Slow lane

[Disclaimer: The following post was written by a very sleep deprived person.]

So, I’ve decided to go part-time. And that decision is on the verge of materialising into a part-time job. I’ve said ‘yes’, now just waiting to see it all in writing. This is happening.

Part-time. Being a mother. These are kind of controversial things in the hospital, I feel. When you mention to your consultant that you’ve just returned to work from maternity leave, you might observe their sharp inhale of breath. Because really, you just told them that you’re unreliable, a little bit demanding, definitely difficult.

Which is probably true.

I’ve taken more sick days this year than any other. Ever.

I have needed family meetings and MDTs to be scheduled around the times I needed to express milk.

I try my very best to leave on time.

I am permanently exhausted. I have word finding difficulties, and my memory is shot.

When I’m doing a double shift, it’s not hard to make me cry. It will be more than 24 hours till I see my little boy, and my heart is broken.

I never volunteer now to take other people’s shifts, stay back, or cover an absence unless it’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes even then, I still can’t say yes.

This little human, entrusted to my care, has non-negotiable needs (and I have legal responsibilities as his guardian). And besides, I love him.

The outcome of all this is a heavy burden of guilt. I’m a shit mother, a shit doctor, a shit wife. A barely functional human. (I write this, of course, after 3 hours sleep and 24 hours of gastro*).

Even when we’re all healthy and well, or at least mostly so, just the logistical challenge of toddler and two full time jobs is exhausting. Together with study, nothing I can do is enough. I feel like a failure.

Last night I dreamt about sitting the exam. I opened the paper and the words were a jumble. I spent my time drawing a picture of a person, until I ran out of time. I woke up in a panic. I’d only been asleep 45 minutes or so. The longest stretch of sleep I got last night – and I wasted it, stressing about an exam.

Someone posted a schedule of their morning on Facebook. It included exercise and a 9am start. My work roster is fairly kind at the moment. 10 hour days, Monday to Friday, no weekends. But a long commute out of the city. To my husband’s annoyance, I wake up our son early so I can spend 15 minutes with him before I leave. I get home to say good night. I cry in the car, often.

I’m getting fat. And it’s hard to sleep, even when I have the chance. I hate driving. I don’t have time to clear my thoughts after work, when my time is spent in the car. I come home to guilt.

I feel so sad to have missed my little boy. I think of the first 1000 days, and what harm I might be wielding. I worry that he’s not yet walking, that he doesn’t sleep through yet, that he’s due for his vaccinations, that I can’t get him to brush his teeth.

I feel guilty that my husband shoulders most of the domestic responsibilities at the moment.

I dread the nights, knowing scarce sleep awaits me. I hear my little boy crying, even when he’s not – my mind always vigilant to his needs.

I stress that I should be studying, I should be exercising. I should let my husband know how much I love him, how I appreciate everything he does. I should be there for my little boy more. I should be anything or anyone but what and who I am.

So, I’m going part-time. It seems like the only option.

I canvassed this idea a few months ago with colleagues I respected. Someone told me that would be a waste of resources, catering to my needs. He told me there is no such thing as a part-time doctor. I rolled my eyes, while quietly adding it to my list of things to feel guilty about. Other people responded with incredulity. Why would I do that? Get it over and done with. Push forward. Get past this. Which makes sense – except I can’t.

Even now as I type this, I feel so useless. I have one small child. The most delightful, lovely 18 month old little boy. He is healthy and normal and affectionate. And even with this good fortune, I struggle.  This much: job, family, study, THIS is too much for me. I don’t want to live like this. I can’t push through this, because my little boy is only a little boy once,  and I can’t ask him to wait a year or two for me to be his mother. I want to be there for him now. But I can’t study, parent, doctor and live all at the same time. I’m just not that good at any of those things.

Other women: stronger, better women, do more, achieve more, are more. But me, I’m going part-time.

*Childcare. In case you don’t know: childcare is an incubator of infectious diseases. Enjoy!

Advertisements

Special consideration

I’ve lost my study mojo. Somehow I’ve managed to wrangle a week’s study leave, and I hoped I’d reignite the fire. Alas, I’ve spent the last few days being vomited on by a toddler. Of course, that was always going to happen.

