There comes a time in an infants short life where they come to realise that you are a separate being who exists beyond them. You can walk out of their reach, even out of sight, without them. And this must be terrifying. Will you come back? Who knows? Word cannot explain or reason with your baby. Experience is all they have. So cling to you they must, for who knows what lies beyond their reach.

Yes, that’s where we are and have been for a few weeks now. I can no longer place my contented baby in his bed for him to drift off to sleep. He remains vigilant. Where is she going? What is she doing?

He wants to be in my arms, and only my arms. My husband gets up in the night to soothe a crying baby, and the pained howl I hear says “YOU ARE NOT MY MUMMY!” and things go down hill from there.

Where once we had some sleep, even 4-5 hours in a row, now my vigilant baby wakes every sleep cycle throughout the night crying out for me. Where is my mother? So no, I have not had much sleep recently. And thanks, but no I’m not going to let him “cry it out”; no, I don’t think it is “good for him”. But alas, I am going to attempt to break the breast=sleep association; because feeding to sleep is not working for us anymore.

[For non-parents, breast milk is like some amazing happy, sleepy drug. Babies obviously love it, and it sends them contentedly to sleep. It’s the most reliable way to get your baby to sleep, but also a habit they need to break. I mean, you don’t see adults drinking any amazing happy, sleepy drugs to unwind… oh wait…]

So that’s my round about way of saying I am a sleep deprived sloth like creature who eats half a block of chocolate everyday (Lindt 78% has become my particular predilection), drinks as much coffee as I can get out of the house for (3 shot macchiato has become my thing), and goes through a box of loose leaf tea per week.

I also started, dear reader, another terrible habit. Online shopping.

In the dark hours of the morning, or when the sun has risen, or at lunchtime, afternoon, dusk – whenever. Whenever I am tired, which seems to be always. I go online, and I make accounts, so I can make wish-lists, and fill symbolic baskets, and head to imaginary check-outs. And I buy crap that I aspire to maybe one day need. Like maybe one day I will have cause to look fabulous and glamorous. Not to head to the GP for immunisations, or walk to get another coffee. Not for my mothers’ group or swimming lessons at the local pool. But some actual reason. Like being a mother is not enough.

Maybe the shame I feel is that of an addict with this guilt ridden stuff I am accumulating. My little boy will only be twenty something when the arctic ice will have melted in the summer time, when the change of climate reaches that steep turning point on the exponential curve. There might be nuclear holocaust. Deprivations and conflict and violence that is beyond what even exists today. He will know that I bought shampoo from  Japan and shoes from Italy, and curled my hair and worried about if I looked too mummsy.

The pleasure of stuff comes from the imagining. Imagining myself as a different person. So that while I feel guilty of the waste and excess of plastic packaging and shoes that have no purpose in life, I also feel guilty that I also imagine a self that isn’t sitting on the couch in clothes with baby food stains on her top. I can’t make ‘mum’ sound like someone I want to be.

So I have a colour correcting under eye concealer, to hide those dark blue circles under my eyes. This will be for the time that I want to look awake, and young, and carefree.

I have a curling wand for my hair, for that time I will brush it and look groomed and like a functioning adult.

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I have mules made of a pink suede that are completely impractical, for that time where I want to imagine my life isn’t about the practicalities.

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And a rose gold shimmery skirt, for when I want to be living a different life.

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All of these things seemed like wise and reasoned purchases at the time. Even for a person with a dwindling income and little occasion to socialise. None of it makes any sense.

It’s taken me two hours to get my baby to nap this afternoon, because I am trying my best not to feed him to sleep. I hate to see him cry, and wish that the easy solutions were the best ones. I could hold him and feed him, always. I could be his everything and fulfil his every need, always. Except when it’s impossible, dysfunctional or just not living.

Which I guess is like motherhood. I could BE mum, a mother, always. I could make it my everything. Except when it destroys me, exhausts me, overwhelms me.

So I imagine this woman who might be spontaneous, selfish. Who can just walk out the door, on her own, as she pleases. Her decisions and foibles mean nothing. No one needs to know. No one NEEDS her. She is free.

I don’t know what I am trying to say. I am tired. Something.

 

 

 

 

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The Dread

I’m gradually turning my mind toward work.

I have a job for next year. Contract signed. It’s happening.

