Poppy has a lucky escape

I had a terrible scare last week. I wrote this while we were in hospital for observation:

“I’m sleep deprived, incredibly uncomfortable, and longing for home. We’re back in the local hospital with Poppy. She’s made a miraculous escape from a horrible home accident. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen is my tiny daughter curled up inside the wreckage in my laundry, her little body so vulnerable between huge besser bricks and cast iron pots. 

I was cooking dinner last night with Poppy at my feet playing. There was a horrific crash like the house had fallen in and I spun around to see my laundry a disaster area. I couldn’t stop screaming Oh my God! over and over. I ran to it and found Poppy curled up in the middle of it, screaming hysterically. I scooped her into my arms ran for my phone and called an ambulance while checking for blood. 

Somehow in the few minutes I made all the needed phone calls, turned off the stove, and packed a bag for hospital while Poppy wailed in my arms.”

We were kept in overnight for observation. Watching the bruises appear on her skin at 3am was one of the saddest experiences. But all has been well! Her x-rays were clear, she’s been alert and active, and we have escaped anything serious. Her bruises are already almost healed.

We think one of the large besser bricks grazed her cheek, ear, and shoulder. 

I pulled her out of this. She was curled in ball where the jar of peanut butter is, under the table top, in a triangle between the dishwasher and the bricks.

We came so close to tragedy. We have been so lucky. The overnight vigil at the hospital we just watched and waited to see if our luck would run out. She is a fearless, adventurous child, already walking and now climbing. Our lives split into the possibility of loss, both Rose and I looking into that dark place and wondering if there was a way to survive it. 

Then suddenly, the sun comes out. Poppy is fine. We are all okay. The world keeps spinning and the sky doesn’t fall. The other life is left behind like a nightmare we wake from. It lingers in dreams. The bruises fade. 

Tomorrow family comes to help us bolt furniture to the walls and make the home safer for a climbing toddler. 

Poppy plays on my lap, squeals with delight at being bounced on my legs, sings Mumumum at me while I grin madly. How long I’ve waited for that song. 

The silence did not fall. The song goes on. My heart is unbroken. My life is rich. My world is still beautiful.

Busy and Happy

Running around between consultations and wrestling with the office printer today… First colour run of a stunning zine submitted by a local group for the South Australian Mental Health Commission consultation to develop the next Mental Health Strategic Plan… and it’s beautiful. I’m very tired but very happy. 

Holding spaces

Finding myself needing downtime, debriefing, and reflection space. So many conversations and experiences to digest. I recognise that lingering uneasy feeling of needing to stop taking in new experiences and find a safe place to slow everything down and unpack. 

I find myself thinking of the unpaid and often hidden and unrecognized work of the precious friends, mentors, and loved ones who hold a space like this. I’m seeing how to use such blessings more wisely and waste less time circling the same dilemmas. It’s a rare gift, space in which feelings don’t have to be rational or justified to be explored. I have worked hard to get better at doing it myself for myself and for others, to support people to feel genuinely safe, heard, and understood. 

I’m deeply grateful to Rose who has created this haven for me for years now, hours of conversations that at times seem pointless, confusing, frustrating. But that commitment to validation and reflection where I’ve been able to move out of personal journals and into relationship and conversation has been invaluable to me. Her love and skill and patience is a big part of why we work so well together. She is brilliant at listening, being safe for the vulnerable or traumatised, and remembering a my wildness and my darkness when I’m burned dry and can’t recall that I’m really a mad poet who has learned to mimic a regular person but I live, breathe, and recharge best out in the wilds, running along the edge of the night. 

I’m so blessed to have some friends who also hold spaces for me, online or face to face. Their timely connection has been the difference between lonely anguish and comfort, severe distress and pain I can howl out of my heart. I’m aware of how lucky I am.

I’m struck once again by how many aspects of therapy that are healing and helpful are also aspects of life and relationship. They don’t have to be walled away as trained skills available only in treatment, by those in regulated relationships. They can and often are part of the very best friendships, they are part of the love that passes between partners, parents, children. 

Eugene Gendlin recently passed away. I found his book on Focussing extremely interesting and helpful. I was intrigued that he didn’t take his ideas and lock them away in the exclusive domain of therapists, as is usual. Instead he considered focusing to be a skill any two people could learn and support each other in. Thousands of people have learned and offered this skill of holding space and listening to each other in support groups online and around the world. Precious, peer based. No power. No treatment. Connection. There’s nothing at all wrong with needing professional support. But I don’t like the locking of knowledge into silos, reserved for the experts and not recognised as the significant skill and profound kindness it is when we receive it in our personal lives.

Mother’s Day with Kids

It’s been a wonderful day, very precious to experience a Mother’s Day that didn’t feel like being eviscerated. Rose and I have had a day of tending. We’ve spent time with Mums and women who nurture, and reached out to a few folks who find today hurts. We soaked up the joy of our kids and talked through some of the sadness and yearning that’s part of today when there babies not here and Mother’s not here.

Rose took us to a forest and we breathed it in. She took this beautiful photo of me on the playground, wearing my awesome birthday shirt and boots.

We attended a couples massage class together which was beautiful and powerful and deeply needed. We sat and looked into each others eyes and cried. We touched each other and eased pain. It was one of the first times we’ve been alone together since Poppy was born, and the first that we didn’t use that time to sleep! (It was tempting) 

We visited my Mum and Star’s Mum and enjoyed gifts in bed and sat around a campfire and did no work or housework or admin at all, just connected with each other and our people. 

It was beautiful.

Poppy is doing better

We all came home from hospital once Poppy no longer needed a nasal gastric tube to help with the dehydration. There was an influx of sick kids needing the  beds and they were pretty confident the test results would show she had a bout of gastro that was resolving. We brought her home Monday evening, did fluid tracking for another 24hrs during which time she continued to improve.

So it was a bit of a shock to follow up with her doctor on Wednesday and learn that her test results were not consistent with gastro (not to mention that no one else we know has it or had caught it since she became sick). Brain injury and meningitis were ruled out, which is a relief. But we’re not really sure what happened. And she’s continued to be off colour since. She was severely dehydrated so we’ve been told that if she shows signs of dehydration again, spikes a fever, or vomits twice in a row we’re to take her back to Hospital for assessment. We haven’t needed to do that, thankfully. But it was a long week following.

She’s vomiting once severely every few days, has low urine output, and isn’t sleeping well. Her latch has changed and nursing is painful and leaving blisters.

So we’ve been keeping her close, running on very little sleep, and keeping an eye on her. 9 months in we’ve done both my nightmare parenting scenarios- both parents very sick at the same time, and baby very sick with gastro type issues on a camp. Ye gods. 

So that’s where things are up to. Work is wonderful but incredibly busy and intense. Rose and I both worked at times this week and are frantically catching up on housework and meal prep. I came home wired, excited, and exhausted​ recently and just dropped all my bags by the front door and spent an hour getting muddy in the front garden with Poppy. I knew if I walked in the house I would collapse​ on the couch and not move again. But digging up weeds and getting my hands in soil amidst the last autumn roses was exactly what I needed to calm and breathe again. Sometimes checking out at the end of the day isn’t resting it’s just disconnecting. 

I’ve also been reading about secondary lactose intolerance which can happen following a viral infection that temporarily damages the villi in the intestines, making it difficult to process dairy and breast milk. As the gut heals the villi grow back and bubs can digest everything again, but it might explain the ongoing illness aspect of this. Our GP agrees so we’re just taking it gently while Poppy recovers. If things don’t improve we’ll explore possible allergies but I’m hopeful we’ve got things sussed out. 

Yesterday Poppy spent her first afternoon in day care, which went really well. It’s a Family day care run by a friend with a similar parenting approach to us. There’s a sandpit and opportunities for playing in mud, and a cat and chickens and lots of books. Poppy is very adventurous and fascinated by other children so we’re hopeful that with the right approach she’ll find staying there a treat. Frankly I wouldn’t mind checking in for a couple of days playing in the garden myself. We’re very lucky to have such a quality option close by, it’s a far cry from some places I’ve been in with their obsessive sterilising of toys and anxiety about the weather. 

I guess it’s a little bit like mental health care that way, the most expensive, shiny, clinical settings are often where the worst ‘care’ happens, while the underfunded, homey drop in centre can be where the profound interpersonal skills and human connection that saves lives happens. That kind of ‘impressive professional looking’ and ‘human’ so rarely go together. 

So she and other children played and explored and cuddled and ate together. Rose and​ I fretted quietly. When I went to pick her up she was fast asleep so I sat with her until she woke. On seeing me she cried a little and we talked and cuddled until she felt better. She nursed and slept in my lap all evening, catching up on contact. I felt the mix of anxiety, relief, bewilderment, gratitude, and frank surprise that this is my life that has been a part of parenting since the beginning. We keep feeling our way forwards. My days are bookended by absolute joy.

Advocacy – Breastfeeding in Public

I’ve been doing more advocacy work in several areas lately, and working on my terror of journalists… (I’m queer, poor, out about my mental health challenges etc… a member of various groups often not treated well by media) It’s a little bit of an experiment to see what I’m capable of and what the costs are for myself and my family. I’m pretty comfortable with being my own media but handing control over words and images to someone else, and being vulnerable to having your story fitted to their ideas, values, and perceptions is a very different thing.

