Blanket of Sound

There is no such thing as silence.
Even when still, our blood pumps,
our heart beats, we breathe, we are alive.

A consistent noise can be tuned out.
It’s the unpredictable ones that distract:
water drips with tortuous, uneven gaps.

In a still hotel room, guests move in the corridor,
the traffic hums, revellers whoop, heels clatter,
keypads are pressed, electronic locks bleep.

The closest we get to silence
is that swallowed cry, a mark of respect
for someone robbed of life.

Or that briefest of moments
after a gasp at a sheer granite rock
or breath-stealing waterfall.

This room has a speaker that plays
white noise, thunder rumbles (distant),
waves on a beach, constant rain on a roof.

But when I curl on the bed, I don’t want
the disconnect of soothing sounds.
I want the city’s distractions to drench me.

(originally published in The Stares Nest)

True silence will never be completely achievable. In a sound-proofed room there will be faint noises of our internal systems, a heartbeat, a breath, that confirm we’re still alive. When individuals chase silence, what they are trying to achieve isn’t necessarily silence, but an environment where they are in control of any noise and that space is not infiltrated by noise created by someone or something else. You don’t notice the dripping tap if you have a playlist of favourite songs to mask it. You’re less likely to be irritated by the random noise beyond your hotel room if it’s masked by pleasant sounds that are consistent, rhythmic and predictable. You don’t notice neighbours who move to regular rhythms as they go about their lives. You do notice the unexpected party with loud noise, the noisy chatter from guests in the garden, unusual car engine noises from an early start that you didn’t know about.

The hotel room speaker with its choice of reassuring white noise was designed to soothe unpredictable and unfamiliar noise to enable hotel guests to sleep. This masking of unpleasant noise with pleasant noise is the only current treatment for tinnitus. There is no cure and hearing aids can worsen the problem by making the tinnitus louder so are only used if there is also underlying hearing loss. However, when everything you hear is competing against the constant ringing/buzzing/static of tinnitus, hearing is frequently difficult.

Even a relatively quiet room can seem noisy depending on the frequencies of the background noise. If you are trying to hear someone speak against background conversation and tinnitus, separating out the noises and focusing on the one you want to hear takes a lot of cognitive effort. Staying home and using text based chat is easier but feels isolating. Not everywhere can be made library-quiet and background can help even out the unpredictable, irregular noise that interrupts a conversation.

This week is Tinnitus Awareness Week. I will never know silence. But I will never be alone either. My tinnitus is always there, but it’s not constant. There are loud and quieter periods. It is not always the boring static I usually have. Sometimes it mimics other sounds or has a rhythm that can be interpreted into song. A companion.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Small Acts of Kindness and a new bookclub

The lack of an address is all too often barrier to accessing public services, which further disadvantages the homeless. However, Leicester City Council’s Westcotes Library were willing to allow a homeless man, Lee, to borrow books from the library despite his lack of address, even helping him discover new science fiction books and extend his reading.

Lee has now created a book club based at Westcotes Library where others, homeless or housed, can drop in, discover and discuss books in a friendly atmosphere and get a hot drink.

Fuller story available on the BBC website: Books send homeless man into a different world.

Leicester statues – no poets found

The Leicester Mercury, asked their readers to vote on which additional statue should be added to the list of Public Art, according to which Leicester has statues of Gandhi, Thomas Cook, Arthur Wakerley, King Richard III, William Shakespeare, Cardinal Wolsey, John Wycliff, Hugh Latimer, John Biggs, Robert Hall, John Henry Manners and a statue depicting three sportsmen (Sporting Success). There’s also a statue to Queen Ethelfloeda (in the Guildhall courtyard), The Little Seamstress (a generic statue representing the textile industry) and Lady Liberty with one of Alice Hawkins about to be unveiled. Leicester city won’t accept nominations for statues of living people.

The Leicester Mercury options were David Attenborough, Richard Attenborough, Martin Johnson, Kasabian, Daniel Lambert, Gary Lineker, Nelson Mandela, Claudio Ranieri. Their article was closed to comments so there was no option to nominate alternatives or ask why there were no women on the list. I’m still waiting for a response from my letter to the editor. I’m not holding my breath and suspect if a response is ever forthcoming it will be suggested that the poll was a “bit of fun.”

