me down for a sleep, I get unceremoniously laid down and left to nod off. That’s no fun.
So, I am sorry for all the times I get it wrong, I really am; but, you gotta admit, the rules aren’t exactly clear now, are they?
This starts with an anecdote set in the supermarket. It’s a pretty boring one, but bare with me. You see, the other day, I was in the fresh produce aisle and I had an encounter which revealed to me one of my biggest and silliest parenting problems. In fact, on reflection, I reckon this is a big yet silly affliction that afflicts many of us. And I’ll let my boring, supermarket anecdote illustrate it.
I was in the fruit and veg. section trying to find ginger, racking my brains to remember the German word for it or figure out a way to describe it should the precious piece of vocabulary continued to allude me. (Pause there and think about it: how would you describe fresh ginger to someone, even in your native language?) Anyway, I thought I was onto a lost cause as I perused the shelves full of citrus fruits when a woman pushing a trolley caught my eye, waved, and said hello. She clearly knew me, and I didn’t have the faintest idea who she was. For a split second, I considered pretending I hadn’t seen, but our eyes had locked for too long, and I stopped. She spoke to me in English and had a child in the trolley seat and a second in a carrier, which made me think I must know her through my son. She said she she’d seen me a bit locally on my bike. By this point, I was about ready to admit that I was clueless, when it clicked: I had met this woman onceabout a month agoat the playground. I managed to recover, hiding my ignorance of who she was by fussing over my son, who picked that moment to be a completely carefree, chill baby and not require any fussing. Traitor.
So, I chatted to this woman – who I had previously spent about ten minutes of my life with – for about thirty more seconds when she came out with something to the effect of the following: yes, little girl here is sick. That’s why she is eating those cookies. I know it’s bad, but (taking the packed and reading the label) they don’t have that much sugar and she wouldn’t eat anything else… I laughed nervously in reply. Oh I know what you mean. O. will be bribed with a banana and Brezel to get us round the supermarket.
We chatted for a minute or two more, I spotted the ginger out of the corner of my eye, and we said our goodbyes. It struck me, as I carried on my shopping, passing bits of banana to the hand that kept protruding out the push chair, the frequency with which people justify themselves against assumed judgement. I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to what this child was eating. Only when the parent drew my attention to it did I even notice that she was eating. On top of that, she was eating something for young children that had the tiniest, teeniest amount of chocolate on. She was hardly stuffing a Mars Bar down her throat. But that’s irrelevant, because what people feed their kids it is absolutely none of my business, Plus I am almost always too worried about what my munchkin is munching (often sand) to notice what’s going on with other people.
Yet, I realise that I have these kinds of conversations all the time. I explain myself to people when they haven’t said anything. I feel the need to justify why my little guy isn’t wearing a hat (Just letting him cool off. He gets very sweaty.), why he’s eating cake (It was a friend’s birthday. He had fruit earlier.), or why he’s got a scrape on his knee (He climbed out of the sandpit by himself, you know.). These conversations have never, ever come out of someone asking me to justify myself. I have them with friends and family. I hear other people – I must say, mainly mothers – doing it too. People around me are constantly justifying themselves in situations where zero justification is required.
It’s funny that it took me a random encounter in front of the apples and bananas to realise it, but this constant feeling that other people are judging is a huge problem, yet a completely unnecessary one. I don’t know if it is a bi-product of an age where we are bombarded by everyone else’s perfect lives on social media, or if our cave women ancestors used to sit around explaining their reasons for their new technique for protecting baby Bam-Bam from freezing to death, but it is not healthy.
It is not healthy and it is not helpful. And it is really hard to stop. I know judgmental people (because, at times, I am one, of course. We all pass silent judgement occasionally), and they are irritating. I don’t spend time with people who are judgemental, thus I am either amongst people who basically don’t notice or mind what I am doing, or around people who do notice but I don’t (shouldn’t, at least) care what they think anyway.
