Nightingale Proposes

Quietly and secretly, Nightingale and her son crafted a beautiful proposal. In a dim room in the city, above the scrape and bell of the tram line and the river rush of traffic I found her waiting for me one evening with a table laden with gifts. She had been collecting mementos of us; sheet music from our songs, text from the books I’ve been reading her to sleep with, lyrics and poems and quotes we’ve shared. She printed them onto my favourite colours, finding the codes for teal and not aqua with the same fumbling determined uncertainty I have in her world of music and song where I think I can almost hear the distinctions she points out. These papers were folded into 5 petal origami flowers, one for each day we’ve been dating.

ID a coffee table with a white table cloth, covered in multicoloured paper flowers and candles, in front of a huge window through which there’s a view of the city lights and a gibbous moon rising.

She disguised it as a work project, folding in lunch breaks, hidden in her lap on the bathroom floor while I had a hot bath to ease pain, in the hours I was asleep or working. They are double sided with paired matched mementos, the music and art of our love.

ID close up of origami flowers, candles and gin.

Nested into this paper bouquet were fairy lights, candles, rose petals, our favourite chocolates and gin, and the set of rings she brought us. Three stacking rings as placeholders for the engagement ring yet to be designed. Three slightly different rings so we can each choose which to wear and change them as we wish. To have our plurality and non binary identity given such care and room to breathe is such a joy and relief.

In the centre of the table was a love letter tied with black ribbon. I sat and read the flowers, opened the chocolates, smelled the candles, breathing it all in while the moon slowly rose outside the window. There’s tears and joy and peace. In the letter she talked of our love and what I mean to her, and she asked me to marry her. Words can be hard, voice is harder still.

I say yes and kiss her face and hands and then write yes on paper and nest it into the flowers beside her letter. At 3am when the magic will seem strangely distant and maybe a dream, it remains there – her question and my answer. A beautiful anchor in such strange seas.

ID a person kneeling before a table of rainbow paper flowers, reading everything with great care.

I’ve spent years learning how to let go of what I cannot have, how to release my desire for control over what cannot be controlled, and how to let go of dreams that have broken my heart. Suddenly she is there, so incredibly real and beautiful, moving towards me, kisses on my mouth and a thousand arrows in my heart and my life is no longer about letting go or accepting the fates but grasping hold with fierce anguished joy. It rains in my nights again, and when there’s no rain there’s tears like rain, talking through the nights, hearts on fire. The children sleeping and stirring and singing and hurting and needing and loving and somehow embracing us both despite all the stories and norms of fractious step families. The things we expect to be hard are easy, and where there’s sorrow and loss we can name it and give it a place to be. The stakes are impossibly high and at the same time they’ve never been more within reach. We hold each other and weave together this dream of our future, unpicking and reweaving and getting tangled and easing them out again with patience and courage. She’s magnificent. Love is always a wild thing, untameable, a leap, a gamble. And yet, I feel so grounded, roots deep down and my voice unbound. She’s beautiful and wounded and fierce and devoted and I adore her. The family we make together is utterly worth the risk.

ID two hands over lapping, each with place holder rings. Mine is the white skin and all three rings stacked. Nightingale has 3 small sapphires on her placeholder ring, her hand is slender with brown skin.

When we first started dating we feared losing our friendship. Now I think of my life without her and that’s a cold wind, an empty chill. Life is painfully short, impossibly long. We wrap ourselves around each other and hold on. Some nights it rains. Some nights she sings. I’m writing again. Life is hard and bountiful. The garden is well tended and yields fruit. In the winter, we plan to get married.

Poem – Connection

After late nights talking, I wake early and creep away from sleeping child into a bath. Reread a journal from 2018 and find this poem about Poppy.

Connection

Late spring evening
She's in the bath, giggling
The wind outside is restless
The air velvet and warm
As the time passes
Something eases like sand flowing
Through an hourglass
The noise goes quieter
And quieter still
The noise goes
Into the silence
We are still
We look at each other
Really alone and
Really looking
And we laugh. 

Losing Rose

Rose is in a terrible place, rarely far from death. They’ve been hospitalised many times since their near death experience in December. There was such a sense of celebration when they came out of hospital and it was so misplaced. Physical and mental health have cycled through chronic crises. It’s brutal.

Rose and I are no longer a couple.

They didn’t come home to me. Nearly dying blew wide every crack in our relationship. Every effort we both made to find a bridge between us was swamped. They proposed and ran from me. All the demons woke up. The only glimpses of peace to be found were when I took myself out of the picture and left Rose and Poppy together on a beautiful autumn day. I hoped patience would heal us but the longer I held on, the further down Rose fell.

So I let go and life took us to some un dreamed of place where the foundations broke beyond repair and for months I woke to the nightmare that they’re gone. The new normal.

Rose found love with someone else, found peace and a sense of safety that couldn’t be found with me anymore. I am so happy for them. I so want them to be okay, to feel safe, to feel loved. I am so confused and heartbroken. They are so confused and heartbroken. Nothing makes sense. We try to make time to talk but every day is torn apart by medical appointments, new infections, new allergies, medication changes, intense rehab, the fallout of trauma. No conversation is finished, few are even started. I think of the weeks spent rubbing their hands and feet and wonder if in some strange way I smell like the hospital, like death and terror and paralysis, drowning slowly in the shrill beeping hell of ICU. There’s no words for this. Their mind is fractured and ravaged. I’m replaced. I hate them. I love them. I accept what I cannot change.

I cry every day for months. Everyone wants someone to blame. I find myself defending everyone. Poppy gets a cold that lasts weeks and Rose is forbidden by doctors to be near her because they are so vulnerable now to respiratory illness. The distance drives them insane, tears their heart apart. After 4 weeks of staying apart, Rose is hospitalised with pneumonia anyway, then has anaphylaxis to one of the antibiotics. No one’s body, it turns out, can be on these massive doses for this long without becoming sensitized. Rose’s heart and mind are stripped so raw the lightest touch burns, triggers pile up and overlap, flashbacks descend like lightning storms and the nightmares rise like black floodwaters full of dead things. They are tormented by the fear it would have been better if they’d died, and it’s a mind virus resistant to nebulous hopes of a different from planned but still bright future.

My friends and family hold onto me and I hold onto Poppy. I flip my life around as a single parent. Gradually my capacity returns; I can wash dishes, cook meals, be present, plan adventures and crafts, go hours without falling apart. Plug the holes in the boat, make new plans, test new adventures.

Hate the circumstances and don’t hang blame where there isn’t culpability.

Fury at the situation eases my self hate. I can breathe again. It’s not fair and it’s not my fault. Sometimes life is just hard.

Let go of everything I can’t have. My lover, my beloved growing old alongside me. The family, waking in bed together in the mornings, holding each other tight after each fright and each good news. Let it go. Face what’s in front of me. Rose fighting for their life and not knowing what it will even look like anymore. Poppy needing a childhood that’s safe and adventurous and connected. Hold onto all our values and ideals. I can’t be half Poppy’s world anymore. I can’t work in the background knowing Rose is there with her, filling up that wonderful tank that needs connection and attention and delight and fun. I can’t be half a parent. Step up. Show up, count my blessings, hold tight onto everything good and beautiful and precious. Fight like hell for it. I nearly missed out on this. Let go and hold on.

Rose swims and drowns. I am no longer the carer in the middle of their story. I watch from the sidelines, try to throw life savers. Grieve. Train my mind to stop going over every conversation, looking for the place it went wrong or what I could have done differently. Stay focused. If I drown too, so does Poppy. You can have an existential crisis or you can have a life. Choose wisely. Hold tight.

I don’t know what happens next. I’ve found I don’t really get used to the scares. I want to be home and nearby when things are bad even when I’m not welcome to visit. Old habits. When things get very black for Rose I struggle to sleep, to think clearly, to be grounded. A fog descends that makes daily life so hard to manage. The terror fades into the background but it never goes away. In some ways I’m still waiting for them to come back from a war. I have to keep finding my way into the new world, creating it every day. Building on new habits, creating the security, the consistency, the patterns and connections and community that buffer us from these storms.

We are all losing who Rose was, and they don’t have words for this. No one can come through these experiences unchanged, and right now change is their only constant. They are in flux. They are in torment. They are in love, in pain, in the middle of it all, bound up with death and life and hope and dreams and grief and loss. They are profoundly lost and struggling towards a new future they can’t envision. We may yet bury Rose this year, or Rose may emerge in some new form, to a new life. None of us yet know the ending of this story. Whatever the ending, I must live with it, and Poppy must live with it.

There’s grief and shock and sorrow. Rage, despair, pain.

And there’s acceptance. Grace. Love. We accept the things we cannot change. We let go of what we cannot have. We hold onto what’s precious and in front of us. Over, and over again. We face life with as much love, courage, compassion, and humour as possible. Let go. Hold on.

