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. 💜
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ❤️
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.
The flight was beautiful, I journalled and watched the clouds. I’m resting, soaking it in.
I’ve been to the Museum of Modern Art and wept on the floor at Hoda Afshar’s 2018 exhibit Remain, about the experiences of refugees on Manus Island. It’s stunning, and as much as I love public health and all the many things I do, it makes me deeply glad to be an artist and to want to stretch myself further, build my work in these spaces of such vulnerability. This is our history, being preserved here, the forbidden stories being told. Art can do that and I’m so in love with it.
Walked in the sunshine with new friends.
Washed the day from me, and slept.
Put on a beautiful dress I’ve never had the chance to wear, (non binary, gender queer people can wear dresses too if they want to) and shared a fancy dinner.
It’s a delight to be here. The alienation I’ve so often felt – in galleries, hotels, places inhabited by people with wealth, isn’t so present today. This is not my world, but I don’t feel at war with myself being here. It’s okay to visit. There’s no rage or burning anguish. I’m able to take in the pleasures and enjoy the luxuries. I’m curious and listening. Other people’s stories and experiences are always so interesting, the overlaps and the gulfs between us such rich food to share.
I keep thinking of the Pt Lincoln conference where I slept in my van in the national park because the bare hotel room stressed me. How hard it was to be there, how excited and exhausted and far beyond my own limits I was. The beginning of my breakdown, falling into the void. Months of anguish to come.
I can stand in galleries now and I’m not in burning pain. I can sleep in the hotel and enjoy the smell of the hand soap. I can walk into and out of this world without losing myself. I’m not numb and I’ve not gone native. I’m just no longer responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world.
I cried a little during a video call home with Rose and Poppy. It’s my first night away from her since she was born, and alone in my room is very alone indeed. I can hear the building air conditioning, and the gentle rumble of the lifts, but no people. I feel insulated like a single bee in a vast honeycomb. If I can’t sleep I might go sit downstairs in the bar to be near to people.
Next time I so want to see the National Art Gallery too.
Tomorrow I’ll be listening and presenting. I wish I’d brought my loom work project, I want to do something with my hands. There’s too many people to talk to, I sit in the middle of it all and let it wash over me like a river. Some of it I can catch and touch and the rest will flow past.
It’s hard to sum up what I do, my advocacy work across many domains. I haven’t used the phrase ‘multiple’ yet, I will tomorrow. I feel tired. I remember being at a conference 8 years ago and discovering 2 other multiples there, the joy I felt! Some people here have a very clear message, a very specific advocacy focus. I admire that. I think in some ways my work around adversity is that for me, but there’s other threads I’m still finding words for.
I miss my little girl.
I love this life. There’s so much joy in it. I’m glad to be here.
One day each week, Poppy and I have an adventure. Last week we went to the museum and looked at dinosaurs and opals. I thought I might be mildly hallucinating at one point but it turns out one of the taxidermy animals is animatronic and occasionally flicks it’s tail. A little sign about that would be nice!
Then one of us chased pigeons, played in a very small but nonetheless very wet mud puddle, and fell asleep. The other one of us packed up lunch and went to look at all the interesting things in the art gallery in relative peace.
It’s been a very recent development that I enjoy the art gallery. I’m absolutely wild about artists studios but have often found gallery spaces alienating. It’s been weird and a little embarrassing. It’s assumed they are my home territory when actually I used to have a lot of meltdowns after visiting galleries and didn’t usually go there if I had the choice.
But I’ve been doing lots of work unpicking mental blocks and old injuries, and Rose has taken me to some exhibitions where I’ve felt less overwhelmed by my stuff and more about to enjoy them at times. They are not home territory by any stretch (even my own studio isn’t that yet) but they are also no longer hostile territory. I wish sometimes it was a bit easier to be me.
Nonetheless, adventure time each week with Poppy is an absolute joy and doing us both a world of good.
This is one of the last little things I made in my flame work glass workshop, a tiny bee. Unfortunately because he wasn’t annealed in a kiln, his little wings broke as he cooled down. I’m currently immersed in research about kilns and torch types and where to buy oxygen tanks from. I postponed a planned exhibition of small sculptures when Rose became really sick, but I’d love to be able to put it together for next year.
This bead worked perfectly: I was practicing a technique that traps air bubbles under the glass. My teacher said I was the most gifted student with glass she’d had in 20 years of workshops. It just clicked. I adored it and I’m so keen to set up a flame work space in my studio.