Thus, thanks to my exciting Wednesday morning saunter around the local Aldi, I am trying, trying, to stop justifying myself. I am ignoring that desire to share with whomever happens to be around why my son’s t-shirt is dirty or that my 1 pm beer with lunch is actually alcohol free.
So, I am working on ignoring the pull to clarify. I am trying to reduce those conversations where I offer explanations when no explanation is required. I am giving up justifying for the sake of it. Because, a) why should I, b) I only need to answer to myself, and c) my audience almost certainly hadn’t noticed what I am noticing in the first place.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who crept out of bed at night to listen if her parents were breathing. Straining her ear to the door, she waited impatiently, frozen by tension until she heard a cough or sneeze. Relieved, she padded quietly back to her room, only to be gripped again by the fear that what she had heard was her father chocking or her mother asking for help. Staring at the dark, she lay there, paralysed and helpless.
It’s not fairytale, I know. It is, however, a true story, and a story I’ve told many times before. Sadly, it is just the beginning of my mental health story, a story that spans from my earliest memories until today. It is far from my whole story, but it is a major chapter. This story of mine is not necessarily a particularly good one. I am like every single person out there. Because, everyone has a mental health story, just as everyone has a physical health story. I’ve been very fortunate to be mostly physically healthy up to this point. I’ve had no major illnesses, just one broken bone, and, baring a minor hurdle in the last hour of labour, a smooth and healthy pregnancy. Other people have made it through decades with very little in the way of serious mental health problems but been blighted by physical issues. Some have had a combination of the two. People struggle with all kinds of health complications to varying degrees all the time. It’s part of being human. And as a result, we all have a health tale to tell.
The reason for telling a story like mine, however, is that there is still a prevailing trend not to. Even as taboos break and mental health gains more and more airtime, people still don’t love talking about it. Even if the taboo was to break completely, I still think it is a worth telling, because knowing that someone else has experienced something akin to what you are experiencing can be an unbelievable comfort. Today I listened to a podcast called Sawbonesin which the hosts shared their mental health stories. It made me cry. It made me cry, because hearing someone describe her experience with depression postpartum brought overwhelming relief. She described anger and the lack of ability to feel joy (anhedonia apparently. And yes, yes, it does feel like everything has a name these days, but personally, I like things to have names. It makes them less scary.) then the guilt that accompanied this. As she described holding her baby tightly and kissing her, I had flashbacks of holding my son to me, trying to explain into his oblivious ears that I loved him so much and felt so guilty for feeling so awful all the time. From the description of lost days to the sense that there was no time to seek help, every sentence that she spoke struck a perfect chord. Though her story wasn’t my exact story, we definitely shared the same narrative thread.
I sat there, listening to this podcast feeling the best I’ve felt it a while, yet was suddenly full of emotion unlocked just by hearing someone else put my experience into words. I sat there, my little guy grinning at me, still oblivious to my feelings as I threw a ball for him to chase, remembering that ten months ago, I was likely sat in about the same place. Back then, I was likely staring at the television, counting how many hours until my husband got home or pacing the bedroom with a tired but screaming baby wondering what on Earth I’d done wrong. Back then, the story I was living was one I sort of told. I wrote about it a bit, I talked about it a bit (Yeah, bit tough at the moment. Just the usual, I guess.), I admitted it to myself, a bit. But a bit, but sort of, was not enough.
It wasn’t enough, but it had to be, because telling these stories is hard. There is fear it will affect people’s opinion of us, fear there will be consequences for our jobs and careers, or fear, as I feared, that I wouldn’t be considered capable of looking after my baby if I admitted that I scratched and pinched myself to calm myself down, or reached a point where my baby’s crying didn’t move me immediately. Even now, I have paused and am considering if I should delete that. What does it say about me? I have no empathy? I have no coping mechanisms? I am “crazy”?
