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Posts Tagged ‘health’

I’ve learned, after 10+ years of dealing with depression, that preventative measures can make a huge difference when it comes to mental health. This is generally called self-care, and I have certain self-care measures I start pulling out whenever I feel my mood is fragile, like now. Self-care can sometimes mean maintaining rather than declining, I’ve found. I want to go into detail on more of these in future posts, but here’s just one or two to start with.

Maintaining a routine. This one is so important for me, or I drift. I am more than capable of doing nothing for days on end while the chores pile up around me and I get nothing done. My mood can spiral because of the sheer nothingness of my days. With kids, maintaining a routine happens without a lot of effort from me – my days are defined by meals and naps anyway, so I put the effort in to keeping up regular activities like play dates, grocery shopping and outings. I try to keep active when the kids are sleeping and I’m not having a sleep myself.

Keep order in my environment. For me, this involves running the dishwasher once a day, trying to vacuum at least once a week, staying on top of the laundry. A cluttered environment clouds my mind, and it’s hard to stay positive and active when I’m feeling overwhelmed by mess. I’ve taken this a step further, and recently cleared the clutter out of our bedroom and set up a little dressing area for myself, with my jewellery and hair stuff organised next to the mirror. It’s a small space of calm that I focus on keeping tidy, so my bedroom feels like a positive space rather than just one more room that’s stressful for me to be in. No kids’ stuff allowed. 

My little corner of neatness.


Create small goals. Making small, attainable goals can be incredibly helpful for me. Rather than a big, looming five-year-plan type deal that seems both far away and unreachable, I like to create small tasks for myself, or break bigger projects down into smaller tasks. For example, I’ve been sewing a lined swaddling pouch for the baby – this is a project that doesn’t take forever, I enjoy and can work on in small bursts. Tidying all the clutter out of the bedroom was a goal I banged out in an evening, and part of our larger project of getting the house organised. I century organised all my sewing and craft gear, which I’ve been meaning to do forever. Small goals don’t overwhelm, and yet give a sense of pride and satisfaction when they’re completed, which is helpful to my mental health.

 

This isn’t prescriptive by any means, just some things I’ve found have worked to keep my mental health on an even keel. Sometimes depression happens no matter what, but sometimes I can hold it off by being careful, sticking to habits that I know keep me focused and calm. It’s when I start to drift into overwhelming stress and anxiety that my mood spirals very fast. Right now, because I’m aware that I’ve been feeling down and that can easily lead to depression, I’m pulling out all the self-care stops. 

What are your techniques for self-care?

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Morgan

Morgan

This is my second son, Morgan. He was lifted out of my numbed body through a hole in my abdomen in the early hours of a Friday, three weeks ago. I heard a gurgled cry, and then the surgeon held him up for me to see – a slippery, crying doll-like baby covered in white vernix.

I didn’t labour for days to have him, because I had a c-section. This is a choice I feel really good about. He’s my last baby, and I’m glad I have something other than the memories of fear and trauma from the birth of my first son. I did have a bit of labour, because Morgan decided to arrive early, thus the middle of the night intervention rather than my lovely planned hospital appointment for birth.

His face wasn’t bruised from the squeeze of a vaginal birth, his features weren’t distorted by swelling. I didn’t lose loads of blood or scream with pain and fear as he was born. Although I lay on my back on an operating table, numb from the breasts down with a sheet blocking his view, his birth was beautiful to me. I chose it, I felt in control, and although I trembled with shock a little as I was wheeled into Recovery, I felt positive after the birth.

I held him to my breast and his mouth latched onto my nipple and I loved him immediately, just as I loved my first child immediately.

Now we are four. Four in the home and four in the heart. I have a partner whom I love passionately and two beautiful children. There won’t be any more babies for me, so I’m enjoying this time. Our family is complete. I’m whole.

morganandme

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This week David Koch, who is a co-host of Channel 7’s Sunrise, made some horrible, horrible remarks about breastfeeding. His remarks might seem somewhat innocuous, but when you take them in the context that any discrimination against breastfeeding is illegal in Australia, and that women deal constantly with body and motherhood policing, they’re pretty offensive.