Baby starts a ‘transition’ to childcare in a month. Two days a week, before going full-time in January – so I can at least experiment with some sort of routine before IT all starts.

IT fills me with dread. I don’t know how people do IT. The logistics, the stress, the fatigue, the futile battles, the guilt and the worry.

I imagine going back to work is like climbing into a long dark tunnel of hopelessness. The air is hot and thick and there are strange noises echoing along its length. Everything is full of surprises and out of your control.

I replay the worst shifts through my mind and wonder how I ever survived those nights or days or at all. How do people do this job? I don’t know. And how do I return to it? Do I just turn up on the ward one day – as if I know what I’m doing? Because I don’t. And maybe I never did. When I think of all those worst shifts, I think it’s because I didn’t know – or couldn’t see what I was doing that I did survive.

One night, on the outskirts of town, there was a MET call for my patient. Because it was a small hospital, I already knew who it was for. There were enough patients for me to know who the troublemakers would be. And when I say ‘my patient’, I guess all the patients were mine.

The scene was chaotic. Blood was everywhere. All over the patient, the bed. And soon all over me. He spoke to me in words I couldn’t understand. Struggling to keep his eyes open. Struggling to obey my command. Blood pressure was difficult to measure. Heart rhythm was a broad complex of fast and scarey.

I rang the mothership. They seemed to mistake me for a tertiary hospital, and suggested I get a surgeon, a CT, bloods. I explained to even get bloods, I would need to call a taxi to get the tubes to the mothership at this time of night. They seemed not to believe me.

I called an ambulance.

I didn’t care what the mothership said. My patient’s only chance was not with me.

I called an anaesthetist. I had all the best nurses in the hospital at my side. On some wards, I was leaving patients almost completely unattended. If there was any other disaster that night at that time, I don’t know what we would have done.

The mothership kept on calling me to remind me not to send my patient their way.

Everything was going to shit. But the anaesthetist was there and we had an airway. The paramedics arrived, and my patient was on their way to somewhere safer, where they might have a chance.

The room was a mess. Soiled and soaked by bodily fluids and our best efforts at keeping someone alive with what we could.

There were still hours left till morning handover. I looked at my phone and calculated the minutes that I spent on the phone arguing with people, rather than caring for the patient in front of me. The minutes added up.

I remember my anger. How shit this was – for the patient, with the system, with myself. I should’ve just hung up. I shouldn’t be so nice, polite. I shouldn’t have wasted time making my case. There was no option.

Nobody says anything nice to you at handover. The consultant is glad you got the patient ‘out of here’, and that’s about it. Nobody asks you how you feel or how things went or – I don’t know. Nobody asks you anything.

I remember catching the train home with the splatter of someone else’s blood on my sleeves and scrubs. Too tired to feel it. Too wired. I lodged a complaint about the mothership when I got home, writing with the fierce eloquence of post-nights’ righteousness. An essay about patient safety and such things.

My patient died. Of course he did. Of course he did, because that’s what was always going to happen. I was just hoping for a happier ending. Maybe all my efforts were to stop him from dying in front of me.

So how do I do this? How do I care for a baby and run a MET call? Or care for a baby and go into battle with the hospital? Care for a baby and wonder when I’ll get my next roster, or the rotations I want, or find time to study, have a weekend off, or manage a difficult boss…

I feel the rush of time passing. And soon this life will be over, and my life will be confined to that long dark tunnel of hopelessness. I think of all the stories. All the worst shifts and the worst bosses and dreaded terms. I conjure up memories of failure and inadequacy.

How do people do it?

Matresence

Motherhood is almost incomprehensible until you are a mother. And even if I dedicate all my words and time to explaining, I’m still not sure you’d understand. I wouldn’t have.

I realise as a new mother that I was at best indifferent to all the mothers in my life. I framed your struggles in terms of logistical challenges, matters of planning, and time management. I didn’t understand how your sense of self has been transformed – maybe even disfigured. I didn’t appreciate your loss of autonomy, and how that might’ve come as a difficult surprise to you. You were once an independent woman, accountable to yourself. Able to walk out the door unimpeded. Know a night’s sleep (mostly) would meet you at the end of the day. Day dream about a future with all its possibilities. Give yourself and your time judiciously, according to your wishes. And then that all changed. And the totality and finality of that change can be overwhelming.