Breastfeeding parents deserve much better support. I’ve been unfortunate to find myself in a couple of difficult situation, and fortunate in that the journalists who I’ve spoken with have been friendly and not misrepresented me. So a while ago I was interviewed for a snippet on the Channel 7 news which was also shared to their Facebook page. I watched the social media storm once the story went up. I wrote this blog post and then held it in draft for a few months to let things calm down.

Most of the online conversation completely missed the point, sadly. Which is simply this:

I don’t think it’s okay for a business to:

  • Refuse to own an unusual policy and blame others instead (‘we wish we could but we can’t because they won’t let us’)
  • Keep their policy quiet so many people who it will impact are not aware of it
  • Ask people who have fallen foul of their policy and only found out at the last minute to take down a polite post in the event page online informing and cautioning others it will impact
  • Not release a public statement about their policy once they realise people are not aware of it, but instead continue to allow people to discover it at the gates of the venue where they are denied entrance because of it
  • Randomly enforce their policy by allowing some people to bypass it if they argued it was discrimination

That seems crystal clear to me, and I think most people would agree it’s bad form. That’s why I spoke up. Whether the policy itself is legal is still unclear to me, a call to the Equal Opportunities Commission wasn’t able to clear that up.

What most people were arguing about is:

  • Whether the policy itself is a good idea
  • What ‘good parents’ should be doing

While these are important topics, from my perspective they are not actually the point in this situation. If the policy is legal, then any business that has it should have the decency to own it, be clear and consistent about it, and make sure the people it impacts know about it. That seems simple to me.

I knew that a social media backlash of some kind was likely when I agreed to be interviewed. Breastfeeding, and babies inconveniencing other people are hot topics, and the internet can be a scary place! Don’t read the comments is the mantra for a reason. I’ve been doing more advocacy in various ways lately and I’m slowly extending my capacity and working to reduce my vulnerabilities. I usually follow a fairly careful – praise in public, criticise in private approach with my online sharing, but I do make exceptions when I feel it’s warranted – in this case I’ve already complained directly and been shut down, and this is important to talk about.

The policy in question?

Not allowing babes in arms at an outdoor picnic concert – Missy Higgins and the Australian Symphony Orchestra, because it was an 18+ event. Here’s the context:

  • Here in Australia it is normal that babes in arms can attend many 18+ events, free. They can be brought into pubs or other venues that serve alcohol, they can come to concerts and music events, they can even travel free on domestic flights. It’s generally understood that babies are not benefiting from the event so they don’t need a ticket, and they need to come because they need to be cared for – especially those who are breastfed and like Poppy won’t take a bottle. This is a lot more common than many people think. At the time, if she couldn’t go somewhere, I couldn’t go there.
  • We have strong laws to protect breastfeeding in Australia; it is illegal to prevent someone breastfeeding their baby. These laws are essential because there is a lot of hostility from some people. Mums still have issues with being asked to leave restaurants, told they have to feed in toilets or go home, or being harassed and even abused by strangers while nursing – all kinds of things that make being a breastfeeding Mum really hard. So the laws are important because some people have an intense ‘ick’ reaction to breastfeeding and try very hard to make those of us who do it feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or even unsafe when we try to go about our normal lives. The Equal Opportunity Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone in customer service “because they have a child with them or need to feed a child (including breast and bottle-feeding)“.

Remember the issue at hand – if you’re going to have a policy, own it, be honest and upfront about it, and do your best to make sure people affected are aware of it and don’t get caught out by it.

The Story

So, I’m home with Poppy tonight, while lovely Rose goes off to the concert we planned to attend as a family. Back in August, friends all teamed up and bought us both tickets to a beautiful outdoor concert of Missy Higgins and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as a ‘welcome to the world’ gift once Poppy safely arrived. We’ve been planning tonight for months. Rose has been playing Missy Higgins music to Poppy so she’s familiar with it. We bought baby headphones which we’ve used successfully at other events in case it was too loud. We have infant safe insect repellent in case of mosquitos. Rose especially has been super excited because she’s really into Missy and has been since forever. When they sold out of hampers and we were broke because Rose’s wallet was stolen, she was worried because their website said we were not allowed to bring our own food. So she called them and said I was breastfeeding and couldn’t possibly go 6+ hours without eating, will there be other food available on the night? They said yes and we planned to put a little borrowed money aside for a meal.

So it was a nasty surprise when our mates contacted us and said – so sorry we’ve just found out no babies allowed! We were sad and upset and called the venue to check. They confirmed this and said it was not their idea, they would love to have babies there, but the liquor licensing laws prevent it. We were pretty upset that even when we called them and mentioned breastfeeding, they hadn’t told us about not allowing babies. They said it was on their website under FAQ’s but when we checked those went up months after the tickets had been purchased. Rose put up a sad but polite post on Facebook in the event letting other breastfeeding Mums know they couldn’t bring their babies. Another Mum found herself in the same position and people started to make phone calls to try and figure out who was responsible for this policy, why none of us knew about it, and if it could be changed.

The liquor licensing people said it was nothing to do with them, vendors set their own policy. The local council likewise. Missy Higgins team said they can’t overturn a decision by the vendor. The Equal Opportunity Commission said they are uncertain if a venue has the right to deny entrance to a baby under these circumstances. We got worried about our tickets to see Amanda Palmer next year and checked in with them – yep, babies are fine, please just take them out of the room if they cry. Phew! That’s the usual scenario, and exactly what we planned to do.

So we went back to the vendor and said hey, council and liquor licensing say babies can attend an 18+ event like this, can we please bring her. Vendor still says no and still insists it’s not their policy or fault. Then they ask can we please take down our post letting other parents know about it. That’s the point at which I got really cranky, because it’s one thing to have a policy like this, and it’s another entirely to not tell people about it! We ask for a refund of my ticket and venue says they will do that.

Phone calls and emails are going back and forth and things are kicking off on social media. People are getting the wrong end of the stick and arguments are breaking about out whether a venue can prevent a Mum from breastfeeding (they can’t and they weren’t trying to, they were preventing the baby from coming) or whether a concert is a suitable venue for a baby, which is a whole different kettle of fish. This was about a baby not being allowed in when usually they would be, and the venue handling the situation in a way I found distressing.

A friend of mine who went along on Friday night messages me to tell me that there is a baby there and they’ve been let in. They go and chat and find out that they were confronted with the ‘no babies allowed’ policy at the door. Shocked, they argued that was discrimination and were let in with their baby, but told they might be asked to leave by security at any time. They let my friend take a photo of their baby to prove they were allowed in, in case it helps us argue to be included. Venue continue to argue it’s out of their hands.

One friend emails a journalist who then reaches out to Rose online. I’m madly anxious about the media and worried about the shit storm that’s developing online, but I’m also angry about how the venue have treated people and the misinformation that’s going on. Harassing parents with babies at the gates is rubbish. So a lovely journalist and a cameraman turn up to my house to interview me. I run home from the blessingway (baby shower) I’ve been at and change out of my pants which have baby poo on them (parenting is glamorous) and stand on my porch to talk about how badly this has been handled. They tell us about the media statement from the venue, which to my mind is waffly and vague and implies they are unaware of the issues and unsure how to proceed. It sounds suggestive that maybe they are now letting babies in after all. Rose calls them again and is told that they are not now and have not ever let babies in for this type of event, not do they plan to. They continue to blame licensing despite us having verified directly with licensing that they wrote the license specifically allowing children to be present. When Rose also tells them she knows they let at least one baby in yesterday, they bizarrely claim the baby must have been smuggled in by its parents. Baffled and frustrated, we give up.

Our friends turn up with icecream. They leave the icecream as consolation for me, and take Rose off to the concert. I get a bit teary about staying home. I jitter my way anxiously through dinner, watch the snippet when it comes on the news and feel hugely relieved about it. A couple of words I wouldn’t use (Poppy isn’t a newborn, and I wouldn’t describe myself as devastated) but they’ve been true to the situation. Phew!

I hang out with Poppy, nursing and helping her nap, and when the clip goes up online have a quick look at the comments which are mostly negative, hostile, and missing the point. My Mum comes over and we play board games. It’s hardly the worst thing to be home with Poppy. 🙂 Rose comes home and shows me a video she took of Missy singing a lullaby she wrote for her baby boy. It’s stunning, we both get a little teary. I’m sure Missy wouldn’t be okay with any of this if she knew about it. It was a truly beautiful night.

What do I think of a policy of not allowing babies into events like this?

As to the points people are mostly arguing about – obviously I personally think the policy is not a good idea. A picnic orchestra is hardly a thrash metal mosh pit and seems to me to be a perfectly suitable place for a baby. I’m concerned that banning babies effectively bans the Mum and the breastfeeding, which may even be the covert intention when people insist on policies like this, who knows? I wasn’t the only person unable to attend because I was nursing a baby.

Policies and laws around things like this are trying to balance a few things – parents rights to inhabit venues and public places with their babies, the need to keep babies safe, and the rights of other people to also inhabit and enjoy events and places. People interpret them in slightly different ways and weight them differently which is fair enough. I get that a crying baby on a bus for example, is stressful and no fun for anyone. However parents and babies need to be able to get places, so we are legally protected to be able to use public transport. There are certainly places it is not safe or suitable to take a baby, and it’s reasonable to exclude them from construction sites and surgeries for example. The venue in our case not allowing babies in appears to be a bit of a grey area.