I wrote a reply over at The Peach:

Can you not see how ridiculous your comments are, how they attempt to police women, motherhood and women’s bodies? Because nothing will ever quite be ‘discreet’ enough, or ‘classy’ enough. I mean, all breastfeeding women everywhere could sit in out-of-the-way armchairs with blankets draped over their shoulder and child, and someone, somewhere, would walk past and know what was happening under that blanket.

The whole story: My body is not shameful and I will not be shamed.

My article is personal to me, for many reasons – I breastfed my first child for 12 months, and hopefully will do the same with the imminent arrival, if not longer. But more importantly, I am SO TIRED of privileged white men thinking their opinion counts when it comes to women’s bodies. Like they get a say, even if the law is already clear on the subject.

If you haven’t been following this issue, my article at The Peach handily comes with links to relevant news and blog posts so you can catch up.

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This week has been hard for me. I’m having horrible stabby back pain that kicks in every time I try to move/walk/everything. I saw my chiropractor yesterday and while it does seem to have eased a little, it hasn’t been a huge change. And because I’m tired and in pain I’m more likely to snap at Sebastian for little things, which oh god makes me feel horrible and guilty – along with not being able to get down and play with him properly. But my mobility is pretty constrained right now too. This makes everything so much more frustrating because there’s so much stuff I have to do and yet I’m feeling very limited.

It’s now less than six weeks until the baby is due. That really, truly and properly occurred to me for the first time a few days and I’m feeling a bit panicky. The nursery isn’t done! I have no idea what baby clothes we have! There’s so many dirty dishes in my sink! I haven’t sorted my clothes to figure out what I can wear post-baby but can breastfeed in!

The last few weeks of pregnancy are always super hard because the end is in sight, and it is both too close and not close enough. I have moments of truly profound anxiety where I wonder if I can cope with a toddler and a baby. Alex has four weeks parental leave arranged, but I’ll be recovering from a c-section, so it probably won’t be all special fun super family time. More like me with a giant hole in my abdomen trying to shield it from a toddler who likes climbing me like I’m a tree AND nursing a tiny human who is bound to be big. I console myself with the fact that standard recovery time for a c-section is six weeks, whereas I remained in pain and not completely healed after a natural birth for three damn months.

I am huge, too. Look at this picture from just after Christmas:

30 weeks pregnant

30 weeks pregnant

Now imagine me even bigger. And waddling. With my hand in the middle of my back like some sort of archetype for pregnancy. And making that noise when I get out of chairs, IF I can get out without help.

I worry that after I have this baby I will get consumed by the sleep-deprived brain-blankness of new motherhood again. I want to keep writing – I’m writing for The Peach now and finding that incredibly satisfying, and writing this blog has done a lot for making me feel like I have a voice again and my skills haven’t disappeared in the last few years. There’s a lot I want to do with this blog, and none of it will happen if I’m not writing and posting regularly. But then I remember the lack of sleep, the night nursing, the nappies, the overwhelming feelings that come with giving birth and part of me thinks, how will I manage anything else?

It’s supposed to be easier, isn’t it? Transitioning from one child to two? I mean, at least this time I have a fairly solid idea of what to expect. Having baby number one is like getting a reality bomb dropped on you – you think you’re prepared but there’s just no way you can be. At least with baby number two I’ve already lived through it once and confirmed I will actually survive.

The next few weeks will be busy, if this horrid back pain ever gets better – sorting through our baby things to figure out what we need and don’t need; preparing the nursery for bringing the bubba home; arranging our lives a little better in preparation for the big life change that’s about to happen.

Meanwhile I’ll just be the one in the corner armchair, making that noise when I try to get up.

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I am now in my 28th week of pregnancy, which puts me in the third trimester. I am in pain, and uncomfortable, and feeling stressed and depressed. These are familiar feelings from my last pregnancy.