I’m hoping this is the chaos I’ll just become used to. It will become my normal. I remember when I first moved out of home, I felt this sense of injustice that I had to work, cook, clean, care for myself, have a social life AND go to university. I even developed a chip on my shoulder of sorts, comparing myself to wealthier peers who enjoyed all the perks of the home life, an allowance that afforded a better social life and cooler clothes than me AND time to study. How unfair!

Almost twenty years on (gah!), working, cooking, cleaning, and caring for myself don’t even make up the bare minimum. And I’d be embarrassed of myself if I thought being an adult was worthy of any special praise. But I guess my point is that at sometime between 18 and now, this just became normal. So maybe at some point the chaos and disruption of child just becomes something you take in your stride? You stop feeling guilty, inadequate, the imposter, the failure. This is just life.

Meanwhile, let’s study.

 

Stranger

So here we are. I’ve chosen to estrange myself from my family; the nuclear family, I’m no longer orbit to. I thought I might feel relief. Right now, I feel guilt and shame and self-doubt.

I won’t re-tell the circumstances that led up to it, because really this has been happening over a time that spans years, decades even. There’s no one particular event. It’s just me.

For all my words, I can’t explain this.

What I really want is to be able to say how I feel, and not be told that my feelings are wrong or untrue.

I want to share my experience or perspective with people who say they love me, and not be told that that never happened, that I’m mistaken.

Challenge me, yes. But don’t deny me – my memory, my feelings.

A few weeks ago, my brother showed my parents a series of messages I’d sent to him where I’d whinged about my parents. They had a discussion about me, and my brother came up with ‘a plan’ for me to make things right. He told me what was wrong with me, told me how things were. And this was all I had to do. Simple as that.

I’ve explained the challenges of doctoring and mothering, the constraints of time zones and geography that means making them my priority is almost impossible. You get home , we’re all tired and sleep deprived. There’s a toddler to be fed and nappies and pyjamas and bedtimes and crying and cuddling and soothing. And my husband and I, we’ve not yet sat down. We’ve not eaten our dinner. I’ve got study to do and things to get ready for the day ahead. Shower. Sleep. Something like that.

Making a call to people who don’t hear what I have to say, who don’t like me – but want something from me, I can’t give – this is not my priority. But they’re all asleep by then anyway. If I ever had that time, it wouldn’t be the right time,

But of course, they’re all excuses. I don’t want to speak to them.

My brother told me I am immature and selfish, amongst other things. It’s really hard to tell if he’s right or wrong. Who can be objective in this scenario? And if I am wrong, if I am unreasonable, immature and selfish, how does that help make things better? If tomorrow I received official documentation from some great authority that certifies my experience and feelings as untrue and invalid, and my behaviour selfish and immature, what could I do with that information?

I feel like there’s some vital core to my being under question.

This probably all sounds stupid and melodramatic. But this is where I am at.

 

Re-framing

I really hate my job right now, but I know I don’t hate medicine – all together, all the time – or forever. It’s a temporary state of affairs. A bad rotation. A punishing roster. Winter time. A congested ED. Everyone at the end of their tethers. Things will get better.

And I am making sure of it.

Did I already tell you: I’m re-thinking my job. Revising this path I am on. Not escaping the hospital, but setting some boundaries in this not always healthy relationship with work.

This is something that’s difficult to explain to ‘outside’ people: this complex relationship of the hospital versus you. The love is for those opportunities to engage your mind, your training (and sometimes your heart), in complex, life changing problems or crises in a symphony of teamwork and small miracles of modern medicine to treat, to help, to find solutions. Sometimes the job is deeply rewarding, invigorating, exciting. Sometimes.

But most often, it’s about processes, protocols and bed management. At least, that’s how it feels to me at the moment. Territorial disputes, big egos and internal politics, add in shift work fatigue, and battle hardened nurses who eat med regs for breakfast. And stir.

I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not playing this game. I’m not sacrificing my family or myself to be chewed up by this beast. It’s not worth it. What’s awaiting me at the end of my training? Un- or at best under-employment? Debt accumulated for the want of CV-padding? What?

It’s not that I am giving up all together. I’m not. I am just doing things differently. And with this decision, I already feel better. I have a plan. I have made the decision. Things will change. Things will be better. And it feels good. It feels like such a relief.  I can get through this bit, knowing this isn’t forever.