Rose is Home

Rose has made it out of the hospital! They are getting daily visits from nurses and doctors and have so many appointments back at the hospital next week we could just camp out in the carpark, but they are home. We are out of life and death and into recovery and adapting. There have been many tears. They are in severe pain. When it gets too bad their blood pressure goes up and their oxygen levels drop. They have a complex medication schedule with many conflicts that need close monitoring. The medications that are healing the lungs are risky for worsening the mrsa in the knee. The psych meds are risky with the antibiotics. They need crutches to walk, which the physio has suggested will be needed for the next two years. There’s a lot to adjust to.

We woke up yesterday morning before Poppy and held onto each other through a deep cry. That was really scary, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. Rose’s allergic reaction is so rare it has never been recorded in someone who is not over 65 and male. It will be written up so that other doctors are aware of that possibility, given how often it is fatal.

Shock and fatigue, dragging Poppy around to appointments and chemists and trying to gather everything we need to care for Rose and restore as much independence as possible. Depression punctuated with panic. Insomnia, irritation, grief. Vulnerability.

And every day, these precious moments we thought might not happen again. Poppy playing games with Rose and giggling madly. Shared dinner. Cuddles. I went and brought a bunch of craft things so we can sit together in the evenings. Rose has Lego kits, I’ve started a diamond painting with Poppy, and she has stickers and foil and a book of bugs. Mindless, mindful, soothing.

It’s really hard. We’re really lucky. Friends and family are helping keep us afloat with safe friendly company and connection. NDIS support will help take on more tasks that are too much for me, such as the driving to so many appointments. We snatch moments of hard won normality like lunch with friends, or a board game night. Breathe it in and find the tenderness and patience we need for each other, for recovery, for our new normal.

Recovery

Rose continues to improve, much more gradually than expected with fun mini breathing and pain crises that trigger a flurry of reassessments and new tests and visits from ICU. Back on the ward and into the chaos of constant plan changes; one morning they are suddenly told they are fasting again for the next knee surgery, then taken off fasting and told they don’t need one, rinse, wash, repeat. The surgery is simultaneously urgent, not urgent, and unnecessary. The rollercoaster of emotions runs the gamut from terror to profound relief, frustration, exhaustion, rage. New tests find no new horror, just very injured lungs taking a slow path to recovery.

Doctors loom in the doorway telling us nothing is wrong, something new is wrong, the lungs are permanently damaged, the lungs are healing well. Veins collapse, tests intrude, a machine positioned behind the right ear screams persistently. A stranger comes into the room looking for green containers. A disgruntled nurse dismisses breathing stress as panic, until someone more senior applies the machines that show it’s not. But the most devaluing ideas have the greatest hold so for hours afterwards, Rose insists it’s only panic and won’t apply oxygen. They’re told to never get pneumonia, as if getting pneumonia is a poor personal life choice or a moral capacity they have control over. The future is rosy. The future is bleak and full of chronic illness. The future is unknown. The doctor that was coming can’t be found. They are always around the corner but never quite here. You’re not allowed off the ward, off the bed. You must get up, must exercise the knee, mustn’t let more deconditioning occur. Panting, breathless, sleepless. There were donuts in the cafeteria, but no one else can find them. Life is freefall in limbo. Morphine eases the pain so sweetly it brings it’s own terror of addiction, something within fights the peace.

Stop crying, says a technician entirely without feeling, I can’t get clear images when you’re crying. Sobbing is no longer considered withdrawal of consent. I’m sorry today is hard, is there anything else we can do for you? asks the soliticous nurse standing carefully two feet away from the trauma zone of a body that is no longer covered by the dignity norms of regular life outside of a hospital. The only nurse on the ward to use Rose’s real name and pronouns.

The shampoo smells like hospital. The hand wash smells like blood. The moisturiser smells like pain. The deodorant smells like unwashed hair. The food smells like dying. The massage oils smell like shitting the bed.

The hours folds into days, tesselate into years. Life continues out of reach beyond the boundaries of the hospital walls, weather is a private joke shared among the guests. The mind becomes primal, some collapse into despair, others like Rose spin into caged animals desperate to fight or flee. Friends and loved ones reach out hands to soothe, but where we see safety Rose sees the covid patient parked next to them in the overcrowded corridor, the stressed and frightened nurse, the medication drip poisoning them.

We have all walked into a dark place, but not the same place. We don’t share the same views or yearn for the same paths. For me, hospital is becoming a normal part of life, we weave it in as best we can. Picnics, lego, Poppy, card games. We come and go and learn the paths and flows and what days the parking is easiest and which wards are most peaceful and start to know the staff by name, share updates in line at the cafe. It’s horrifying but banal compared with the morgue.

For Rose the hospital is punishment for failing health, they must earn their way out through a gauntlet of requirements: less oxygen, better bloods, less pain relief. They rush the process and trip. Life goes on without them. Someone feeds the cats. They bleed out of patience and gratitude. There’s no place to take terror or rage. Peace is unstitched by confusion, the stuffing comes out, floats free, dissolves. Within the quicksand of unknown outcomes, unstable condition, multiple teams, and constantly changing plans, they cannot help but struggle, try to find the surface where they have some kind of power and plans can be made. So here we are.

Rose is Recovering

Not bacterial pneumonia after all, a rare and severe allergic reaction that filled their lungs with pus and nearly killed them. They are still in ICU but their lungs are getting stronger every day. The darkness of losing them starts to ease back to a terrifying memory. Doctors argue about the best timing for the next surgery. We talk cautiously about a holiday. We pencil in the tomorrow’s plans and roll with the changes. Startle at every new symptom. Look at our tired family and friends through eyes full of gratitude.

Poppy has been buffered from a lot of the intensity of the last week, but she’s still aware of changes and loss. She had a meltdown yesterday and I shut myself down so I didn’t meltdown with her and could be patient and firm. Then found myself slipping into the horrific depression that’s been biting at me and my heart broke.

A few days ago my whole future, Poppy’s life, and all the memories of me and knowledge of me that only Rose has nearly fell into the dark and I’d have given anything to just have them survive. How the indescribable relief of their life can exist alongside such bleak emptiness I can’t fathom. It’s not the screaming blackness of grief, it’s a greylands of disconnection. It felt like something else fell out of my world instead. Poppy left trying to connect with an empty parent. Me trying to find a sense of self and hope in my own emptiness. Undo that shutdown and coax feeling back. Talk soothingly to myself. Try to make sense of the triggers. Sit near people I love and find a sense of connection. Pieces of myself like tiny lights in the dark, winking on and off in tiny constellations. Everything fragmented.

I want nothing more in the world than to bring Rose home and share a life, yet living that life is so confusing. I can sit in the hospital and read and rub feet, I am familiar with that role. Here in exactly the life I want so much for them. I have to work hard to anchor myself to the moment and not get lost. These are good people around me. A morning pushing Poppy on the swings is something to treasure. There’s a lightness of heart I don’t have, numbness layered over terror and rage. I feel unseen and I don’t know how to make myself visible or if that’s even a good idea. I feel heartbroken by life. I just want my people alive, I’ll deal either else we have to. This is a truth.

I want a good life for us, and I’m not sure what that is, or how to do it. Also a truth. I’ve worked so hard to get here, with a home, family and work, with a loving community, and yet. I’m so exhausted and so lost from myself. How can it be so hard to live the life I’m so desperate to protect? Is that autism or just exhaustion? How can I feel like this when the news is actually, incredibly, unfathomably good? I want to go back to yesterday when I was lit with energy, indescribable relief.

I eased myself back into existence, soothing the disconnection. Shutting down my feelings to parent has to be a temporary thing, but I seem to get stuck there. I keep reaching out. I find moments to cry.

I just want Rose home and to hold on and be held onto. Nothing makes sense in my head. I can’t do this on my own.

Rose is in ICU

Rose and I had been talking lately about me starting writing again. We talked about how their nickname Rose didn’t feel right since they came out as non binary and starting using they/ them pronouns earlier this year. We talked about my sense of unfinished business since Jay, and what I would need to do to feel like I could draw a line in the sand and start again. We talked about how I’m running a business now and sharing deeply personal things could have unintended effects on staff, clients and colleagues. And we discussed my love of writing and my sadness at losing the blog and feeling cut off from it.

This was not how I planned to start sharing again. I don’t have a new nickname for Rose. I don’t have resolution or answers. But I’m being asked how I am every day and I don’t have words for that I can say without screaming.

Dearest Rose is sedated and ventilated in ICU, battling MRSA ‘golden staf’ that has chronically infected their knee following a routine surgery, and since spread to their lungs in a virulent pneumonia. Four days ago they merely had a bad knee and a slight cough. It has moved extremely quickly and taken over both lungs.