Personally I think it’s fine to bring a baby to a picnic concert, and I’ve done so more than once. We’ve attended concerts indoors and outdoors, as well as the cinema, restaurants, the beach, swimming pool, my workplace meetings, and a camp with friends. We are considerate and take Poppy elsewhere if she is unsettled, we use baby earphones if the volume is loud, and we have a good time together. It’s important to me to include and support parents, and especially to help support and normalise breastfeeding.

Here we are together at the free Neil Finn picnic concert in Elder Park – which was absolutely full of families, children, and babies having a great time. It was the first big concert Star had ever been to and we had a lovely time. (Yes, that is a multicoloured floral stormtrooper headband, Rose is an incredible shopper)

What do I think ‘good parents’ should be doing?

People’s ideas about safety and good parenting also vary, which is healthy diversity when it comes to their own choices, but often needless shaming when it comes to policing other people. If you think having a baby outdoors in the evening is inappropriate, you are welcome to stay indoors. If I’m happy to sit under the stars with my little one, it’s hardly the kind of ‘safety risk’ that warrants shaming. There’s more than one ‘right way’ to raise a baby. Some families love camping. Some parents are into cosplay. Some like music. How wonderful!

There are things that are clearly dangerous to children, then there’s just the huge range of diversity of human interests and passions. We shouldn’t be judging difference as if it is all dangerous. One person who attacked us compared taking Poppy to see Missy Higgins as the same as taking her into a sex shop. I’m not sure Missy Higgins would appreciate that comparison!

The news snippet was brief of course, so people have misunderstood some details or jumped to the wrong conclusions. There was a mess of hostility. Attacking me for everything from my haircut to not being willing to ‘sacrifice’ going to a concert for the sake of my baby. As if Rose and I have not made sacrifices for her – our first little baby after 7 losses! I find it really interesting that there’s this backlash from some people when parents try to participate in their communities – that being a good parent is about missing out, and staying home with your little one. There are many things I’ve sacrificed for both of the lovely girls I’m blessed with, (dealing with a grade 3 tear leaps to mind!) but I really don’t feel that picnics need to be among them.

If Poppy was a more sensitive baby who was easily overstimulated, then obviously we wouldn’t take her to long, noisy events. But Poppy so far is very social and gregarious. She loves hanging out with people and is more than happy to snuggle to sleep in our arms with crowds or through movies.

As many families at that time of year prepared their children for evening, outdoors, noisy carols nights with fireworks, it seems faintly ridiculous to judge Rose and I and the other parents who planned to bring our babies to a picnic with an orchestra. I don’t think that needless sacrifice or exclusion make people better parents. I think they might make people lonelier parents, or sadder parents, or even perhaps more self-righteous parents. But staying home with Poppy while Rose went out to the concert was not character building. It was hardly the worst night of my life – a night with Poppy could never be that! But it was sad and it made me resent breastfeeding and being at home while a great many of our friends were out having a lovely time. Doubly so that it was a gift from our friends celebrating Poppy being part of our family. Hardly the ingredients for a parent who is content and connected to their baby and their community.

Funnily enough there were also other takes on what being a good parent requires. For some people it was sacrificing going out anywhere kids can’t go, for others it was sacrificing having the kids around, so still going out but leaving them with someone else. You actually can’t get it right as a parent. I’ve seen shaming along each of those lines in different scenarios. The shaming can intensify into virtual lynching if something goes wrong in any of those scenarios (such as a babysitter harming a child). Too often, being a ‘good parent’ means ‘parenting exactly the way I do’, and being fortunate enough to have nothing go wrong. What a load of crap.

This feels like a familiar dynamic to me – the way that otherwise basically kind kids will join in bullying the most vulnerable without really being able to articulate their primitive, instinctual understanding that if they don’t, they might be next. Kindness, ‘live and let live’ acceptance and friendly curiosity about diversity do not thrive in environments that are hostile and unpredictably aggressive. We support parents most like us and shame those ‘others’. We shame each other because we have been shamed, because we are hurting, because we feel we need to justify or own choices, and because we are afraid of being shamed. It’s a cycle that costs us all.

I think good parents celebrate diversity and don’t shame each other for harmless differences. I think good parents participate in the things that are important to them in ways that suit their families. I think good parents make sacrifices when it’s needed and don’t get hooked into an unsustainable culture of self sacrifice and disconnection from their own needs and the wider community.

What did this cost us?

The online storm was distressing enough that Rose and I disconnected from the internet for a few days. Friends were mostly supportive and confused by the vitriol. I found myself curiously invulnerable to a lot of the hostility but it distressed Rose terribly to see people being cruel to me. Some friends were so enraged by our preference to be able to attend the concert with Poppy that they attacked us and then cut us off. This isn’t the first time seemingly minor parenting choices have triggered an unusually​ aggressive response and the destruction of old friendships. It’s bewildering and sad, needless and infuriating. It feels to me like there are deep wounds beneath these responses.

Other friends rallied groups of parents to get into the comments and push back against some of the misogyny and shaming. I wrote this post to clarify what was going on and why but shelved it to not draw any of the hostility to my blog or personal Facebook page. After a few days the sense of exposure to people’s dark underbelly started to ease and life went back to normal. I hope the massive swell of support would help any other parents feel that there’s a lot of people who do get this and would back them.

Why did I do it?
I did it knowing the risks of a backlash, because breastfeeding has been difficult for me, for many reasons. If the venue had said no babies allowed, my friends would never have bought us tickets and I wouldn’t have been in the middle of it. Having found out about it at the last minute, I also think it’s an inappropriate policy for this lovely event, I think the venue handled the situation very badly, and I think we need to treat parents with more dignity. I believe that our culture puts stupid pressure on parents, shames and devalues mothers, and makes breastfeeding more difficult than it needs to be. There’s a real vulnerability to this, and an assumption by some that Mums can be mistreated because we don’t have enough of a voice, enough time, or enough energy to make a fuss about it. There’s a lot of misogyny in this. Social media can help connect us as well as vilify us.

Because I chose to be visible in this situation, other Mothers heard about this policy over Facebook – before they turned up and were sent home again. The downside is that anyone who saw the backlash may be even more reluctant to advocate for themselves, but after a few days the supportive comments outnumbered the hostile and rude ones. Mothers and allies banded together and backed each other. 

We are not alone anymore and we can back each other up. It’s not okay to treat us as second class citizens, deride our writing as ‘mummy blogs’, our effort to raise our kids as ‘not real work’, and the vulnerability of breastfeeding as something we should be embarrassed about. It’s not okay to tear each other down. I feel like I’ve been brave and gone and handled some fire. I’ve had my eyebrows singed off but my house is still standing, so I feel pretty lucky considering. If I’m very lucky I might even get across a small point or make some kind of difference, even if just to the other Mothers who find themselves being devalued in situations like this, or on the pointy end of our brutal culture of shaming, blaming, and excluding. We have every right to participate, to parent in a variety of ways, and to be supported to breastfeed. I’d stand up and say that again. 

Poppy is sick

We’re currently in hospital with Poppy, who has some kind of terrible gastro and can’t keep anything down. We drove home from our camping trip a day early and brought her straight to our local hospital. That was a drive I’m not likely to forget in a hurry. She was admitted and rehydrated with a nasal gastric tube. Rose and I have been caring for her in shifts. Last night at 3am I took Star home and we both caught up on some sleep. It was the first night I’ve been apart from Poppy since she was born and if I hadn’t been so sleep deprived I fell asleep the moment I got into my room, I’d probably have had some big feelings about that.

​It’s so strange to be here feeling sad and scared when it’s such a minor issue really and there are really sick kids around. I feel like I’m making drama to be upset, feel like I need to get through this as quietly as possibly without drawing attention to her, in case somehow that means she comes in for something much nastier. At the same time I feel like she’s dying and it’s inevitable that we’ll lose her. I want to bite the nurses who tell her to stop making a fuss, and kiss the ones who touch her gently and are comforting. Just giving yourself permission to feel what you feel instead of measuring it against some yardstick of what’s valid and acceptable is hard but so helpful. Parenting is weird.

I’m trying to stay out of crisis. It feels like my life tips into crisis regularly at the moment and I’m under too much strain. I’m trying to find what I need to be okay. Dashing to the hospital after missing my bus stop this morning, the strain in my body was like my muscles were trying to teleport me there directly, such an intense need to be back with her. I thought about the line I’ve been using to calm my pain levels, from my cranial sacral therapy – breathe into your bones, and the journalling I’ve done around what that means to me- the breath that turns my bones from straining steel under pressure, back to living bone, that takes root like a tree and grows and bends beneath the storms. 

Thinking about the poems and images of wings and how the pain is where they would be if they were visible (I went to say if they were real, but that’s not quite the same thing) and someone had cruelly bound them together so I couldn’t fly. The way wings are related to my poetry, difference from others, my walking in other worlds.

So I walked back to the hospital a little slower and I breathed and felt the straining ease a little, the sense of tendons overtightened like guitar strings about to snap back off. Pain rushes back in with awareness, muscles are stiff but they move again, that sense of being locked shifts. My stride changed, the pain flared worse at first then eased a little, became mobile and moved around between different muscles, felt less like I was on the edge of tearing apart.