So as not to starve Leicestershire’s daughters of ambition, here are some nominations (to conform to Leicester City Council’s stipulations, all are no longer with us):

Agnes Archer Evans – educationalist (aka Agnes Archer Kilgour)
Caroline Ashurst Biggs – academic
Mary Attenborough – founding member Marriage Guidance Council, Kindertransport supporter
Anne Ayre Hely – nurse
Ruth Banton – social worker helped form Women’s Labour League, involved in Highcross St Infant Welfare Centre & promoted a Municipal Maternity Home
Diane Battenham – sports
Anna Chrysogen Beale headmistress Belmont House School
Mary J. Bell-Richards – Board of Guardians, secretary NUBSO
Kathleen Benson – social worker chair of City Health Committee
Susan Bird – Leicester Hosiery Union, city councillor Humberstone ward
Evelyn Carryer – secretary of the Leicester and Leicestershire Women’s Suffrage Society, founder member of the WSPU in Leicester.
Agnes Spencer Clarke – suffragette and novelist.
Bertha Maria Clarke – founding member of the local WSPU
Doris Connolly – founder member of New Parks Residents’ Association. Connolly Close named after her (and her husband).
Dorothy Davis – teach, sered on the education committee of city council; rebelled in support of Ugandan refugees.
Sarah Louise Donaldson – involved with the formation of the Leicester Health Society, suffragette
Betty Driver – actor
Charlotte Ellis – anti-slavery campaigner on Leicester Board of Guardians
Jennie Fletcher – sports
Emily Comber Fortey – first woman elected as a Labour Councillor in Leicester.
Elizabeth Rowley Frisby – councillor Knighton ward and JP in 1927
Fanny Fullagar – Poor Law Guardian & councillor
Mary Catherine Gittins – secretary National Union of Women Workers, suffragette
Edith Gittins – artist (exhibited at Royal Academy), founded Leicester Women’s Liberal Association, suffragette
May Goodwin MBE – President Leicester Women’s Branch of the Boot and Shoe Union, city councillor
Maggie Gracie (aka Maggie Nandy) – secretary Leicester Campaign for Racial Equality, founded Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign, teacher
Adelize Grandmesnil (wife of Hugh Governor of Leicester in 11th century)
Elizabeth Heyrick – writer
Violet Holmes – chair Public Baths & Cleansing Committee
Catherine Irwin – JP, Board of Guardians
Constance E. Jackson – city councillor Lord Mayor 1963
Marjory Kempe – Christian mystic
Maria Leafe – first secretary Leicester Railway Women’s Guild, counciller (Aylestone)
Lilian Lenton – suffragette
Mary Linwood – needlewoman
Sarah Eveline Lines (aka Eva Lines) – teacher, suffragette
Isobel Logan – suffragette
Ada Lovelace – mathematician/coder (lived at Kirby Mallory)
Kate O’Mara – actor
Lily Marriott MBE, JP – councillor Abbey ward served on Rent Tribunal, Hillcrest Hospital Committee, Social Serices Committee, Public Assistance Committee. Lord Mayor of Leicester 1975
Phoebe Mason – secretary Seamers and Stitchers Society, first woman delegate to Trades Council in 1875 and first woman to address the TUC (1877)
Bridget Paton – first woman officer Amalgamated Union of Enginers (1975)
Marina (May) Peach – founder member Labour League of Women, helped form Leicester Health Society (1905)
Edith Rimmington – painter
Deborah Ross – suffragette, secretary Leicester Secular Society
Mary Royce – doctor
Agnes Scott – ran a leper colony, thought to be a source of Black Annis myth
Janet Setchfield – councillor North Braunstone, served on Environmental Health and Public Control, Estates and Finance Committee, governor of several local schools and of Southfields Further Education College and was a member of the Leicestershire Health Authority. Lord Mayor 1985 (County Council)
Ellen Sherriff – suffragette
Annie Stretton – National President Railway Women’s Guild, founder member Woman’s Labour League in Leicester
Sue Townsend – writer
Susanna Watts – writer
Mrs Catherine Willson – social worker, executive member Infants’ Nursing Home, secretary Leicester District Committee of Cooperative Guilds
Elizabeth Willson – first woman to sit on Executive Council of NUBSO, co-founded (with Alice Hawkins) Independent National Union of Women Boot and Shoe Workers.