This article touches on a few of the themes that have shaped my experience over the last 6 months. But ambivalence is perhaps the one that resonates with me the most. The contradictory longing for freedom and autonomy, countered by the powerful pull of baby.

I am exhausted. I don’t remember what unbroken sleep feels like. He’s unwell and wakes every 90 minutes, calling for me, wanting – needing to be held. I feed him at my breast, and when he’s settled I hold him in my arms. I am exhausted. But I sit still and watch him breath. Admire his perfection. Wonder at this strange creature. I love him so much, my hearts aches. I am exhausted. But if I could capture this moment, and relive it when I needed this memory, to know this love, I would. I am exhausted, but I can’t let go – despite myself.

My baby isn’t old enough to create chaos. His needs are simple and his smiles forthcoming. But he doesn’t need to be a complicated being to make life complicated. He is, therefore everything is not as it was. Me. I am different. And I think it’s too soon to tell you how. Who am I as a mother? I’m still learning. My husband and I, we are different. I’ve fought with him and cried like never before. I’m angry and resentful. I’m grateful. I’m dependent. I’m lonely. I miss him. He sleeps and doesn’t hear the baby. He can’t comfort him like my breastmilk can. He doesn’t have the easy confidence that comes from spending most of your waking hours doting on this baby. He sleeps. He sleeps.

I’m going on a course for work and the costs and planning that has gone into that endeavour is most likely more than what I will take from the course. I’ve bitten the bullet and accepted help from my mum (surprisingly heartwarming to see her fall in love with my baby). The stress of flying solo with a baby. The breastmilk supplies I’ve already started working on. Pumping. Pumping. Pumping. The equipment hire. The accommodation. Nothing is simple. Ever again.

But even if everything material was provided, organised, managed; there’s the matter of your heart. You walk out the door alone (after much planning and help from others), but you’re never really alone. You carry around the love for this baby, and it is a blessing and a burden. It is a joyful, addictive responsibility. You are a willing prisoner.

And then I’ll go back to work, and I will be hopeless. I will doubt myself. I’ll be a terrible doctor and a terrible mum, and somehow try to keep it together. Maybe my husband and I will bicker even more. Maybe we’ll forget to apologise, forget to hold each other and remind each other that we are family now. That “I love you”. That “I have never loved you more”. When I watch my husband and baby together, I want to hold that moment and store it for another time when I need to be reminded of this love. Because everything is changing so quickly.

My little baby is always growing, always learning. He’s itching to get moving. He’s frustrated when he can’t do everything he wants. My little baby won’t be a baby forever. And he’ll talk back to me and tantrum. He won’t let me hold him anymore. We won’t enjoy cuddles, and I won’t always be able to kiss his cheeks at my pleasure. He’ll be embarrassed of me, angry with me. We might become strangers. I might let him down. Everything changes so quickly. We’re all learning. We’re all becoming.

Boy

You are seven weeks old, my son. Forty-nine days. Such a short time can feel like forever. Could it be possible I’ve known you all my life? Before you were born, I couldn’t imagine you were even real – even as you grew inside, even while I felt your movements, your growing weight, saw you taking shape on a screen. But as soon as you were real, you were instantly familiar. Like we’d met before.

I was relieved to fall in love with you, to find it so easy to do so. You were and are perfect, intoxicating and fascinating. Just recently you’ve learnt to smile, and I have to stop myself from crying when you do. You are so beautiful and I love you.

Becoming mother

I am now on maternity leave. Packed away my stethoscope. Finished off some clinic letters this morning. Submitted the last of my re-call forms. This is the beginning.

This morning I bought ‘comfy’ pants.

And obsessed over the news.

When will the war begin? And what is this world that I will bring a child into?

I also hung up on my mother.

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My husband asks me to consider the type of relationship I’d like to foster with her. ‘No relationship’ seems just fine. He warns me burning bridges, isolating myself at this time is not healthy or wise. So I try to imagine we have an adult, functional relationship.

_____

She visited last weekend, and we spent most of that time talking about nothing in particular. All was calm on the surface. On the last day, I broached the subject of what would happen when the baby arrived, the healthy boundaries I wanted to establish.

She was upset and angry. On the phone today, she told me I had blind-sided her. She never suspected there was any problem or tension between us. There’s only been a problem since I became a doctor, she speculated. I have changed. My work was too much for me; I was taking it out on family.