 

A plan

A few weeks ago, I barely kept someone alive overnight. I was only required to defer the inevitable for long enough to make death another team’s problem. But for the time being it was mine. At around 3am, the patient had arrived into my care. Family had already gone home – discussions with them about what was unfolding had taken place without me. Not for ICU. Not for CPR. But still for one thing – that would have to wait till morning. A consultant had proposed a plan, and according to the handover, this was what the family wanted.

I wasn’t winning. And at 6am, I called the boss who would be performing that one thing. I described what was happening, and said I needed a different plan. If something was going to be done, now might be the time…

“He’s first on the list”.

“Okay, but…”

“He’s first on the list”.

It was a horrible conversation where the consultant berated me for not knowing “my patient” well enough. He referred me to decisions documented in outpatient letters and the results of investigations that he assured me MUST have been done in the past*. What had I been doing with this patient for the last three hours?

I defended myself, for what it’s worth. I’d been focussed on the immediate task at hand – keeping this person alive, not to mention managing the many other patients under my care.

I wanted to tell him that being “first on the list” wasn’t an adequate plan for this patient. I didn’t have the guts.

But I did tellhim I’d contacted the family and asked them to come in. He was furious.

As handover was approaching I contacted anaesthetics . A Fellow arrived on the ward, and over-hearing me on the phone, interrupted to say ‘don’t bother’.

‘Really?’  I put down the pone. I was relieved. ‘I think that’s for the best’. I told him it had been difficult to manage this patient over the last few hours; I was surprised we made it this far. I said I had asked for the family to come in.

He looked irritated.

‘You know you’re a doctor too. YOU can make decisions, You could always decide to palliate’, he said to me.

‘But your boss…’ I started to say.

He thrust his hand toward my face, making a gesture to stop.

‘I don’t want to hear it. That’s nice for  you. You’re upset. That’s nice’.

My cheeks were flushed. I felt angry and frustrated, and holding back tears. This is what I looked like as I walked into handover.

Maybe this sounds like nothing. Maybe I am too sensitive. Maybe I am floundering.

This happened during my first run of nights since I had returned from maternity leave. The first time I had left my baby overnight in all his life. And this, THIS is the hospital life I’d forgotten about. This is what I sacrifice the needs of my family for? To prolong someone’s suffering and to endure the arrogance of dickheads.

There’s nothing good to say about my job right now, except that with every day and each shift, I get closer to finishing this term. And when I say ‘I hate this job’, I really do. I am filled with dread ahead of each shift. I am crying when I get home. The thought that I would most likely do this job again next year – at least once – brings panic.

By some good luck` I was doing a shift with a really lovely consultant the other day, and at the end of it I asked if I could get some advice about how to better manage scenarios like the one above. I explained how it had effected me – honestly. How I couldn’t sleep when I got home. How I feel coming to work here. How mothering and doctoring seem so incompatible right now. Just this outpouring of everything.

The consultant was great. And by the end of our conversation, I had a firm plan to leave. No pasture is greener, but there’s somewhere a better fit for me. There’s somewhere I might work where I don’t need to feel like this.

All of this I knew already, but change has felt too difficult – and with a baby involved now – too complicated. But with this consultant, we actually put together a fairly realistic and achievable plan -or at least the first few steps.

And like that, a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The other night, I received 15 referrals in 3 hours, and was prisoner to my phone. How can I do anything in those circumstances? It was shit. But there’s an end to it. When I know there’s an exit path, I can manage. When I feel like I’m trapped, I am trapped.

Then, the I received an email from a consultant in another department complementing my work. The consultant wanted to let me know that I am the only medical registrar in my department that she consistently receives positive feedback about from staff at all levels, and she is going to pass that on to my head of department**.

And after that, the ED CN bought me a coffee at the end of my night shift.

The universe is messing with me.

—————–

*They hadn’t been.

** Secretly, I’m not sure if I take this as a complement? I look at my colleagues and suspect that the only reason people like it when I am on is because I am ‘nice’. I worry that I’m not tough enough. But then when I try to play tough it only makes a difficult job worse… Uh.

When does sleep happen?

Seriously. When?

If there was a date or rough estimate of when I will sleep again, it would be helpful. I’d be working toward something. There would be a light at the end of the tunnel.