I’m exhausted and distraught. I want to cry, scream, vomit, and violently attack something. I visit every day and help wash them, rub their hands and feet, read to them. Then I go out to my car and cry hysterically. Then I come home to Poppy and try to be her connected and safe person. My community are tired, 2020 has been unkind to many of us, but they are also rallying. Poppy has a small crew of people she feels safe with this time, which is buffering her. She tells me she misses Mama’s squeezy hugs and asks me when she herself will die. I feel so depleted. I was struggling with exhaustion and depression following all the other surgeries and stress this year already. It feels like my reserves are exhausted.

There’s so much noise around me. I’m still writing to Rose so they can catch up on messages when they wake. I’m so scared and so sad. Everyone wants to help and I can hardly speak. Rose’s hands and feet are chilled cold. Poppy paints herself and runs whooping with her friends under the peppercorn tree. So many people care. I go back to bed to nap. Don’t let this be my new normal, please. I have to find ways to keep breathing even when I can’t be near them. Guilt, fear, regret engulf me. Before they went under I told them it’s okay to be scared, but I want you to focus on the love. You are so loved. I’m trying to do the same. I’m so scared. There’s so much love here.

Brutal and beautiful

It’s been in many ways one of the most brutal weeks we’ve had as a family. Rose and I have both been slogging through medical settings in terrible pain, Poppy needs some specialist care, Tonks the cat has needed the vet, and currently neither Rose nor I can drive due to our injuries. 3 weeks ago the sky was clear blue and all was well and suddenly this, all unrelated.

Life is frankly a serious PITA at times. We are getting slugged by expensive medical costs and the need for private surgeons and physio (My elbow is a mess and Rose’s knee) so we’ve shelved plans to bring home a lovely therapy bearded dragon for Rose, and are booking in vital appointments and doing all the admin needed to get some money back through Medicare/ health insurance etc or possibly covered by one of the various low or no interest loans out there for folks like us.

ID live stage photograph of Rebeltheshow, at the Adelaide Fringe, with a musician hanging upside down on a swing, balancing on his head, while playing a ukelale.

And yet, things are so, so good. People are helping us in a host of ways. Work continues to be excellent and something I love. Poppy and I swung in the hammock this evening, watching the light through the leaves of our mulberry tree. My home is clean and the garden is tended and Tonks the cat will be okay.

Last night Rose had to go through an awful procedure where they sedated her and stopped her breathing to relax her limbs enough to allow her frozen knee joint to be manually unlocked. I said goodbye and sat in a waiting room alone at 4am, sobbing on the phone to a friend, waiting to find out the outcome.

I remember kissing her forehead, the flash of her brown eyes: so beautiful, a hint of green in the outer iris, hazelnut brown and bright as golden timber in the centers. The pain so severe and enduring after 7 unbearable hours that she was desperate and shrugged aside the risks: anything to make it stop. I promise I’ll fight to come back to you, she told me. Be at peace I said, trust them, I know you will, I trust you.

It’s been a truly horrible week and yet my heart is so light and singing, singing I can’t contain it all. I think of Adelaide Writers Week last year, Jackie French talking about riding in the back of the ambulance where her husband was suffering a heart attack, noticing the beauty of the world around them. Telling us that no matter how dark things get there’s always beauty and we must look for it and be open to it.

My world today sings. Everything is brighter and more subtle, more beautiful and tender and lovely. I am in love with the world simply because Rose is still in it.

Ink Painting: Mother and child

Late last year I began this work after struggling through a day with Poppy when I was suffering unbearable depression and anxiety. We went to the museum in town together and she had a wonderful time. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and that her momentum was pulling me along while I tried not to drown.

I adore using UV inks to explore the idea of things that are hidden from sight or knowledge. That there are things that are only known in certain settings or visible in certain lights. This mothers movements make little sense until you can see the water flowing around her. Her context is invisible to most.

ID: line drawing with black ink of a mother and child holding hands. The child is walking along a low wall, balancing on top with arms outstretched. The mother is floating along behind, clutching her throat and watching the child. UV reactive ink shows a flowing river about the mother that is invisible in regular light.

Beyond dogma and empathy failure: the power of listening to understand

I’ve been enjoying and slightly overwhelmed by my new Public Health class: Global and Environmental Health Issues in equal measure. I was surprised by the info on systems thinking, which makes complete sense when you’re thinking in terms of ecology, I just hadn’t expected to encounter it and I’m very pleased to learn more about it. My favourite quote so far has been from the Global Health Ethics video by Greg Martin:

If you want me to take your argument seriously, you need to show me that you can argue the counter-factual. If you can’t, then it’s likely that you’ve taken an unthinking, dogmatic position based on some sort of knee jerk philosophical reaction that you had, and you really need to take a closer look at the other side of the argument.

Greg Martin

This made me extremely happy to hear because I’m often frustrated with people’s unwillingness or incapacity to consider opinions they disagree with (even when I disagree with those opinions too). I’m especially concerned at the way this is at times used as a kind of badge of honor that the wrong ideas are so wrong and illogical and irrational they can’t be even comprehended by sane and sensible people like us. Our failures of empathy and imagination are not a merit, nor are they proof against being wrong! Many opinions that are awfully wrong have excellent merit from particular perspectives. Moreover being able to deeply empathise and understand other perspectives is a crucial step to being able to engage them.

Understanding the building blocks of ideas and beliefs – the experiences people are extrapolating from, the accepted wisdom of the experts they trust, and why they are trusted, the logical fallacies we are all so vulnerable to, and often the ideas start to become less incomprehensible and outrageous. Your own ideas are formed in exactly the same ways, which is worth keeping in mind. We are all highly fallible, and we all extrapolate from personal experience and are vulnerable to bias. It’s not unusual, it’s the human condition, however diverse the result. We all share similar processes in how we develop and defend our beliefs, even astonishingly unlikely or dangerously untrue ones that may be experienced in psychosis. The mechanisms and interplay of knowledge, experience, and emotion are surprisingly standard. We have more in common than we think, which can be an uncomfortable thought. It’s far easier to remain baffled by opinions you hate and the people who hold them than it is to acknowledge common ground and genuinely ask “why do they believe that?” – whether we’re taking about someone with opposite political beliefs or “crazy” paranoia. The unsettling reality isn’t how diverse we are, it’s how similar the underlying mechanisms of our beliefs are. We build our ‘sanity’ with the same blocks that also build ‘craziness’ and ‘wrongness’.

The heart of being able to listen and learn like this is a concept I think is best summed up by the phrase “Listening to Understand”. It’s an empathetic stance, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless – to the contrary the more complex or different the ideas, the more you’ll need to be able to think carefully to reconstruct the framework you’re hearing. It’s not listening to find differences to debate, or even common ground to connect with. It aims to leave unchanged whatever is presented, but to simply and deeply comprehend it and be able to articulate it.

This type of listening is a profound tool to have in your communication kit. It’s an essential aspect of community engagement, research, interviews, and relationship. In formal settings it’s often needed to be able to translate and transport opinions into other spaces, such as understanding why people believe and behave the way they do when you’re trying to design a health intervention, training, or policy. Failures of empathy are behind many failed efforts in governance. When we do not truly understand an issue our best intended efforts are often half effective at best, and may be horribly harmful instead.

In teaching, this empathetic engagement is crucial to bridge the gaps between what people know now and what are trying to teach. Education is far more than imparting information, it is often about a process of shifting frameworks and belief systems. Long after the facts have faded the mindsets and beliefs remain. Poor quality education neither knows nor cares what the current knowledge and beliefs are, it simply imposes over the top. This is why so much cultural awareness training fails, it is underfunded, too brief, and places heavy burdens of understanding bigotry and the ignorance of privilege onto those who suffer the worst consequences of it. It is experienced by those forced to sit through it as a set of new behavior rules and rejected as “PC” thought policing because there so little time and capacity to empathically bridge what the beliefs are now, with the ones you are hoping to instill.

In informal settings it’s about having a more informed perspective on the people around us. We all make assumptions constantly about what’s going on inside each other, what we really think and feel and why we do what we do. We have to do this in order to predict each other and function socially. Far too often when it comes to divides of belief we defend our own perspectives by staying willfully unaware of what and why others think as they do. This failure of empathy means we often set up strawmen not as a deliberate strategy but simply because we’ve failed to grasp the real position of the other person.

This approach of listening to understand is tough in everyday life when we’re trying to have relationships with people who have vastly different and at times flat out incorrect ideas. It takes a special capacity to listen closely and be willing to be unsettled by the internal logic of others’ ideas to begin to understand why people think, feel, believe, and behave the ways they do. It’s also very humanizing and can connect us across divides. It can also unmask narcissism and predatory behaviour that hides in the imitation of caring words but is revealed by patterns of behaviour where people are harmed and discarded.