I called some of our tribe for help. Some chatted online with me, or visited the hospital with lunch, made us dinner, took Star food shopping for school, put on a load of washing of clothes and bedding with vomit on them… I concentrated on not falling off the edge of the world in my own head and forgetting that people care about us, or feeling guilty about our resources compared to so many parents. We are there for our tribe in many ways, it’s not manipulative or parasitic to call on them for help. I made eye contact and enjoyed hugs and soaked up as much as I could.

Rose and​ I, still negotiating our new roles, fielding the constant question of which of us is the mother, dancing between the needs of our girls and ourselves, having to find a new common language for this part of our lives. Things tangled this evening and our conversation to get back on the same page was the kind where 10 minutes in it feels horribly dangerous and digging into deep wounds and black places and you’re starting to wonder if you shouldn’t just abandon it now before it all goes to hell… But we passed through to understanding and found out way back together. I’m home again for a sleep now. Poppy is sleeping in hospital with Rose after a bath and keeping down the first feed in 24 hrs. We’re hopeful she will be well enough to come home tomorrow.

This was Poppy on camp before she became sick. It was very beautiful and my new tent -a birthday gift from Rose, was amazing and wonderful. 🙂

Thankyou for the birthday wishes!

Thank you all kindly, I really appreciate it. I am wrestling with exhaustion and having a lot of down days lately, where my energy is low and it feels like the world is a dark and scary place. It was really wonderful to wake up on my birthday and feel excited that on that day, my world would be a flood of friendly messages. Things didn’t quite go to plan and got really stressful in the middle with dismantling furniture and all kind of shenanigans and my Facebook app not letting me see or respond to half of the messages, which was bothering me because I hate responding to some people and not others in case someone feels hurt, but I couldn’t get a spare minute to get onto my computer… And it all got messy in my brain and I went and hid. There’s been a lot going on lately and my anxiety is high.

Rose, being brilliant and knowing me well, has set up a gift every day for a week and arranged a lunch tomorrow with my family. ❤ So I’ve had little gifts and warm messages coming in every day; a box of chai lattes, a lovely new journal. This weekend she’s arranged a camping trip so we can use my new birthday tent! Close friends are keeping me company online at times which helps when nothing feels safe and I need to debrief some of the stressors. 

Today was the first day in long while I’ve been happy all day and it’s been wonderful. I had a good counseling appointment this morning which left me feeling hopeful and energised. I’ve enjoyed my family and my work, played board games, tacklef tricky things on my to do list, and felt excited about my life. Even a little bit loved and special. 🙂 How delightful!

So, thanks everyone who reached out. You’re awesome and I appreciate having you in my life, even on the days I’m struggling and can’t feel your goodwill or care of find any words to respond graciously. I fall into holes from time to time and I crawl out of them again. I’m glad you’re still here. x

The Nature of Adventure

We’re away for the long weekend, staying with a friend. Desperately needed, I’m hovering on the edge and need daily effort to help me get back to an okay baseline. I’ve had to put a lot of thought into getting out of work mode and being aware of the impacts of all the changes. It’s been the most wonderful thing to get out of our routine and away from work and clear my head. 

I hadn’t prepared for how different traveling with a baby is! We’re not that experienced at traveling with Star, adding Poppy has been a steep learning curve. We’ve had a couple of super stressful nights with very little sleep and a hysterical tiny person suffering night terrors who will only settle with Star… go figure. So it’s been a weird holiday, absolutely brilliant and restful in some ways, really stressful in others. Lots of work happening to maximise the former and minimise the latter!

We tried a different approach to sleep arrangements last night and Poppy only woke up 4 times, tears but no night terrors. I feel fairly human today now. By last night I was a wreck. It’s tough! 

Yesterday Star and I explored one of the sink holes in town and rose gardens along side it with our cameras. I’ve transferred to a new phone and the camera is amazing. I particularly love macro photography and looking for things we don’t usually record. There’s such a mindfulness aspect to photography where you really pay attention to what’s around you. It’s a delight to see Star enjoying​ it.

Still adapting to my new full time working life. My two main current contracts take a lot of management and I’m making plenty of rookie mistakes there too and learning rapidly. I’ve been taking heart from a great quote about how an expert is a person who has made every possible mistake in a very narrow field… the mistakes are tough but absolutely invaluable and I’m learning loads. Mostly I only make them once. Sometimes the issues and blocks and skills take more time.

Noticing things like the sense of burden that has come with the transition to being the primary breadwinner in our family. The way that I no longer really notice if the lounge is a mess but suddenly Rose who didn’t used to care, feels stressed by it. Transition of roles. I’m determined to use my time as lead parent and household manager to help me be a good breadwinner partner who gets the stress of those roles and provides excellent support. We’re discussing how we share the load and use our skills best, what to do about the areas that neither of us are great at, or both find really stressful. Rose after 10 + years in the workforce is doing the same in reverse.

My first big pay came through a couple of days ago, the first time I’ve been the earner in our relationship. Rose spent the day quite stressed and checking in with me if I was upset or angry with her. We call this her ‘foster kid mode’ and it’s one of her threat responses to particular kind of stress. Sometimes it means I’m leaking suppressed anger or taking control in ways I shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with me but some other stress going on. By evening we took a couple of minutes to check in together and investigate what was setting it off. The massive change in our dynamics and the fresh vulnerability of money in different roles was what came up right away. We named it and that was enough to bring down the stress for now. Simply bringing things into view safely is so valuable.

I’ve brought my usual rest and relaxation things with me and found it’s not quite working. Even making art, which I’m enjoying, is not settling me like it usually does. A whirring anxiety is chronically present in my chest. Today we did Easter gifts, Rose arranged chocolates and something else for everyone. Star was given a jigsaw puzzle. She and I started it this morning and I calmed. Now that art is part of my working​ life in a much bigger way, making it is still triggering that sense of trying to be productive. It’s still output. ‘Doing’, not the ‘being’ I so desperately need in order to calm down. Everything changes, the risks are no longer what they used to be.

So much has changed. At the moment, while I navigate new work, new roles, new cultures, new relationships, new clients, new kinds of work, two kids at home and all the differences that come with this, it is very much like a controlled period of crisis. I’m in a stage of intense personal development and high levels of self care. I’m learning from rookie mistakes such as- I can’t sustain working all day then doing housework all night. That skipping meals and running on constantly broken sleep isn’t sustainable. Or not making time to pump milk during my work day results in severe engorgement and bruising. 

Transition. Adaptation. Transformation. Moments of dark distress and others of pure magic. Learning how to be a family together, how to support each of the dreams we’ve all worked so hard for, how to attune and tend to each other. Yesterday was hard. Today is joyful. That’s the nature of adventures, and it’s what we’re teaching our girls. The hard walk up the hill gets the view. The effort to pack good supplies is rewarded when you have insect repellant on hand. It’s worth feeling a bit of fear about heights to be able to stand on the edge of the dormant volcano and see the swallows dancing over the dark water far below. To be alive.

The discomfort and hard work are the cost of the magic, those moments of bliss and awe and feeling deeply. It doesn’t need to be perfect to be absolutely wonderful and worthwhile. (something the disability community are constantly trying to get us to understand) 

There’s always a cost, to everything, your values, your goals and dreams, everything. The secret seems to be to try and keep the costs bearable, and then to bear them willingly. Don’t allow them to steal the joy or consume all your attention. 

In a way it’s hard to define, the costs seem to be part of the magic. Those who have wealth enough to insulate themselves from all of some kinds of costs, who helicopter to the view instead of hike, find themselves insulated also from the wonder and the beauty. My friends who have a lot of money are dissatisfied by and return to the kitchen meals that being me great joy. Dissociation is social and financial as much as it is personal. 

Striving seems to be part of it all, the burn in your muscles and pebble in your shoe that demands attention. An indulgent endless diet of dessert loses joy. A life deeply lived and rich in experiences is one with risk and pain and discomfort and hard work, alongside joy and love and contentment and peace and awe. 

So there are adventures all around at the moment, personal and professional. I’m overjoyed and incredibly fortunate. Learning the new risks of burnout, the new skills to find my sustainable rhythms and follow my joy. Managing and embracing the costs. Living with my whole heart.

Poem – Insomnia

Insomnia, my love, my love, no more dancing,
my feet ache and my eyes are burning.
No more kisses for my mouth, my puckered lips
have withered, my tongue
is dust dry,
my voice only a whisper. 

No more meeting like this
in the small hours where you enchant
me with your amber street lights,
hours of fears and planning and thoughts
running like waterfalls in my mind. 

We must be apart darling,
sweetness, my night mistress. 

No more inks and art calling me
and the touseled hair and pink cheeks of my baby
waiting for my kisses. 

I must not stand in the moonlight, love,
must not sip hot milk with honey
and cinnamon on the front porch
while the nightwind plays with my hair
and the trains sob in the distance. 

Let me be, sweet love, night lover,
let me rest in peace
and dream my strange dreams​. 

Stop waking me with your night rains
and sad weight on my chest.  

No more, love, no more, I cannot bear it.
Let me be, let me go, you must dance
with someone else awhile.

