Return to Work: What’s Good for Baby, What’s Good for Mum?

I have a new emotional expedition I hope you will join me on. 

The time is approaching for me to make a big decision: to go back to work, to extend maternity leave or to stay at home. I have a few weeks before I need to give a final answer and, as ever, this is my exploration space. 

Before We Begin

There are so many factors that go into every individual’s choice that the concept of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of mothering needs to be exterminated. Unless you are outright neglecting, manipulating or abusing your child, there is not a wrong way to parent. 

I find it’s often women perpetuating these notions of right and wrong, I suspect driven by our own insecurities. We are desperate to be perfect, a desire fuelled by hormones, anxiety, love and the pressures of society (real or abstract). 

As ever, opinions are polarised, and the middle ground, although walked by so many, is obscured almost entirely by the prevailing opposites. In this instance, the two extremes are full time work and staying at home although a range of alternatives exist including working from home, being self employed, part time work and I am sure many more I have just never considered. 

Where I Am Right Now 

As I say, there are many, many things to consider, and I want to begin by acknowledging how fortunate I am to have maternity leave in the first place. I have the good fortune to live in a country that has statutory maternity leave, to be an employee and work for a company that I trust to uphold my rights. I am very blessed as not only is this not the experience of women in many other countries, it is not the security afforded to all in my own. 

Currently, beyond going round in circles about the choice and logistics of each outcome, I am aware of the implications of all options on my mental health and wellbeing. 

There have been great blessings to maternity leave but, as a workaholic, there have also been struggles. 

Therefore, there are not just the practical influencers such as finances, child care, the dog and our schedule as a couple to consider, but also emotional; family considerations, couple time and my own well being. 

Some might think it is selfish, but this decision is not just about what is best for baby, but also what is best for mum. 

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Be More Edison

Last year, I published a post about Thomas Edison. 2nd January 1879 was the day that Edison began work on his first generator, only to see his life’s work go up in flames in 1914. Yet was he deterred? Not at all. Almost 70, he simply began all over again.

For me this is what January, and New Year, is all about. It is a time of year when everyone is reflecting, looking back at the year gone by and making plans for the year to come. It is important to be aware that this reflection makes it a challenging time of year for many, especially if personal tragedies have occurred. I like the Thomas Edison anecdote because it is all about renewal and rejecting regret. Regrets, and the expectations that lead to them, are the biggest foes of mental wellbeing in January.

Be More Edison

This year, I too am starting over. Our little family has grown and new life has brought rejuvenation. The past year was filled with personal reflection and emotional exploration as I attempted to regain some past integrity I felt had been lost through traumatic experience.

The initial ambition when I created this blog was to find solace, and perhaps provide some too, along the way. Now, I feel refreshed, thanks to you dear reader, I have persevered and gained confidence.  Like Edison, I have begun rebuilding, forming a disposition that I recognise from before my mental health broke down and becoming suicidal. Recovery, especially from an emotional injury, is a long journey, but I do believe it to be possible, however long it takes.

Take your time.

Where to Start?

Mental illness can be all consuming and because it is invisible can take longer to recognise, diagnose and understand.

Identifying the triggers for episodes of mental ill-health is an important place to begin. The trigger is the connection between the symptoms you experience and their root cause, most frequently a past experience. It’s working backwards to move forwards.

If you have been following my blog for a while, you will be aware that the trigger for my depression and suicidal thoughts was a series of negative relationships and intense academic anxiety. However, my anxiety is much more ingrained and has a root buried much deeper in the past.

Over the last year, I have begun to mentally excavate around the root. This began by assessing my panic attacks and identifying when the latest one started, working back from the obsessive behaviour to its trigger.

This is a good place to start because it does not require going outside, getting dressed, or even leaving the safety of a duvet cocoon.

Once identified, triggers can be used during grounding to re-centre and gradually gain control over mental illness, instead of feeling that it is control of you. It took me years, but I can now identify activities that are more likely than others to affect my mental wellbeing. As a result, I can be selective in my actions. This does not mean avoiding triggers outright. But it means that I can choose to engage with a stressor and feel in control or disengage from it if I am already feeling overwhelmed.

This isn’t about ‘Saying No’, which so many people find difficult. This is about self-awareness and being able to use that awareness to cope with the things you say yes too. Personally, I think it is generally good to say yes. Yes is positive, it makes you feel capable, because you are capable. If you didn’t know that on some level, you’re subconscious wouldn’t have jumped in and said yes on your behalf before the rest of your brain had thought it all through.

