Parenting the “Non-Perfect” Child

In my work in perinatal psychiatry, I am often assessing parenting. What help does this mother need and what does she have in way of supports, what risks if any are there, for her and her child or children, second to her illness or else the many other factors—background, social circumstances, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use: things I explore in the background of Medea’s Curse—that may impact on parenting and safety. When I started out in this work I often questioned myself—what right do you have to judge this? Certainly whatever standards I have for my own parenting (and which I have not always lived up to) had to be a very different issue. Good Enough parenting is about the parents doing their best, not always succeeding, but recovering from this, and even in the worst moments, being able to put their child’s safety first—and most of the time considering their needs. Children are hard work—and rewarding. They teach you a lot about yourself. But how much harder is it to parent a child who brings unexpected and perhaps unwelcome things to the relationship. I’m talking beyond the normal teenage dramas (though some of them are at the time a long way from what might seem normal). I am talking about children perceived at least by some, as not ‘perfect’?

Many of my pregnant women say ‘I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, just so long as it is healthy’. In the Western world where maternal and infant mortality has dramatically decreased in the last century, there is to some degree an expectation that our baby will indeed be healthy. But 1-2% on babies born in the West have some problems—2-4% in those whose mother have a range of common disorders like obesity, diabetes, mental illness and drug users both prescribed and illicit. These parents then have not only their own issues and life stresses to manage, but also for what many is grief of not having the child they had dreamed of—and working out a way to parent well the child they do have.

On this topic, I was recommended the Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon by Readers Feast in Melbourne, but given how much I deal with depression in my patients, and in my lead character in the sequel to Medea’s Curse, I felt I needed to read, by the same author, The Noonday Demon, first. This is an account of depression, including his own. I started though with listening to his TedX talk—I think this helped enrich my reading experience as it gave me a sound to his voice and a sense of the man behind a deep need for research and answers and a love affair with words. There is a formality and slight pompousness about him—but I think in that is a veneer developed to deal with his own ghosts and demons.

He is, indeed, very wordy. He researches his topic well, his own and other stories of depression in the Noonday Demon are thoughtful and intelligent. He covers the topic broadly and in depth, and overall comes to a balanced and considered view. I found however he was too wordy at times, and the long chapters could have been more concise. Perhaps that’s the academic in me! Journal articles have word limits…

I enjoyed the Far From the Tree more, even in its wordiness. It is easier to negotiate—like the first book there are clear chapters, but each chapter (a novella in itself!) has a different disorder, and in turn he investigates the illness/problem and the impact on parents of having a child with this issue has. Chapters include disorders that would have been known from birth or even in utero, like Dwarfism and Downs syndrome, as well as others that develop later in life like schizophrenia. It is, again, well and deeply researched and beautifully balanced. The personal stories are very touching and illuminating; ones that can be tragic and others uplifting. He was perhaps a little self-indulgent and nostalgic in the final chapter where he talks about parenting as a gay man (in many different ways), but even this gives pause to thought. I hope he doesn’t get hate mail but I suspect he does.

For me the book can be summarised most easily as—some parents can’t ever let go of the grief of the lost dream; others have a particular ability to flex and move with their child’s needs and accept what gifts and deficiencies they have and then love them for who they are. I don’t think this is ever easy, but those who can, are a shining example to the world. Parents of children without disabilities can also learn from this: our children have their own needs separate from ours, and it is our job as parents to help them achieve what they can and want, not what we want for them.

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About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has over 25 years clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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