Let me rest, love, let me sleep.
Stop up my ears and sail past your beauty,
no more midnight shipwrecks, no more being cast
into the dark waters of your embrace,
into the sweet sting of your siren song.

Motherhood and Art

“Indeed, to relocate the heart of existence in the home and in motherhood is an inherently subversive artistic act. If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening. What if, in fact, motherhood is a boon to the artist? What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance?”

From “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe

Yes. Speaking to the heart of the frozen terror I feel in the mothers playgroups, surrounded by pastels and toys and singing inane songs in a circle. I can’t breathe and I want to run with all the urgency of a wild beast feeling the cage and the collar. I run into my night and knaw on my own limbs – what’s wrong with me? Why do I hate this?

I am also the woman standing in the baby aisle at the supermarket, weeping over the tiny soft baby things, the clean plastic and rows of bottled food. She iso empty of life and so hollowed out by yearning she can’t breathe, so tormented by dreams of a child she can’t stop the tears running down her face in public.

And then there’s the place where my art founders, confused and lost, in the halls of the great artists and among the ideas of what real art is – imbibed in such small, sweet, daily doses I don’t even notice the poison – that my art isn’t real art, that my life isn’t the source of real art, that my pain or disability or suffering are the things that prevent me making art because they could never be appropriate topics of art. We do not speak of those things. They are subversive, and the subversive is for richer, free-er, bolder, stranger, or better insulated women than me. There’s always a cost to breaking rules and I have broken so many since breakfast.

Selfishness and selflessness. The domestic and the sublime. The mundane and the world of soul. I am a mother. I feel the bind – that I should be this at all times. That if I break the role I must do so in secret. When the child returns I switch back so instantly, conscious of all the traces I’ve left of living some other life in their absence: ink on my fingers, paint on my desk, pages on the blog. I wanted this family; I work hard at it, I give myself to it. And yet.

How do I set them free when I am not free? How do I teach them to listen to their small voices when I can’t hear my own anymore? How can I hear their small voices and move beyond the quiet numb disconnection of relationships that revolve around schedules and plans and who’s turn it is to do the dishes? If I hide my own wildness, how will they know to protect theirs, to nourish and nurture it, to endure pain for it, to hold onto it as precious when all else has washed overboard?

I adore being a mother. The skinless agony of disability and loss are clothed so gently in this role. A child turned up at my door in the night, sweet with love and bloodied with betrayal and my heart opened to fit her as if I’d been waiting for her all my life. Something wretched in my soul started to sing. Another child I birthed roaring in the dark water, endured so much for the ecstatic pleasure of her tiny head resting on my chest.

Being a mother terrifies me. The generic straight-jacket of a role with so little diversity or individuality, so aggressively policed. Mother and Artist are so often positioned as opposite roles, contradictory life choices. Mothers don’t make Art, they ‘craft’. Their raw outpourings about life at 3am are merely ‘mommy blogs’. Exalted beyond angels and bound into rules of self-sacrifice and humility, we are not really human anymore. We are transformed into a wholly other thing that consumes all traces of what we once might have been.

Wise friends counsel me – it’s okay to be afraid. Maybe my task isn’t to map myself to the role of motherhood, it’s to change the role around me so that I can take it on with more authenticity, who I am, as I am. Stretching it out like shoes and bringing more and more of my self into it. Making it rich and strange and complex. I can feel the shadow cast by the needs of child or friend and fit myself to it, almost perfectly, like mixing a cake from the right ingredients. So much of me is then left waiting in the wings, in the small hours of the night. As hard as it is for me to bring them into the light, it’s so hard too for those around us to let go of that perfect role, to not hold each other to play parts in our own lives where they are fitted to our empty places, but allow them to be human – stranger, deeper, more contradictory, more free of us, outside of our understanding, walking their own paths. Is there room for that freedom in such an intense relationship as Mother and Child? How can I teach a child to be free in love, if I don’t feel free? To hold tightly without crushing. To love deeply without caging.

Tonight, Rose drove us all into the hills to feel the wind on our faces. We are no longer solitary lovers, now we navigate a family of needs and perspectives. Poppy wails in the car and Star is stressed by the millipedes in the toilets at the park. And yet we still find a little sense of freedom. I stand barefoot beneath the trees, a very long way away from the shiny halls of power where the windows never open and no breeze ever dances, and I remember that I am human. 

On a park bench in the gathering cold of the Autumn evening, I hand express milk from an overfull breast onto the soil. Knees apart I cradle Poppy in my lap and she nurses as I watch the birds swooping in the pines, the light falling through the poplars with their tattered, pocked leaves.

This is the task, as it always is, in so many forms throughout my life. To find ways to be human, to honour the humanity, the vulnerability, the darkness, and the transcendent in each of us. This is the space between Mother and Child. I walk Star to the toilet and praise her courage honestly. I hold a millipede in my hand. I nurse Poppy on the park table, leaves under my bare feet, my milk spilled on the cold earth. There is Art here.

Learning new things

I’m really exhausted. So much had been going on lately and my usual energy cycles are being distorted. I’m struggling to keep rest, reflection, downtime, and debriefing spaces as everything is pushed into output. It doesn’t work of course, doing all the time is extremely unproductive. My generation tends to talk about how tired we are of ‘adulting’ but watching lovely tired 16 year old Star crash out on the couch the other night I thought it’s really not just about adults, is it? It’s about being responsible, hiding strong feelings, trying to be functioning, in output mode. It’s about being ‘on’ all the time and having your downtime feel numbing instead of refreshing. Its following the schedule that feels like it’s killing you because you don’t even have the energy to rebel. Its what happens when you fit a living organism to a mechanical structure. The ebb and flow energy cycles of one get pushed into the steady constant output of the other. The requirements of ‘public’ presentation – no strong feelings, disconnection from self, impulses, needs, intuition, it’s far far too many hours of forcing yourself to do things you really don’t want to do. Star flops down on the couch and I flop down on the armchair and there’s more shared ground here than difference. I’m struck as I have always been by the way we idealise young peoples lives and tell stories where responsibility, fatigue, and disconnection are only part of adult experiences. I want to be a good role model in my working life for her. 

Today I’ve had a good day, unexpectedly because this week has been a long session of crisis management and I barely slept last night again. But there have been good conversations and I’m hopeful things will improve for me. I spent the afternoon on the neighbours lawn while Poppy played. It was delightful. I feel human again. I’ve got ink on my fingers and I’m going to make cookies for dessert. 


Poppy took her first unassisted step today, not holding onto anything. I’m wrestling to keep myself going with the tremendous challenges of work. She’s struggling towards her own milestones, working just as hard, picking herself back up after falls. I’ve been embarrassed at how much support I’ve needed lately, I’m drawing on every resource I have to help me process and debrief. As I hold Poppy wailing from a head bump it seems we’re not so different. Learning new things and dealing with falls takes courage from us and love from the people around us.

I’m on YouTube: “Sarah K Reece on the enriched workplace”

So, I recently accepted the opportunity to speak on camera about mental health in the workplace for the SA Mental Health Commission. This is a big step for me! I’ve written before about the challenges of visibility for those of us who are multiple. I have moved from the written word, to public speaking, public blogging, radio, and now film. I am very proud of myself and very appreciative of the great people who worked with me on this project. Big shout-out to Tracey Hutt for awesome support during the filming, and the great film crew Mixed Mediums. 🙂 There was some back and forth discussion about whether it would be better for me to speak in person or on video about this. I’m very comfortable speaking in person for events, video is new territory for me. But I’m incredibly glad we went with the video – the event was today and I currently have laryngitis! Haha, fortuitous indeed!

California

Gofundme!

I have been invited to speak in California in June 2017, and I need to bring Rose and Poppy with me. My expenses are covered by the client, and I need to bring along my little support tribe so I can breastfeed and have Rose there to look out for me. I adore my talks but they can exact a toll, particularly when they are personal and a long way from home. So as with all my work I’m being careful to make sure I have backup and the resources I need to do my best work.

My family has started a Gofundme Campaign, through which I am offering lots of lovely art gifts to say thankyou. So, if you’ve benefited from my free resources, or just want to lend a hand as I develop my business, any help would be appreciated. For those who have already made a donation, please send me your mailing address and I shall send arty gifts!

If gofundme is not your thing, you can donate instead via

Bank Transfer to:
Sarah K Reece
BSB: 085-005
Acc: 24 376 1381
NAB

Paypal to skreece1@gmail.com via Paypal. This button will set up payment via Paypal or credit card:

PayPal Donate Button

Or you can mail a cheque or money order (please, no cash) to me at:

Sarah K Reece
PO Box 165
Brompton
South Australia
Australia 5007

You are still welcome to enjoy the gifts listed on gofundme – just give me your mailing address when you donate!

wp-1488020601053.jpg

Link me up

I’m also looking for additional work while I am there, so if you have any contacts in the US who might be interested in training, workshops, or an art exhibition, please get in touch! 🙂

Come along

I am in the process of arranging a free local talk and silent art auction in Adelaide for a fundraiser. Watch this space. 🙂

Wounded healers

I enjoyed this article which I came across on Twitter tonight. Wounded healer a qualification without ceremony

I’m ‘out’ broadly about things that make me different and ways I struggle. I certainly don’t judge others who are not, nor do I even recommend one choice over the other because at times the costs have been very high for me. We all live to our own values and all values extract a cost which we must willingly choose to bear. Values only sound pretty and wishy washy if you haven’t tried to live to them. 