Have faith in yourself and your abilities, even if, like Edison, you have some rebuilding to do.

 

Out with the Old, In with the New

Here we are again. Another New Year, another birthday.

I hope you are recovering from your celebrations, are feeling hopeful and excited about the year ahead. To those of you who find this season challenging, I wish you strength.

For me, this is always a day of reflection, I suppose a bit delayed; I should really look back on the last day of the last year, not the first day of the new one.

So much has changed, and I have so much to thank you for! Truly, I do. Thanks to you I have persevered and can now celebrate my blogging anniversary.

I had so many ideas of how this blog might be and what I would explore. I knew going in that it could be a cathartic process but I could not predict the extent of healing I have experienced.

I have been quiet over the past few months as a result of facing some of my toughest experiences. I achieved my goal of exploring traumatic events and the struggles that followed. In November, I gave birth to a healthy baby, having banished the shadows of the past. I wanted so much for my baby’s experience to be untainted by my own trauma and through blogging I have managed to gain closure and process the emotions enough to separate the present from the past.

I leave that trauma behind in 2018, having carried the pain with me for over two years. I finally feel free.

I am future-facing, forward-looking and excited as I embark on a New Year of experiences.

Showtime!

Maternity leave seems to have extended to blogging as well as employment. I feel that this is part of the nesting process, as priorities change and focus narrows as birth approaches.

I came up with the title for this post several months ago. As I was preparing for birth I was concentrating on the natural, instinctive cooperation between my body and baby. As the process of childbirth remains almost indescribable to those who have not yet experienced it first hand, first time mums will I suspect always feel that they don’t have all the facts as they approach this astounding phenomena.

As such, I tried to quell any anxieties I had by trying to focus on birth from the baby’s perspective; of arrival, of action and of his first breath.

For the past nine months he had been flexing in my womb, developing organs, practicing breathing (you can feel them do this by the way). He had been rehearsing.

Now, as labour commenced, this was showtime!

Preparing for an Eternal Family

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk in my Church Ward about preparing for an eternal family. I feel prompted to share sections of this talk, after all, the blog is called Dreaming of the Temple, inspired by the exploration of my spiritual, as well as temporal, experience. If this post appears as unfamiliar territory, a sense of context can be gained here.

Introduction

I felt completely unqualified to make any remarks on this topic whatsoever; I am not confident that I have fulfilled my own hopes for spiritual preparation before starting to grow our family, let alone those of the Church. I still feel uneducated in the full doctrine, history and organisation of the Church, there are elements of Scripture that are still unknown to me and, despite considerable dedication, at the time of the talk, Samuel and I had not yet been sealed in the Temple (an outline of what this entails can be found here).

Other than suggesting that Heavenly Father enjoys irony, why was this topic assigned to me?

There is a considerable part of me that is always cynical, perhaps not an attractive quality, especially not typically admired in religious circles, but personally I think a pinch of metaphorical salt is healthy (literally from a nutritional point of view, not so much). In this instance, the cynic in me was thinking, ‘Sure you want me to talk on this, I am the current first time mum in the Ward’. However, being asked to speak in Sacrament meetings is not to be taken lightly, so I set about giving the topic some serious thought.

The conclusion I came to was that our little family presented an example of the principle ‘endure to the end’, and thus, that the work does not stop after receiving the sealing ordinance. Being sealed is an exciting prospect and full of spiritual significance but it is not the culmination, or defining feature, of a relationship or marriage. It is an increase in commitment to each other, not an opportunity to relax, at the risk of taking this blessing for granted.

Spiritual and Temporal Growth

I have frequently struggled with feeling that, despite what I consider my best efforts, I do not live up to the ideals of the Church, a sensation now exaggerated by preparing for parenthood; seemingly growing increasingly idealistic, judgemental and competitive. For instance, there are some that don’t yet classify me as being a mother, and others who would tell me that I am already doing everything wrong. I know that this is not a unique experience, and it applies to religious experiences too.