I’ve lived away from my family for 17 years, with a safe distance of at least 1,000km between us. This was no accident.

I suggested to her this wasn’t a new problem. At best she trivialised the examples I offered her. Worse: she denied they happened, accused me of bearing unreasonable grudges.

I forgot what this felt like.

So I hung up.

She left a message to say she was sorry she yelled at me. That if I called back, she would listen.

I wrote back to say I think we both need some time before re-visiting this conversation. I said this confrontation confirmed my anxieties.

She replied to say that I’m probably stressed from work, and once I’ve had a chance to unwind, she’d be happy to speak to me.

_____

I feel afraid and inadequate. What a loser, how petty and stupid. Everyone agrees: my mother is a lovely and kind person. I am the difficult one. I will police access to her grandchild, and I will be the cruel one.

_____

I hope my baby grows up to be a kind and resilient person. I hope this new human will grow to be confident, empathetic and strong. I hope that they will know that while their opinions and knowledge are things they have to earn and prove, their emotions and experience is always true and real, that no one can deny them their content of their heart.

Not waving.

Not Waving, but drowning

Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

 

So what can  I tell you about now, or how I got here? That I fucked up? Or I am a fuck-up? Or… what?

A few weeks ago, I went to bed cradling cramping abdominal pain, coming in waves. For a moment, I thought to myself: “well, that’s it then”. There will be sadness and grief for a baby that couldn’t survive, but then… Life would go on. I would be free.

Of course, that’s not what happened. I woke my husband and we went to the hospital. Feotal heart rate 140-150; baby active. Contractions now settled. Blood pressure normal. Urinalysis clear. Go home. Sleep.

But for a moment there, my thoughts betrayed me. The possibility of something else other than this. The temptation of life as I’ve known it. I didn’t go to work the next day. I was and am exhausted, my mind was racing. I was a failure. I’d come to the end of a run of on-calls, where sleep was insufficient and always interrupted. I want to be better than good enough, but always feel inadequate.

This is the field of medicine I love the most, and I feel like my body is letting me down. My belly continues to grow, I feel heavy and slow.My clothes are uncomfortable. I can’t walk so fast. I am breathless and tired. I’m always going to the toilet. My muscles ache. My back hurts.

This is not how I want to be. I want to make a career in this field, but right now I’m just managing to do my job.

My husband tells me I can’t go on like this. When ED calls me at midnight to ask me to admit a patient, he gets angry. He promises he’s not angry at me, but doesn’t see why I should go. Can’t someone else admit the patient? Why can’t I just turn off my phone? What would happen if I did?

We argue, and then I head back into the hospital – because that’s my job.

The middle aged patient I’ve been asked to see was called by the pathology lab in the mid-afternoon to direct him to the ED. But he had a friend’s barbecue to attend with his wife, and he knew we’re “always open” anyway. His wife chastises me for being at work so late (it’s now after 1am) in my condition. I smile politely.

After all’s done, I get home after 3am. When I see the patient and his wife on the round that morning, they give me a sterner talking to. How could I be at work after seeing them last night? I want to say “well, we are always open”, but I don’t. I thank them for their well-meaning advice and give vague answers to their intrusive, personal questions.

People tell me how excited I must be. They tell me how this is such a special time.

I feel like I am disappearing. Strangers  and family and colleagues tell me how I should feel, what I should be eating, what I should do with myself. My husband feels helpless and worried. He urges me to look after myself, if not for my sake – but our baby. I feel guilty, isolated.

A woman stopped me in the street and placed her hands on my belly, and told me how fortunate I am. I want to run away from her. I feel panic and anger. I want to hide. I want to disappear.

I feel shame when others tell me I should feel excitement. Instead, everything I feel isn’t anything I want to admit to. This is terrifying and absolute. I have no control and little influence over anything that is to come. And how I feel or what I think or who I am is mostly irrelevant. What’s next is motherhood.

I stayed at home after the night I went to hospital. Things weren’t quite right and I went back to hospital again. And in the end I was away from work for three days. The AT who writes the registrar roster was unsympathetic  when I told him I wasn’t coping with my hours*, but I think at some point while I was away the bosses inspected the roster closer, and my on-calls were improved.

