I come from a long line of procrastinators. It is kind of genetic. There is always a tension about what constitutes over-sharing and yet it is apparently important to speak up about mental health issues, despite the discrimination this induces. I’ve always had problems concentrating and getting started. Organisation is not my forté. I’m not sure whether anyone noticed. Girls are good at hiding that stuff. Plus I was kind of smart and I had compensation strategies that got me by. I got through my first degree somehow (burning the midnight oil and eating a lot of chocolate). I got a job in the government and worked my way through some of the ranks (burning the midnight oil and eating a lot of chocolate).
I was the Taskforce queen. I could pull it out of a hat when deadlines were tight (it takes a lot of adrenaline to get my mind out of first gear). Routine jobs? Tedious and stressful (probably because they involved organisational skills that I did not possess). I live in nuance, and that is often an uncomfortable place to be for a policy adviser. (I do have some sympathy for our former prime minister who was constantly being criticised because he couldn’t give a simple answer.) It is hard to sum up complex policy considerations in three talking points. Still I managed, because you know, hard work. It is the solution to everything, right? At least that is what I thought.
Trigger warning. This post contains material that may distress some readers.
As you can imagine, this type of stressful lifestyle can lead to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. All of which is perfectly manageable when you are only responsible for yourself, but when kids enter the equation, compensation strategies may not be enough and life can turn to shit test even the most resilient. Plus, you know, quirky parents often occasion quirky children. Young boys aren’t so good at hiding the concentration and procrastination problems. But they are pretty good at hiding melancholia, mostly with anger.
Nobody heard, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Not Waving but Drowning (Stevie Smith)
My love and I tried to get help. I kept saying to my child’s teacher that there was something wrong with my child because he would explode when he got home from school. But apparently there was no issue at school because my child was perfectly behaved there. So by default, my fault. My parenting. Of course, the good behaviour didn’t last. I said to another teacher that my child had a learning disability but my concerns were not taken seriously. And yet, said child had never picked up a pencil voluntarily in his life. As you know, every child develops at a different rate. And thank you, I do know that not every child is a genius. We did come across some wonderful teachers, but ultimately they can’t perform miracles. So commenced the endless rounds of assessments and therapies with reluctant child(ren). To add to the misery, there was no shortage of arguments about homework and assignments not submitted. My belief in hard work as the panacea to all ills took a pummeling, but I was not ready to let it go.
When the child refuses to engage, no one says “Just give up.” No, they say that the job market is very competitive and your child’s future depends on getting a good education (which means doing the work). Or they say “Just love your child.” This is difficult to do when you are living in the house of horrors. Suffice to say, my family has seen many doctors and counselors, some wonderful and others not so much. When my son absconded from the counselor’s office, the counselor’s solution was parent counselling. God knows we needed yet more positive-parenting counselling. The standard advice was to praise children when you see them do something good, provide them with opportunities to learn consequences, and reward good behaviour. I am sure this works for some, but it didn’t work for us. Those strategies only work when your child cares about something. If they don’t, you soon go down this deep, dark hole where terms like abandonment, attachment and conduct disorder are thrown around. There is suspicion. By default, the parents are to blame. There is parental guilt. Maybe the experts were right. Although nominally part-time, I worked long hours (to compensate for my slow processing), and I shouted at my kids who wouldn’t get ready for school. Organisation was not their forté.
I suppose the signs were there. When a five-year-old tells you tearfully that he wished he never was, it is heart-breaking. When your child hasn’t had a shower for two weeks and smells terrible, and despite the removal of everything they hold dear in their life (which by that stage is virtually nothing), still refuses to comply, should you just dismiss that as childish behaviour that can be rectified with a good kick up the arse or some other assertion of parental will? If an adult behaved in the same way, would that behaviour be dismissed as childish behaviour that requires a firm hand or some unwanted treat as an incentive to achieve compliance? Well, no. I recently read an article about two mothers who were trying to raise awareness of depression in young children. They struggled for years for answers. My heart went out to them. I hope the article helps other parents in the same position. If only ….
In some respects, initial diagnoses are unhelpful because you start to put your faith in them and think things can only get better. But lives are complicated and messy. Brains are complicated and messy. You can’t put people in a box, although that is, of course, what the DSM is all about. Messy brains often result in a cluster of co-morbid conditions and sometimes it takes a long time to sort out “the problem”. I’m all for meds, but there is no magic pill. It is hard to say whether the concentration and learning disabilities cause depression or whether they just correlate. I suspect it is a bit of both.
I know I’ve been a really shit mum. No need for sympathy or protests, dear Reader. In the heat of the moment, I wondered why I ever wanted children. I didn’t have enough information and I couldn’t cope. But I had some help, imperfect as it was (the manual needed significant modification). So instead we learnt by trial and error. A friend said something one day that made a big impression on me. She said that her main goal was to get her children through school alive. It wasn’t advice to me, just a reflection on her own challenges, but it stuck. I decided to let it go – my faith in hard work and the value of a good education, my unrealistic dreams of success for my kids, my fears about their future. I just gave up. But I got something in return. A relationship with my children.
As co-morbidities go, one child was diagnosed at age 16 years with a severe written expression disorder putting him in the bottom 3% of the population. Another was diagnosed at age 18 years with a significant visual tracking difficulty. Mother and children are now doing well.