One of my favourite talks from General Conference is by Elder Holland from October 2017 ‘Be Ye Therefore Perfect… Eventually‘. Yes as a couple we are preparing for an eternal family, but everybody’s spiritual and temporal journeys are different. For me, I had hoped to have a stronger grasp of the doctrinal points of the Church and Scriptures before having children, but I also know that what is more important is that I continue to study and learn and I look forward to the fact that my child and I will be able to grow in the Gospel together.

Make Your Home Like the Temple

Looking back, I am still not sure exactly what the obstacle was to our initial sealing attempt in June last year (the delay of our second in June this year was due to the delights of pregnancy complications). We both held active recommends and I had just completed the Temple Preparation Classes (Samuel served a mission, so had done this years before). When there were changes to the Bishopric, however, we were told the date we had chosen was not feasible.

This was upsetting, not only because of our desire to be sealed as a couple for eternity, but because the date we had chosen held personal significance. But through the emotions, I received a strong impression that not being sealed at that time was because there was about to be a considerable change in our circumstances. Sure enough, a few weeks later, we found our house and moved away. For me, the change in location, and being in a more local Ward, has greatly strengthened me spiritually, has aided my recovery from mental illness and resulted in both of us feeling more settled, resulting in us preparing (now commencing) to grow our family.

Time Out

I have posted previously about the importance of taking time and the impacts as well as benefits blogging can hold for mental health.

I did not intend to be absent for so long following my latest posts, but as a result of exploring such intimate trauma, the cathartic release was accompanied by a period of unpublished contemplation. Although such breaks in blog content are not recommended for successful blogging, it proved both sensible and necessary for self care and revealed an element of personal progress.

In the past, breaks in blogging have resulted in an acute sense of anxiety, that trying to ‘cut it’ as a blogger was going to be futile and that I had no voice. I am grateful to those of you who have diligently followed my blogging meanderings and gave me the confidence to share my story.

This was not done out of a notion of having a unique perspective or experience with mental health or rape culture, but from the belief that the narrative surrounding both needs to change and that dialogue is the only way to make that change. I felt I couldn’t shy away from partaking in that dialogue just because the story I had to share was my own and I feared comments, doubt and judgement. I hoped to empower and encourage others that they have a voice, that is not just entitled to be heard but also believed.

Writing the post felt like a counselling session with myself, an  opportunity to explore not only what had happened but also why, without assigning blame or chastising myself, just a chance to acknowledge the events in their entirety.

This is what I love about blogging, the ability to verbalise, reflect upon and then (through the act of hitting ‘publish’) to actively send thoughts, words and hurt away from yourself. I feel like I have expelled one of my strongest demons, one of the most potent predators for my mental health, the trauma now trailing as whispers of grey smoke behind me, not as a black smoggy shadow hovering at my shoulder.

This expulsion resulted in the acknowledged hiatus, but rather than being accompanied by anxiety, I have experienced a tranquility that has been absent for many years.

I am still surprised by feelings of contentment and happiness which reminds me that my healing is not yet complete, but the opportunity for expression that blogging has provided me has brought about positive changes.

How It Didn’t End

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to rape, assault, and suicidal thoughts.
This is a personal story being shared as part of personal recovery.

Two and a Half Years Ago

In moments of particular emotional stress I seem to regress back to the time of a previous abusive relationship. I hate that it happens and it actually hadn’t occurred for months until last week. During these moments I seem to get very disorientated as to where I am and who I am with. I start confusing facts and memories and muddle Samuel with aspects of my abusive ex. It’s stupid little things, mainly revolving around food for some reason. Food seems to have been one of the greatest impacts that my ex had on me, until a few weeks ago I actually hadn’t cooked anything for over two years. Whilst he hated everything that I made, I am still not sure why the relationship had such a drastic and lasting impact on this aspect of my life.

In the general I start muddling likes and dislikes, subconsciously remembering things about my ex and projecting them on to Samuel. This is not the only way that the past invades our marriage. In more severe instances I will actually flinch when Samuel approaches and recoil if he touches me.

None of this is conscious. I am not afraid of Samuel. He is the one man that I feel safe around and the one person that I trust completely. I wasn’t even aware of the flinching until recently when he observed that I had started doing it again. I can’t even imagine how it must feel for him when this happens and I hate the fact that my ex still lurks in my subconscious and even now infiltrates my marriage. Especially when, I at least, am certain that if it wasn’t for Samuel, I wouldn’t actually be here at all.