I have pelvic instability, which is very painful and makes walking difficult. I’m having horrible acid reflux and the kind of intense Braxton-Hicks contractions that leave me stupefied and breathless for minutes at a time. I feel like I’m constantly overheating, and every little task feels hard, and I feel helpless, which I loathe.

I grew up with chronic illness, with the ongoing and constant sense that my body was betraying me and I had lost control. Pregnancy reawakens all of these feelings in me. That I am powerless and helpless and have no say in what is happening to me. I love my baby, but I hate pregnancy.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

I try to stay focused on accomplishing small tasks, like cooking something yummy or completing one small aspect of a project at a time, like getting the curtains finished for one room. It helps to break things down like this – I am just doing this one small thing, not getting overwhelmed by Giant Energy Sucking Thing. But even this is hard because Sebastian is at a fidgeting, attention-intensive age so I have to wait for his naps or bedtime, but because I’m in pain I’m not sleeping well and often exhausted.

I remind myself that this is temporary, that there is not long to go, that even this is better than last time. But a lot of the time I feel depressed, and quite sad that I don’t enjoy pregnancy the way some women do.

This is my last baby, because I don’t want to go through this again.

Early next year I will have this baby, and I will have joy that he has arrived, but relief that it is over too.

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I knew it. Pregnancy is my baby invading one cell at a time.

Cells may migrate through the placenta between the mother and the fetus, taking up residence in many organs of the body […] It is remarkable that it is so common for cells from one individual to integrate into the tissues of another distinct person. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as singular autonomous individuals, and these foreign cells seem to belie that notion, and suggest that most people carry remnants of other individuals.

From the Scientific American, via a tweet from Blue Milk.

 

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I thought that if I had another baby, it would be a planned pregnancy. There is so much shock and worry involved in an unplanned pregnancy that I didn’t want to go through it again. Life had other plans. I’m pregnant again, and while I’m very happy to have another baby, I can’t help but wish it was something that came about deliberately rather than accidentally.

Someone I know once told me that no matter how much you love kids, there’s a certain amount of depression that comes with an unplanned pregnancy. This is true. In fact, I felt so ambivalent about this pregnancy at first that I started to feel terribly guilty – until I remembered that you have to make distinctions between the baby and the pregnancy. That’s where my ambivalence was coming from – I wanted the baby, but dreaded going through pregnancy again. My first pregnancy was horrible. I was unprepared for the overwhelming physical changes, the fear, the panic surrounding my life and lifestyle, the huge financial and emotional changes, the impact on my fledgling relationship… I was about as unprepared as you could get.

This time, while many things are different, some things are the same. I had a list of goals to achieve before a second pregnancy. Be fitter and stronger and healthier (which I was working on, but wasn’t where I wanted to be). Have moved to a bigger house (which we were planning to do soon anyway, but moving while pregnant sucks). Have been employed long enough to get paid parental leave (I think I’ll just qualify, but I’m not sure). Have saved some money (um… no). Go on a holiday (we’re still planning a holiday, but it probably won’t be the tropical escape I was dreaming of).

On the brighter side, I feel like I know what is coming this time, so I can be a better advocate for myself. So much of my first pregnancy was filled with uncertainty and illness and physical disability and fear. I had crippling pelvic pain that made it very difficult to walk. Sebastian was an ENORMOUS baby (a condition called Macrosomia), eventually weighing 10lbs 2oz when he was born, and that was a week early – so the final few months of pregnancy I was a swollen blimp in constant pain from him bumping my cervix and putting pressure on my weak and painful pelvis. I had doctors telling me contradictory and frightening things – that there was too much amniotic fluid, which could cause neural tube defects, that surely I MUST have gestational diabetes (even though I tested negative over and over again), that macrosomic babies were invariably premature.