In the last 3 weeks. The maximum number of consecutive hours slept is three. Three consecutive hours of sleep.


Approaching the last few weeks of my first term back at work.

It’s been hard, and I know I’ve probably had it easier: mostly working Monday to Friday, not too many weekends.

But it isn’t the work. I was able to get back into the rhythm of the ward fairly smoothly. It was everything else. It was – it IS the exhaustion.

I am so tired.

So tired.

So tired I want to cry.

I fell asleep in the car last night when I got home. I parked in our apartment underground carpark, and I suppose the quiet, dark warmth of the car was just to conducive to sleep. At least I made it home.

We’ve just got through Hand, Foot and Mouth disease, after a succession of other childcare illnesses. All routines and whatnot have long since been abandoned – and re-initiating the habits, more conducive to sleep and functioning, require effort and energy we just don’t have at hand. Instead, we just get through.

Babies sleep through the night eventually, right?

My next roster is all shift work. 13 hour shifts, most weekends.

I feel stressed, knowing my husband will be doing much of this alone. I feel sad knowing I’m leaving my little boy.

It’s hard not to feel like you’re doing something wrong. Everyone asks how your baby is sleeping, and the only right answer is a positive one. If you say that he still isn’t sleeping through the night, or confess any other problem, brace yourself for unwanted, often unhelpful advice +/- judgement.


But in all that: I am enjoying studying. At least I am right now. Maybe when dates loom closer, I’ll discover this is impossible – but for the moment, it’s just all so interesting and exciting. I love learning and knowing. It makes everything at work so much more interesting.

 

Seeing the person in the room

I go back to work on Monday. A new chapter begins. And this one has ended with me tending to my son through bronchiolitis and my husband’s asthma exacerbation. You’d think you’d finish a year of leave well rested, fresh. No, the exact opposite. How do people do this?

It’s also been an interesting week on other fronts.

My mother flew over, staying in town for a fortnight. No specific invite or plans around her visit; rather she’s here under the auspices of housesitting. I don’t even know the exact day she departs.

Still, I seized this opportunity and organised for us to go to counselling together. My husband commented that that’s like asking my mum to climb Mount Everest. With no training. Or oxygen. And afterward, I could see he was right.

I can’t imagine life without every saying I feel… I think… I need. To not recount silly stories, or dissect the events of the day, the week, a relationship, a film. To live life without reflection and introspection. To live life without belly laughs. Life perhaps in red, black and white. Not just missing shade and subtlety, but entire colours.

I asked my mother to climb Mount Everest at 60 years of age; no training; no oxygen. Having never seen a mountain.

Maybe I understand something I didn’t before. I see so much of myself in her, yet our lives have shaped us into very different people.


So it was with interest that we also learnt this week that my husband’s sister announced to their parents she wants nothing more to do with them.

While spending my nights listening to the wheeze of others in my household, I ruminated on this. As much as I don’t like my sister in law, there are parallels in our lives that I see.

I told my husband some time ago that I thought her relationship with their parents was similar to mine. I suggested she lives in London, not because she unconditionally loves a city that has forced her small family into poverty, but because she’s escaping or avoiding (or both) home.

As expressive and colourful and passionate as my parents in law are, there is a way their eloquence dances around their emotional life, but never dances with it.

They deny feelings. They deny experiences. They deny history.

Everything is beautiful and happy and all is well.

It frustrates me.

On Christmas morning we took my son to the Emergency department after he’d been suffering some febrile illness for a few days. He was listless, refusing all fluids, dry nappies, no clear source of infection.

The night before I discussed my concerns with my MIL and she reassured me, ‘don’t be a doctor’, he’s fine; he’s happy. He’s such a beautiful boy. This is normal. Children are like this. Don’t worry. Everything is okay. He IS happy.

Later, I discussed her response with my husband. He explained that her intentions were good. She doesn’t want to consider that her grandson could be unwell. She WANTS everything to be okay, she WANTS the best. So that’s what she tell you.

Somehow, my mother and mother in law’s response is the same – perhaps just at different ends of a spectrum. When something doesn’t fit the picture you have of reality, dismiss it. No, that isn’t what’s happening. Everything is fine. EVERYTHING is fine.

There’s something oppressive about that denial.

I wonder if my sister in law shares some of my frustrations. But I’m also interested that our families might share some of the communication foibles – even while outwardly we’re so different.