My story arch since March 2017 has been up and down, like life always is. It’s just that some of the downs were really, really down. I was tired, anxious, frustrated, and could not imagine things getting better. I felt isolated and lonely. I did not want to admit what was happening to my family and friends. I was horrible to my husband. And on the surface, I was fine. Day in day out, I was fine. My son was clean (as clean as kids ever are) and fed. I did my job. I saw friends. I met new mama friends (who would become my lifeline, though they didn’t know it.), and I was in many ways okay. Just not very mentally healthy.
And I guess that is my mental health story in a nutshell. One of someone who is okay in many ways, with lots of good things going on, with lots of good people around her, but sometimes trapped in a mind that worries to the point of obsession and loses the joy of things, loses her way. It’s not a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve had a therapist try to find the beginning, and I don’t believe there is one; I’ve always been this way. I don’t believe there is an end, either; I think I will always be this way to some degree, only better and more open in dealing with it. I am in the middle, because we are always in the middle of our lives, present and only able to deal with what is going on right now.
So, I make it my goal to keep on telling my mental health story to anyone who wants to listen. No two people have the same tales to tell and no two people have identical mental health experiences, but everyone, yes everyone, has experiences of feeling either anxious, persistent anhedonia, fear of social situations, extreme mood swings, loneliness, imposter syndrome (sounds made up, maybe it is made up, but if even if it is, I have felt it. Read a definition, I bet you have to), or any of the many conditions out there. And the sooner we all realise it, the faster we can get on with normalising mental health and making our stories slightly more happily ever after.
It might be too dramatic to say that I feel grief for the time I’ve lost. Then again, it might not. You see, I have such fond memories of my childhood, yet I have unpleasant ones too. The night waking, which was always followed by a period of lying and listening, unable to sleep until I heard my dad cough or my mum roll over in their room, the reassurance I needed that they were still breathing. Then, as I got older, I remember the anxiety – not that I called it that then; I didn’t know there was a name for the heaviness that lived in my chest – the counting of steps, and the checking. The constant, constant checking. It – anxiety -was there, even when things were great.
You see, my teens and twenties are full of the happiest of memories: family picnics, heading to London with my sister when she turned 21, viewing the first flat my husband and I lived in, travelling, working, and being busy and surrounded by friends. When looked at like that, when admired through the tons of Facebook albums now locked away, my youth was a charmed one. And it was, in many ways, it really was.
But photos only ever tell half a story. Listing achievements only gives part of a picture. Because throughout those years, throughout all my years, there was an almost constant thread: anxiety. Pure, undiluted anxiety. Whether I describe it as a weight around my neck, as shackles around my ankles, or as poison in my blood, nothing quite captures the effect it has had on my life so far.
And this is where it becomes complex. I’ve had a happy life. I am very happy with my life today. To say that I have big problems in today’s world feels wrong and illegitimate. Yet I do feel grief for the time I’ve lost. The time that I’ve wasted. And I feel this sorrow, because during many a moment in time, whatever was happening – good, bad, excellent – was marred by a shadow of deep sadness and fear.
You see, I spent 7 months living in France. France. I made good friends, learned the language, and gained a dress size from the cheese and the bread and the pastry. Yet the whole time I was counting down until the next time I could visit home. I was scared and lonely. I was worried about locking up my “flat” (it was, honestly, a converted garage on perhaps the safest street, in the safest town in northern France) all the time. I was worried about whether or not there would be a strike, and I’d be trapped in the small town with my thoughts. For two weeks before a trip home, I would obsessively check the whether forecast – even though I took the train, not the ferry – to see if there were likely to be any travel issues. I was worried that my boyfriend would break up with me. I was worried that I will missing out. That one, perhaps, hurts the most. Missing out on what? I had money, all be it not a lot, I had a quirky living situation that I would look back on with absolute amusement in the future, I was becoming fluent in a foreign language, I spent my weekends in Lille, going to movies and bars and restaurants, and I was 20. I wasn’t missing out on life, I was living it.