I’m also hugely enjoying my studies. Epidemiology suits me and I’m loving falling down rabbit holes of information and getting a handle on the big topics. Today I was digging into health prevention, surveillance, and theories of health promotion. It’s fascinating to see how frameworks that fit one scenario so well (such as smallpox) have been such unwieldy tools in other contexts (such as diabetes), and how poor evaluation can make health promotion interventions look successful (eg education leading to increased health literacy) when they actually backfire and fail on the important scales (eg increased stigma, greater reluctance to engage in prevention or treatment). I’m just enjoying it so much.
My other project at the moment is a couple of talks interstate. I’ll be traveling to Sydney and Melbourne next month to give presentations at big events. This always involves a fair bit of preparation, both for the talk, planning the event with the folks coordinating it, and planning the trip. I’ll be doing a road trip and bringing the family with me to Melbourne, which is very exciting. I’m really looking forward to meeting the people behind the emails too.
I’m still practicing Kaizen and being mindful of Barbara Sher’s types of scanner, hoping that I’ll learn what schedule suits me best and how to set up my projects so they and I both thrive. I’ve several more wonderful projects waiting impatiently in the wings, but right now I’m finding downtime is important and immersion time helps, trying to change hats all day long is exhausting. Hopefully in time I’ll learn more how to balance everything I love so much.
It was a wonderful week and I’m excited about the week ahead too. We continue to muddle through; work, study, friends, home, family. Learning, helping, creating. Good things are emerging. ❤️
Poppy and I spent the day together yesterday. We visited a festival in town, spent a long time learning how to cuddle bunnies, pat baby sheep, not to be scared of the chicks peeping.
It wasn’t one of the easier days. She had meltdowns about wearing clothes, and howled all through the bus trip because I wouldn’t let her kick the window. Sobbing hysterically on the seat next to me, wailing ‘Don’t touch me Mummy!’ as I dug deep for patience. There’s nothing like parenting an unhappy little person to make you doubt your competence! The best moment was when she was dancing to a choir, full of vim and delight and I could sit for a moment under shade and rest my tired brain from the high alert state of watching a small person running around an un-fenced area surrounded by traffic.
It wasn’t one of my easier days, wrestling a sinus infection and struggling to get up to date with the grad cert I’d been a late enrolment in… The challenge hasn’t been the content of the course it’s been the online format, which was a surprise to me.
So Wednesday for example I went into uni and hoped to get some work done after an appt, then discovered I couldn’t complete one assignment because the necessary information had been sent out prior to my enrolment, so I didn’t have access to it. So I hopped on a computer and figured I’d listen to a lecture, then realised I didn’t have earbuds with me so I couldn’t do that without disturbing others. So I came home and tried to access the lecture on the laptop I’ve been borrowing, but it’s embedded in a power point and the open office software messed so badly with the formatting I couldn’t follow any of the text. So I dug up a pair of earbuds and tested them in my phone to make sure they worked, then headed off to my office which has the microsoft office suite on my desktop. Where I discovered that desktops can’t process earbuds with inbuilt mics unless you have a splitter to separate the signals. So still no lecture for me. At which point I cried and came home.
The trickiest part is that I’m navigating these challenges I need to keep my mental space together. The more I struggle with things the stronger my sense of anxiety and displacement become – that I shouldn’t be in higher education, that I don’t belong and I’m going to fail (again). I’ve been talking myself gently through all the challenges for a couple of weeks and bouncing back well, but yesterday with uni and a work challenge not coming together I fell in a hole. I got back from my day with Poppy and couldn’t make decisions anymore. Should I try to get more done (everything is due on Sunday! and I’m late with everything!) or try to rest and clear my head? Bath for restoration or bed for sleep? Poppy woke me up hourly the night before and I felt like my head was a watermelon hit with a hammer. Am I getting sick with the cold everyone’s had, in which case this might be the clearest I feel as I go down over the weekend, or is this mostly sleep deprivation in which case don’t soldier through, rest and come back to it.