This list is not comprehensive and further suggestions are welcome.

The Institute of Physics Flash Fiction and Poetry Competitions

Open to any writer resident in the UK for a piece of flash fiction or poem of 500 words or fewer where the theme involves physics or a physicist. If you’re not sure if your idea qualifies, email writingcompetition2017 [at] Entries restricted to one per person per competition so you can enter one poem, one flash fiction or one poem and one piece of flash fiction, but not two poems or two pieces of flash fiction. Full rules from the email address given.

Prizes in each competition: First Place £100, Second Place £75, Third Place £50.

Closing Date 31 October 2017. Free entry – entries to be sent to the email address.


  • Aspect of a physicist’s life or work
  • Fictional physicist makes a discovery or invention
  • Group of scientists working at a facility such as CERN or an Antarctic base or the International Space Station
  • A real-life physics-related event
  • A technological utopia or dystopia
  • Environments such as space, the deep sea, etc
  • Change a law of physics – what happens?

Judging Panel includes a physicist and fiction judge. I will be the poetry judge.

Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

Don’t blame the medium – Daniel Radcliffe is sending mixed messages about social media

In a recent interview, actor Daniel Radcliffe seemed to suggest that celebrities using social media can’t expect privacy in their personal lives, particularly if they are tweeting fairly regularly. In the same interview he also said that actors should be prepared to attend events such as film premieres to help generate interest.

Daniel Radcliffe was fortunate enough to land a role in a film that had Warner Brothers’ publicity machine behind it, so didn’t need to do much in the way of personal promotion himself. But few artists get such a huge break at the beginning of their careers and so most have to promote their work. Social media is just another medium for doing this. It’s no more or less public than giving an interview, doing a photo shoot or a question and answer session at a book signing.

It’s not the medium that’s the problem, it’s the way it’s used. And it is possible to use social media and guard your privacy, just as it’s possible to give an interview and guard your privacy.

Tips for Guarding Privacy and using Social Media

  • Ensure your social media platform is about your work, not you
  • Blog about the subjects in your books or how you wrote a poem, not what you did last weekend
  • Tweet about promotional events you’re doing, not about what you had for breakfast
  • Create a balance between tweets/status updates about you and giving links to interesting articles, a book review you came across or more information about a topic you’ve written about, don’t just focus on you
  • If you receive questions about your work via social media, answer them. It’s courteous and shows you’re not just using social media to broadcast and promote yourself.
  • If you receive questions about your private life, don’t immediately answer but think about whether you’re happy for the answer to be in the public domain. A question about whether you enjoy the same breakfast as one of your characters is innocuous, but questions about your daily timetable might not be.
  • If you post photos, think carefully first. Photos taken at promotional events or promotional publicity shots were intended to go in the public domain. Selfies might show you’re human. But photos that include others who didn’t plan on the photo being made public might lose you friends. Would you be happy for any photo you’re about to share to be reprinted in a newspaper? If not, probably best not to post.
  • Think about your timing. Rather than posting at random times, consider creating a regular slot (at your convenience) when you update your blog or when you’re on a social media network. You can always post articles or updates in advance and schedule them to conform to your regular social media slot. This way you manage expectations about when you’re available so you won’t feel you have to be online 24/7 and people won’t expect you to be.

The big advantage in social media is that it’s your platform and you are in control of not only what you use it for, but when you use. Make it work for you.


Related Topics:

Social Media Marketing for Writers

Does a Writer need a Social Media Platform?

Should Writers use Social Media?

Twitter Etiquette

A Poem a Day in September 2013

September was also a month for writing a poem a day, although via a closed poetry group on Facebook, unlike the international NaPoWriMo in April. I took the challenge on and have listed the titles of my poems drafted during the month below.

Do any of the titles grab attention?

