Pink & Blue Mummyland

Pink and blue parenting through pink and blue moods….

Stigma on my doorstep

This week I have experienced some of the worst stigma and misunderstanding I have come across so far in my life with regards to mental illness.

Fortunately I wasn’t there to witness it. In the heat of anger, a family member said (or shouted) of me: “she doesn’t actually have bipolar – it’s just another excuse to be lazy.”

There are so many issues within this one comment that I hardly even know where to begin. The hurt and pain that it’s caused has been huge, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Cable Guy so angry. But the personal fury aside, the whole situation has made me think about how we tackle stigma in general, and specifically within those closest to us. I don’t get to stop being a part of my family just because they have some ignorant and arrogant views of mental illness. It’s not like Facebook friends who I can just block – I need to figure out how to be related to them whilst essentially unable to change them.

I’ve decided that changing people’s minds about mental illness is broadly a two stage process. First, we have to stop people saying what’s on their mind; secondly, we have to stop them thinking about it. My relative’s comment is a problem in two ways – firstly that they could say it at all (which has left me, and many people around me, incredulous), but also that the thought was there in the first place. As far as I understand it, when most people are angry, they don’t just make stuff up to say. In the heat of the moment, something they think deep in their consciousness, which they usually keep hidden, bursts out, with its barbs and sharp edges set on a trajectory to hurt whoever they are angry with.

The question I’ve been asking myself is, what is the point of changing what people do or say, if we can’t change the way they think? What point is there in my relative apologising if she still thinks that when I say I’m depressed it’s really just that I can’t be bothered to do anything?

Here’s what I’ve come up with. And I must say, I think its ingenious. It turns the current treatment of mental illness entirely on its head.

You know how the NHS is determined that the cure for all things mental health related is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)? In this case I think it is the answer – but not for the patient. It’s all the people around us that need it! People who don’t have understanding of mental illness need to be taught the practise of what therapists call ‘thought stopping’. This is quite an old idea, but essentially claims that you can change the way you think, and therefore how you feel and behave. The basis of the technique is that you consciously issue the command, “Stop!” when you experience repeated negative, unnecessary or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic (read more here). Of course, to start off with, you might need someone else to issue the short, sharp ‘stop’ – but I can think of plenty of volunteers who will be glad to shout loudly in the face of someone who has just said something incredibly stupid about mental illness.

So, the we are. The newest way to deal with stigma regarding mental illness. Treat the non-patient, not the patient. It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard recently……

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What’s the difference between in-laws and Outlaws?

Outlaws are WANTED.

An old joke, but so very true in our lives at the moment. The Cable Guy’s parents are visiting us today, for the first time since we went on holiday with them two months ago. During this holiday, despite the promise of relaxation and lie-ins, we had a week of inappropriate comments and unnecessary judgement with regards to how we parent MiniMe and MicroBob and how well we look after our house and belongings (or don’t, in their eyes) We nearly left more than once that week, and came home incredibly hurt and let down by the way we had been treated. I still can’t think about some of the things they said and did without getting upset, and yet here we are, supposedly enjoying a morning somewhere and picnic lunch.

My aim is not to share a post that slates them and everything they believe in. The Cable Guy and I believe in a God that commands that we honour our parents, however difficult that may be, and we are choosing to see the best in them as far as is humanly possible, because we are as fallen as them, and no doubt in thirty years or so our children will be complaining just as much about us.

Instead, I am going to list all the things I’ve learnt through this hideous time we’ve had, because if nothing else, we may as well make our suffering worth something by letting it teach us something.

1: I don’t need to listen

I can choose what criticism I take on board. One of the most wearing things about the holiday was the constant suggestion that we aren’t doing a good enough job parenting the children because we aren’t doing it the way they did it or wish they had done it. But actually, I don’t have to take it on board. I can just smile and nod, and ignore everything they say. There are several hundred people we would go to before them for parenting advice – people who are more involved in our daily life and who have parented young children more recently (and who didn’t pack them off to boarding school).

