Archive for May, 2012

In my life before I had a child, I had a set of goals and dreams. These were based on the idea that one day I would be well, and have the time and energy to execute them, and my god, they were ambitious. They went something like this:

  • Create and manage an innovative theatre company for emerging artists that produced new works and mentored those transitioning from their theatre studies into their professional theatre lives.
  • Finish my degree in publishing and/or religion and spirituality, and go teach English in Russia.
  • Bounce around Europe for a bit, indulging my creativity and wanderlust.
  • Attain a grant to travel into the Australian interior to write about spirituality, indigenous culture and displaced peoples.
  • Finish my goddamn novel to universal acclaim.

This list was an expression of my hopes and dreams. Perhaps they were not entirely realistic, but they kept me going. That future wavered on the horizon like an oasis of hope. It was something for me to work towards.

Now, my goals are very different. They look something like this:

  • Do well at my job and save a little money. (Read as: don’t be entirely broke.)
  • Join a playgroup where I have something in common with the other mothers and don’t feel like a complete outsider for not being a farmer’s wife.
  • Attain a basic certificate in accounting software so I am more employable/can earn more money.
  • Finish that blanket I’ve been crocheting for Sebastian.
  • Write something, anything, and if I manage one blog entry every couple of weeks and some emails to friends, I’m counting that as a success.
  • Remember to eat breakfast.

The main difference between these sets of goals is the immediacy of them. My goals now all revolve around the next few days, the next few months. They are far simpler in nature and yet, in their own, far more complex – they relate to the life I have now rather than the distant future. While I do have far-reaching goals in my mind too, a five-year plan, they are more family oriented: Alex and I would like to move to a bigger house in the suburbs, we’d like to be financially stable with some savings in place, we’d like to expand our family, we both envision a future where both of us work part-time, and Alex has a business as a sound engineer on the side while I have time to write.

Whereas in the past all my dreams and goals were me-me-me, now my dreams are focused on financial stability and the family unit. And the list above is all about things I would like to do in the months and weeks to come to feel stable and satisfied. Because it’s not just all about me anymore. I’m a mother now, and somehow that idea of responsibility and personal sacrifice can creep into your mind and subsume your identity.

There’s a lot I could write about the portrayal of motherhood in popular culture and society – about how mothers are expected to sacrifice any personal interests or satisfaction on the shrine of martyrdom that is their family. But that’s an easy thing to criticise. Yes, I felt judged when I admitted I hated pregnancy. Yes, I worry about those that frown at me when I’m in public with Sebastian and he’s misbehaving. But the reality is far more subversive – when I gave birth to Sebastian, a profound and integral part of me altered and I found it difficult to see myself as anything but a mother to this child. Not a creative person with goals and dreams, not a sexualised adult in a romantic relationship, not even a seperate entity with wants and needs of my own that should sometimes come first. I became absorbed in motherhood, and it encapsulated my existence.

When Sebastian was four months old, I went out to catch a play and ran into a friend from uni. She asked me all the usual questions about life and family, and then said something along the lines of, ‘I want a family in the future, but I still want to be able to go out and see friends and work on projects and have a life – how does that work with a baby?’ I replied something flip, like ‘They’re very portable, you know’, but inside I wanted to laugh like a lunatic.

Here is how those initial months were for me: I felt like my baby was still a part of me. Like I’d just lopped off a limb and occasionally let other people hold it. I felt so in tune with my child it was like we were sharing a brain, and when he was unhappy (as he often was with colic in the beginning), I was panicked and miserable. I could not bear to hear him cry. I longed for time alone but felt a burn of loss when I was apart from him. I wanted to express breastmilk so I didn’t have to be there for every feeding, but my breasts ached when I wasn’t there for one.

I had planned to return to study after Sebastian was born, I’d planned to go to a class or two a week and put him in the campus daycare. That didn’t happen. I didn’t feel ready to return to work, even part-time, until a few months ago because I didn’t want to leave him and found I couldn’t focus on anything else when I did. I wrote and directed a play when he was around six months old and found myself perpetually distracted – it was hard to think or eat or focus on anything else except parenthood. My life revolved around watching him grow and learn, around changing nappies and his laundry and buying clothes for him and his sleep patterns and eating patterns and growth.

Motherhood took over. All my anecdotes to friends and family related to him. All my conversation was about him, and the joys and hardships of being a mother. I could bore you to death with all the funny little things he does that I love, and how tired I sometimes get of doing the same things and going to the same places with him, and all the things I can’t wait to do with him as he gets older, like cooking and painting and cubby houses and blanket forts and learning to read and going to see a movie for the first time. I’m probably boring you with this all now.

In a way, I think my dreams and goals have shrunk because my life has shrunk. I live in a very predictable pattern with very predictable rules like: don’t go out too close to nap time, no I can’t meet you for a drink because I don’t have a babysitter, I could go out and do that thing I’ve been meaning to do but Sebastian was awake several times last night and now I’m tired. My horizons all revolve around a toddler. Everything – the job, the theoretical new house in the future, playgroup, the blanket, all of it relates to him. To being a good parent with a stable lifestyle who is financially sound. Corcheting hats and blankets for him because it’s something easy to do with my hands when I’m zoned out in front of the television after he’s finally gone to bed.