Being able to listen this way to people very close to us creates opportunities to be seen and heard and validated. It bypasses the trap of ‘who is right’ and moves instead into wanting to get inside the other’s perspective and really understand it. It shows how limited our internal models of each really are, however well we feel we know someone, the real person is always more nuanced and complex. There’s always things we don’t know, influences we hadn’t considered, conclusions we weren’t aware of. Particularly in long term relationships, we often feel secure that we really ‘know’ each other, and more and more we relate to (and argue with) the version of them that lives in our mind. This erodes connection. Being willing to suspend that certainty and deeply listen can profoundly change the context of your relationship.

Empathy is essential to authenticity. It emerges through a range of capacities – being able to hold a range of contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time, being able to hold your own perspective lightly enough to genuinely seek to understand another, and firmly enough to integrate new knowledge and experiences without losing your own. Polyphony – the willingness to allow multiple voices and perspectives to exist without requiring consensus, is profoundly helpful. Every experience and conversation we have is adding to our own frameworks and beliefs in ways we are often not aware of. The heart of the work for me isn’t just this willingness to accept I may be wrong, and a lack of fear of exploring other beliefs, it’s also about being able to bridge a fundamental tension in how I see other people. There is both a profound diversity, and an underlying common ground to being human. Empathy emerges when we hold these in tension with compassion.

She loves me

When Rose packs lunch for me, she sends with a little container with my tomato slices, carefully salted and ready to go on my sandwich so it won’t get soggy. I’m a very, very lucky person. 💜

Image description a sandwich with the top slice removed, showing ham, cucumber, and tomato slices. In the background out of focus is a blue lunchbox with yogurt and a banana.

Parenting with chronic illness

Each gallbladder attack I have is taking longer to recover from. My fibromyalgia flares and I feel like I’m recovering from getting a good kicking. I recently learned that I’ve been cutting too much fat out of my diet to try and prevent extremely painful biliary colic episodes. The extra low fat diet left me with headaches, exhaustion, foggy brain, and chronic pain. Bumping my fats back up has been quite magic and I’m feeling much better. I’ve been scheduled for surgery to remove the gallbladder next month.

Image description: A young child on a park swing. There are trees, lawn, and bark chips. A small green bike is lying on the ground by the swing.

In the meantime I’m muddling along. I used to be so afraid of this place: sick and trying to parent. It is hard. It’s really hard. I’m so incredibly fortunate to have good people around me, that network I put effort into building has saved my life. It saves me when I can text a friend in distress instead of crying in front of Poppy. When there’s someone to pick Poppy up from the ER so I can be treated. When our daycare provider lets me arrive late while I try and coordinate a crisis. My world has flexibility, care, accommodations that ease the sharp edges of my limitations and soften the harshness of the things I’m dealing with.

This creates capacity I wouldn’t otherwise have. So rather than merely the nightmare stories I feared, mostly Poppy and I muddle through. Rose takes her so I can rest or nap. I walk her to the park so she can ride her bike. We snuggle under a blanket with a hot water bottle and watch a movie together. We do crafts or painting on the dining table. She plays in the back yard while I hang washing.

I have a collection of low energy/high pain ‘tough day’ activities like this I can enjoy with her. And I’m still working towards the lower daily effort/systems and routines/life on the easy setting changes I started making last year so that my home and work is efficient, sustainable, and frees up as much energy as possible for the things I’m passionate about – such as parenting, care giving, socialising, adventures, and creativity. With thought, planning, and support, it’s actually still wonderful to parent even in a rough health time. I’m incredibly fortunate and I love her to bits.

Love, by the water

Endometriosis, adenomyosis, PMDD, and PCOS is an extremely unhappy combination of troubles. For me it means very heavy, painful, unpredictable periods that often trigger severe depression and sometimes suicidal distress.

I’ve spent most of the last 2 days in bed with a heat pack. Today Rose took the lead and set up a beautiful family trip for us all. She made savory muffins and took us all down south to a beautiful beach for the afternoon. I went for a gentle walk in the surf, Poppy collected rocks and shells, and we all enjoyed watching a seal frolic in the light rain.

Image is of Poppy, aged 3, wearing fabric rainbow butterfly wings and running along a beach.

It was so joyful and relaxed and a safe space to just be. As the rain fell lightly into the shallows where I walked I wept. My heart has been full of doubt and confusion and heartbreak lately. Watching the light catch the water and the foam on the sand, I’m so grateful.

One of the things I fell in love about Rose was her ability to create these beautiful adventures: inexpensive, simple, and so connected to the moment and the environment. I’ve often yearned for these things but when I’m sick or distressed I struggle to arrange them. My initiative is paralyzed, so I yearn but cannot act. I recall many days when I lived in my unit by the beach, longing to go down to the water and unable to. I could never have made it to the beach today, but with her doing all the heavy lifting I could be swept along to something beautiful and nourishing. I fall in love all over again.

The Dark Sides of Safety

I adore Becky Chambers. Finding a new author to crush on is the absolute highlight of my month. I’ve just read this beautiful book for the second time and am loving the kobo quote tools. https://www.kobo.com/AU/en/ebook/the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-1?utm_campaign=PhotoQuotesAdr&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=App_Acq

We talk a lot in trauma recovery about safety and empowerment as the magic that heals which is real and true and appropriate. They have a dark side though, which is rarely explored. What is it to feel safe? Is safety a good and healthy aim for a human? What happens when we feel unsafe? Threat is the opposite of safety, and many of us with backgrounds of complex trauma feel constantly and chronically threatened, triggering an array of responses across the small menu of mammalian options: fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Safety is crucial to being able to function outside of this menu, to bring to life different aspects of our selves than simply the reflexes of raw survival.

But not everything that threatens us does us harm. And not everything that feels safe is good for us. Abusers feel threatened by the freedom and autonomy of the people they are in relationships with. They restore their sense of safety by undermining that autonomy.

Becoming aware of the ways in which you are privileged can feel very unsafe, especially if you are also tangled in shame and guilt as if you are somehow personally responsible for it. For many people the idea of having privilege has become a kind of personal taint, a character flaw to overcome rather than an abstract awareness of unequal opportunities and a responsibility to share them.

Some people feel safest at the bottom of every hierarchy, too small and powerless to harm.

Some feel safest at the top, apex predators who see all others as fellow predators to compete with, or prey to devour.

When I developed the peer based recovery group for Bridges, the face to face support group for people with dissociation and or multiplicity, I choose Safety as one of the key values for the group. Striving to make a safe place is essential for the involvement of people who had often experienced severe trauma. And yet I did so slightly ambivalently, aware that safety is a good goal but also an insufficient one. Without other values to be in tension with, safety is a kind of death. Extreme risk aversion creates coffins of our lives: isolation, dehumanization, and disconnection rule.

As a parent, safety is a primary concern for me. An essential part of my job description is keeping Poppy and Star safe. Whether that’s from physical injury, sickness, abuse, or neglect, this is my concern. However I hold this concern in tension with their other basic human needs. Freedom, autonomy, connection… many of our essential needs require risk. If I focus only on safety I will shun risk. Risk is my enemy, to be identified and dug out of life like a weed. The highest possible aim to reduce all risks to nothing. But risk adverse living has predictable and at times devastating outcomes. It is in itself a risk to be understood and treated with great care. Children allowed to take no risks also cannot learn, grow, connect, gain confidence, cope with mistakes, or navigate imperfection. Risk adverse approaches lock them into extremely small lives where obedience and fear dominate all.

Risk competence is about understanding that safety must be paired with unsafety. It’s about knowing that a culture that has horrifyingly high rates of serious child injury is taking huge risks, and also knowing that a culture with almost no serious child injuries is taking huge risks in other ways, because the only lifestyles in which that is possible preclude climbing, running, playing outdoors, pets or animals, sports, and all the opportunities children need to become competent at using their bodies and navigating their environments. There is an optimal window of risk, too much or too little are both harmful, which is a difficult concept to fathom in a public health framework.

What this optimal window is and where its boundaries are is highly contentious, informed by the personal values in tension with safety, and the way we cope with the fear of bad things happening. A major way we navigate this fear is called the just world theory. This is the belief that bad things will not happen to us because we are smart and decent people. This is a major way most of us create a sense of safety in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Most of us who have been through trauma can speak of the savage outcomes of the just world theory. The first is that we tend to blame victims of bad situations for their circumstances, because it makes us feel safer to believe they were at fault in ways we would not be. The second is the devastating loss of essential illusions when some trauma strips the just world theory away from you. Trying to function in a world that is unfair and uncontrollable is a nightmare when you’ve previously relied on comforting beliefs that all things work out fairly in some way.