The same goes for university. I did stuff, but not much. Now, when I would love to volunteer more, take a sports class, or learn a new skill, I have the desire but not the time. Back then, I had the desire but not the guts. I went to parties I didn’t want to go to, always leaving the house in another panic about the oven being on or my straighteners. Bloody things. They might have been the best invention for a frizzy-haired walking mop head like myself, but when I think of the hours I’ve spent worrying they were off, I’d probably have been happier in the long run if I just shaved my head.
These behaviours lasted long into my twenties. From my first flat to my first job, everything I did was done fuelled by nervous energy. Every day, it was exhausting just to leave the house. Every decision was taken under the influence of intense worry: what will people think? What if I get it wrong? What if? What if?
Written here in black and white, it all seems a little woe is me. Poor girl had a good youth but was unhappy living the life of many people’s dreams. Education, friends, steady relationship, job. Boy, she’s had it tough. But feeling guilty about struggling with mental health is just another symptom of a problem. No one chooses these paths and can just snap out of it (despite the obnoxious cups/tea towels/lunch boxes you can buy covered in a chirpy font that says I choose to be happy).So I’ll step away from guilt and return to this idea of grief. Sometimes I feel an overwhelming sorrow that so many good things have happened to me, and I experienced them, not in full colour, but in black and white. In just the past year, I’ve been at my most happiest and my saddest, struggling to cope with life as a new mother whilst being overwhelmed by the joy it has brought to my world. I regret how some of those precious first months were lived in a blur of depression, feel anger at the time lost, and wish I could change how it unfolded.
In all these situations, I regret, not the things I did, but the way I felt them.
Sometimes I joke that I am overdue my teenage rebellion. Nervousness, awkwardness, and shyness kept me back from doing many things I wanted. While I wouldn’t rebel in a getting a tattoo and announcing hatred for my parents kind of way, I do wish I’d rebelled more against my own fears. However, now, now that all the evidence suggests I am a bonafide adult, I have to accept that I can’t change the past. But man do I feel loss for some of the time gone by. Maybe I can still rebel, though, even if it is just against my own thoughts, so that from here on in life isn’t looked at through a lens of grey, but in proportion, with everything happening in its correct colour.
6.20 am: Urghhgh, it can’t be morning already. It can’t be. Be quiet. Go back to sleep. Sleep.
Morning, darling! How are you? Did you have nice dreams?
Shhh, I know, shhh. It’s almost warm enough. Damn it. Too warm. Shhh, milk is coming.
Ah, that’s better, isn’t it? Taste good? Hello you. Stop grinning at me with those eyes and drink your milk. Cutie pie. You just enjoy that; I’m going to rest my eyes for five more minutes.
Now what? All dressed and pressed. Off you go. No, don’t take all that clean washing off the shelf. No, it doesn’t live in the wash basket. But thank you for helping. That’s very good. Argh, kiddo, please. Not the nappy cream. Ha! You make me laugh. Stop that. I love you. Fancy some breakfast?
Oh, okay, you want to hold the spoon yourself. No problem. That’s great. Nice job. Let’s take a picture to send to the family. Brilliant job, darling. Mummy’s going to watch and enjoy her own breakfast with both hands today. Ahh. Lovely.
Oh man! That porridge might as well be glue. It’s everywh… how on Earth did you get it there, sweetheart? Sweetheart? Where’ve you gone now? Sweethe…. hahaha, that’s hilarious kiddo. Yes the salad spinner is a great toy but mamma just needs to clean up the breakfast things. You hang out there, ok? Just don’t… uh-ho, how do you un-pause the washing machine? Hang on, wait. Yep, there it goes again. Brrrrr. Round and round. Cool, eh?
A cuddle? Oh thank you, darling. Ahhhh. Do you love your mamma? Yep, she loves you too. Heheh. Tickles! Right. Porridge. Got a clean it up, then playground? Yep. Cool.