Throughout all of this, nobody would tell us what should be done. I kept having late term ultrasounds that made the ultrasound technicians very worried, because the baby was so big, and yet nothing would happen. Ironically, there’s a procedure in place if a baby is so large because of gestational diabetes – they induce before the baby gets too big. But because Sebastian was big for no reason, they just waited. Which I believe resulted in his potentially life-threatening shoulder dystocia when he was born.
I know all these things in advance now. I can already feel my pelvis starting to twinge, but I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for pelvic adjustments. If that doesn’t work, I’ll keep seeing other practitioners. I refuse to be crippled again. I know this baby will be big, but I also know I’m entitled to a scheduled C-section – which I’ll gladly have, thankyouverymuch, if it will save me and the baby from the shoulder dystocia (him) and tearing and losing  a litre of blood (me).

I’m going to take care of myself this time. When morning sickness kicked in, I went and got the medication straight away, rather than faffing around trying to grin and bear it like I did last time. I know how to manage the hunger and headaches and cravings better. I’m more relaxed, even though this week we had a potentially high-risk result from our ultrasound screening for genetic abnormalities. I mean, that was frightening, but I knew which questions to ask, I knew how to speak up for myself, to deal with the information. And everything is fine, further testing showed I’m actually very low risk, and I felt like Alex and I dealt with the situation pretty well, all things considered.

We’re having a little boy, a brother for Sebastian, and looking at the 3D images on the ultrasound I wanted to cry, because as much as I hate pregnancy, and I wish it were planned, we’re having another beautiful baby, and that’s pretty amazing. It’s a tiny person, who at the moment looks a lot like an alien, but will slowly grow and develop into someone we will hold and love and teach and play with. Isn’t it fantastic, that we can grow a person inside of us and take photos before he is born?

Cute or weird? 13 week ultrasound.

That’s the main thing that is different about this pregnancy, I suppose. Before Sebastian was born, I didn’t know how spectacular and joyful and terrifying and wonderful being a parent really is. This time, I already know how I’ll fall in love with my child and love him more and more each day. And I can’t wait.

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I remember being 38 weeks pregnant and asking an obstetrician, ‘So I’m in labour, right?’ And the answer: ‘Kind of.’ Pregnancy books do not prepare you for this. In fact, there is a lot that pregnancy books don’t prepare you for. For example, being 38 weeks pregnant and in a labour a bit. The long answer to my questions was something like, ‘You’re having contractions and you’re 1cm dilated, but things are going too slowly. This is pre-labour, or light labour.’

Nothing I had read in preparation for giving birth had prepared me for pre-labour. I’d gone to hospital because I was having some infrequent, intense pains that did not match the description of labour I’d been given – the pain was too sharp and too localised, low in my pelvis – and some blood spotting. Eventually the doctors and I figured out it was the baby bumping my cervix repeatedly, which you’re not supposed to feel but oh boy, did I ever. However, this trip to hospital ended up with me undergoing some fetal monitoring and some increasing anxiety from the midwives and, later, the doctors attending me. I was having long surges of Braxton-Hicks contractions along with the pain, and fetal monitoring was turning out to be less than successful – every attempt to monitor the baby’s heartbeat showed that he would be normal for long periods of time, and then suddenly spike into a ridiculously, dangerously fast pulse. I was admitted and moved from ER to a maternity ward.

The monitoring went on for quite some time, and the obstetricians who attended me continued to hover somewhere between ‘mildly alarmed’ and ‘freaking the fuck out’ every time the baby’s heart rate spiked. He moved constantly too – I had a 4.6kg baby rolling around in my huge belly, constantly knocking the monitoring belt off and making it hard to get a clear reading. I remember this happening fairly clearly:

Doctor: We’d like to induce labour by perforating the amniotic sac. (She holds up a very long, thin needle with a hook on the end. Alex and I discuss briefly.)
Me: Uh. Okay? Now? I’m having the baby now?
Doctor: That would mean you’d have the baby fairly quickly, yes. (She starts arranging the terrifying needle with some gauze and absorbent pads all around me.)
Me: Okay. We’re having the baby. Okay!
Doctor: Okay, let me just go check with a senior colleague. (She wanders off while Alex and I deal with identical holy-shit, we’re-having-the-baby-right-now, we-didn’t-bring-the-hospital-bag reactions. The doctor returns with another doctor.) So I’ve consulted with my senior colleague here, and we’ve decided we won’t induce just yet. Instead we’re going to sedate you, in order to sedate the baby, to try and get a clear reading of his heart rate. Okay?
Me: Um. Okay then.

