Friday, June 21, 2024

The Conversation Every Parent Needs To Hear: How Are You Today, Emily Writes?

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Parenting expert Emily Writes is helping us face the truly tough stuff with a new podcast, The Courage Club, which is a call to action for all parents to be brave and face one very difficult topic.

It’s a topic none of us really want to talk about: sexual harm and our children. It’s tough stuff to face, but, in having some uncomfortable conversations we can make the world of difference for not just our children, but all children.

And thankfully, now, someone else has done the ground work. A new podcast, The Courage Club, has had all the tricky, emotional, uncomfortable and confronting conversations that we can listen into, learn, and then talk to our own families about.

The podcast is specifically designed to support parents with deaf, disabled and neurodiverse children, who, sadly, are more likely to encounter violence and abuse generally, and sexual violence specifically.

We’re guided through the podcast by Emily Writes – a mum of two who speaks from experience as she navigates parenting with an eight-year-old child that is autistic and an 11-year-old with Type 1 diabetes. Emily is also neurodivergent, and a survivor herself.

And, while this all sounds really heavy and tough, it’s an important listen, but it’s also somehow a very empowering, kind and positive podcast that leaves you feeling much better for having tuned in. 

We chatted with parenting expert Emily Writes about her experiences making the podcast, looking after her own mental health and all the challenges that parents face in our modern world…

How are you today, Emily?

I’m okay, I’ve got my two little ones here who are sick though. You know how kids perfectly time it for when you’re the busiest you’ve ever been at work?  So yeah, I am sitting in the garage, hiding and working while they both nap.

Argh! I’m sorry! God, it has been a year of it. Well, I won’t keep you long, but I have been SO excited to speak to you. I have two boys, and I have all these saved tabs of stories of yours on my laptop that have been a godsend at times. So, I’m excited to talk to you today AND to be able to say thank you for all the very honest and helpful stories and books you write about parenting.

Oh, that’s so lovely. Oh, thank you, you’ve absolutely made my day!

What I love about your approach is that you’ve created this safe and, actually realistic space. Because a lot of what I seem to be served up on the internet is these very overstylised perfect mums or experts who give you all these ‘shoulds’. What you should do to look after a baby, a toddler or a child, and you just have to follow this person’s shoulds and you’ll have a perfect child. And it’s all… bullshit.

It is! I just think we have created this really awful place for so many parents, whether they’re new parents or have been parents for quite a while. There’s so much pressure to be perfect. It’s so daunting and it’s so overwhelming.

I really reject the binary that you are only a good parent if you do everything perfectly. Because, we don’t have that attitude about anything else in life? Every parent that’d I’ve met is doing their best. I’ve met so many thousands and thousands of parents over the last nine years I’ve been doing this and none of them are like, ‘oh, I want to be a crap parent’. They’re all doing their best.

It’s so true – it can be hard to see the wood from the trees when you’re in the thick of it though, and been bombarded with all this crap online. The story of yours that I got sent the most (and have reread the most) was this one about sleep, where you talked about all the insane things you tried to get your little ones to sleep. It was such a relief to read it. I had tried everything too, all the sleep coaches, the works, and it felt like I was failing. When, actually I just had a baby who was being a baby.

Oh, my husband and I still laugh about the insane things we tried. We tried osteo-cranial-something-or-rather, and we are very skeptical people. We were like, this absolutely won’t work, but let’s try it! She didn’t even touch our baby – she was like, ‘I’m doing it through vibes’. Straight away we were like, ‘God, we’re idiots’.

She said, ‘after this baby will have a big bowel motion and that will show that it’s worked’. Um, babies poop all the time?!?  I think I went absolutely mental over not sleeping.

Oh absolutely. I think our system is kind of broken in that everyone is expected to go back to work quite quickly – even at that year mark, I was still thinking, ‘thank God I work from home’. He was waking up, on a good night, every two hours. How are you supposed to get up and go to work and function for eight hours like that?

