A good mother?

It’s a cliche to talk about how brushes with death, serious illnesses, trauma, give one a new perspective on life. It’s a cliche because it is true. There is nothing like a proverbial wake up call to make you clutch your child more tightly to your chest.

Earlier this year, I nearly lost Bean. That is, bureaucratic wheels were set in motion which could very well have resulted in her removal from my care. I am reluctant even to admit to that. To say, out loud, Child Protective Services investigated me. The urge to provide mountains of evidence to support the notion that this was unnecessary and inappropriate is strong.

Here are photographs of my perfectly livable house and well-stocked fridge! I want to say. Here is Bean’s body, healthy and bruise-free. Here is an email from the school social worker, noting how happy and well-adjusted she is and how positively she talks of her home life. Here is an example of my sensitive parenting, of the guided meditation I have written for her to help her gently ease to sleep. Here is a chart of all the hours I spend parenting, wiping up her sick, changing wet sheets at 2 am, taking her to appointments, deferring to the health professionals. Here is Bean spending her weekends drawing and reading and being taken to art galleries and sitting down to family movie night with something G-rated and homemade popcorn and a family cuddlepile. Here is me (and my partner) getting her to school on time every single day with breakfast in her belly and a freshly washed uniform and her homework supervised and excursion form signed and her healthy lunch and her piano books ready for the lessons we pay for, and her comfort blanket. And everything. Everything she needs and much of what she wants.

The truth is that all of those things, although they mean everything to a child’s well-being, would mean nothing here, where readers will judge according to their own presumptions. And they meant little at the point of crisis. I know, because I am told, and because through common-sense observations I can see, that I am a ‘good mother’. I also know it’s relatively easy to be a ‘good mother’ if one is white, English speaking, read as middle class, the recipient of an expensive education.

The yardstick I go by is whether Bean is secure in the knowledge that she is loved deeply and has a safe place to be. So far I do well by that measure.

How does a ‘good mother’ find herself subjected to social worker visits, pressure to end a relationship, and the demoralizing experience of having a tiny twenty-two year old tell me that I’m failing at mothering because I’ve not got my five year old to sleep without nappies at night?

Around twenty percent of parents in Australia are coping with a mental illness at any given time. It’s unclear how many children live with someone who has a chronic or ‘serious’ illness, but it’s a fair chunk of that twenty percent. In all but the most debilitating cases, it is unreasonable to remove a child simply because they might be exposed to crazy people. Crazy is everywhere, and it doesn’t preclude one from loving, from the right to love, nor from the right to be a parent.

But resources are stretched and those families who are unlucky* enough to come to the attention of CPS, who require significant support, are vulnerable to decisions which favour expediency. That is, where there is another parent who can provide stability without ongoing use of department resources this may well be a favored option.

My own mother had her parental rights terminated. It was argued in court that she was an unfit mother (and yet, they left my half brother in her care because there was no father to claim him). Certainly my mother needed support and perhaps psychiatric care. In 1981 it must have seemed a much better outcome to place a child permanently and solely with her sane and respectable father than with her flighty, mouthy, promiscuous (by conservative standards) mother.

It chills me to realise that it is probably only my education, my unimpeachable whiteness, my willingness to cooperate, my economic means, and the department’s likely prejudice against Bean’s other parent which meant that it took only a week after I had a very public episode of acute mental illness to get my kid back into my home.

As a mother who lives under the shadow of devastating mother-loss, knowledge of the slim (but nevertheless very real) possibility of losing Bean was itself a great trauma in the midst of other traumatic events. The fear that Bean, too, could grow up motherless is a spectre whose haunting of me has not ended.

I am writing this now from safety. My recovery from illness and from the fall-out was necessarily swift, in part because of my need to be a well parent. My partner is here with me and we are living and loving and mothering well. And there are no bureaucratic wheels left turning; I have been examined and found to not be wanting.

Even so, it is difficult to write any of this. It is a kind of grieving, having to accept the precariousness of even the most deeply cherished parts of our lives. And it is a trauma made worse by silence: my own, through fear of speaking, and others’, in apparent or actual complicity in my suffering.

I am a ‘good mother’, as are the other mothers I know.

But I was ill, and I had been traumatised both recently and in the past, and I lost my mind. It was right that people made sure that Bean was safe and our home a stable one, but the process was isolating and threatening.

So I am writing, as I always do, through this grief. Having one’s mothering — so tied up with identity and so ripe for self-doubt — scrutinised by people who have the power to alter the course of your life is not the kind of parenting experience usually blogged about. I no longer want to carry this experience as an unspoken weight. The social costs have been punishment enough without factoring in the personal cost of keeping silent about my illness and about the consequences of being crazy and queer in a still-unfriendly culture. Stigmatize me if you will. Or else, hold someone precious to your chest, as I have done, and marvel at the simple wonder of being allowed to love. Of blessings given freely and never taken away.

* I say ‘unlucky’ here in reference to families like ours where there has not been violence, abuse or neglect but authorities become involved for other reasons. We hear reports almost daily about children who have suffered appalling neglect and abuse who would have been ‘lucky’ to have been saved by child protection from further suffering but who were not, for whatever reason, given sufficient attention. And so obviously CPS workers are vital and they should be better resourced and work under more sustainable conditions.


Filed under mental illness, Motherhood and Parenting, Queer

10 responses to “A good mother?

  1. Beautiful writing Elizabeth. Just beautiful.

  2. innercitygarden

    I’m so glad that you and Bean are ok, that you’re both safe, that you have support to recover and to keep making lunches and packing the school bag. It must have been a very scary time for all of you.

    I’ve had cause to wonder, to be infuriated, over the years that it isn’t easier for parents to get support before a major crisis to manage family life and mental illness. I think it says a lot about our community’s approach to child safety, especially the safety of poor children, that we’d generally prefer not to believe.

  3. I don’t think I can say anything to this. I thought I loved and respected you before. Well, had I not known you before this, this one post would make me love and respect you immensely.

    Love you heaps.

  4. Kath Lockett

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad I know Helen Balcony and she led me here.

  5. Marg

    Should be compulsory reading for all those involved in child protection and those working in mental health, how fortunate is Bean to have such a thoughtful mother

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Elizabeth. How dreadful a process for you all to go through, and I’m so glad that you are all still able to hold each other close to your chests.

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  8. Liz

    Beautifully written.
    Do you know what? With all that you’ve been through I would personally stand up and declare you we’re always going to be a good mother – from well before you had Bean and before this period of your life took its toll. That is because you, my dear, mothered me in an amazingly compassionate and mature and intelligent way. And if Bean gets read books every night and you pass on the passion and love for reading and stories and writing as you did to me, then you were a ‘good’ mother back in 1992. And if she can stand up the boys and girls being nasty with fiest and if she has to return to you in tears like you let me do, then turn around and face the next day … Then again, I would say you have been a ‘good’ mother for longer than you realise – even in the clean uniform, cleaning house and ensuring full tummies departments :)
    Regardless of, despite, or in light of that you are and we’re always going to be a ‘good’ mother, of that I have no doubt. The make up of your family or the direction of your love makes no difference to that. xx

  9. Normally I wouldn’t be here – in this blog. So you can delete this if you wish. However, this story involves me and despite all our differences and shortcomings Elizabeth, I think you are a good mother. I wanted you to know what I thought.

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