2: We are the parents

A the end of the day, the choice is ours. The in-laws might think we should push them more, or smack them for behaving badly, or be more strict with them around the dinner table, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree.

Any comment the in-laws make is based on a segment of time with the children where they are anything but their normal selves, and rarely in their normal environment. Whenever the in-laws visit the kids get overexcited purely through being with them, and vie for attention. So we choose to ignore them being disruptive, because it just gives them attention for behaving badly. We also know them well enough to choose which battles to fight, whether that be because they are over tired, over stimulated or over hungry – or all three. The in-laws don’t like that. They think we should be spanking and shouting. We have decided as the parents that there are times when we can’t push it, and that is ok.

One decision we have made absolutely and completely, without exception, it that we will never hit or smack our children. This is not to say that either of us has been hugely damaged by the smacks we received as children. But we both feel strongly that if we are telling them they shouldn’t hit each other or other people, we should be the ones modelling that to them. This isn’t that we are complying with current views or laws regarding corporal punishment, it is a conscious decision that we don’t want our children to think that hurting someone ever makes things better. Most importantly, we don’t think it’s what Jesus would do or advise, and that’s good enough for us.

3: I can choose how I feel

It may feel to them like they are helping, but it actually just undermines our confidence, and is especially unhelpful when said in front of the children. It doesn’t really matter how they try to say things – phrases like “we don’t want you to feel judged, but…” serve only to make us feel exactly that.

But I can choose to let the judgement be theirs, not mine. They may be judging, but I can decide not to take that on board. As hard as it is sometimes, I have the power to keep hold of my own well being and equilibrium despite what is thrown at me.

As an example, we did manage to go out one afternoon, while the in-laws watched the children. The children apparently behaved brilliantly that day. Part of me wondered whether that meant that we were crap parents after all, and we should just give them to the in-laws to raise and have done with it. Fortunately God chose me a wonderful man to father my children, who said to me: “do you really think they would have known how to behave well if they had never done it before?” He is right, and I am choosing to believe him. They aren’t perfect, and neither are we. But with Gods help we are on the right road.

4: I am not doing that bad a job

MicroBob is too clever for his own good. MiniMe’s reception teacher was amazed that he was doing more than some of her reception children. He does everything faster than he’s supposed to, including how quickly he got used to his glasses, which apparently often sets children back in their development, not pushes them forward. He is stubborn and smart with it. He knows how to push and when, and does it frequently. We find him hard work. We know The Cable Guy was similar, so I’m praying that he grows up like his dad, probably with a mixture of because and in spite of us.

MiniMe is sensitive. She hears and sees everything, and feels everything doubly. When she’s tired that quadruples. She can also be a little madam, but she’s somehow emotionally intelligent enough to never be a little madam at the expense of anyone else. She’s always the first to say sorry, and if her teachers had to choose one word for her, it would be ‘kind’. She, poor kid, has far too much of her mummy in her. She will always be over affected by things – I’m just hoping that I can share with her some of the lessons it’s taken me thirty years to learn, so that the world isn’t as scary and painful a place for her as it can be for me at times.

My children are awesome, and I choose to believe that at least some of that is because we are doing a good job. They have their moments, but what two or four (or thirty four) year old doesn’t? We are managing all the essentials. They are fed, clean(ish!) and loved. They are well behaved at school, and people want to spend time with them. So I’m counting the last five years or so to be well spent.

Everyone has times when they need a bit of encouragement. There are times when you just need cheering on. Likewise, there are some times you need a bit of advice or guidance, but I think most adults know when they need it, and know who to ask.

My final word on the subject is this: good parents don’t make their children feel like bad parents. My hope is that, when it comes to it, we, as parents and grandparents can encourage from the sidelines, shouting support for our team who are running as hard and fast as they can to complete the parenting race set before them.

And maybe give them the odd lie in….

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