01 Soar Valley Way
02 I’m tired of the colour orange
03 Stationary Transports
04 Why schedule road works for the school holidays?
05 Anniversary by an Oak
06 Querying a Birthmother’s Catechism [nothing to do with Carrie Etter’s similarly titled poem]
07 [Untitled] – this won’t be its final title, just an indication this poem is still a very rough draft and so doesn’t have a title yet
08 It’s a café window with frosted glass
09 I won’t do the interview you requested
10 I am developing an envy of the doormat
11 Sunburn on an Overcast Day
12 Things I learnt on Pinterest
13 Movements in Scarborough
14 Narrow Gauge
15 So an American singer bought a ring belonging to Jane Austen
16 Exhaust
17 She’s published her story
18 Smile, Baby
19 A Blackwork Heart in Coral
20 On hearing the theme tune to “Dallas”
21 Approaching a Second Anniversary
22 In a conservative meeting room
23 The Replacement Sofa (working title, likely to change)
24 At Scarborough Castle
25 I woke up in someone else’s life
26 The Magpies Lied
27 Ghost Dance
28 She hated talking about the old days
29 Mark Darcy had to Die
30 The Rabbit Hole, wherever I find it

Now I have a pile of poems to edit… and my blog posting schedule might become more regular.

The advantage of doing this as a closed poetry group was the opportunity to workshop the poems without the poems being considered published (and therefore not eligible for submission to poetry magazines or entry to competitions).


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Stop Twittering and Ask the Trolls

I blogged previously about how the London Review of Book’s “complications” in finding women reviewers was largely down to a problem in breaking the tradition of how they approached commissioning reviews. If commissioning editors are genuinely interested in presenting a certain type of review, they have to find and ask the right type of reviewer. If you want to find a poetry reviewer, find a poetry reviewer to ask.

If you want to get your writing published, do your research and find an editor who publishes writing like yours. A poet who wants to get their sonnets published is asking for rejection if they approach a magazine that focuses on experimental poetry and whose editor hates sonnets. The poet would need to find and approach a magazine editor who will include sonnets.

If you want the right answer, you need to ask the right question of the right person. Anyone who’s used a search engine or tried doing research of any kind knows, or soon finds out, that a great deal of time and effort can be wasted shifting through irrelevant results if the wrong search terms are used or the wrong question asked.

Children learn to ask the right question of the right person quickly. They soon learn which parent is more likely to say yes to certain requests and will direct their request at that parent. At nursery or school, they will ask the nursery nurse or teacher for help rather than the child nearest them. But as children grow up they learn that parents and teachers don’t have all the answers. A friend might give a white lie rather than the rather more unpalatable truth to questions such as “Does this outfit look OK?”

A rejection might be avoided by sounding out a friend to find out what the opinion of a person you want to ask a question is. “What does he think of me?” might be masking the real question, “If I ask him on a date, how likely is he to say yes?” It’s easier to indirectly ask a person whom we think will give a positive response than directly ask someone whose response is unpredictable. It’s easier for a commissioning editor to commission a review from a reviewer they’ve used previously than approach someone new and risk them saying no.

It’s much easier to avoid directly asking someone whose response is likely to be abusive and unpalatable.

This has been the problem behind the question “How do twitter users stop other twitter users sending abusive tweets?” By abusive I don’t mean tweets that contain insults. I mean those tweets that threaten serious assault or suggest bombs have been planted: tweets that actually break the law and are subject to an ongoing police investigation which has already resulted in arrests. Fortunately those on the receiving end of such tweets have spoken out, primarily as a way of highlighting the problem and encouraging others to report abusive tweets to both twitter and the police. Speaking out also triggers a debate about the problem and asks what can be done about it.

There has been debate, but it’s faltered around the key question of why the perpetrators did it and what can be done to stop them. The victims are a key part of the debate and have rightly spoken out. But they are not the right people to ask, why did this happen and how do we stop it happening again?

It’s easy to speculate that the perpetrators see words on a screen and overlook or forget that there’s a real person behind the avatar they are targeting, that these are disenfranchised loners who feel that their standing in society has been eroded so attack others with displaced aggression. But not all the identified perpetrators so far fit that profile. Not all of them belong to one gender either.

Whilst the debate has been a useful source of support and sends a message that abusive behaviour is not acceptable, it won’t provide answers. We need to start asking the perpetrators why they do this and what would have stopped them. They may not provide answers and, where provided, those answers will be unpalatable, but the questions have to be asked.

By Twitter: @Emma_Lee1.