I used to be interesting. I had all these amazing plans. But it’s like I’ve spent the last two years in a daze of maternity, obsessed with my role as a mother because it seemed like the only thing I was capable of at that time. Because everything else seemed too hard. I should have gone back to uni after he was born. I should go back to uni now. I should start seperating my life and goals and plans and dreams from my child – not losing those revised goals like playgroup and earning more money, but making sure there’s something in the mix that’s just for me, only me.

I am a mother, but that is not all I am.

How could I not fall in love with this?

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A psychiatrist once asked me if I had to make a choice between being able to write, and being free from depression, what my choice would be.

At that point in my life depression was a fact of life and had been for ten years – I tried many medications, and yet all treatment only alleviated my symptoms to the point of basic functioning. I still had periods of anxiety and dark funks that lasted for weeks at a time. My mental health was linked intimately to my physical health, and I struggled to find ways to manage Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and severe insomnia. Nothing seemed to work. I would have brief bursts of physical ability, where I could have an almost-normal life, followed by relapses that left me housebound and useless for months at a time. I found it almost to hold down jobs, or study part-time, and this added to poverty and emotional, physical and financial dependency on my family made the depression worse. I felt like half a person for years on end, watching those around me finish their degrees and start jobs and have normal relationships, while I sometimes struggled just to leave the house or get dressed in the morning, crippled by anxiety and unable to even open my mail.

And yet, I wrote prolifically.

Not surprising really – when housebound, a computer is your best friend. I started writing when very ill as a teenager, when my only real contact with the rest of the world was through email-based writing groups. Over those long, isolated years I wrote short stories and novellas and bad poetry, branching eventually into plays through uni and seeing them produced when my health allowed, and using the inevitable months of illness after a project had finished and I had relapsed to research and write the next project. Through all that depression and illness, the highlight was that I knew my writing was constantly improving, each play better than the last, my craft improving and growing complexity.

The play I consider my best work was written during a period of intense despair and hopelessness. In Reverie went on to play as a rehearsed reading at 45Downstairs, and garnered extremely intelligent and useful feedback from the fantastic audience that attended (if you attended and are reading this, I still think it was the best audience I’ve ever had).

In Reverieneeds a rewrite, but it hasn’t been touched in several years. Because after I wrote it, something amazing happened. Several new drugs were released in Australia, and with the help of a consultant physician and the very psychiatrist that asked me that poignant question about writing and depression, I finally found a treatment that worked. My energy increased, my pain reduced, my sleep improved, and so did my depression. I started to live normally – I had a job, I studied, I took In Reverie through rehearsals and to stage, with no resultant relapse. I felt happy, rather than just not horribly depressed. I went out with friends. My anxiety went away – no more panic attacks about answering the phone. I felt whole, and real, and felt like I was living life rather than just observing it. Alex and I fell in love and my pregnancy happened and even through the pre-natal and post-natal depression that followed (which I attributed to my difficult pregnancy and baby sleep problems as reactive depression rather than chemical), I maintained. I had no deep dark despair, or disproportionate mood swings. And almost two years since Sebastian was born, I feel well-adjusted and happy. In over three years I’ve not had a period of severe illness or violent depression.

When the psychiatrist asked me that question – happiness or writing – my answer was immediate. I would give anything to be happy, I said. Anything. If that meant never writing again, so be it.

About 18 months ago I wrote a play, called Don’t Forget To Breathe, which went to stage with a brilliant cast. It was incredibly difficult to write. I was aware the result was good, but structurally flawed. I haven’t written anything since. Maybe a few doodling pages of ideas, a snatch of dialogue. Nothing of importance. Because it was easy to write when I was miserable – it was cathartic to write about my sense of hopelessness and frustration and anger and despair. I wrote a lot of tragedy. I don’t really know how to write something with a happy ending. I can still write, that hasn’t left me, but I don’t. Is it because I’m happy? Throughout history there seems to be a fairly obvious link between some artists’ genius and their poor mental or physical health. If I’ve accepted that medical treatment has gotten me to a place where I can find happiness and satisfaction in my life, do I accept that the cost is my interest in and commitment to writing?

There’s other factors of course – I have a toddler, I’m a mostly stay-at-home-mum, it is hard to find the time to get into the right head space to write, to find the time, there are always chores and financial worries and I’m too tired to sit in front of the computer in the evenings. I have other interests to engage in, like crochet and photography, that require less emotional investment. I once poured my heart into my writing but now I expend all my emotional energy on my son and partner. But I feel the lack in my life.

The choice that psychiatrist put to me isn’t really a choice – now that I am happy, I’m not going to stop taking the pills and return to emotional and physical instability and terrible mood swings and anxiety just so I can write again. It doesn’t work like that. I finally have a real, grown-up life, and that’s a human right rather than just an option I can disregard. I have responsibilities now. I can’t ever go back to living that way. A shadow of a person.

It’s new for me, being happy and calm, and part of this for me is knowing I have to find a way to write again. To let out the words that still crowd up in my mind. To force myself to find the time and the right head space to write. It’s another period of growth I suppose – I grew up with depression and illness and writing that out of myself. My transition from teenager to adult was stuck in that pattern, and now the pattern has changed again. I will write again. I just have to decide how to be healthy and happyanda writer.

Promotional art for In Reverie; Tilly Legge pictured.

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