My mind obsesses about the problems, trying to solve them even when it’s clear I’ve no capacity left to think clearly. It adds in bigger, older ones I haven’t solved – what am I doing with my work life? How am I going to schedule everything? Where’s the next job coming from? Smaller problems get unimaginably large as the overwhelm diminishes my capacity. Everything clusters together into knots where I can’t assess priority anymore. It all feels urgent and impossible, the unmopped floors, the people I haven’t caught up with, the tax I haven’t quite finished, the assignments due in days… I notice the biggest anxiety is in thinking I’m supposed to look like I know what I’m doing but I’m scared it’s becoming obvious I’m unprofessional/incompetent/unskilled. I’m afraid this is the reason I’ve failed at all those job applications, and the more anxious I am that it’s my fault, the more desperately I try to show I’m competent rather than bewildered. A customer texts asking if I’m free for a gig and I seize up, unable to message back because I have a social engagement at that time and I can’t decide if I need the income or the time with friends more, can’t even work out how I would work that out, and my car died last week, very expensively, so if I say yes to the gig I’m also taking Rose’s car from her and making a choice about her access.
The longer I don’t text back the more my head is screaming with alarms about not being professional, and the worse the sense of failure and self loathing get. Once they are too strong, I can’t push through them enough to write back, can’t work out what to write, can’t make the decision, and everything I do, including continuing not to write back, is utterly utterly wrong, self sabotaging, and proves I have brought all the bad luck in my life on myself. I can see it happening but I’m swept along in a avalanche. Every move I make is wrong, and I can’t reach out for help because I think that’s probably wrong too. I open texts and messages and can’t work out what to write or who to send it to. I can argue all the cases (reaching out for help is a good thing, chasing being rescued is a bad thing, so and so won’t mind hearing from me, I’ve been leaning on so and so too much) and I can’t work out a fair or reality based guideline. I’m just lost and inclined to blame myself. My thinking spirals in on itself and the intelligence which is so useful and incisive in some areas becomes destructive beyond my control.
Overwhelm is such a huge part of dealing with parenting and mental health and yet I find it’s not talked about that often. It’s been a big part of my focus in my family for the past couple of months – what sets it off, makes it worse, makes it better? Carving up my life and rearranging it so it’s not part of my baseline anymore.
So yesterday I went to bed but couldn’t sleep, had a bath and felt physically a bit better. Visited friends for board games and found that I couldn’t do the games and run the mental programs of trying to figure out my study and business/work. That was desperately needed and nothing was engaging me enough to get me there until then. The mental break was restorative. Last night Poppy only woke a couple of times. Real rest, mental and physical. So today, I’ve read over the email from my lecturer that has bewildered me every time I’ve looked at it for two days and at last I think I can see what he wants, I think it’s just an odd grammar structure possibly part of English as a second language (wild guess on my part) where the the question asks What but really means How or Why. Maybe this is normal for public health? I don’t know yet. I’ll adapt.
These are the skills and patterns I need to get this cert. I am going to figure this out.
Deep breath. Soothing internal voice. We can do this. Back to it.
A3 size. Ink on Arches paper.
A little while ago, Rose took Poppy and I camping, back to Rapid Bay. The place we used to go when dating. The place I went alone to mourn Tamlorn the Mother’s Day after the miscarriage. The place I fell off the planet into the void when running from the ‘real world’, but sent alone under the stars, in exile.
Together we watched the stars, a million million of them, brighter than I’ve ever seen. Satellite and stars falling and the milky way a mist across the sky. In the bay, dolphins swam with their young. Poppy asleep on my lap, my eyes wet with tears. I didn’t know if there would more nights like this for us. Somehow here we are, holding hands under the stars.
It is the work of our lives to find some way to stay alive, to still feel alive.
In Rose’s arms there, I felt so alive, it was like breathing stars that fluttered in my chest. We sat up in chairs opposite each other, held hands and looked up. It felt like the world tilted and we were looking down, into an ocean of lights. We held onto our chairs and each other and kept looking, hearts cracked open in wonder. All that starlight poured in. Love grows stronger under moonlight, feeds on poems.
We sit at the edge of the world and hold hands. Our child sleeps. The wind is warm and soft. We look up. We fall into stars. Love binds us to the world and each other. We do not fall.
My wonderful sister was married on the weekend! Rose and I were bridesmaids and Poppy was a flower girl. It was very beautiful, very moving, and I cried through most of it! We were not as helpful in months prior as I’d have liked to be, Rose being in hospital was unfortunate timing. But we were able to help a bit with their gorgeous newborn baby so preparations could happen, and I helped make a bouquet and the fresh flowers and pails for the flower girls and boys to scatter.