As victims (/recipients/survivors) of trauma we are desperately trying to piece back together our own sense of safety, while resenting the painful price we are paying for the illusions of safety of those around us. We don’t want them to be safe, we are begging them to be brave. To stand with us and face the gross injustice and paralyzing uncertainty of our situations. Safety is cultural denial and numbness in the face of devastating pain and abandonment. As those who are marginalised and dealing with various forms of oppression, likewise.

What this looks like when it comes to risk is a cruel system. People (and parents) who take risks, even massive risks, and succeed are lauded. The acceptibility of the risk is determined by the outcome. Those who take even minor, or very well equipped and skilled risks who have bad outcomes are frequently attacked, shamed, and shunned. Whether they are parents going sailing and dealing with an ill child, or a mother going out for her birthday who is betrayed by the babysitter who harms her child, no risk is acceptable in the context of a bad outcome. Such is the nature of a risk adverse culture with a just world theory (embedded in neoliberalism) and no agreement about the optimum window of risk.

This savagery drives highly risk adverse parenting, which is often called out in ways that shame those parents (mothers) with little awareness of the underlying context. Few of us feel we can afford the risk of being attacked and rejected by our communities at the point of a devastating experience. Each time we witness it or participate in it we drive home the message more strongly: no one can afford bad luck, bad circumstances, or risks. Safety is the only practical goal.

This drives the ‘mummy wars’ where I’ve been told I’m a child abuser for such minor lifestyle choices as allowing Poppy to attend an outdoor event with me, permitting her to not wear shoes in a park, or allowing her hair to be dyed purple. The intensity of these interactions far outweighs the circumstances. Risks become linked to difference, without consensus there is no safe place to stand where judgement won’t fall.

Safety without courage not only cages us in very small lives, it cages our communities and exiles those unfortunate enough to suffer. Safety is essential for us, a basic prerequisite for or ability to get up in the morning and function. We can build it on capacity, consent, freedom, and experiences of risk. Or we can build it at great cost to ourselves and the people around us. It’s a beautiful and noble goal, especially when it’s been shattered. But it also has powerful dark sides best keep in mind.

We are all multiple, and so are the people who hurt us

This morning was a rare one, everyone in my little family home for breakfast. I cooked pancakes and realised my heart is never so full as when we are together. My girls are so precious to me, I feel warm, strong, fierce, joy-sadness when I’m with them. Their happiness is my happiness and their hurts break my heart. It breaks and mends over and over.

I am different with them. There’s a theory about the ‘self’ which states that who you are is not a fixed thing, like a rock or a plant. It’s a unique dynamic. That ‘self’ is what emerges in relationship with another. So each ‘self’ in each setting, each relationship, is slightly unique, and has aspects that may differ from all others. This is both separate to and part of multiplicity. I experience this in both which parts are brought out and also the different selves we all have. This is an aspect of multiplicity which is universal to all of us.

This dynamic also goes in two directions. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. When I feel young I bring out the parent in you, and vice versa. You may recoil from my aloofness or warm to my charm. Relationship dynamics bring out age old stories and patterns between us. They move us deeper into the grove of who we have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, or bring to light new aspects of ourselves we had forgotten or didn’t know were there.

This curious TED talk “Rethinking Infidelity” explores the idea that being in search of a self we have lost for a long time is an aspect of why we are unfaithful to each other. (jump to 9.30 if you want to skip to this part) That in time we put away the parts of ourselves that don’t fit with our partner and community. And a new, different person can bring to light a self that makes us feel more vital and alive than we have in years. Unable to see that this is a normal challenge of navigating community – finding the balance between the social homogeneity and the wild individual – we embrace the new person as a salvation and shatter everything we’ve build and loved until now. And then we do it again.

It isn’t that we are looking for another person, but for another self.

Esther Perel

Integrity is about the threads of beliefs and values we hold through these transitions. The nature of universal dissociation is that it is entirely common to have three beautiful relationships and one in which we are horrifically abusive. Some nazi guards came home from violence and were loving to their families. A man may be kind to his children and friends and brutal to his wife. A mother may love three children and hate and abuse the fourth. When you think of self as one static thing this is horribly confusing and we keep trying to understand which story is true and which self is real – the kind or the vile. When they are understood as both true, real, genuine, there’s both a kind of devastation and a relief in being able to hold them equally in mind. No longer are they different sides of a coin that cannot be viewed at the same time, they are different aspects of the same person and both true.

So the abused person who struggles to find their way to the ‘truth’ of their situation – wrestling with competing stories of who their abuser ‘really’ is, finds a way out by embracing the whole of them. They are both Jeckyll and Hyde. They are sweet, wounded, sincere, and savage. It’s all real, inasmuch as any self is real. You cannot have a relationship with only one of them, however wonderful they are and however much you adore them. And you cannot soothe the savage ones through further abasement, sacrifice, and suffering. Until and unless the sweet ones take responsibility for the savage ones, they will continue to let their demons take their pain and rage out on you, debasing and destroying you both in the process. In some cases the savage selves use the sweet selves as little more than bait to trap the people they envy and wish to harm.

Some relationships – and these are the precious ones – help us be our best selves. With my girls I have the opportunity to parent, mother, mentor. There’s a groundedness and centredness I feel in that role that I treasure. An opportunity to be someone I have always wanted to be. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to help them grow up and find who they are.

Gender, diversity, and health

Recently in my public health studies, I was asked to explore some ways in which gender has an impact on health. Here’s some of my thoughts:

Experiences, health conditions, or personal identity that deviate from cultural gender norms can expose people to considerable health risks. Stigma, rejection and/or victimisation from family, peers, and community, and lack of access to resources such as education, work, and medical care, each compound in a vicious cycle for many people. As a result, they then face all the health risks of people exposed to unemployment, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

There’s a range of ways people can violate gender norms. The norms themselves vary from culture to culture and at different historical times. Cultures are more flexible about some variations and more rigid about others. Some cultures have more overlap between qualities seen as ‘male’ and those seen as ‘female’, and the value placed on each varies. Many cultures have third gender, transgender, both gender and other options. When gender is a rigid organising principle it often determines opportunities, risks, and the power permitted in various life spheres.

In many cultures ‘female’ identified skills, roles, and behaviours are associated with less power in their personal and political lives, less access to the market economy, and are seen as less essential. Some cultures (such as ours) permit women to identify or behave in ways seen as ‘male’ more readily than the reverse because of this disparity. So it is now largely acceptable for girls to wear trousers, while boys wearing dresses/skirts/kilts is a source of controversy.

Women are more likely to operate in a gift/barter economy alongside the men in their lives, performing more unpaid work such as child raising, care giving for sick and elderly, housekeeping. When women are employed they are more often part time and unemployed, and more often working in the lower paid ‘welfare workforce’ using ‘traditionally female skills’ such as child care and support work. They are more vulnerable to poverty, domestic abuse, depression, homelessness, and lack of control over their bodies and choices.

In such an arrangement, men are less socially connected, have more options for education and wealth without having to choose between paid work and having children, and are less likely to participate in unpaid work. They are more vulnerable to loneliness (particularly once retired), less likely to seek support, slower to access health care particularly in matters that contradict ‘male’ stereotypes such as for concerns about virility or mental health, more likely to be assaulted by other men, and much more likely to kill themselves.

The health risks and vulnerabilities are considerably higher for those who do not or cannot fit this binary. Binary transgender people (those who were identified as male at birth but experience themselves as female, and vice versa) for example are at much higher risks of suicide, violence from strangers and family, rejection, homelessness, mental illness, and unemployment. Non-binary people (who identify as agender, gender fluid, both genders, multiple, and so on) are likewise disadvantaged. People who are attracted to their own gender are often also the recipients of social rejection and stigma as attraction to the ‘opposite’ gender is often a key aspect of the gender norms: ‘manly men’ are ‘supposed’ to be attracted to women, not men, for example. Same sex attraction violate gender segregation norms that presume same sex spaces are free from attraction. People who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth but who diverge from it in choices such as career, interests, or appearance also face risks.

Intersex people and those with hormone variations and disorders can experience severe medical trauma within health services that seek to ‘normalise’ them and fit them back into a gender binary they may not identify with.

Many of the groups already experiencing some other form of disadvantage are more represented in gender diverse communities, such as autistic people. Experiencing more than one form of diversity such as being disabled and queer, or indigenous and queer puts people at much higher risk due each community not understanding the other. For example for many years ‘bisexual privilege’ was spoken of with the assumption that being able to blend in and ‘look straight’ gave bisexual people an advantage over monosexual queer people (lesbians and gay men) who were constantly dealing with the stress and risks of being outed. More research suggests the opposite, that the stress of being invisible and feeling unwelcome at times within both straight and queer communities seems to be the cause of the much higher rates of physical and mental illnesses suffered by bisexuals than straight or queer monosexuals. Bisexuals who are in same sex relationships and are validated as queer face fewer health risks than those in binary relationships who are usually assumed to be straight.