And that’s what happened. I got doped up, so the baby got doped up, and they finally got a clear reading of his heart rate and decided that everything was fine after all. I slept in the hospital bed and Alex slept on the floor beside me. Despite being in ‘light’ labour I was sent home (with the general consensus that things would pick up soon). That was four days before I actually gave birth. I remained in ‘light’ labour for that whole time.

Books about having babies do not tell you how quickly things can change, how one minute you can come within one long thin needle’s length of having your child a little early, and how much of that decision is based on your doctor, their opinion, and whoever’s opinion they happen to seek out. Books don’t tell you that the line between Braxton-Hicks and real contractions can sometimes be pretty damn blurry.

Here’s a quick list of other things I didn’t know anything about, but happened to me anyway during the birth of my child:

-The hospital can, and will, send you home, even if you’ve been labouring all night, because of ‘lack of progress’. I got sent home at 8am and was back at midday. What a waste of damn time.

-No matter how much I dreamed of an intervention and drug-free birth, and even bought into the Calm Birth ideal, I was not prepared for how horrendous labour can be when you haven’t slept for about 50 hours. Yes I wanted the drugs. I sucked down that gas like it was the cure to all ails. It made me feel sick and dizzy and disconnected from the world, and I hated the bath I was in, so I asked for an epidural.

-An epidural does not always work. Three epidurals do not always work. A senior anesthesiologist may be wiggling that tiny needle around in your spine, but she can’t guarantee pain relief. In which case, when they offered Fentanyl, a drug that had previously been on my No Not Ever list, I was delighted. Despite knowing it was on timed release, I hit that little drug release button over 100 times.

-Apparently your cervix can have a ‘lip’. I had never heard of this. It meant an injection of pitocin, to try and dissolve that lip. When suddenly I was really really REALLY ready to start pushing, the midwives kept telling me not to because of the lip. It was like trying to stop gravity.

-The sight of a group of midwives and doctors having a whispered conference in my room was a bit terrifying. When they finally, finally presented me with a form allowing intervention, I remember I didn’t actually read it, I just try to look coherent while I signed so it was legal.

-Those forms aren’t for specific intervention, they allow any sort of intervention. Which is why when I was moved to an operating theatre, I wasn’t terribly sure of what was going on most of the time. I mean, I didn’t end up having a C-section, although it was a near thing, but I did end up having an episiotomy – the doctor didn’t really ask me, he just told me I was having one, and while it and other maneuver actually saved Sebastian’s life when shoulder dystocia occurred, at the time it was just one big surprise to me.

The moral of this story is, I guess: things don’t go according to plan. There’s no way of knowing what will happen, no way of anticipating all the variables, and the process of labour isn’t as clear cut as it is in the books. And that’s fine. I think the best way to approach the matter is to be prepared for how unprepared you’ll feel when the time comes. I mean, ultimately, any birth that ends up with mother and baby alive at the end can be classified as ‘normal’, no matter if it’s vaginal, Cesarean or executed with laser gun.

Another thing the books don’t tell you is the massive endorphin high you get after giving birth, which is a major plus, and you feel it surge to life every time you look at your newborn.

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Remember that time when I went out with my kid and managed to run all my errands quickly and with minimum fuss? Me neither.

I often tell childless friends that everything takes about half an hour longer when you have a toddler. Sometimes I think I underestimate that number. Yesterday I had one of those days that is just the ultimate shit bomb of all days: I was sick, and home with a toddler, and needed to go to the doctor. It looked like this:

9:30: I ring the doctor and make an appointment for 1:30. Sebastian and I have both slept in, which I needed, so I get him up. I try carrying him to the lounge room but he sees something in the kitchen as I go past and starts hollering and leaning for it. I try to put him down and he goes monkey and clings to me. We go into the kitchen and hunt around for a bit, while he says ‘Mah-Mah’over and over, like Mama but different. Eventually I figure out he means banana. I give him the banana from the fruit bowl and plonk him on the couch and tear the skin so he can peel the rest himself. I go to make toast for us.