Most of the petals were harvested from my garden that morning, keeping to the theme of purple with a little white, pink, and red, and everything chosen needed to be soft for any bare feet to step on.
My clever sister designed her brooch bouquet with gift brooches from family and friends. I wired it up and helped secure it all in place.
This was the bouquet part way through construction: a bit less glam at this stage! Don’t ask me to make another one, I swear I’ve got more grey hair!
Funny story, I was finishing the handle with some small nails the night before the wedding when Poppy grabbed a jar of nails off my desk, tipped it up to her mouth like a cup, then coughed and spluttered. When quested she told us she’d swallowed a nail so we all had to trek into emergency again. There, the nurse stripped her down and discovered she set off a metal detector over her chest and back, faintly! We were facing possible surgery and most of us not making it back to the wedding. But the x-rays came back completely clear, so after many unhappy hours of nil by mouth, we were able to take her home and continue as planned. Lucky!
There was a surprise naming ceremony for my tiny niece at the wedding too, and I was so honoured to become a godparent. ❤️ My sister is a truly lovely, brilliant, and kind person, one of my closest friends. To celebrate and part of such a joyful (exhausting) time in her life makes me very happy. I can’t wait for our kids to play together. And maybe sometime for Rose and I to celebrate our family too.
You know it’s a good weekend when you wake up on an airbed on the floor of your mates place.
Rose was back in the ER last night having brain scans to rule out scary possible causes for severe headaches and really high blood pressure. I wound up driving all over the countryside and took her back up to the party late in the evening then decided to stay put. Her scans were clear, thankfully. Something’s going on but it’s for the local doc to sort out.
Apart from the health scare it was a great day. I even made it to the studio, bought some new paints, and started a new art work. Had some folks switch out who haven’t been around in ages. Felt liberating.
Rose and I celebrated 6 years together this week. We went out for ice cream together and have another camping trip planned. It feels like we reached rock bottom recently and are coming out the other side. Falling back in love. Making a life again, not just surviving and holding on. After the long downwards slide, engines on fire and screaming, it’s exhilerating. Still here. We’ll make it work.
Posted this on Facebook: Happy 6 years together, darling. What an adventure! You are the most amazing person, so kind, devoted and loving. You have such depth and complexity, so many contradictions and unexpected qualities. You give me great courage! Your patient and enduring love make you the most attentive and wonderful parent. Your honesty and bravery inspire me. Your dreams for our future make my heart happy. The humble way you learn and change your mind and explore life keep you open to new horizons and possibilities. You are beautiful and strong. I’m proud to be with you. I love you.
Waking up to find it’s all not as bad as it seemed. Counting the cost and tallying the things we still have. It’s enough. There’s enough here for a good life. There’s good earth here to grow in. Good memories to build on.
The household is still sleeping. Poppy is pressed into my back, warm and soft. The sunlight after the night’s storm is chill and white. My bones are full of happy conversations around the fire with friends, and chiming softly. It’s damn cold. But yesterday we switched and stretched and remembered the real world isn’t the only one out there. Stepped sideways into other places. Supped, cracked bones, sucked marrow from life. Ink on fingers, poems slyly in mind like sleeping snakes. She kisses me and I can tell she means it. I sit under the tree in the backyard and the world turns over in its sleep, I slip past and out some other door where my chest is a seashell holding the roar of the ocean. We drive in the night, Bowie, NIN, VNV, Numan singing of darkness. Into the company of people and we are not afraid.
Poppy is two now! She is one of the greatest joys of my life. I never thought I would meet anyone else who loves swings as much as I do! We spend hours on this little swing in our back yard, or bigger swings at the park. ‘Higher, Mummy!’ She sings to herself on them, her own complicated versions of Twinkle Little Star or Indy Wincy Spider, concluded with giggling. Sometimes like yesterday, she stays on so long so rocks herself to sleep. Her little head droops and eyes close. I gently bring the swing to a stop and gather her into my arms, soothing the storm of tears about wanting to be back on the swing until she calms back to sleep.
Most mornings we share breakfast together in the back yard. Porridge, cereal with banana, eggy toast, and tea. Under the tree my heart expands, wakens more softly and looks at the day with a hopeful spark.