This suggests that not only does each gender experience health risks differently, but some forms of divergence from gender norms are associated with greater risks than others. Some resources are safer and more accessible for some forms of ‘validated diversity’ and may be hostile or harmful to others who are divergent in other ways. There is for example, conflict at times between binary and non binary trans people about the legitimacy of their identity and how they are perceived by the wider community.

A final group who face severe health risks due to gender are often forgotten about. In the book ‘Dead Boys Don’t Dance’, a study found that suicide rates were higher for queer boys than straight boys. But the highest rates of all were in a largely unstudied subgroup – boys who had been perceived as and labelled by their peers as gay, but who did not themselves identify that way. These straight boys experienced all the risks and rejection from the straight community suffered by queer boys, and also lacked the protection of a sense of engagement and belonging with the queer community. Their invisibility, misidentification, and lack of peers was frequently a lethal combination.

So when we talk about gender and health, the costs of a rigid gender binary, norms, roles, we are talking about costs for all these people. Different levels of risk and types of vulnerability, but no one escapes a troubling cost to losing access to some aspects of what it is to be human and what we need in order to thrive. There’s no winners in this list,but some of the people paying the highest prices are also the most invisible and overlooked in conversions about gender and health. We can do better.

Podcast: Keeping Mum

I’m excited to share this project in which I played a small role.

This beautiful podcast sensitively explores the largely untold story of the experience of children of LGBTIQ parents. It’s a lovely interview of the now adult child of a lesbian mother who navigated raising her family in a conservative community. The marriage equality plebiscite in Australia last year often aired concerns about the effect on children of being raised by queer parents. While there’s excellent research that shows these families are just as safe and nurturing, it’s also helpful to hear personal experiences and accounts.

Produced by Suzanne Reece who conceived the idea, conducted the interviews, edited, and created the sound scape.

I provided a voice over for Suzanne’s poem, some of the background chatter, and the illustration.

First aired on Radio Adelaide, you can find ‘Keeping Mum’ here. Please feel welcome to share it.

Autumn

It’s late Autumn, cold and grey. The last sunshine is stunning, delicious and golden as warmed honey. Last night I snuggled down into my bed like a happy burrito. I’m creating daily at the moment, a flurry of painting, writing, sewing. Today I baked delicious chocolate chunk peanut butter cookies. I’m still buzzing from making it through my uni trimester despite so many setbacks. A wonderful win to soak up.

My beautiful mural is progressing, albeit unconventionally given the frequent rain. I’m lucky Rose is still a romantic and doesn’t mind ink on the bedsheets or unexpected murals in progress on the oven.

I recently found the notes I took at the beside of a sick friend following an awful psychosis. Back then we discussed an illustrated booklet to help people better understand how to support someone so vulnerable. We spoke about it again today given I’ve recently completed my first short ink illustrated booklet, and I think I’m ready to consider the next booklet project.

It’s evening. Poppy and I are at the park. She is a red smudge in her raincoat, dashing about the green in the fading light, blowing raspberries at me from the top of the playground. The sky turns from baby blue and peach to soft greys and yellow. Birds flit everywhere, looping from tree to tree and weaving a song all around us. The last dogs go home. Poppy falls and runs wailing to cry in my arms. When she quiets the birds have stopped and we can hear the wind sweeping in through the trees. Night gradually deepens and the trees wave slowly like underwater grasses. We find helmet and boots and belongings and cycle back home.

Parenting with Trauma

Having our whole family sick together is an exercise in the logistics of rationing and portioning a tiny amount of energy to extract the maximum benefit. If I take her for an hour late tonight, then you do the morning, I’ll get you a nap at noon then you take her to the park for two hours so I can work on my assignment… The shifting priorities of dishes, doctors, meals, laundry, and mental health. It’s considerably more exhausting than being sick without kids, largely because of the difficulty of getting enough sleep to properly recover.

Monday Poppy and I went into the city. Rose had important appointments and Poppy was full of restless toddler energy. We had an argument on the bus about her not biting me which concluded with her screaming while strapped into her pram and me not making eye contact with a bus load of strangers. She got her own back by refusing to fall asleep for her afternoon nap. Usually she’ll snuggle down in her ‘cave’ made by covering the pram with a cloth, and knock off. That day she leaned as far forwards as her pram seatbelt would let her to fight sleep. 4 times she gently drifted off anyway as I paced around Rundle Mall rocking and circling the buskers. Each time she’d slip sideways as sleep relaxed her, clonking her head on the frame of the pram and waking up with a howl. Gently tipping the pram up evoked rage rather than sleep, and the fifth time she started to fall asleep I stopped and tried to gently settle her back which cued 20 minutes of hysteria.

I thought she might fall asleep in the art gallery but unfortunately that was the end of the whole idea. She talked to the other patrons, wanted to know all about the art, and once we found the kid’s studio space spent a happy hour cutting a sheet of paper into very tiny pieces.

The studio was set up to invite self portraits, with mirrors and oil pastels. This was mine:

I was glad of the space, it’s the most at home I’ve felt in the gallery.

I’ve realized that PTSD has interrupted our usually very calm parenting approach. Kids this age can be intense, they have huge feelings, test boundaries, and have way more energy than seems sensible. Poppy is fearless, explorative, passionate, creative, and stubborn. Generally Rose and I navigate these traits patiently and with appreciation of their positive aspects. But when she hurts us deliberately we’ve both struggled and the conflict has been charged and difficult to resolve. We’ve been worried about what it means and stressed by our own responses. I in particular lose patience and get angry, but Poppy isn’t easily intimidated which leaves me in a bind where I either behave in more frightening ways until she’s cowed and takes me seriously, or I find another way of approaching this. It speaks to the heart of parenting approaches to obedience and discipline. Do children follow instructions because they are frightened of us, or of the consequences? Or because they are connected to us and trust us? Is it appropriate to scare your child? If so, when and how much? Are boundaries about anger or love? Is breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries about immaturity, defiance, conflicting needs, forgetfulness (it’s easy to over estimate the memory capacity of a small child), or something else?

I’ve been starting to do a bit more reading on parenting her age group and it occurred to me that Rose and I are generally excellent at not taking difficult behavior personally, setting boundaries with warmth, and redirecting troubling behaviors. So when Poppy was getting into constant trouble for climbing furniture in the house, she now has a climbing frame outside for her to monkey around on. But when she hurts us there’s no such framing. We see no positive aspect to such behavior, no legitimate need looking for expression. We talk instead about her being mean, we privately discuss her sensitivity to our stress, her restlessness, her trying to get our attention. We’re troubled by a normal child behavior and framing it as lack of empathy. It’s triggering, evoking memories of being hurt by others and we both move into threat responses. Rose tends to freeze and withdraw, I get angry.

It occurred to me recently we’re misframing the behavior due to our histories. Most children this age want to roughhouse. Wrestling and tumbling and play fighting is a normal developmental behavior. Engaged with care it’s a place for learning about how to hold back and not hurt each other, how to apologise and caretake when accidents happen, and it satisfies the touch hunger and intense energy of very young children. Learning how to wind down into calmness following rough play is a key part of regulating such excitable and energetic kids.

Last night when Poppy started to get rough with Rose who was crashed out on the couch with a migraine, I didn’t get charged. I chose to see her inappropriate behavior as a need for rough housing and set a boundary with patience rather than frustration. I told her Mamma was sick and could only have gentle play around her. When Poppy kept being rough I removed her to the bedroom not as punishment but as an appropriate location for rough play. I gently with her permission threw her onto the bed, threw a big stuffed lion at her and told her this was where the fierce and grouchy creatures play. She was thrilled. She ran growling at me to the edge of the bed, waited for me to put my hand in the centre of her chest, then braced herself for me to gently push her back, screaming with laughter.

Later that night with Rose asleep and me exhausted on the couch with Poppy, she started to rough play again and I forbade her from getting on the couch with me. For the first time she was easily redirected into quiet play and spend a calm hour making complicated meals with her toy food instead.

There’s no problem with her empathy, Poppy is an incredibly affectionate and loving child. She’s not unusually aggressive or showing signs of attachment damage or deprivation. In mislabeling her normal needs as something that disturbed us, we introduced a charge into our relationship that she gravitated towards. Kids do this without knowing why, they can sense it and it’s irresistible. It’s why they do mad things like grin at an adult who’s already at the end of their rope and angry with them. They are still getting a sense of their own power in the world and what they can and can’t do. Navigating our own trauma as parents is about recognizing blind spots like this, paying attention to threat responses needlessly activated, and prioritizing basic needs like sleep, connection, and companionship so we function as best we can. For me at the moment on bad days I’m dealing with chronic irritability and low grade suicidality. Sleep deprivation and feeling isolated turn my world black. Over and over in a thousand little ways we choose safety together, celebrate freedom and autonomy, look for loving ways to speak about the unspeakable things, and link into the world around us. Without our wider networks of friends, family, therapists, without kids rooms in art galleries, and foodbank, and doctors who see trauma survivors rather than welfare bludgers, we couldn’t do this. But together there is so much strength, sufficient grace. Enough to let us all grow.