I do not believe any system of care for suffering people can be of real use until we genuinely understand that those employed in it are one of the most vulnerable high-risk groups. Until we make it safe for them to struggle, speak up, and need support we are doing harm. Some of our healers start out wounded, many more are wounded by trying to be healers in our destructive systems. In effect, we are wounding our healers and hoping that their silent suffering will somehow lead to the freedom and recovery of the identified patients. 

This cannot work. A system in which half the people can only be wounded and the other half can only be competent is broken by design. All humans are both. Inhuman systems do harm. Either everyone is safe to be human, or no one is safe. Everyone can heal from their wounds, or no one really can. 

Sudden death

My family has been touched by death again recently and it’s complicated and painful. Sudden death is like a punch in the mouth you don’t see coming. Rose’s estranged biological mother has died. It’s the end of a complicated relationship. It’s the end of a cycle of abuse, suffering, love, rejection, corruption and hope. It’s deeply sad, a kind of freedom, a loss, a relief, and a new torment. It’s the end of hopes and efforts for change and ‘one day maybe things will be different’. It’s a lot of secrets taken to the grave. It’s unfathomable by those of us lucky enough to have good relationships with our mothers. Some of us have never listened – or choose not to know – of the darkness that can exist between mother and child, of the grief and rage and bewildered pain of the children where things are so bad at home they end up on the streets or in care. 

Rose wrote a public farewell, feeling the tensions between the untold stories and the assumptions of others, the pressures on those who grieve to do so in the right ways, to justify their choices and fit their painful, complex experiences to our simplistic ideas about the virtue of mothers. Platitudes that hurt. 

Not all children are wanted. Not all children are loved. Not all loved children are well loved. Not all mothers or parents who love have the skills, support, and capacity to meet their children’s needs and protect them from their own demons. Some of us eat our young. 

My precious child.

Tonight as you sleep your mama is feeling lots of things. She feels sad, she feels angry. There is relief and guilt and frustration. Your Mama feels lots of things all at once and then nothing at all… numbness always follows.

This week my darling daughter, your mama recieved a call that she has been expecting her whole life. You see… your Mama’s Mama died on monday baby girl; she died in her home from a heart attack. She was 62. 

Mama hasn’t seen her Mama in a long time… it’s been about 8 years. Mama made that hard choice and mostly doesnt regret it. They have spoken but rarely and not always nicely. Your mama recently shared stories and photos of you and all the wonderful ways you fill up your Mums’ lives. Her Mama was happy to know you were happy and healthy. 

Mama had a complicated relationship with her Mama… it was never easy or particularly healthy. Mama stopped living with her when she was still a kid because she was sick and needed help to be a better Mum. That was tough on her Mama and she didn’t always try her hardest, but she never gave up. My Mama wanted so badly to love and look after me… right until the very end. 

Mama knows that things are gonna be tricky over the next little while. There are hard conversations to have and affairs to attend to. Mama is glad she has her best friend and girls by her side. Mama will be ok; she will cry, she will feel bad. Mama will hug you a little tighter, she will tell you that she promises to do her very best, she will possibly cry while rocking you to sleep. Mama will try to take too many photos as usual.

You have done something amazing baby girl; you have turned a broken, alone, afraid little girl into a proud, strong, brave Mama… and my Mama would be proud of that!

Sleep well my precious daughter… you are so very loved xxx

We’re all wrestling in our own way and finding ourselves out of step with each other. Even sweet, innocent Poppy knows something is wrong. She’s been teary and difficult to comfort this week, biting, scratching and clinging to her safe people. We were busy making the transition to Star in school again, and me at work, and Rose at home and in some work. Suddenly we’ve been adapting to this new reality and the presence of death. I’m glad I saw Cave this year. I cry and I’m scared at times for my hurting love, but I’m not crashing into the black place I did a couple of years back. He’s made death bearable for me again. 

It’s not so much a transition as a transformation. We are all so changed by the events of the past year and there’s no going back. At times I find myself paralysed by terror, rigid with fears of loss. So much to lose and so much self destruction in me and those I love, such deep wounds. With money from my art, I buy a good pen and write, and my terror eases. Fear steals so much from the good years. I see a therapist who reminds me to breathe into my bones. We sleep and are all still here in the morning. The Rose I wake to at dawn is different to the woman who lay down beside me the night before. And so are we. 

Recently we went to the home of this woman Rose has not seen in 8 years. We picked through things, looking for important documents and childhood mementos. Rose shared some of the memories with me. These are the stairs she pushed me down. This is the cupboard I would sleep in when I was afraid. Some of the stories are unspeakably bad. The walls are covered in photos of Rose. The rooms are full memories of pain. There’s shit on the carpet, filth in the corners. The neighbor tells us stories of her kindness and how much she cared for her friends. I never met this women. I feel the complex tangle of who she was to different people in her life. There’s inspirational quotes on the walls, Bible verses in journals. She kept the paperwork where her parental rights were severed. “Lying c*nt” she’s written in the margins of Rose’s testimony. We stack the tins where she kept her street drugs and dirty syringes on the coffee table. Poppy plays with a wooden toy we find for her. We take a few dolls Rose used to love and a little girl’s dress. The place feels like a cage that’s finally empty. 

We leave. We pick Poppy up from the ashy floor and gather our little collection of toxic treasures that will hide in our shed until the right day to look at them. It’s over. 

We lock the door behind us and drive home, to our beautiful home with our tree hanging green over the roof, our clean beds and lovely daughters, garden full of roses and cupboards full of food. There will be time for grief and rage and bitter pain. The wounds that don’t really heal and the fears that linger. Even when you escape the ghosts come with you, in our home it’s only Poppy who hasn’t yet learned this. But alongside so much pain is now so much tender love. None of us grieve alone. None of us dream alone.

End of the working week 

My boss took this photo when Rose and Poppy joined us after work. It’s been a huge week and I’m glad to have reached the end of it. I need some downtime to digest, and some cuddles with my family. Poppy cried when I left this morning. Rose told me last night that her sixth tooth had broken through. I’m a working Mum now. I hear about these things instead of see them. Poppy cried and I kissed her and said goodbye and walked away. My heart feels a little broken. So I’m just making room for that. Listening to the wisdom of it. It’s a big heart and it’s been broken before. I’ve learned to pay attention. It’s telling me not to look away. Not to pretend I’m not doing this, or that it doesn’t hurt. To look her in the eye, look myself in the eye, acknowledge the cost and the sacrifice, acknowledge the hope and the joy. I leave my daughters with a gentle and devoted mother. I’m so lucky. They are loved. I come home and my heart tells me to sit. We watch the light fading in the trees together. Poppy wakes weeping from her nap. We sit far from the bustling world and do nothing at all together, nothing at all that can be measured or is productive or even visible. We just be, together. 

Sensory play

Yesterday I looked after Poppy solo for a few hours while Rose supported Star to go driving – she’s doing brilliantly as a learner! I decided it was a good day for some sensory play. I baked pear and rhubarb muffins while Poppy played with bread dough, ripe pear, and lavender flowers. Then we went outside in the light rain in the garden. Poppy played in the dirt and ate parsley leaves. I weeded the roses. It felt amazing. So alive and connected. I love finding these moments of calm amongst the busyness to just marvel at my daughters and my life. It’s hard work, incredibly hard work and long hours. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder than I have these past couple of months with home and parenting and business and talks and face painting. But such a joy! 

Then we had a bubble bath together and washed away the dirt. Poppy napped in her hammock after nursing. I did a load of washing and drank a hot Chai latte and did an hour’s work. It was blissful, reading through research methodologies with a hot drink while my sweet baby slept.

I find I shift between feeling very connected and feeling like I’m babysitting someone else’s child. Working outside the home Mum challenge? Times like this seem to click things for me – when I’m caring for Poppy by myself, able to focus on her needs and get a bit of rest for myself too. I feel lighter and closer and my heart opens up. I’m pulling away from the idea that only one person’s needs can be met at a time. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes thinking it must be that way all the time makes it hard to act differently… sometimes what Poppy needs is also what I need. Looking for the overlap there’s rich experiences there, a kind of synergy and peace. Exploring the garden barefooted in the rain. Blowing bubbles at each other in the bath. I didn’t know I needed that but it was exactly right. What we call sensory play for her we call grounding for me. Different language, same connection. ❤

Facing death with Nick Cave

My beloved Rose and my siblings teamed up and bought me a ticket to see Nick Cave as an early birthday present. It was beautiful. The night before I woke at 3 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Full of emotions I couldn’t put words to, I slipped out of bed around 5 and painted. When Poppy woke and cried out I went back to bed and nursed her back to sleep, then curled up under Rose’s arm weeping. “I’m so sad and I don’t know why”, I cried. “I’m full of sadness and grey rain.” 

I’ve been unable to bear death since my decent into anguish at the end of 2015. The consuming black void took over my life for several months, like I’d fallen off the face of the planet. It was a place without meaning or comfort, where everything I once beleived in dissolved. I finally escaped it, but I’ve been running ever since, vulnerable and frightened. Anything to do with death sets off that terror in me. I can feel the void hunting me. It runs and I run before it. 