All my life I have so deeply wanted to be a parent. I am so grateful and so fortunate. She is glorious. And over the past month, I’ve learned to my surprise that I love and am well suited to being a stay at home parent. When both Star and Rose needed great care I quit work and felt like my life had ended. A sense of fatalism and despair. But I also felt something I didn’t expect. Joy, relief, new hope. As I match my days to Poppy’s needs and rhythms, a life emerges that is splendid. There’s peace, and fun, and connection. So I keep building on it. I find that my ideas about work are deeply poisoned. I am trying so hard to understand and recover from them. It is slow, painful, frustrating. Full of flashes of insight (work is my punishment for being on welfare) and such profound shame and self loathing I cannot understand anything or progress anywhere. I sit in front of my shrink sobbing until I want to throw up and there’s no understanding.
I’ve quit work. My work now includes peace and connection. There’s moments I simply sit and look at the sky. There’s tickling Poppy while she shrieks and tickles me back. There’s holding her as she falls asleep and feeling my heart expand and burst softly in my chest. A hundred invitations to be present in my life in a way I haven’t been.
Softly softly, the carer counselor tells me. We lose connection with ourselves and want to change everything, make it all right, now. Little changes for carers drained to the last drop. Choose what I want for lunch. Sit in my favourite place. Don’t always offer to do, eat, watch what the other person wants. Undo the impulse to destructive self sacrifice one tiny decision at a time, a few times a day. Tuning back in to my self and owning my own choices.
Rose and I realise that I’ve also stepped back from her pain in a way that’s blocked me from connection. She’s vulnerable, as the non gestational, non biological parent. Even more so with a terrible history of losses. I am sensitive to her fear, her desire for closeness to Poppy. When Rose is around Poppy, I fade into the background, unobtrusively. I cook or clean and care but I do not play or adventure or adore. I don’t step into the place that makes Rose sad or afraid. And in this way, for the best of reasons, I step out of my own life in a tiny thousand ways. My own relationship with Poppy. I become a caretaker instead of a parent. Rose has always seen this and been puzzled by it. She would try to cue me back in touch, help me notice when Poppy was trying to get my attention, encourage us to spend time together. I would read her buried anxiety and unthinkingly step back. Love as sacrifice. A vicarious life. My needs last. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone so out of touch with themselves they are barely in the room.
Rose emerged from her breakdown to find what she’d been hoping for has happened. Poppy and I sing to each other, snuggle, connect. She invites me back in, learns to celebrate alongside the little wince when I’m connected. I pay attention to my pull off course, the inclination to fade back and make small course corrections, a hug, eye contact, a few shared words. This child has two parents.
I am discovering the power of limits as well as nurturing. That a deeply loving yes must be bounded by the capacity for a deeply loving no. A willingness to let the other hurt in pursuit of their own growth. I adore Rose but should never have withdrawn from Poppy to make her more comfortable. Nor would she ever have asked that of me! There’s a kind of nurturing that is life giving and a kind that stifles, incapacitates, infantilises, wounds. I have mixed them up together and not been wise in my caring. Those I love and tend have grown both stronger and weaker in my care. I did not mean to harm but I have harmed. Stripped of agency, responsibility, the belief in a person’s capacity, they drown in their own vulnerability. If we never hurt we are unable to learn or choose. My love and caring has set people free and eased loneliness and suffering, but also created a kind of institutionalisation I did not foresee, and trapped me in a dungeon alongside them, also being tortured by their demons. Most carers know these places, these dilemmas. They are deep and difficult.
We are taking many steps a to a new life. Small errors are turned by time into routes way off course. The power of leadership, parenting, caring amplifies our weaknesses and impacts those we’re responsible to. Growth is a lifelong process, and sometimes tiny changes have huge impacts. Poppy takes me by the hand and asks ‘Swing, Mummy?’. We go swing.
It’s been an incredible week here. Rose took me camping to my favourite place last night, by the sea under the stars. My heart is so full.
Poppy had hand foot and mouth this week, poor love. Today she was recovered and no longer contagious so she could go back to day care.
We couldn’t take her anywhere near other children and she was very bored and frustrated, so yesterday while recovering from the conference I took her to the beach for a picnic. It was an absolute joy. One of the silver linings of the terrible crisis in my family has been getting a chance to spend more time with her and connect in a way I’d started to lose. I was doing admin and housework and running around being responsible but missing out on snuggles, and being told about dinosaurs in a very serious voice, and the warm fuzzy wonderfulness of parenting her.