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Why cheap shots at the Duchess of Cambridge’s “morning sickness” say more about the “joker” than the Duchess

Sylpled and Swelled
(HL stillborn 3.1.93)

Hyperemetic, her mother
as she swelled
in the womb
we were told
could not carry her.

She cohabited
with endometriosis,
stretching her arms with indolent ease
in the scan’s convex negative.

Parted from her placenta
she still had to be born,
emerging purple against
the white the midwife
wrapped her in.

She was long like me
had her mother’s face.

Published in “Us: who made History” (Original Plus, 2012).

I never met HL’s mother, but knew her father and the grief her father still felt at HL’s death. I’m not for a moment suggesting the Duchess of Cambridge’s hyperemesis will end in such a tragedy. Hyperemesis is rare and causes persistent vomiting and nausea, putting the mother-to-be at risk of dehydration. If not treated, it can lead to complications in later pregnancy. It is not morning sickness, where no matter how nauseous or how sick the pregnant woman is, she can still keep fluids and food down. But it is a reminder that not all pregnancies have a successful outcome. How quickly some commenters seem to have forgotten Savita Halappanavar’s avoidable death.

The maternity mortality rate in the UK is 8.2. The stillbirth rate is 5.2 per 1000 births (in 2009) in the UK. When you factor in neonatal deaths, that’s 17 babies lost per day. The loss of a baby feels like a double blow: the loss of the baby and also the potential adult they will never become. HL, had she survived, would be 19 today. The everyday miracle of a healthy baby should not be taken for granted.

It didn’t help the Cambridges that the media called the Duchess’s condition “morning sickness”, “acute morning sickness” or “severe morning sickness”. But, post-Leveson, did some really assume the Duchess was too posh to suffer morning sickness at home “like the rest of us”? Social media commentary suggests so and I doubt a lot of commentators thought about how those comments might be viewed.

I won’t be joining those who seem to think that just because the Duchess of Cambridge can afford private care and that her baby will be one of the most photographed children on the planet, that her hyperemesis is somehow less severe. Privilege might make dealing with the condition more comfortable but her agony is no less real.


Deadlines and Consequences

A deadline is a time limit and usually imposed to ensure a project is completed in a timely manner. Missing a deadline always has consequences.

Failure to deliver a manuscript on time could mean either a delay in publication or rejection. Failure to send in a poem by the competition’s deadline means the poet forfeits their entry fee and their poem will be disqualified. Failure to fit a carpet on time leaves a customer with furniture stacked in the wrong place, the problem of accommodating a new fitting appointment in an already full schedule and knock-on problems in completing the project. Hence no blog post on 31 October.

There’s also (a probably unintended) consequence… Missing a deadline doesn’t just cause delays and headaches but also suggests a lack of respect for the person who either set or needed a project completing by the deadline.

• How valued a customer did I feel when the carpet fitters failed to fit their carpet?
• How valued does an editor feel if you miss their deadline?
• How professional do you look?

The carpet fitters have lost a customer. The problem wasn’t the faulty carpet, although that was annoying, but the way the problem was dealt with. Promising to call and then failing to do so and leaving a customer chasing a response is never good. Dealing with each issue as a one-off instead of seeing the cumulative effect of a chain of problems is how to lose customers.

Relying on others to have a Plan B in case of your tardiness is not a professional way to behave.

If it’s unavoidable, as soon as you know you can’t meet a deadline, get in touch and explain why and show that you’ve thought about the consequences so can suggest ways of mitigating the problem.

There are occasions where unforeseen events will get in the way of meeting a deadline, but the more notice you can give, the better. Leaving it until the day of the deadline, or worse, waiting for the deadline to pass and letting your customer or editor chase you up, doesn’t inspire confidence and you may find doors start closing.


Authors’ Promotional Package Offers – too good to be true?

I recently had an email addressed to “Dear Writer for Children” offering a promotional package. I think I’ll be giving this one a miss as the email was unsolicited – I’ve written on Email Marketing for Writers previously – and I’m not a children’s writer. If you get such an email, how can you evaluate whether the offer is worth taking up?

What’s being offered in the Promotional Package?