If I reflected on this earlier, I might’ve felt defeated. This is our legacy that we might pass on to our son – that he might feel invisible, his experience illegitimate, his emotional world denied. Fortunately, I arrive at this reflection now.

I’ve been thinking about simple things I can do that are different to what I have known. There are things I know how to do. I know how to be an active listener, to validate other’s experience. These are things I practice at work; these are things I can do in ‘real’ life.

I can see my child as a person, as an individual in the process of becoming. Not an appendage or reflection or adjunct to myself. A person. Practically, this means speaking to him like a person. He exists. Caring for him – the tasks of feeding, bathing, clothing, etc. – are not chores, they are acts of caring for another human.

Imagine he is a patient. He is a person in hospital bed, unable to care for himself right now – but will be soon able. This is a temporary and changing state of incapacity. When I walk into a hospital room, I don’t ignore the patient. I don’t remove their clothing, perform a procedure, or even read through their notes without acknowledging their presence, explaining what I am doing, reassure them. If I do something wrong, if I cause pain or discomfort, if my patient is going through a difficult experience, I talk about that too.

Why would I treat my son any different? He is a person.

This thought, this realisation has felt like a light turning on. I feel like I can be a parent. I have the skills. I know what to do.

I think I’m ready to get back to work.

Baby’s first Christmas morning was spent in our nearby ED forcing hydralyte to him via a syringe. Stupid medical brain tells me I’m some sort of failure for ending up there. Surely I could just force fluids on him at home? Surely I should know that much?

But at that point in time, we were all sleepless. Baby was irritable and refusing everything, even boobs. And his nappies were dry. He was dry. He was breathing fast and hard. And why am I justifying myself?  I am NOT his doctor.

So it’s now day 12 of some sort of hellish childcare illness, and wondering if this is just a taste of what lies ahead for us. I’ve heard that once they start full-time childcare (he does one day a week at the moment), the sickness is almost constant for at least (AT LEAST) the first 3 months (but more like 6 months). Which means of course, we are also sick for most of that time.

I hate being unreliable, calling in sick, letting the team down, etc. Already, I am feeling the guilt and I haven’t even gone back to work yet. Because, you know, I’m going to do all those things. These aren’t things babies soldier through. He’s lost 10% of his body weight in the almost 2 weeks since he became unwell. And caring for him requires as much trust and familiarity, as knowing what’s needed. He wants us, and only us. And mainly me.

It’s crazy to imagine I’ll be back at work in 5 weeks time. Trying to master ‘the juggle’. To find my feet. Remember everything I’ve forgotten.

I’ve been really fortunate with my terms this year. Like incredibly fortunate (touch wood, salt over the shoulder, shake of the rabbit foot). Other than a term of leave relief, everything is roses (touch wood, salt over the shoulder, shake of the rabbit foot). Which perversely makes me feel guilty. I’m reading posts in our registrar fb group from people begging for swaps and a better deal. I know what it feels like to get the email, see a difficult year spelled out for you and struggle to find the silver lining. Whereas this time, I opened my that email and cried with relief.

Why can’t I just be grateful? Why must I also feel guilty for the good things?

So my goals for the year ahead are to manage.  To cope. To find some routine or system. Something that gets us all through.

I want to aim to leave on time. Have that as a clear goal, not just a happy accident.

I want to prioritise my family. My husband and my little boy. I want them both to feel my love and care for them, not in my words but my actions.

I want to study for the exam for 2019. I’m not going to kill myself in the process, but I’m just aiming for slow and steady. I passed a practice exam at the prep course I attended recently, which was some reassurance given I haven’t started studying yet. Maybe I’m delusional, but if nothing else, study will help me recover some of my confidence at work.

I want to be better. A cooler head. More considered. Less ego. More empathetic. It’s about thinking, not just reacting. And I’ve got the ability to do so, I just need to make it a habit.

The difficult one

The week is done and I am still in Melbourne. Just baby and I.

The week was easier and better with a comparative stranger for company and support. I relaxed. I enjoyed myself. And baby did too. If sleep be the marker of where we’re all at, it’s interesting to note, we all slept better.

And it was kinda nice to do the course. To be reminded of a different language and view of the world. To stimulate parts of my brain left dormant. To practice being separated from my baby – but with the pleasure of lunch time cuddles. To be okay on our own.

