Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.

The Eight Week Check

The eight week check and vaccinations is the first major milestone in your baby’s official development. Even though if there was anything wrong it would probably have already been picked up by the hospital, midwives, health visitors or yourselves, you approach it with mild trepidation in case the doctor ‘finds’ something, gives you a look that says, ‘Oh dear,’ and then starts to discuss further tests and how it’s too early to tell but you might want to start thinking about long term management plans.

And when he asks about your baby, you feel a certain pressure to give the ‘right’ answer, even though you don’t know exactly what that is. You begin to feel judged, as though it is your parenting ability, and not the baby’s health, he’s examining.

‘How much do you feed her?’

I tell him. He nods. What does that mean? Nod as in, ‘Yes, that’s what I’d expect,’ or nod as in, ‘Just as I thought, you suck as a dad. I could tell from the moment you stepped into the room. I mean, look at the way she’s dressed. Who are you kidding? You’re just playing at being a parent.’

Actually, it might just be me who thinks that. Maybe I’m a little sensitive at the moment because I’ve been having dreams again.

The first night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse, and I was really good at it. I thought I might go back to college and do a Postgraduate Diploma in Children’s Nursing: I seem to be doing rather well with Izzie, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than looking after babies, and I’d surely be better than some of the uncommunicative, unfriendly and downright antisocial nurses who looked after us during our stay in hospital.

I pictured myself caring for cute little tots, reassuring worried parents, wearing a cool uniform and telling people that yes, I’m a nurse: how grand. My little one would look up to her dad as a hero, and they give you a bursary to train. What could be better?

Then the next night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse, and I was terrible at it. Deformed, terminally ill babies, emotional and aggressive parents, and horribly sarcastic work colleagues made my job a living hell. I started to think about the sick and dying children, the screams of anguish from horrified mums and dads as their babies slipped away, and my place in that environment. And it no longer looked quite so rosy.

The person specification for a children’s nurse describes an emotionally and mentally resilient individual with great intuition and impeccable people skills. Having been bullied in every job I ever had, and being rather sensitive to boot, I’m not so sure I’d cope with the stresses and strains of children’s nursing. Likewise my history of nervous breakdowns and diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome might not stand me in good stead. But doing a job that makes you suffer is what life is all about, right?

And then the third night I dreamt I was training to be a paediatric nurse on a hospital spaceship while battling an alien that navigated through the ventilation shafts and killed off my patients one by one. As good an indication as any that I don’t have the cognitive stability to be a nurse. So that idea is on the backburner for now.

I doubt I’d be able to give children injections anyway. When the nurse drew out the needle for the vaccinations, a full two inches long, I was wondering how much she’d actually insert when, without warning or preamble, she sank the full length into Izzie’s thigh. I have no idea how it didn’t go straight through and burst out the other side!

It was a horrible experience. Izzie’s eyes went wide with shock, her face turned purple, her mouth opened in unexpected pain and she started to scream. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she looked at me as if to say, ‘Why, dad, why?’ And then a second needle plunged into her other thigh and the horror on her face – ‘You’ve done it again, dad!’ – was heartbreaking.

They say it’s harder on the parents, and they’re right. By the time my irrational (rational?) urge to punch the nurse in the face for hurting my baby had subsided, Izzie was over it. The guilt has taken me days to assuage.

She didn’t suffer any negative side-effects, and on the plus side, it cured her constipation – if you can call following through every fart with a pea-sized poop a plus. Indeed, we’ve swung to the opposite extreme, from hard green nuggets with the consistency of plasticene once a day to multiple yellow liquid explosions. It also smells like vomit, I guess because it’s gone through her bowels so fast that it’s still mostly bile. And I know this because our baby who had only vomited twice since birth is now puking after every feed. But c’est la vie!

In all seriousness, though, it’s at times like these that we should take a moment to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have a healthy baby. Colic, constipation, diarrhoea and cradle cap are mere inconveniences – they’re minor in the general scheme of things – even if they drive us to despair. If they found out there was something wrong with Izzie, we’d take a deep breath and deal with it or adjust to it accordingly, because that’s the commitment we undertook when we chose to be parents, but it’s a relief to know that since she’s as healthy on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside, for now at least we don’t have to.

To sleep, perchance to dream

The past nine months I’ve had a recurrent dream. I’m backstage at a play, waiting to go on, and I haven’t learned my lines. It’s okay, though, because I only have two and I’m confident I can blag it. A couple of minutes beforehand, I glance at the script and to my horror I have five pages of complex dialogue and I’m not ready and oh hell there’s my cue.

It’s obvious what that’s about. No matter how much you prepare, how many courses you attend and how many books you read, you never feel ready for the arrival of your baby. I’ve had that dream at least twice a week, often more.

I haven’t had it since Izzie was born. On the third day I dreamt I had boobs, but I couldn’t produce enough milk so the baby was crying. In the twilight before dawn this morning, in the 90 minutes between settling Izzie down to sleep and her waking up screaming, I dreamt I had just given birth to triplets, and again my boobs were empty. I’m noticing a pattern emerging here.

Izzie might only be twelve days old, but she’s already starting to grasp that while daddy might have a great beard, mummy’s the one with the breasts. I just can’t satisfy her on that one, although when she’s hungry she does seem to think I have a nipple somewhere on my left biceps. If I did, it would make things so much easier!

It makes me wonder what Izzie dreams about when she sleeps.

Apparently, babies don’t dream. Despite reaching the REM stage of sleep and spending around eight hours there each day, they have too few experiences upon which to call for creating genuine dreams. Instead, the brain uses this period of sleep to discover the body it inhabits, learning about the nervous system and creating neural links (this is what the jerking movements, distinct from the startle reaction, are all about). But how can they be sure?

Sometimes Izzie cringes in her sleep and whines as though having a nightmare. Sometimes her breathing comes in fits and starts like she’s excited. Her experiences might be limited, but all of our sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviours are played out in our dreams, even if all we know is milk, and pooping, and cuddles.

I like to think that Izzie dreams of a man with a great beard and a nipple on his arm. As for myself, I have a feeling I’ll be dreaming of my empty boobs for quite some time to come.