10:00 The banana, sans skin, is on the windowsill and Sebastian is trying to climb up the back of the couch to make kissing noises at the cat, who is outside. I explain that we do not stand on the couch, or chairs, and I will explain this about 45 more times. We eat raisin toast with margarine on it. Sebastian takes my plate and wants my toast, but we talk about how I have mine and he has his and they are the same. He picks up his plate to hide his face, and spills crumbs all over the couch in the process.

10:30 I have found clean clothes for him. He says ‘Dressed! Dressed!’ and leads me into my bedroom so we can both get dressed. I try starting with him, but for the first time ever he wants to pick and choose from the clothes I’ve provided. I still haven’t changed his nappy either, and he ends up wearing one clean sock, PJ pants, and a light hoodie over his bare tummy. He climbs all over my bed and pretends to sleep and demands to be tucked in and wants my hairbrush, while I get dressed.

11:00 Yogurt. Everywhere.

11:30 I change his nappy and get him dressed while he screams and tries to pull my hair and claw my face. He’s fine when it’s time to put shoes on because he loves shoes. We get in the car.

12:00 I meant to visit the toy store near my doctor but it is out of business, and I have forgotten the stroller, so I carry Sebastian all around as we go to the post office and the bank and back across the road to a cafe. He walks some of the way, and even manages to keep holding my hand when we cross the road, and says ‘Hi’ to people who go by and smiles coyly because he is an incredible flirt. Then he wants to go into a parking lot and keeps pulling on my hand and then crouches down and goes a bit limp as passive resistance. I have no idea what is in the parking lot that he wants to see. So I carry him and he is heavy.

12:30 Lunch in a cafe – I have never been to this cafe before and it is not child friendly. It’s not just the obvious things, like the lack of high chairs or any toys or even children’s books, which seems pretty much like a staple around where I live, but when I ask for turkish bread toast and jam (off the kid’s menu) for Sebastian, the jam has no butter or margarine to soften it, so the toast is hard and too thick, and I imagine trying to eat that with such a little mouth and not enough molars is like trying to crunch on concrete. Plus they plop the plate in front of him with a little pot of jam (which his fingers immediately go in) and a quite-sharp knife. Which he almost gets an eye out with in about five seconds. Non-kid friendly cafes piss me off, because who the fuck do they think is going to come to their cafe in the sticks for morning tea or lunch on a week day? Stay-at-home mums, that’s fucking who. And even if you don’t want to stick out a booster seat or a couple of books, don’t give a two year old a sharp knife, dammit.

1:00 I pay for lunch. I feel like I have spent our entire lunch together telling Sebastian off: ‘DON’T PULL ON THAT IT WILL BREAK GET AWAY FROM THE DOOR DON’T CLIMB ON THE WOODEN KANGAROO THOSE PEOPLE DON’T WANT YOUR BREAD DON’T STAND ON THE CHAIR DON’T DON’T DON’T’. My guilt complex buys him a gingerbread man and we go to wait at the doctor’s.

1:30 The doctor calls my name. Sebastian, who has been playing happily with the toys in the corner of the surgery but is starting to get tired, throws a tantrum because I make him leave the toys. When I see the doctor he starts shouting ‘NONONONO!’ when she brings out a stethoscope, because he had tonsillitis and terrible fevers a few weeks ago and still hasn’t forgiven us for taking him to be examined two or three times a week for two weeks. But he is interested when she examines me and not him, and then starts playing with a tub of toys while I talk to the doctor. When it is time to go he cheerfully packs up the toys and pushes the tub back where it belongs and says bye-bye. We go to the chemist.