From Anxiety to Suicide

As I have become increasingly aware of my mental health over the past few years, I realised that anxiety and suicidal thoughts have been constant shadows. I  developed anxiety in childhood and contemplated suicide on a number of occasions throughout my teens. Creative writing seemed to maintain an equilibrium and although I  experienced panic attacks which at times culminated in suicidal thoughts, overall I my mental health was stable.

The stresses and pressures of starting university had no qualitive impact, but when I entered into a relationship during my third year, the panic attacks started becoming more frequent  and started to interfere not only with my studies but my daily life. I would struggle to leave the flat, attend lectures and had no concentration for studying. My grades started to fall.

There is still so much of that relationship that I just don’t understand. To ourselves and, to my knowledge, to others we seemed a perfectly happy couple but when we disagreed it could become very vicious. Lots of couples argue, some even fight, and there were wrong-doings on both sides. But (I realise with the power of hindsight), as the relationship developed, he began to get subtly manipulative. What really should have been an alarm bell for me was when we’d had a discussion about what would happen if I became pregnant and he told me that he would feed me abortion cookies if I was adamant about keeping the child. I have no idea what he planned to put in these, or why I didn’t recognise this as a severe lack of compassion and respect for my body or my rights, but a few months down the line I was going to learn exactly how little right he considered I had over my body.

I paid for missing that warning. It is an example of what can be very difficult for many listeners or observers to understand, that individuals experiencing any form of abuse do not always recognise it as such, especially if it is not physical and escalates very gradually. I don’t know why I stayed with him or how I missed these earlier signs, but eventually it evolved into stalking, coercion and, eventually, rape.

At that point, I finally packed a bag and walked away, ending up homeless for a few months and fortunate to have friends who were able to let me stay for a couple of weeks at a time.

When I found a new flat, I thought that everything was behind me. Although my grades and university attendance had suffered, I was entering my final year with a recoverable average. But then I was sexually assaulted on my way home from work on Halloween and harassed by two individuals for the following six months.

These events had an accumulative effect and my anxiety reached a point were I was relying on adrenaline to function. As I mentioned above, my panic attacks are frequently accompanied by suicidal thoughts and these were growing increasingly invasive.

Deciding Not to Die

I was fortunate to have not developed a plan and that my encounters with suicide remained contemplative and not active. I believe this is due to the timing of meeting Samuel.

Samuel and I first met in the last few months of my degree, just as my dissertation was falling due. My coping mechanism is avoidance, which is very far from ideal when you have 12,000 words to produce and are rapidly running out of time. I had not been taking care of myself at all over the past semester, I wasn’t eating proper meals and my flat had no heating throughout Edinburgh’s experience of February. Samuel and I had just started dating and he suggested that I stay with him and his brother so that he could make sure I ate whilst I spent the last two weeks before my deadline finishing my dissertation.

I have very little recollection of what occurred over those final two weeks. All I know is that despite what felt and appeared like focused hard work, I did not have a dissertation at the end of them.

After a final weekend of very little sleep and a 12 hour long panic attack, I was at crisis point. Alone in the living room of the flat Samuel rented with his brother, I was hysterical and exhausted, feeling that I had let everybody down, feeling unable to face my family and feeling that I had no way out of the situation. The fear and desperation in what felt like a frozen moment was agonising.

Perhaps my subconscious intervened.

Through a renewed panic attack with my chest tightening and feeling unable to breathe, I stumbled to Samuel’s room.  It was still early in the morning and he was asleep, but suddenly, for the first time since I was 13, death no longer felt like an option.

Samuel didn’t physically say or do anything that changed my mind, he simply represented a future beyond that moment of immense despair. As far as I am concerned, he saved my life.

‘my suffering reached a critical mass of desperation: either I was going to kill myself or a completely different way was going to be revealed’
(
Women Food and God, G. Roth, 2011, p.24) 

Because of the pause that seeing Samuel, the person who had provided me with a safe space, had created, and with suicide not being an option in that moment, I suddenly had to do something else. I finally reached out to the mental health support services at the university and the medical profession and together they opened up an alternative future.

I didn’t submit a dissertation in 2016, and I almost had a complete relapse when I finally submitted something and graduated in 2017. But by that time I was married and now am expecting a baby, and living a life that following my experiences of 2015, I had given up all hope of ever having.

If you are seeking mental health support, the Samaritans are free to call from any phone, any time, on 116 123. You do not have to be suicidal to call them.