I fully relate to that. I mean, this is why it’s so important to talk about, because I think people are so afraid of judgement and they’re afraid of people thinking they’re not trying hard enough, or not doing all these things, so we just don’t talk about it. And then, instead, we just have all these really, really sleep-deprived mums who feel incredibly isolated.

I really thought that I was the only one who had a kid who wasn’t sleeping until I started writing about it and then I learned that nobody’s kids sleep. We just don’t talk about it.

And now, you have this wonderful new podcast on a completely different topic, but is it a similar thought process – that you wanted to talk about a topic that needs to be talked about, but no one is?

Absolutely, none of us want to talk about sexual harm and children. None of us want to think about it. And we’re really worried about saying the wrong thing. But once we start talking about it we can see we have power to make things safer, not just for our tamariki, but for all tamariki!

How did ‘The Courage Club’ come about?

HELP Auckland and Rape Prevention Education Auckland and ACC all came together to say, ‘how can we support parents to talk to their kids about sexual harm?’ Because it’s not a child’s role to protect themselves, it’s up to us as parents to make sure we can create a really safe environment, but also talk about it with our kids.

It’s the talking about it than can be quite scary. When they came to me about it, I was really nervous. I wanted to say no because I didn’t want to think about sexual harm and children.

I talked to my family about it and said, “what do you all think??” But, the Kaupapa in our family has always been, ‘is the work that we’re doing, helping other people?’ and I kind of knew early on that this would, because it was helping me, just thinking about it!

I’ve never learned so much as I did on this podcast. I have a neurodivergent child and I hadn’t fully considered the ways in which neurodivergent children are at a greater risk of sexual harm. I love that it’s called The Courage Club because It’s a call for people to have some pretty courageous conversations and talk to their partner about this, but also their wider family. Since this, I’ve had conversations with my son’s carer, my son’s grandparents and we’ve all talked about being on the same wavelength and talking through the things I’ve learned and we act as a team protecting our tamariki, and all tamariki. It’s ended up being really empowering.

I had a kind of similar thought process when I got the email about interviewing you. I thought, ‘Do I really want to listen to this podcast and go there mentally?’ But, the other thing I thought – which I’m really ashamed to say to you now – was I thought, this is a very niche topic, talking about neurodivergent or medically fragile or disabled children and sexual harm. Then, maybe three minutes in, I felt embarrassed I thought that. This is a podcast that every parent should listen to. Actually, that every one – not just parents! – should listen to!

I’m so grateful to hear that! I have a medically fragile child and a neurodivergent child, but my hope was that it would be relatable for all parents. I mean, nobody wants to listen to a podcast about sexual harm and children. I don’t think it’s going to be a number one podcast, but I do think some people are going to listen to it and get some insights about how to make a really scary topic, less daunting and have some great conversations with their kids and each other. What better outcome could you have?

Absolutely. I loved one of the stories you told in the very first episode around consent – about teaching your high health needs child about consent. It was the situation of them being in hospital and the nurse about to take their blood while they were still asleep and you asking for them to wake them up first and tell them what was happening, so they didn’t wake up during it and think that it was normal for things to just happen to their bodies. I loved that little example because we talk about how important it is to teach consent to our children, but it’s so hard to know what to actually do and how to have those conversations and how they start.

It is, and I think part of the problem is it’s unfortunate that over time the discussion around consent with babies has, well… people have kind of taken the piss out of it. It’s become all about telling your baby, ‘I’m going to change your nappy now!’ People don’t get that’s a tiny thing you could or couldn’t do and it doesn’t really matter – consent is so much bigger than that.

For me it’s things like when I go up to my husband after work and ask him in front of the kids, ‘Can I give you a cuddle?’ because its modelling to them that I will ask for consent. Or, I will always say to the kids, ‘Can I take a photo of you?’ so they have permission.