I’m now on a week’s holiday (applied for/booked in November 2015 – and my god, the timing couldn’t be better). The panic of my thoughts has calmed with better, uninterrupted  sleep (except for feotal kicks, small bladder and difficulty turning). And the chance to relax in in my husband’s company has put some of the anguish to rest. I feel safe with him. And in our private world between the two us, we talk and wonder about the future. I don’t have to feel guilt or shame.

I’m going to finish work soon. Because I am tired. Because I am not doing the good job I want to do. Because I am conspicuously pregnant. I am overshadowed by this growing, firm round belly protruding away from me. And it attracts attention like I never want.

And because I just need time to make sense of it all.

 

*Side note: He’s the father of five, and his wife has always worked till 38/40 and gone back to work within 3 months of delivery. Toughen up – he says. I’m not asking for special treatment, but his response just helped me feel worse about myself.

 

 

Re-discovering Jessica

I am approaching the end of a sixth month venture into the topsy turvy world of shift work. I’m not sad to bid farewell to the diurnal upheaval and social isolation – though I am sure I will miss the ability to do administrative errands with ease, and also indulge in my daily catch up with Murder She Wrote (ABC1, 16.15 weekdays – in case you’re interested).

What a woman is our JR. Not only is she a fabulous amateur sleuth, a wonderful author (by the accounts of others), she is observant, assertive and I guess what we’d call “sassy”? Someone pushes her buttons or crosses her personal boundaries, and she has no problem standing her ground; delivering a swift and direct one-liner at her opponent – and no one even threatens to call her a bitch. Some might say “THAT Jessica Fletcher!” but she is always respected.

I like that I can’t decide if she’s beautiful or good looking, and I can’t even work out what age she’s meant to be. She has wrinkles, a tummy, and a terrible eighties haircut. She is always well dressed in something elegantly tailored, but she doesn’t seem to fit any type we’re now familiar with. She doesn’t drive, doesn’t use a computer – but she at least knows what a floppy disk is. Everyone wants to hang with Jessica, regardless of age, sex, race or background. She can be a bit mumsy, but isn’t a mother; she’s quite professional, perceptive and astute, but isn’t cold; she subtly flirts with the handsome middle aged man of the episode – but is ALWAYS dignified. Who would’ve imagine a childless widow and retired English teacher would ever be presented as such a strong and charismatic character in mainstream TV?

And then there’s the hilarious portrait of gender relations of that time. Jessica explains the murderous intent of an estranged father to the man’s daughter (after he was arrested for killing the woman’s fiancé – and later proved by Jessica to be innocent): “You must understand, he is a MAN (ie. Has no emotional intelligence) and he is your FATHER (ie. He is unable to behave rationally because he is both the former and the latter)” she says, as if that explains everything.

In another episode, tension was rising between a young loved-up couple because the male of the partnership felt his girlfriend was too much of a “career woman” to ever want to consider living happily ever after with him (ie. Being his wife, mother of his children and housekeeper) Meanwhile the female felt pressure to be a “career woman”, when all she wanted to be was wife, mother and live in servant. Hilarious, right? At once a Shakespearean comedy of errors, but also WHAT THE FUCK?! And then my girl JR entertains these two misguided fools, and actually helps them realise they both want the same thing: woman be dutiful servant to your man (forgetting that she was actually university educated, professionally employed – and her boyfriend almost lost his low-skilled job during the same episode).

These shows were aired during my childhood when I was at least old enough to follow narrative. Living in the country, we only had ABC to watch at the time JR was working her magic on commercial TV. It would only be on holiday sojourns at my grandma’s in the big city when we’d watch Murder She Wrote, and never did I imagine there was more going on than the lovely lady from Bed Knobs and Broom Sticks solving crimes and saving the wrongly accused (there’s ALWAYS a wrongly accused).

It’s been kinda nice to lie on the couch in the late afternoon on night shifts or mid-week days off and discover something new in re-visiting the nostalgic. There’s the jovial sexism that jars with you, but also the portrait of a strong, mature woman that is presented without mockery or caveats. And in some way, the sexism that appears in a show like MSR is so much more interesting because it is overt and unashamed. There’s nothing subtle or pernicious about these characters and their relationships. And we’ve not dressed this up as ‘girl power’ or slotted Jessica’s adventures into a story of female emancipation; she just is what she is. And I’m going to miss her.