Things are easing. I’ve handed in the final draft of the prison magazine project I’ve been working on and the feedback has been stellar so far. I’m starting to cast a careful eye over the next possible projects with dawning excitement.
Rose is healing from the devastating breakdown, a little more present each day. More stars in our skies. We both step back from the edge, baby steps. She’s exploring study options and thinking of retraining in a new field. We are starting to dream about our future again.
And Georgie, Beyond Blue CEO, has tweeted this, which feels like it belongs on a book cover or something. It’s a beautiful summary, I’m happy to try and live up to that.
Star has her 18th birthday party tonight. Friends have generously opened their home to her friends. I’m currently resting on the couch while Poppy sleeps on me. I’ve made 36 small pizzas so far and I have another 12 to go. Star had severe tonsillitis earlier in the week but is looking much better and jittery/excited. She has cute balloons and a photobooth.
My family has a week of birthdays all in a row which is hectic to say the least. We are spacing the celebrations this year. Poppy’s was last weekend in a local park with hot soup, nature crafts, and umbrellas on standby. Rose will be in a couple of weeks in a cafe with delicious chocolate treats and boardgames.
I’m just so glad to be doing this. So glad Rose is still with us and able to be part of things. Happy Star is 18 and doing so well in her own recovery! She’s house hunting and excited about the next stage of her life. And Poppy is 2, fearless, loving, and funny. We are such a mess. And we are all okay. Such a beautiful, vulnerable collection of people I adore.
Our tribe have surrounded us with so much love. Some days I can’t feel it but no one seems to be taking that personally. Funnily enough it’s easier for me to feel the love around us when it’s directed towards someone else I love. A friend of a friend is making a cake for Star and I damn well cried when I heard about it. That we are trusted and loved and considered deserving of informal support when the formal family, health, and mental health supports have been so much less than excellent this past few months… To have not just our people care for us but have them draw on their own networks for us. To have people who are not in such pain welcome us into their lives in so many ways so we can rest in their peace for awhile… It’s healing. It gets us through the day, and that’s all I’m thinking about at the moment.
These birthdays are so worth celebrating because each of these people are so awesome in their own way and I’m grateful they are in my life. ❤️
Yesterday, I got stuck. At the mid point between home and studio, I turned off the road and parked. Unable to decide if I should go forward or back. I sat for two hours, while the rain poured down. I could not work out what I needed. I thought of calling Lifeline, or a friend, I tried to formulate text messages or status updates. I listened and asked inside for clarity. I worked through various options like a game of chess. I got cold.
Poppy was in day care and didn’t need me. Star was going to visit but was unwell. Rose was going to visit but was exhausted and rough and needing alone time. I felt I should go home but was also afraid of conflict and tangles. I felt I should go to the studio but could not make myself travel further away from home.
I came home in the end and tried to sleep. Everyone else slept. A bone deep chill had settled into me, fully clothed beneath blankets I still shivered. I gave up and crept into a deep hot bath, trickling in scorching water until my skin turned pink. The chill finally eased and the paralysis with it.
I often do not know what to say, what I need, what to do. I feel like a puppet who’s strings have been cut. With Poppy I’m purposeful, her needs are clear and straightforward, they sing a song who’s steps I know and believe in. With Rose I’m tangled tangled tangled. I struggle to shake the feeling that I’m destroying my life.
I write text messages and don’t send them. I don’t know what to say. There are no words. I don’t know who to tell. We are so surrounded by love and I am afraid. I try to reach out and find my hand still by my side. Then the moment passes and I can laugh again. My life does not feel so broken and her smile is not full of the ruins of our love. My world flickers between broken and whole. Star drives away for the night and candles gutter out in my heart. Rose does likewise and my anger dies like a wind blown out. I do not understand anything, but walk blindly in fog. Poppy curls up in my lap, wraps her hands around mine. I smell her clean hair, soak in her sweet smile. I have never felt so ill equipped to keep her world bright. Yet I am doing it, following the tides, come what may, cooking, cleaning, cuddling. She animates me. I am hers.
When all the threads unravel the simplicity of story and roles gives shape to the formless and meaning to the obtuse. They hold me like a vase holds water, and I am grateful. The kitchen is clean, the child fed, not all the world is formless chaos. It will not always feel this way.