Cave lost a son recently, to accidental death. It’s a devastating thing. It permeates this album with deep sorrow. I stood by the stage in the darkness while he sang Into My Arms, the song Rose and I sang each other to give us courage during the pregnancy with Poppy. I sobbed, mascara running down my cheeks. He made death bearable to look at again. 

I was reminded of a student in my art class telling me that about my work. “You make such gentle art about such dark things. You make them bearable to look at.” For the first time in over a year I could hold the idea of death in my mind and not start fraying. This is something art can do. 

I realised it was not and never has been death that frightens me, it’s the void; the emptiness of the morning after. The place without the one you lost. “I hear you’ve been looking for someone to love”, he sings. And I think that in all the billion people on this planet, how can I be so afraid of living without someone? Do I really believe that if I lose my beloved people, I won’t find anyone else to love and be loved by? So many of us are so lonely. No one is replaceable, but I don’t have to live forever in the empty spaces.

Story was one of the few things that helped when I was in the void, but it also lost meaning. All our stories, all my hopes and beliefs and values became ‘just stories’ we told in the dark to make it more bearable. Nothing I’d leaned on had substance any more. The story only soothed me in the telling, once the book was shut it had no power. Nhilism devoured me. I felt so alone. 

In song, Cave tells us his story. This is how he lives, how he survives. I can do that. The stories are like guides in the dark. We don’t have to travel alone. They don’t have to be true to be meaningful. (Good writers touch life often – Bradbury) It’s okay to need art to make it bearable to look, stories to follow like paths in the wild. To be a teller of stories is powerful. Many stories were told about me and they had a binding power. Learning to tell my own stories with honesty and self compassion has been liberating. Even in the sense of being trapped, lost, empty, and profound failure there is a story that can be told in a way that still dignifies this as part of life. Any Leonard Cohen fan can tell you that.  These things are simply part of the human experience at times. We’re all more lost and more failures than we want to be. 

Defining Mental Illness

One of the biggest challenges in working with the term ‘mental illness’ is how imprecise it is. Finding other terms and frames of reference is often important to me, because mental illness has so many problems. I’ve written before about my frustration with the way mental illnesses are conceptualised in a couple of posts:

  • I don’t believe in Mental Illness (or, rewriting the DSM) – a critique of the way the DSM groups symptom clusters using a medical paradigm. “Psychological illness, injury, and normal functioning become tangled. Defining abnormal becomes nearly impossible”
  • Mental Health needs better PR – exploring the ‘upsides’ of ‘mental illness’ and the way mental health can be presented as merely the absence of symptoms. “No more soaring mania, no more anguish, no more blood, no more voices. Mental health is silence, clipped wings, drugged stupor, numb blankness.”

Mental illness as an idea is rather like a huge drag net pulled by a fishing boat. It captures a lot more than it should, and it also misses some really important things that fall outside of the net. We use mental illness as a shorthand term for experiences and problems that are actually outside of the scope of the idea. One of these is suffering.

When we talk about preventing mental illness or reducing the incidence of it we are often talking about suffering. We want to reduce the horrific pain people are in, the suffering experienced by their friends and families who are struggling to understand and support them and find them help. The losses of relationships, careers, self esteem. But a great deal of the suffering that happens and needs addressing simply is not captured by the term ‘mental illness’ unless we stretch it so broadly that almost everyone qualifies as mentally ill. Grief is one example of this. The suffering caused by poverty and inequality which can present in ways that fit our categories of mental illnesses but also may not. Racism and discrimination which lock people out of opportunities, resources, connection, and self respect. Addictions. Abuse, bullying, domestic violence, rape culture. Loneliness, that subtle, pervasive, deadly experience buried beneath so many clinical terms for pain. Alienation, where those who are not invited to be part of the good life start setting fires to the lives of the fortunate. Destructive cultural ideas about happiness, optimism, the value of people, what it is to be ‘normal’, what success means, who the ‘nobodies’ are, what it means when bad things happen to us, and how we heal from pain and live meaningful lives. So much of this is critically important to discuss when we are talking about health of people and health of communities. There are threats, risks, and losses that go far outside the net of ‘mental illness’.

Mental illness also captures too much. Like a drag net that brings in fish as well as turtles, octopuses, and dolphins, there are valuable experiences and important aspects of what it is to be human that are currently tangled into the idea of mental illness. One of these is psychological injury where the mind is behaving exactly as it should under the circumstances. Nothing at all is wrong with the person, but they are distressed and need support. Needing support does not mean there is something wrong with you, this is how humans navigate loss, pain, and challenge. When you start to look at the symptoms of mental illnesses a question arises about whether we are describing the problem or instead capturing and focusing upon a healthy response to the problem. To put it another way, if a wound on my arm has clotted into a scab, my blood is doing its job. My blood is not the problem, the car crash I was just in is the problem. If I am suffering severe emotional pain in an abusive relationship, my mind is working the way it is supposed to and telling me that there is danger I should avoid, just the way it would if I put my hand on a hot stove. Feelings, even painful ones, serve important psychological purposes. The pain is meaningful and purposeful and represents a healthy mechanism, not a sick one. If we ‘cure’ people of emotional pain we make them psychological lepers. Leprosy does no harm  to the general body by itself, but those who cannot feel pain struggle to protect themselves from the risks of life and without extra care small injuries cause severe harm. Many of us have seen psychological lepers – people who are not in pain exactly but who seem stripped of some vitality and oddly incapable of caring for themselves. Psychological leprosy is also called institutionalisation.

Mental illness often also captures diversity and eccentricity. There is a natural diversity to the human experience that includes a variety of thresholds for experiences such as psychosis. Under some conditions such as sensory deprivation, everyone will hallucinate. As a community we have a variety of thresholds for these conditions, meaning some people will hallucinate more readily than others. Often this experience causes no harm and in our culture people who experience hallucinations that do not distress or impair them usually keep them secret. There is a massive gap in all our knowledge bases about normal diversity because most of what we know about experiences like this come from people who are too overwhelmed to hide them. Everyone else stays underground.

Idiosyncrasy, that is, the absolutely unique aspect of each of us is a deeply important aspect of living a meaningful life. However it is also in tension with being part of a community in which shared language, beliefs, and ways of doing things are important. We are highly social, as a species, and also highly individual. Creativity and idiosyncrasy have a relationship we are still exploring in research. ‘Normal’ and ‘healthy’ are often defined in such narrow community focused ways that individuality and uniqueness wind up conceptualised as mental illness. The example of a psychologist in a grey pant suit diagnosing a flamboyant black queer man with Histrionic Personality Disorder is a classic example of this. One of my psychology textbooks had a photo of beautiful black man in makeup and fishnets as the illustration of this mental illness. People who fit the conventional culture better often see authentic but less conventional people through the lens of mental illness.

Not only does this lens distort what is normal and healthy about us, it often reframes our greatest strength as a weakness to be overcome. For many of us, the pathway out of the anguish of mental illness is not about becoming more normal (fitting the social norms better) but about becoming more idiosyncratic and then more wisely fitting the social norms we need to. It’s about tuning in to ourselves and learning how strange we really are. What we really need. It’s the reason I don’t tell other people that they should heal their mental illness through art, even though that has been essential for me. One size does not fit all. Only individual approaches genuinely connect with people’s needs. But approaches cannot be individual and people cannot even tune in to what their real needs are when the focus is about restoring ‘abnormal’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to ‘normal’. It is a skill, or at least a capacity, to not fit in. To retain individuality in the presence of a strong collective. We are socialised to navigate our community and there is a tension between the I and the We. When things go wrong in any number of ways, that tension can eat us alive. The push to navigate the We aspect better, to fit in and be less strange, can destroy the process actually needed to ‘recover’, in which being different and connecting to how we actually work is skipped for platitudes about reducing stress and the bland roll out of top ten ways to be less crazy and in less pain (have you tried a cup of tea or snapping a rubber band against your wrist?).

All of these ideas also shape our sense of what mental health means. When we think mental health means ‘not suffering’ we limit it to a badge worn by the privileged who have experienced few of the challenges of life and are now satisfied to take credit for their ‘good mental health’ as if it was a personal attribute rather than good fortune. When we think it means being happy we pathologise the suffering and obliterate the dignity of enduring challenge and loss. Pain is part of a healthy, rich, deeply lived life. Lives with tragedy and less privilege are bound up in navigating pain in ways that are difficult for those who have not shared these experiences to comprehend. Trying to eradicate all pain or teach people to be pain averse can destroy rather than develop mental health. Conceptualising pain as unhealthy sets people at war with their hearts and minds. And yet there is also needless suffering, and pain that absolutely demands a response from a compassionate society. Shame, fear, loneliness, self hate, and self destruction are all real. Some suffering must be navigated and for that we need support and self compassion and an appreciation that mental health can actually look like sobbing face down on the bathroom floor because that is a healthy response to circumstances. Some suffering demands alleviation. No child should be raped. Nobody should be treated as scum by services designed to filter out only the ‘deserving poor’ for resources. Some of us are going to hallucinate sometimes. Maybe we play music on our guitar on those days, or maybe we wind up chasing the idea that making the things that make us different go away will make our lives better. A lot of that is down to how we label it.

I’m visiting America!