New pants

A colleague at work asked me up front if I were pregnant. My cheeks flushed and I stammered, and in doing so confirmed his suspicions. Since then he’s been buying me chocolate and junk food and crap that I don’t want, telling me I need to feed the baby. He comments on my small belly stretching at my clothes. I feel so embarrassed. And I don’t know why I haven’t said anything. I rush away from him as soon as possible, and hope he’ll get the hint. But by now, with all his comments – all the doctors know.

My father in law does something similar. Today at lunch he exclaimed how he can see how big my belly is getting, I’ll need to buy new clothes – just in case I didn’t feel any more self-conscious about my rapidly changing physique.

In fact the day before, I had spent a few hours in almost tears trying to find something that would fit me. At work, I’ve been wearing my scrubs when I can get a way with it, but even now the elastic waist uncomfortably pushes on my belly; and when I do wear normal clothes, I need to wear my pants with the button and zip undone. There’s only so much elasticated stuff you can find in ‘normal’ shops, and I’ve felt this physical reality catching up on me. I’ve been in search of something that fits me.

There’s not much in my inner city neighborhood. I found a small maternity wear store that stocked women’s clothes next to children’s wear and toys. Not keen on hunting around what seems more like a childrenswear store, I headed to a department store where I was told they have a range of maternity wear. On the top floor, again adjacent to the childrenswear and toys, I find a few racks of bold prints on jersey material – like my gym clothes cut in the style of ugly work-wear.

I went to leave, but was accosted by a too helpful shop assistant (never when you want one…). “Oh love, I see girls like you all the time. Near tears, frustrated. But you’ve got to realise honey, your body is changing fast. And it’s never going to be the same”.

She asked me what I was looking for. I picked up the lycra-ed leg of a pair of trousers she’d thrust in my direction. I grimaced. “I just want – um – something more… structured?” She tsk-ed. “You know, girls who are lawyers wear these pants. I think you’ve got to realise where you’re at. And these clothes are great… I wear maternity clothes even still and my kids are at uni – they’re just so comfy.”

Somehow I ended up buying a pair of pants that were a sort of yoga pant/trouser hybrid. And left feeling maybe a little worse than when I arrived. I don’t know. I guess this is just the beginning. What do I matter in all this? The lady was right: I do need to come to terms with this new reality. Things are changing. Though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back the tears if anyone tries to touch my stomach.

The beautiful reflection

Not too long ago, I read an Abbreviated Life (by an author I’ll let you google) and the experience of the author felt strangely familiar to me. Not that I was an only-child, or I grew up in a New York penthouse, or was the god-daughter of a mid-century artistic luminary. None of those things. Rather it’s the author’s account of her relationship with her narcissistic parent that resonated with me.

I know to be weary of labelling people. We’re all capable of displaying less than admirable behaviours in response to stress, threat and pressure. But there was a pattern in this book that I recognised, and maybe offered some explanation for how I feel and where I sit now.

We’d just moved to a new country town and my parents had invited some of my dad’s new colleagues around for a barbecue. I was in early primary school and quite a precocious “chatterbox”, by others’ accounts. At some point I said something at the barbecue that must have been embarrassing. I remember my dad turning on me and being sent to my room. I was confused and upset to be separated from everybody. After the barbecue was over, my dad yelled at me saying what an embarrassment I was, how could I do this to him, and “children should be seen and not heard”.

I wish I knew what I said. It was probably funny (out of the mouths of babe, and all that). But I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember these things.

I know on its own that anecdote sounds pretty innocuous. It probably is. But as a little girl, these incidents were confusing and stressful. It wasn’t difficult to upset my dad, but it was difficult to anticipate what might upset him. Interacting with him kept you in uncomfortable suspense.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear growing up that you’d RUINED EVERYTHING or this was the WORST FATHERS’ DAY EVER. We were a constant cause of catastrophe and disaster. Until we weren’t. Sometimes we’d be showered with unexpected (and unwanted) acts of generosity. But these gifts and displays of affection could only be accepted with trepidation. There were always strings attached.

Dad would take you to buy something that you didn’t want. Ugly boat shoes. A garish watch. A drizabone. If you resisted his generosity, he’d get angry. You were ungrateful and selfish. If later he observed you didn’t wear the item he’d chosen for you, he’d also accuse you of being ungrateful and selfish. Or if by some fluke, he actually gave you something you valued, he would regularly remind you that you were somehow indebted to him. Either way, it was best to avoid my father in a magnanimous mood.