2:00 I just want to wait for my script. Sebastian tries to open everything, ever. He darts around trying to grab things off the shelves, but is very careful and only touches the glass bottles of vitamins, and doesn’t pick them up. When I get my script, I am trying to pay by card but keep an eye on him at the same time, as he tries to rip open perfume boxes and darts for the automatic doors to the street every time someone walks through them. Eventually I keep him next to me by holding on to the hood of his coat, and have a sudden strong understanding of why people put those backpacks with leashes on their kids. Because children actively TRY TO KILL THEMSELVES at any given moment.

2:15 Back in the car, Sebastian has a tantrum because I don’t let him do the safety harness buckle, and wails the entire way home.

2:45 I put him down for a nap. He tries to procrastinate by insisting that he needs cuddles, and his pant legs need to be rolled down, and his t-shirt has accidentally ridden up (he pulled it up to bare his belly), and his blanket is not tucked in properly, and his Scout Bear needs to be tucked in too – and god, it’s amazing, but he explained almost all of this to me non-verbally. Eventually I leave the room, and he sleeps.

I’m not going to detail the rest of my day, which pretty much sucked, because that was the part I really struggled with – being sick, and exhausted, and just needing to get out of the house and get some shit done. And even though Sebastian was pretty cheerful all day, he still just wanted his own way and needed constant talking to about what he was doing well and what is not okay to do and what I would like him to do. And I love him to bits, but sometimes I am so relieved when it’s his nap time, I just want him to go to sleep and be quiet for a bit.

The thing is, when you are the primary caregiver, you don’t have a choice about whether or not you take your child somewhere. Sometimes Alex will take Sebastian out and about on the weekend to give me some time off, but really if he needs to go somewhere he can pretty much do it on his way to/from work, with no kid in tow. I needed to go to the doctor, and had no choice about toting my son around when I was feeling sick and awful, because Tuesdays I have no childcare and it’s just me. I do most of the day-to-day grocery shopping, and clothes shopping for myself and Sebastian, and shopping for any household goods that we need, and any errands that need to be run, and Sebastian comes with me and sometimes he has a melt down and sometimes he doesn’t.

He’s not a baby anymore, and is not content to sit in the stroller with a toy for hours on end, and rarely falls asleep on long car trips and never while in the pram. He wants to run and play and investigate and do what grown ups do, and I sometimes feel like I can’t take my eyes off him for a second. That’s why everything is harder with a toddler in tow – because on days we’re together I am his whole world and he dislikes it when it doesn’t seem to revolve around him.

And yogurt. Yogurt is every parents’ nemesis.

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I have never met a bad Centrelink employee. I think it is just bad policy that exists. I have met tired, impatient, bored Centrelink employees, but ultimately they are just doing their jobs. I have also met incredibly kind, helpful and concerned Centrelink employees, either over the phone or in person.

Because I earned enough money at age 18, I was declared financially emancipated from my parents – this allowed me to receive benefits when studying and living in shared housing or by myself. It also assured my benefits at times when I was sick or injured. But having a legal right to benefits doesn’t make them easy to get.

For years, I had to justify my illness to a governmental body that does not particularly like it when you present a medical certificate for a problem that isn’t visible, like a broken leg. At least when I broke my spine and was unable to work, I could show up wearing my back brace and walking with a cane. My injury was pretty obvious, even if the crushed vertebrae in my spine was not.

Explaining why your invisible illness, mental or physical, cripples you to the point of being unable to study or work to a stranger at Centrelink is uniquely humiliating. Only the kindness of those employees makes it bearable. I once had a meeting with a social worker to explain that, while my back was relatively healed, the inactivity of my recuperation had caused a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome relapse, and I’d had to leave my job as a roulette dealer with the casino. I could not work, I could not study – I lived in a share house with a lovely friend who didn’t mind that I mostly sat around all day. The point of this meeting was to decide if I was eligible for temporary disability benefits for another 12 months while I tried to get my life back together.