Community Mural in Development

At my birthday party last weekend, my friends started this mural with me. I’ve wanted to paint murals for a long time, and trying to think of something fun to host it seemed like a good idea. I bought a panel of marine ply, undercoated with Rustoleum, and we used house paint brushes and bulk size artist acrylics in a limited palette (blue, red, yellow, brown, and white). I mixed the colours people chose and gave a bit of instruction on using brushes but that was it. The design – children playing in a tumble of autumn leaves – I drew on freehand with a sharpie.

20190420_145155_wm811177233.jpg

Those who wanted to join in chose whichever part they liked and painted. It was cool to see people experimenting with textures and brush stroke styles. The limited colour range keeps it all cohesive despite many different hands, and the limited palette means all the colours relate well to each other. The only thing I’ve noticed so far is a tendency for not a lot of variation in value (darks and lights) which doesn’t matter so much in such a cheerful piece.

I was hoping to create something fun and heartfelt to display in our backyard. It will cheer up and add colour to the play area for Poppy, and remind me of my friends and family who’ve added to it. I know it’s often stressful to make art when you haven’t done it in a long time, so I wanted to make it feel safe and meditative. Creativity loves a bit of challenge, but too much is inhibiting and creates frustration. I also reassured folks that I will be going over the design when it’s finished and outlining everything so there was no need to worry about imperfect edges or the odd smudge. They really do add to the texture.

I have been doing some research in the local hardware store and I think for future murals I will consider buying exterior paint for the added UV protection to help it last. I’ve been making more artwork on board rather than canvas lately, which I prefer for indoor or outdoor larger scale artworks, so this was a fun way to explore that.

I’m looking forward to finishing this and fixing it in place. Probably another 2-3 arty afternoons will have it done, weather permitting.

My birthday was harrowing this year, I spent half of it crying and was horribly suicidal. I’m glad it’s behind me and I’m going to put some real thought into understanding how I can deal with it differently for next year. So far none of my approaches have been great.

But my favourite part of this was those small moments when I could see someone else disappearing into the art, the steady even brushing of paint, blending into paint. Those moments are a kind of meditation and they are precious. May we all have many more of them.

Using language to support parent infant bonding

Language is so powerful. When Poppy was born we found many people would frame our experiences or her behaviour in ways that were not helpful for us. It’s amazing how many of our common phrases ascribe bad intentions to the child. It may seem like nit picking to fuss over a word, but words build the story that impacts how we understand each other. They create the filter through which we interpret each others intentions.

I first learned about attribution theory in uni, studying psychology, and a lot of things clicked in my mind about people I’d known. Most anyone when depressed or overwhelmed sees the world and other people through a filter that makes the innocuous seem hostile and the mildly difficult downright sinister. Some of us are more prone to this more of the time, living in a world where grey runs to black. How we feel can strongly change the way we interpret others and the world around us.

Many of the stories created by common phrases used about children would pit Poppy against us, as if she was indifferent or even cruel. People would say things like she was “being a jerk” if she wouldn’t stop crying, was “too smart for her own good” if she climbed something and fell off, “had us wrapped around her little finger” if we went to comfort her after she fell over.

On one level this is a way to be light-hearted about the stress of parenting, laugh it off, and validate how awful and exhausting it can be! But for some, in the context of stress and sleep deprivation, this can also take the relationship between parent and child into dark and risky places.

It can be difficult to understand just how painful things can get if you haven’t been there. In the early months of Poppy’s life, I was often sick, very sleep deprived, and feeling at the end of my tether. I’ve noticed that a kind of flip in thinking can happen when things are really bad. If you feel stretched past capacity enough, at some point it feels like it’s not possible for everyone to survive. Survival instinct and maternal instinct start to contradict each other. The maternal (or parental) impulse to protect and nurture is powerful and we tend to see it as the norm. But it’s not always the way, and when threat levels are high and bonding is distorted it may diminish or become secondary. The impulse to protect the child may dissipate next to the sense that there’s simply not enough resources for everyone.

Things can get really desperate if the child’s behaviour is framed as a threat in some way to your own survival. The shift in thinking from ‘we are all in this together, having a tough time’ to ‘they are sucking me dry’ is a risky one both for the relationship and the child.

This interesting article, the neuroscience of calming baby explores what’s going on behind a common phenomenon – babies are calmer when carried and held but will often become distressed when put down. It talks briefly about how important it is to understand that this is an inbuilt mammalian response, to “save parents from misreading the restart of crying as the intention of the infant to control the parents”. Soberingly, this is important because “unsoothable crying is a major risk factor for child abuse”. This is not in any way to blame a child for being harmed, or to excuse harm done to children. It is to examine the context in which otherwise devoted, well intentioned parents can find themselves struggling with furious impulses or not coping.

Ascribing bad intentions to a baby starts to activate a sense of threat, that the child is wilfully harming the parent, deliberately denying them basic needs of food, sleep, and relief from distress. When bonding is good and parent needs are getting met, these things don’t matter so much. But in harder times they can contribute to a sense of being tortured by the child rather than by the circumstances. It’s desperately important to see a child’s distress as distress rather than an attempt to control, manipulate, or do harm. Language is part of how we do this, helping to interpret and contextualise so we don’t distort what we’re experiencing.

It’s also critical not to set up impossible expectations such as “when you cry I will make it better for you” with a child. Overburdened by this sense of responsibility, parents are at risk of feeling intense distress in the form of failure, agitation, and frustration if confronted by distress they cannot sooothe or silence.

Rose and I translated a lot of common sayings when we encountered them. Someone would say to us things like:

  • “She’s fighting sleep” and we would agree but shift the intention- “yes, she’s struggling to sleep today”
  • “She’s not a very good baby” becomes “she’s having a hard time settling at the moment”
  • “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger” becomes “she sure is a little cuddle-bug”

This was incredibly helpful for me in a few instances where I was struggling. In early weeks I was prodromal (warning signs of psychosis) partly due to severe sleep deprivation. I would get Poppy confused with Tamlorn, the little one I miscarried. Rose and I would tag team Poppy all night to give each other some sleep. There have been times I’ve handed Poppy over in sobbing distress and Rose has taken her out for a morning drive because my nerves are shredded by her crying and my nipples are mangled from her biting and I’m losing it.

It makes a difference to understand that Poppy is behaving as she is supposed to, not to harm me. Human babies often want to be held all the time and use crying to signal fear, pain, hunger and every need they have. It’s also a biological norm for infant crying to send us round the twist, and being able to see our own limits coming up without hating ourselves for them is valuable. Infant needs can be more than a parent can meet, or impossible to understand at times. Nurtured infants need nurtured parents and few of have invested in those kinds of communities before bringing a baby into the world.

Parent needs are deeply important to meet in order to buffer that sense of threat and reduce the fight/flight response being activated in distress. Staying out of crisis mode is partly achieved by treating adult needs as real and significant, and using language wisely to tell the most helpful story about the situation.

So we found it helpful to say ‘squeaking’ instead of ‘screaming’ for example. “Our little person is squeaking again” sounded less dramatic and helped us keep perspective. We talked about “witching hour” and planned around the time every evening that Poppy would be overwhelmed and inconsolable. We used baby wearing to manage her desire to be close in a way that reduced our fatigue and back pain, learned how to rest her face on our shoulder so her screaming didn’t go right into our ear, and use as a mantra “I’m here with you, you’re not alone” in place of wanting to fix it when nothing was working.

In our case, ‘colic’ was managed by reducing stimulation. The lights went off every night at 6pm, Poppy had a warm bath as soon as she started becoming distressed, and we didn’t go out in the evening for many months until she passed through the phase.

Language is a big part of what helped us navigate these huge challenges well. The risk of psychosis in the early days, serious difficulties with breastfeeding, and a baby with undiagnosed functional lactose overload and colic caused by sensory overwhelm. Combined with 2 deaths in the family and a range of illnesses for Rose and I, it was not an easy start. We were and are ecstatic to have Poppy, she is an absolutely beautiful, loving, curious, adventurous child. Tending to the stories we told and the language we used helped us to bond together during those difficult times.

Love amidst pain

At times when I’ve been very broke, I’ve felt that a troubling and difficult to name challenge that has been not the obvious stresses – affording bills and medical care and food, but a subtle one. Judged according to choices it’s assumed I’ve made, my life, my clothes, my presentation fits me to a standard. If there’s only one pair of jeans in the op shop that fit me, their cut and colour says little about me except my lack of choices. When I’m with others who’s choices are also constrained, this is understood, and we envy each other when personal taste isn’t inhibited by limitations. It’s a joy when we can forge something close to our sense of self from what we have.