If I asked my kids if they wanted a shower, of course they’ll say no, but what I say instead is, ‘You need to have a shower, would you like one now or in 10 minutes?’ Giving a bit of control to your child is actually quite easy in most circumstances while still holding the control you need to have as a parent.

What I found alarming, was the prevelance of sexual harm amongst children who are neurdivergent, medically fragile or disabled. There seems to be a real lack of stats, but this one I saw was horrible: Two systematic reviews found that adults with disabilities were 1.5 times more likely to be victims of violence of any type than non-disabled adults (Hughes, et al., 2012). These reviews also found that children with disabilities were 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence compared to non-disabled children while those with cognitive impairments were 4.6 times more likely to be victims (Jones, et al., 2012). It’s horrific. Do you think part of the issue is it’s a topic we really don’t talk about?

I really think so. I was astonished at the prevelance, and I thought I was someone who understood this. I think part of it is that we’re afraid once we have this information, we can’t not have this information – do you know what I mean? It’s like a horror movie – I want to put my hands in front of my eyes and not look at it. But, I know that’s not protecting my kids in the future if I just remove myself from things that make me uncomfortable. If I’m telling my kids that in life they need to be brave, they need to be upstanders not bystanders, they need to step in when there’s bullying on the playground, it’s my job as a parent to have courage too and face the things that are hard so that I can protect my kids. Understanding the prevalence, how it happens, recognizing the special risks my child will face that other children may not – around having a career, a hygiene teacher aid – really facing this, it protects my child and I owe it to them and all kids to be brave.

It must have taken its toll emotionally at times though.

Oh yeah. I had a few times where I really just cried through the podcast. It was really hard. I’m neurodivergent myself and I’m a survivor myself so it was a lot to face. When you’re doing this you’re thinking a lot about your children and protecting them, but you’re also doing it for the little you. I was thinking of the little Emily in me and thinking that I was doing it for her as well as my other kids. It was emotional, but it was really healing. Hard things are hard, but they’re definitely worth doing. I felt very supported through the whole process – we had experts to talk to when we were triggered or particularly upset. But it was really beautiful in the end.

What do you have in your mental health toolbox that you go to in situations like this where you’re tested?

I think none of us can heal in isolation – I’m a huge believer in community being the way that we can all recover and rejuvenate and do really hard mahi. I think coming together and talking is an incredible waay to full your cup and make you feel stronger.

So, mental health-wise, I’m very lucky that I have a strong support system of people I can call and say, ‘I’m going through a rough tine right now’ and they will talk me through it or they will come over for a cup of tea. I do volunteer playgroup during the week because I think one of the best things for new mums is to have other new mums to speak to. Anyone going through the same thing as you, who can just validate and normalize what you’re feeling is so powerful.

“If I’m telling my kids that in life they need to be brave, they need to be upstanders not bystanders, they need to step in when there’s bullying on the playground, it’s my job as a parent to have courage too and face the things that are hard so that I can protect my kids.”

Listening to all these stories, what struck me is how little it’s spoken about, and how lonely it must be at times, being a parent of a child who is high needs. Is that fair?

Absolutely. It can be an incredibly isolating experience. You’re having a parenting experience that’s in the margins, it’s not the same experience that other parents have and there can be a grief around what you expected parenting to be, to what it actually is.

When you have experiences like the pandemic with a medically fragile kid, it really was an isolating experience. Like when everyone else started to be be able to go out, people with medically fragile children still had to stay home and be very careful, and neurodivergent children had real difficulty going out when they could. You had isolation on top of isolation.

It can be profoundly isolating to be the parent of a disabled child, but it’s also an incredibly strong community and the parents I know who have medically fragile or neurodivergent kids, they know what it’s like to feel isolated and don’t want anyone else to feel that way, so often the things they do are to make life easier for other parents. So in that sense, it’s an incredibly kind community. I think most parents of high needs kids would give you the shirt off their back and a lasanga. I feel very grateful for the community, they’ve been an amazing support to me and I can only hope I can give back as much as they have all given me in my journey as a parent.

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