But of course, I couldn’t quite shake the dark cloud of guilt and shame hovering over me. I am the bad daughter. The difficult one. Unreasonable. Stubborn. Selfish.

My favourite auntie asked for us to catch up in the week. I dreaded it. I worried myself sick thinking she was going to want to talk about my mother, knowing I wouldn’t quite be believed. “But your mum is so nice. She loves you” I could hear her saying in my mind. And I wouldn’t be able to explain anything without sounding petty, childish.

Which is part of the problem. Nothing I say is heard or understood.

Things started to unravel when my mum asked me if I wanted to have a picnic with my brother and his family. I said “I’d prefer not to” and listed my reasons. When my brother later asked me what time we were meeting for the picnic, I learnt my mum obviously went ahead and organised the picnic anyway.

I challenged my mum on this – going through the sequence of events. She said she didn’t think my reasons for not wanting the picnic were good enough. I asked why she didn’t clarify or discuss this with me. She pointed out that I’d said “I’d prefer not to”, not a definite “no!” I asked if [X person] said “I’d prefer not to” do something, if she’d organise things anyway. She almost conceded my point, but instead she attacked me for being difficult, avoiding people, always saying ‘no’ to things.

This is how things go. This is not exceptional.

Fortunately, my Auntie didn’t talk about anything I didn’t want to. And the week passed without drama.

And then just as I’m unwinding, Friday night I get a text message (always a text…)  from my parents wanting to see me.

The guilt comes at me in waves.

We go home on Monday, baby and I. My mum left plenty of her stuff here at the airbnb – for whatever reason. And she also took our baby car seat with her (why? This is something essential and expensive). We need to see each other to exchange things. So mum offered to take us to the airport, making a long journey from their country town to the heart of the city and back. I didn’t want to say yes to her offer. With great difficulty, I could do it on my own, I’m sure. But I need our car seat. She needs to get her stuff.

I said yes. And I feel compromised.

I said no to seeing them before then. I feel guilty.

I feel in all this, I must be the problem. If I could see things a little clearer, objectively, I too would see everyone is so nice, so accommodating – and I am throwing that back at them. I’m ungrateful. Spoilt.

And I wonder how this resolves itself. How do things get better? What am I expecting?

One day, my parents will finally realise I mean ‘no’ when I say ‘no’. One day, when I say I was upset about something, they will say something like: “I see why you could be upset about that, that’s fair enough”, and they will reflect upon their lives and tell stories about the things they’ve learnt. We will have a conversation, like a group of adults. And we will be interested in one another.

Anyday.

Is that what happens?

At sixty years of age, do we change? Do we change at any age?

So I fired my mother. Well, sort of.

Things most definitely ‘weren’t working out’, which is a euphemism for a type of tense, angry exhaustion that had taken hold. Things couldn’t go on like this. I know there are two sides to every story, and I think that is/was part of our problem – an unwillingness or inability to cede the others’ point. I found myself in this destructive vortex, that no circuit-breaker, no ‘difficult patient’ trick, no patient-active listening could disrupt.

I tried to be positive. Let’s talk about what we would like from the other person, rather than focus on what we don’t like.

I asked that she shared with me some of her experience and reflections as a mother – particularly when we were young children.

My mum doesn’t really do reflective, narrative type sharing. Mum doesn’t tell stories about herself, and I know I was asking something huge from her. But this is important. If we are going to have an adult relationship, I want to know something of her beyond my subjective experience.

But also for her. How do you go through life without ever saying: I feel/felt. I remember when. I am, I was, I want to be.

But that is me.

She couldn’t think of one positive thing she’d want from me. I encouraged her to think about it. But even then her anger and defensiveness were intruding on the brief window of calm we’d almost shared. You always do this! You never do that! YOU! YOU! YOU!

How do we go on like this? There’s no winner. Even if I told her she’s right. I’m too critical. My expectations are unrealistic. I’m digging up the past. My memories are faulty. What I feel isn’t real. Even if I told her she was right about everything all along – I AM a failure, a bad daughter, neurotic, arrogant and conceited – the outcome would be the same. This relationship falls apart.

So I asked her to leave. And here I am in Melbourne, on my own – feeling something between guilt and relief, but mostly relief.