In my late teens, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis didn’t mean much more to me than another degree of difficulty. For a while he used the diagnosis as a get out of jail free card. I’m like this because of my bipolar. George (he would throw in his psychiatrist’s first name into every conversation) says you need to tell me you love me.  I need to know you love me. George says you need to support me more. George says that you need to be more understanding.

I felt resentful. We were three teenagers struggling with anger and loneliness. We were all drinking too much. Taking risks. Doing drugs. Putting ourselves in harms way.

We had a home and parents and security and safety. And I know the value of those things. But we were each alone, isolated and suffering. And I don’t think our parents noticed.

A strange corollary of managing my dad’s volatility, was a strange compulsion to comply, to please – to fly under the radar. On the inside, I felt an overwhelming anger and pain – but it was a feeling I couldn’t express (without alcohol). Instead I could please people. I could ‘be good’. Comply.

This is not a good thing.

Picture a teenage girl, unseen by her parents. Dropping out of the world. Drinking too much. Being ‘good’ for people who don’t care for her. Complying with things she doesn’t want.

You can guess what was happening.

I remember wagging school and graffiting a toilet door somewhere in the city. I drew a picture of myself as a doll, with “the right holes“. I was 15. And I never resisted.

My parents didn’t notice that I was always “staying at a friends”, that I lost 15kg, that I was disappearing before them. I would cry secretly in my bedroom and the pain was intensely visceral. My belly would ache. My heart was being crushed. I was dying, or wishing I would.

But you know, I missed out on being dux at my school by .05 – and that’s what mattered. My dad was the school principal and he knew my results before I did. In fact, he’d told all his friends and organised a barbecue to celebrate – long before I even knew.

I was so upset. I felt robbed by my dad. This wasn’t my achievement. He’d made it his. But I was accused of petulance when I got upset. Don’t ruin a good day, I was told.

But if you ask, I had a happy childhood. I was privileged, middle-class. And all the stuff that happened, particularly in adolescence is too difficult to explain. How do I account for the darkness and trauma, when I’m promised I had a happy childhood? I was loved. I am loved. People care for me.

And they do care for me, but in a way that encroaches upon my agency, that I feel treats me like a possession or property, rather than an independent woman. When my ex-husband left me, my parents were perhaps more devastated than I was. Divorce was incompatible with their religion. My mum asked “what will I tell people?” I was upset, but also felt a sense of freedom. A burden lifting; hope. My dad took it upon himself to write a letter to my ex-husband urging him to return to me. His letter said that I was suicidal, that I needed him. I wouldn’t cope without him. At the time the letter was sent, I was backpacking somewhere in Cambodia and hadn’t spoken to my parents for weeks.

Upon my return, my ex-husband urgently contacted me thinking I was about to end my life. I was actually in a good place – until he told me what was contained in the letter from my dad. I felt a horrible violation. And anger.

Who and what am I to them?

I am upset that news of my pregnancy is everyone else’s business. It’s not my story to tell. I feel like I’m 15 again, and my feelings and needs are being stifled. I complain to my brother by text that people who don’t care for me a now privy to my private news. I say that my boundaries are being broached. That I’m not being shown respect. He replied that of course, EVERYONE cares about me. EVERYONE is proud of me. This is exciting news for our family. I should respect others’ need to know. I should be nicer to our parents.

I don’t know if I can do this.

What right do I have to complain if everything is done out of love and care and pride?

What do my wishes or needs matter?

It’s difficult to find space for my feelings and my experience in this relationship. I feel like I am transported back in time, and it’s easier to go unnoticed, slip under the radar, comply, ‘be good’ than resist people who seem oblivious to you as a competent individual.

When I think about my dad, I don’t know if I am describing narcissism – but re-thinking through the past with that framework has at least helped me see something about myself. I never understood my tendency to conform and surrender, even while I hated myself as I did so. I see it now as a strategy to avoid or at least minimise conflict, to ‘get it over and done with’ as quickly as possible.

I’ve got to stop thinking of having a baby as a source of conflict. I feel a sense of dread. I brace myself in anticipation that I will be trampled over, bullied into something and situations I don’t want by people who promise they love me, care for me.

But it doesn’t need to be that way, does it? Is being accused of being selfish the worst thing to happen? Is hurting or offending my parents lethal? It’s time I grew up.