Today I have been resting. My mind is burned out trying to understand some things that are extraordinarily painful to me. I have read and watched movies and curled up on the couch under a blanket. The weather is glorious, late summer and soft sunshine. I am recovering from a horrible head cold that has made my whole body ache. And I am thinking about my life not in an abstract sense as if I could have done anything, but from within the constraints I have faced. The long and terrible illnesses, the homelessness, the loneliness, the terrible suffering and self loathing I am still recovering from, growing up queer and unsafe. I think about the cards I was given and how I have played them and I am at peace. I have an incredibly beautiful life. I adore my family. I have navigated such heart rending and terrifying challenges to be here and to love the way I do from a heart so starved and shattered. It is so far in many ways from what I wanted or hoped for. But it so glorious given how lost I could have become. Queer and Christian can be a death sentence, and when I return to my old home at times, I can see myself on the floor of the bathroom like a ghost. I am curled around myself screaming silently and begging god to undo what I am. I have faced the absolute terror of hell and exile to stand here today. I have faced suicide and self harm. I have faced a loneliness so deep and profound that it felt like it was erasing me from the inside out. I have navigated multiplicity and psychosis, caring and needing care, the loss of friends, the heartbreak of not finding my place in employment.

I would not have chosen this path. I would never have chosen homelessness, or chronic pain, or my string of failed attempts to haul my life back onto the track I was aiming for. I would not now choose our vulnerablity, our financial insecurity, our public housing. I aimed very high and where I’ve landed so far, it turns out, is incredible.

I adore my daughters with all my heart, and the joy in parenting them surpasses anything else in my life. My beloved Rose and I are restored to each other after the terrible strain of last year. We are learning that knowing each other for 6 years does not mean we know each other. That love is in asking the questions and listening closely to the answers. The hand reached across the gulf of miscommunication and expectations. There’s so much love here.

Yesterday I went to a wonderful talk by local artist/illustrators about how they navigated their work while raising young children. It was wonderful and I learned so much. I also realised that their process was only fitted around children, while I was trying to build mine around illness and disability and many other things. It has not been easy and yet I am finding a small slow path.

Yesterday I went to the funeral of someone I had not known very well, the husband of a dear late friend. I was not sure I would be able to go. Death is not something I am reconciled to since I had my terrible breakdown. I felt angry and humiliated by my vulnerability to it. Rose eased me into finding the thorn in my paw. I was terrified of my secret, nagging judgement that his life had been wasted. I recalled heartbreaking conversations with him about his lack of the spark of joy, his envy of my passion. He too, faced many challenges in his life. Only when I found this fear could I see that my block was little to do with him, but my own secret terror that in some way I couldn’t even find words for, my life has added up to nothing.

So I went to the funeral. They read a poem by my late friend. It hurt so badly it felt like I was dying for a time. My heart broke for his friends and family. My heart broke for my friend, and how hard friends can be to come by. How irreplaceable each of us are in the web of our lives. I thought of the millions of people in the world and how easy it is to be lonely. How hard it can be to listen as deeply and carefully as Rose and I are learning again to listen to each other. How life is neither all triumph nor all loss. I listened to the heartfelt eulogies by his friends and saw both his pain and his life in a softer and more loving light. I thought about my friends. I thought about how I would be remembered if I died today, the way I would not want my sorrow or my struggles to be the focus, but my love and the people and things I have loved and tried to learn how to love well.

I went to a therapy appointment yesterday to open in a safe place a big painful box about family and history and abuse and relationships. I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe or stay seated on the couch. I couldn’t stop. So much love and so much pain. Agonising dilemmas that are sunk deeply into my skin like razor wire. No easy answers or lights on my path.

When I left I splashed cold water on my face and hair and wrists. I took a cold drink in a small paper cup and I staggered carefully to my car. I sat with my journal in my lap and no words until the urge to vomit passed. I drove home carefully into the sun, taking the route with the most shade cast by trees, and crept into my home to hold my little girl and a hot water bottle for the rest of the evening.

Today I look at what I have built, what I have made of my life with what I’ve given, or found, or forged, and I am content. It is humble but no secrets rot beneath the floor. It is glorious. I am limping and dancing, both. There are many beautiful and wounded people I have built relationships with, of one kind or another, tended these like gardens that need work and effort and understanding. Learning how to listen, how to speak, and how to endure. Gratitude for those who came before me and made my world possible, those who changed my world so that queer people were not vile, those with disabilities were not repulsive, trauma was not a weakness of character, and that those who were sick or poor should be given a wage to allow them shelter and food. I remember their sacrifices and their work and I am thankful. I remember them when I choose to make sacrifices and to work towards a better and kinder world for my children and their children. There is so much love here.

Painting: Silver birch tree spirit

Poppy and I spent the day together at one of our favourite parks recently. It’s a chance for me to not multitask and to be focused and present in a way I don’t often find myself doing. It was hot and dry and I found it took several hours before I adjusted to that and felt comfortable. The same for not working or cleaning or doing something on my phone, there’s always a restless period where it’s not comfortable or easy, until something adjusts and stills. Poppy and I bounce off each other and have fun in between little person big feelings. There’s often a time when we start to click together like fish swimming along side each other in a school. An attunement occurs that’s wordless and smoother. We don’t get in each other’s way so much, it’s more fluid and trusting. I love it.

We played on the playground and swings and explored the creek. Then Poppy made some art.

She was slept afterwards so we walked around until she fell asleep in the pram. Then I made some art in the shade of a huge gum tree, while she slept peacefully in the cool breeze beside me.

I wasn’t expecting to paint anything significant. I’ve just set up my travel kit with new watercolours and worked out a formula for teal, my favourite colour of ink. I was entirely focused on connecting with Poppy, not looking to fit anything else into the day.

Yet somehow, this beautiful heartbroken women emerged. It’s about the fifth time I’ve tried to paint her. She emerged without planning, starting from her open, distraught mouth and spreading into snow and trees. Painting intuitively like this is a sacred part of my arts practice.

Her hair began to resemble the tree branches and tangle around the babies and her arms. At the end I suddenly realised she was a tree spirit, which has never been part of any painting I’ve made of her. But it fits perfectly.

Christmas is extra sweet this year

We have come through a lot this year in my family, eating disorder and breakdown and a lot of challenges. We’re approaching Christmas now with this sense of how lucky we are. Things could have turned out very differently. We came close to tragedy but we are all still here, and there’s a sweetness and joy in that. Making it a fun and special time of year for Poppy is a focus, so we’ve been doing lots of fun things but pacing ourselves so it’s not too much.

We’ve made our own Christmas cards, late. Baked lots of fun gingerbread – dinosaur shapes for Poppy. Made dairy and gluten free treats for friends with intolerances. Visited the pretty light displays. Wrapped gifts. Put up a toddler friendly felt tree. Had naps, swims, and bike rides to the park. Went to a queer friendly rainbow carols service at a local church. I’ve been happily embroidering gifts and getting loads of extra time in my studio gilding prints. It’s been a busy art month for me, I’ve sold a lot of work! It’s been wonderful. ❤️

I am absolutely loving reading more about book illustration and have begun to map out a couple of roughs for possible short books next year. I may launch into my multiplicity book instead though, and I’m keen to exhibit Smooth Seas never made Skilled Sailors locally, preferably before uni kicks back in. I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

Christmas can be a painful, exhausting and stressful time of year. It can be meaningless, overtaken by other troubles needing attention. It can also be time to celebrate surviving whatever the year threw at you, to remember our departed with love and light candles for them, to celebrate and reflect and wind down from the doing and the plans and goals.

Whatever you are dealing with, I hope you have some sweet among the bitter, someone who loves you, someone to share with. ❤️

Adventures with Poppy

One day a week, I remind myself that I can be tuned into my anxiety about the future, or I can be tuned into Poppy, but not both at the same time. It sometimes takes several hours of deliberately not being focused elsewhere for me to actually feel myself settle and connect. She changes from being one responsibility among many I am juggling, to a relationship I’m sensitive to, we speak in a shared language, track each other, are sensitive to minor changes in mood and state. She is a joy to be with.

Today we went into town and listened to a busker play beautiful music. Then we spent some time in the museum, looking at the butterflies and examining shells under a microscope.

Once Poppy had run off her morning energy, we wandered more sedately through the One Mountain, One River, One Sage: Treasures from the Shandong Library exhibition. The beautiful old handmade books were delightful. ❤ We wandered through the Royal South Australian Society of Arts exhibition on the way home, and Poppy carefully re-stacked the pram so the bags were in her seat and she could ride home tucked into the basket beneath. There’s so much joy here.