You coming this way? I’m going to get dressed too. Ready: peek a boo! Where’s O? Behind my t-shirt? Boo! Behind my sock? Boo! Behind my trousers? B… where are you off to? Hang on. Teeth!
Aw okay, woo want to wrush wine? Wold on, wold on. There, that’s better. Mamma can’t talk with you sticking your toothbrush in my mouth. Here, here’s my brush. You clean my teeth and I’ll clean yours. Teamwork. Nice job.
8.15: Right, let’s get ready to go.
8.45: Sweetie, where are your shoes? Shoes darling? Oh look, there’s one. What’s it doing there? And the other… ah yes, in the draw with the tupperware. That’s where we always keep it.
Following the example of a toddler makes more sense than you might think. Seriously. At 14 months old, my little man does a lot of things better than I do. Here are just five of the things, in my reverse favourite order, that I reckon we could all learn from the littlest around us:
5. Eat your favourite foods first. There’s no sense is saving the best ’til last as you’ll be too full to enjoy it. Chow down on the cheese and pick at the cucumber if you’ve got room.
4. Look at things carefully. Turn them over, around, upside down, and back to front. Only then, with all your attention spent, can you decide it’s just a wooden spoon and toss it across the room.
3. Anywhere and anything can be fun. Standing in line at the supermarket? No worries. Chat and babble with strangers. Stuck in a waiting room? Take a second and look how the mirror is reflecting the sun. Then try and grab it. Only toy around a set of keys? Get jaggling and make music.
2. Strangers needn’t stay strangers. Meet the world with a smile, seek eye contact, and see who smiles back.
1. When you fall over, do one of two things: stand up and carry on without a backward glance, or sit there as if it was entirely your intention to land with a thud on your backside, ignore the surprised stares and start studying the nearest object with no reference to the fact that two seconds earlier you were running down the hall way. There’s an art to recovering from a fall that only those still learning to walk seem to pull off.
See. From making friends to not carrying two jots about embarrassing oneself, kids have got it down. How we keep them that way is anyone’s guess.
Most teachers have had multiple “ah-ha” moments when they meet a previously unknown parent for the first time and suddenly realise why a child is like it is. It stands to reason that a kid, through a mix of nature and nurture, will turn out somewhat like his or her parents. Whether its inheriting their eyes, their chattiness, their confidence, their timekeeping or their humour, the apple rarely falls far from the tree.
Just yesterday, I had an “ah-ha” moment of a different kind when I realised something it probably shouldn’t have taken me this long to realise: I am a tree, and my apple is falling. At an age where he watches and where he sees that simple actions have consequences (if I drop my cup and say “uh-ho” everyone laughs; if I repeat this walking down the street, the cup disappears), my own little apple’s personality is getting bigger by the day.
That’s scary. Really scary. Because this tree isn’t always at its best. I don’t water it enough. It doesn’t always blossom when it should. Its roots have a habit of coming loose, and its leaves occasionally fall in midsummer. It’s not a bad tree, don’t get me wrong. It has potential and beauty and grounding like all trees; it just doesn’t always show these things.
As I worried about the role I had to play in shaping my little guy, I worried that worrying would become his biggest enemy. How would I stop this? How could I make sure he saw the futility of some of my least favourite behaviours? How? How? By tending to the tree, not the apple, that’s how.
My example and my behaviour has to be that which I wish to instil. It’s no use trying to make him the opposite of me. He’ll follow the lead he is given. If experienced enough, he’ll think that walking through every room and muttering “it’s off” to yourself is completely normal. Given enough visits to family, he’ll think tapping on the side of the plane before you get on is essential. (I don’t think I can give this one up; I just have to conceal it). If heard enough, he’ll think that talking out every what if can stop the what ifs from happening.
So, the answer is simple if not easy. It’s time to get pruning. It’s time to work on ensuring this tree is one which I don’t mind my apple falling in the vicinity of.