 


I’ve been reading a parenting book, “The Whole Brain Child”, with the hope I can prevent my child becoming like me. Because even while my mum and I are different, we’re also very similar.

My husband says we share the same ‘attack-dog’ argumentative style. I ruthlessly go in for the kill. The aim is to win by destroying the other person – there is no compromise, there is no happy ending.

Unfortunately, I know this to be true. And it’s a technique I reserve especially for the one’s I love.

I also make a habit of repressing the worst of my inner turmoil, until it spontaneously erupts out of my every pore and orifice in a mad out-pouring of anxiety, anger and frustration.

Happy times! And I see my mum (and dad) and I worry I’m looking at my own reflection.

So, I am reading this book and feel like more than anything – I am learning to parent myself. It’s brought a new awareness of the way I integrate (or don’t) my experience, and where my reactions come from. Breaking things down simply makes things seem more manageable, less terrifying. And possibly, I can even entertain the thought that I am a valuable person, that I even might be a good enough mother.

And the book makes sense. I don’t like its folksy kind of conversational tone, but it’s grounded in knowledge I share about the brain and its functions, and also some of what I understand about language and memory. I feel like I’m learning something I need to know.

The big break through has been the view its given me about the stories we tell about our live and how we make sense of our experiences. Do we integrate good and bad experiences and put them in perspective – or do we leave them covertly exercise their influence without every putting a name to it?

I was thinking about my extended family. For middle class families who’ve all enjoyed housing stability, professional incomes and access to good education, I feel we have more than our fair share of dysfunction. Amongst us, we have diagnosed personality disorders (and likely others undiagnosed); we have mental illness requiring hospitalisation, including bi-polar with psychosis; we have alcoholism. More than 50% who drive of us have lost their license at some time for drink-driving. We have eating disorders. Two people have been arrested, neither charged.

And these are the things that we can objectively measure.

This is not the legacy I want my son to inherit.

So where does this come from?

Well, I was thinking about my childhood. And overall, I think it was pretty happy. We were country kids with room to roam freely. Go yabbying. Build huts. Get dirty.

Freedom.

But then there was my grandmother.

I remember from a young age how terrifying she was.

I remember her hitting my mother.

I remember her spitting in her face.

I remember the fear I felt when left alone with her.

I remember her telling us how evil the three of us were. And it was all our mother’s fault.

I remember being locked in a cupboard.

I remember being locked in a bedroom.

I remember my older brother trying to protect us, defend us.

I remember my grandmother slapping him across the face.

The dining table we had in “the good room” was the family dinner table my dad grew up around. Before he had it re-conditioned, there was deep linear grooves scarring its surface. Dad told us that was the metal ruler grandma has used to police their homework time.

I remember the venom and anger that would come out of her mouth, and the power she wielded over her children.

My grandmother would hit and humiliate my mother, and my father would do nothing. She’d grab us to escape, and he would do nothing. He’d apologise to her, and coax us to give her kisses and say sorry.

I don’t remember what we were saying sorry for.

From this distance, I can’t imagine what a young child would have thought about all this. To see their mother hurt, while their father apologised to the woman who was doing the harm.

He always strived to please his mother. In everything. And often at our expense. This seems incredible to me now. I can’t imagine putting my son in harms way. I can’t imagine standing by a man whose priority isn’t first with the safety and well-being of his family.

I don’t know how experiences like this made me feel over those years. What did I feel when my parents would send me to stay with her alone? Why would they leave us in her care? I don’t know…

But thinking about my grandmother kind of helps things make sense. All of her children spent their adult lives trying to please her, win their approval – and it seems to me, often at the expense of their own children.

We all became little show ponies to trot out in front of our grandmother to show off our achievements. She would foster competition between families – us against our cousins. Families vying for some award of superiority. But we were also kids, and would always disappoint her unrealistic expectations. So we were evil. We were rotten. We were spoilt. We were sinful.

And these are the seeds of our malcontent. We didn’t talk about this stuff. If we did – surely any competent adult would’ve reached the conclusion that this shouldn’t be happening. So things carried on, and what we hadn’t put a name to or tried to make sense of – has come to shape part of who we all are.

Somehow, armed with that knowledge lifts some burden from my shoulders. It’s okay, I’m okay. This doesn’t need to happen again.