I’m very excited to announce that I will be coming to California towards the end of June 2017! I have been booked to speak at an event and I’m very looking forward to it. This will be my first time in America so I’m open to suggestions about travel, accommodation, people to catch up with, things to do and see. 🙂

So, if you are in America and would like to invite me to anything; to collaborate on a project, set up some training or education, facilitate a workshop etc then please get in touch! You can learn more about my work here. There will never be a better time as my expenses will be very low given that I’m already in the country. I’m also looking for an opportunity to host an art exhibition while I’m visiting. Talk to me if you have any ideas!

Poppy is still breastfed and Rose is my anchor so we are currently trying to work out how we can put together the funds to bring them both along. (Star has a flight phobia so she won’t be joining us)

This really does feel like my year 😀

I’m doing a lot of thinking for work at the moment and it occurred to me in the small hours recently that sometimes I’ve missed something important about being authentic. It’s a beautiful and tender kind of vulnerability to show one’s imperfections, lacks, losses, and pain. The soft underbelly we have all learned to hide, the tears we cry in secret. But it’s another kind of vulnerability to show our gifts, what we are good at, where we are shiny and brilliant. I’ve wrestled with that. I recall being in therapy at one point talking about how I developed the model for the peer based support group for people with multiplicity and/or dissociation and how I facilitated it, and having the trauma psychologist gravely inform me that I was describing highly skilled work for which I should be getting recognition and pay, work that few people could do. I filed that away and still struggled to write glowing resumes or really capture and share what I can do.

Right now my artwork adorns postcards and the website for the SA Mental Health Commission and I’m secretly afraid of people calling up to yell at the Commission for not choosing a better artist. Right now many of my friends employed in community services are looking for work in a sector struggling with the new NDIS funding model. So, after years of them being employed while I’m job hunting and trying to define my skills and find a place I fit, things are reversed. I’m so full of passion and joy. I’m a little afraid of sharing how wonderful things are when people around me are hurting. And I’m afraid of showing how brilliant I can be when most of us learn as kids that the fastest way to be hated is to get top marks on your assignments. I get wonderful news and run around to all my friends like a puppy dog – will you still like me if I’m successful? Tall Poppy Syndrome is scary.

samhc

The only reason I even know about the artists I love so passionately like Tim Burton, Michael Leunig, or Amanda Palmer are because they found a place in the world for their skills and some kind of success. It didn’t make them lesser people, it makes me lucky to be able to share in their work and enjoy what they do. So I’m being brave and putting some more language to my skills. And people around me are being kind about how scary this feels to me and helping me figure it out. I have finally taken the next step in my brilliant career! It fits with my commitment to be human and show in public what we hide in private. I love what I do and I’m good at it. I’m eyeball deep in frameworks and models and designing brilliant approaches. And my art is on display, communicating ideas in the universal visual language. Life is wonderful.

America, here we come!

Amanda Palmer and Poppy

Rose, Poppy and I all went off to see Amanda Palmer’s concert last night with our friend and her 8 week old baby. It was amazing and both little ones were brilliant. They nursed, slept, and played in almost total silence (we had baby earphones for both during the louder songs). Towards the end Poppy was really keen to watch Amanda performing and started to ‘sing’ along to the songs. We were in the second row so during a quiet moment Amanda heard her and she and Rose had a brief conversation about her. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to be listening to her stories and songs about her little boy and life as a Mum with my own deeply loved baby on my lap, nursing at my breast, or standing on my knees to watch.

It was a stunning and bittersweet evening. Amanda was feeling sick so she didn’t stay for signing and meeting like she usually does. I was inspired by her and her beautiful strange friends as I am always am – Amanda treats her fans with the respect of fellow artists which is something I love and try to emulate in my own small way. She is deeply and undeniably human, constantly pulling back the glamour of fame to show the pores of her life. Maybe because I’ve just finished her book it didn’t feel like meeting someone famous, more like touching base with a very successful friend I don’t see very often. That’s part of her magic though, her ability and willingness to be authentic and personal. She’s a huge inspiration for my own art and writing. She’s worked incredibly hard and taken a lot of risks to build her career. I also felt a little sad that my life has moved me away from such wildness and strangeness in my own art. She seemed so free and unconstrained, while my fears and my inclination to adapt mean I’m always trapping myself in small boxes then breaking out again. There was such beauty in the evening and an odd kind of grief. Family. Children. Distance. Art. Love. Regret.

Walking back to our car we happened upon Amanda pulling away in hers with a couple of friends. We waved goodbye and she realised we were the fans in the concert with the baby. She hopped out and gave Poppy a cuddle. There’s a kind of ache I’ve known my whole adult life, a hunger for the weight of a child in your arms. It’s precious beyond measure to have Poppy here at last – Facebook is reminding me that this time 2 years ago we were head over heels in love with unborn Tamlorn. Over the next few weeks the status updates in memory will change to grief and anguish. When we’re apart from our babies we miss them in a physical way, miss the smell of their skin, the silk of their hair, their weight against our chest. It’s beautiful to be reunited with them and precious to be allowed to hold someone else’s for a little while. We all had a tired hug and went on our ways into the evening. It was a beautiful night.

A week of firsts!

Rose, Star, Poppy and I are all adapting to some huge and wonderful changes. I’ve been fortunate to have been contracted on some fantastic projects where I’m getting to stretch my brain and hone my skills. Digesting lots of information, exploring a variety of frameworks, working closely with a small team… there’s a fierce joy in me at getting to do what I love to do and pushing myself further than I’ve gone before. It’s not enough to sit safely on the sidelines, critiquing. Wrestling with language, concepts, assumptions, models, evidence, diversity, communication, connection, being part of creating something. It’s such a pleasure to work. I dress up in good clothes, and go away and work hard at something that’s deeply meaningful to me, with people I respect, and I get paid. The chronic struggle between Rose and I, each saddled with the role we want least, her with a job and me at home, has eased. There’s a calm and a peace as we settle into the roles we’ve most wanted all along and feel best suited to. 

I have done my first pump at work, carrying home precious bags of milk in an insulated lunch bag with a freezer block. Trying to figure out what to write on the sign on the door so no one walks in on me partly nude. It feels so strange and vulnerable! I’m very lucky that there are many women in my workplace who are mothers who once nursed and are sympathic and supportive. 

Rose has done her first 9-5 day with Poppy without me to nurse. She’s also done her first working from home where I care for Poppy. Rose cried a little to leave her. I took Poppy to play on the grass next door so she couldn’t hear every little grizzle and feel her heart ache. She came back brighteyed with pleasure at stretching her work wings again. Star is making sense of her third week of year 11. Star, Rose, and I have each been navigating renewed contact with cut off family members. The process is delicate, painful, hopeful, disappointing, exciting, and triggering. New bridges and fresh starts take courage and work and the risks aren’t always rewarded. Change everywhere. 

Transition is challenging.We’ve never done this before! We are stepping into the unknown and drawing on the grace and experience of others. Anxiety is high and rough nights with teething leave everyone short of sleep and limping along unable to shine the way we want to. I’m watching and noticing where the stress is and what’s working and what isn’t. I ride the waves of my stress, insecurity, and numbness, far out of my comfort zone but knowing I can do this, that this is where the growth is, where the opportunities are. This is what I’ve been working towards for so many years. 

If I can navigate the extreme stress of painful life changes like homelessness without self destructing then I can deal with self doubt, imposter syndrome, and new roles with patience. Tending myself, tending our family as we navigate new roles and routines and resources and pressures. Stretching us and getting a sense of our strength and capacity, where our joy lies, where our limits are. Building the routines that keep daily life running, and shaking loose of the schedule when we all need to break away a little, breathe a different air under a different sky. We are in the spring time of our family, all growing towards a bright sun.

Multiplicity Interview at Radio Adelaide

Today I was in at Radio Adelaide with Suzanne, being interviewed for a half hour conversation that’s going to be aired tonight alongside her beautiful documentary I the Many, We the One. 

You can listen online at 6pm Adelaide time to hear Sue and I discuss multiplicity, and the delicate and skilled process of sharing people’s personal experiences safely in a way that finds common ground while honouring diversity. The documentary is not just an interesting topic but a really beautiful and nuanced storytelling with poetry, voices woven together, and music written specifically for the piece. It’s stunning, and she won a major award for it!

If you miss this interview you will be able to catch it for the next 4 weeks on their website under the Listen Again option on Story Chaser, just select Thurs 16th Feb. Sorry for the late notice, I didn’t realise it was airing tonight!

You can also listen to just the documentary I the Many, We the One over at CBAA.

We have been discussing holding an event later this year to celebrate the documentary and the lives and work of people with multiplicity. If you would like be involved or can contribute a venue or opportunity, please get in touch. 🙂 sarah@di.org.au Visibility is important.

 

Enjoying my work

I’ve had a wonderful few arty gigs this weekend, my anxiety low and my joy in being around kids and doing something creative high. It’s been a pleasure. The more I make sense of my ideas and values around professionalism the more I’m relaxing and able to be myself. I even shared a bit of lunch with the delightful family of a sweet 4 year old after creating glitter tattoos for her and her friends. 🙂


Even more magically – today while I was away face painting, POPPY DRANK 150MLS OF EXPRESSED MILK! Rose are I are ecstatic. This is a huge breakthrough for helping to reduce stress and anxiety around work. What a champion. 😀 It’s been a lovely couple of days.