The man was very nice. We sat in a tiny office at Centrelink in Preston. I had to explain my life to him – the physical pain that was at times unbearable, the numbing exhaustion, the relentless insomnia and the depression that resulted of all of this. I had to go into great detail about the medical treatment I was seeking – both what I tried before, and found did not work so would not pursue again, and the new theories on treatment I had heard about but could not afford. I explained that I needed to be classed as disabled (temporarily), because the only thing that could heal me was time. Time to eat well and try to sleep and gradually increase my strength, time to try new medications for depression and pain, time to organise my life and try to feel useful again. I confessed to him that I often felt despair, and although the medication I took for depression and illness didn’t work particularly well, I was scared of changing the drugs because the period of wash out between an old drug and a new one had, in the past, led to suicide attempts.

The drugs do not work, I told him, but I do not work right without the drugs. There is something wrong with me. Without medication I try to hurt myself. I don’t want to die. I don’t know what to do.

I think I cried, in that room, with that strange man who told me I was brave when I felt weak. He signed off on a certificate of temporary disability. This meant that I did not have to keep presenting medical certificates to Centrelink; they would just pay me each fortnight without me needing to contact them. That certificate was for twelve months. It was supposed to provide security of some kind.

In that time, Centrelink cut off my payments around three times, for what essentially came down to computer error. Getting those payments reinstated was exhausting.

I don’t know how Centrelink works internally – I have an idea of the processes, but I’ve never worked there myself. But the impression I get is that the computers run on a set of rules and regulations, and anything even slightly outside the norm can create a tumble of paperwork and error that, in immediate response, cuts off your payment until the problem is resolved. This has been my experience, anyway. The Centrelink employees I speak to regarding these problems are almost universally bewildered by how such errors occur in the first place, and frustrated that it is so difficult to fix. They do not run the system with computers. The computers run the system using humans as conduits.

Now I receive fortnightly payments as part of the Family Assistance program. This is because we have a small child and the government likes to help. They say. However, I’ve had a lot of problems with these payments – when I was pregnant I was receiving Newstart (the job hunting payment), with a medical certificate to say I did not have to look for work because my problematic pregnancy crippled me. However, I somehow incurred a $500 debt for being paid money in July of 2010 without reporting what activity I had done to find work. It took almost a year to retrieve that money (which Centrelink automatically garnished from my parenting payments).

The reason I didn’t hunt for a job that week, or report my lack of activity, was because I was in hospital giving birth.

Some glitch had happened, and the computer had decided they shouldn’t have paid me as though I were medically unfit (when I was in the damned hospital bleeding on the operating table and full of drugs and stitches), and the computer took that money back. The Centrelink employees I spoke to about this were damn near helpless to reverse that situation. Eventually, I found out I could reverse the debt by handing in some obscure paperwork that outlined my activity and lack of job hunting for that period. I think I wrote ‘GIVING BIRTH TO MY CHILD, COULDN’T ACCESS JOB SEEKING WEBSITES’ angrily. But finally, I got the money back.

Recently I’ve been furious all over again because a minor mistake was made with Sebastian’s immunisation records, and our child care benefit was cut off, and it looked like I might have to pay his daycare $850 for the care already given (almost all of that should have been covered by Centrelink). If the problem wasn’t fixed that sum wouldn’t go down. If the sum didn’t go down then I could no longer put Sebastian in daycare, which would mean I couldn’t work, which would mean I wouldn’t have the money to pay the daycare. A horrible cycle of crap. It took three weeks just to find out what the problem was and get it fixed, including phone call after phone call to Centrelink and Medicare.

I get angry at Centrelink because I try so hard to do the right thing so these payments will run smoothly, and in return some computer blinks a few times and I’m told I owe them money, or they will not pay me, or pay daycare. I am angry that I have to talk endlessly to strangers about the minute details of my daily life. I am angry that this is a system designed to catch fraud, not help people. I am angry that I cried in front of that strange man in that tiny room because I had an illness that was invisible. I am angry that my financial stability depends on a system that fails at every turn.

I wish I could blame Centrelink employees. But they’re just people. It’s the machines that make the mistakes. I like to imagine their central database is called Skynet.

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