In this case is it was a profile on a website where, if sufficient interest was generated, the website owners would help arrange for publication of the author’s work, the author would receive an opportunity to join a workshop or event once a year, and a free ticket to an awards evening. The package has a cost.

Let’s break the package down into individual elements, bearing in mind that initial details are naturally sketchy since the idea is to get people to express interest with further details to follow.

Website Profile

Website profiles can be useful, particularly on a high-traffic site and especially if there’s a link back to your own website or blog. However, there are questions to ask:

What company will you be keeping?

Will it just be profiles of unpublished writers or will you benefit by having your profile on the same site as established, reputable authors?

What traffic will the website get?

The site owners should be able to provide statistics – ask. If no statistics are forthcoming why not? A new site may not yet have established itself, but an established site whose owners don’t provide statistics isn’t worth bothering with.

What does/will the site look like?

A slick, professional looking site provides more benefits than one that looks as if it was compiled by the owner’s young relative and is covered in advertising.

What SEO has been done?

SEO (search engine optimisation) makes a website search engine friendly so search engines are more likely to list it near the top in the results for relevant searches. Do a search for the website using its own name – does it come near the top? Do a search using a relevant term such as “children’s writers”, is the site listed on the first page of results? If browsers can’t find the site, your profile won’t be seen.

Who Writes the Profile and can it be updated?

An out of date profile won’t help you and looks unprofessional. Will you be able to update your profile once it’s live? How quickly can it be updated? Ask the question.

Who will own the copyright? If the package promoters retain copyright, is this going to cause future problems when submitting biographical and profile style information for publishers, etc to use?

Do Publishers and Literary Agents look at the site?

This is an easy claim to make, after all a website is easily available to anyone with internet access so publishers and literary agents could be looking at the site. However, publishers and agents are also busy with existing clients and submissions from potential clients so don’t really have time to go browsing through a profile site to find even more new clients. Unless the package provider can actually name specific agents or publishers they know to be reading the site, treat any such claim cautiously.


Check what exactly is being offered.

Which publishers will the package promoters work with (ask for specific names so you can do your research)?  How much publicity will be expected of individual authors? All authors are expected to do some publicity, but if you are doing all the publicity with no support from the publisher and/or package promoter, is it worth it?

Workshops and Awards Evening

How much choice do you have over which workshops are part of this offer? Will they be local? By established, reputable authors? How flexible are the dates for attendance and how much notice will you receive? The offer of an opportunity to attend suggests there will not be any help with any applicable expenses such as course fees, travel expenses and meals.

Similarly the awards evening may be interesting and may offer networking opportunities, but if you, like most people in the UK, live outside London and the awards evening is held at a London venue, are you likely to actually attend?

Small Print

Check you are fully aware of:

  • Costs – how much, when payable, can you pay in instalments if that’s more suitable for you? Are payments refundable? Are the costs proportionate to what you are paying for?
  • Hidden extras – does everyone get the same profile or are there different charges for premium and standard profiles? Does an author photo or images of book covers cost extra?
  • Renewal – is there an annual fee or is it a one off payment? Be wary of setting up any payments by direct debits where there is an automatic renewal option.
  • How much input are you expected to have? Are you expected to update your profile at set intervals? How much promotion and publicity are you being asked to do? Can you afford the time investment required?
  • Restrictions – are there limits on what you can and can’t put in your profile (and are these reasonable?), is there a time limit on profile availability (will it be taken down after a set time)?
  • Has the package promoter done their research? Generic emails addressed “Dear Writer”, particularly if they also contain grammar and spelling errors or get an acronym wrong, should ring alarm bells.
  • Are you being asked to sign up quickly? Is the offer only open for a limited time or offered on a first-come-first-served basis? If you’re not being given time to think about it (particularly if payment is needed up front and is non refundable), then how good an offer is it?
  • Ask a friend. Is the organisation making the offer well-known for the right reasons? Have others used the service and what feedback would they give?

I won’t be taking up this particular offer. I have never had any contact with the sender who did not tell me how they got my email address and there was no unsubscribe option.

NSPCC’s “All Babies Count” fails on Mental Health Issues

The National Society for the Prevention for Cruelty for Children has produced a report, “All Babies Count”, which starts from the idea:

All babies need to be safe, nurtured and able to thrive. The early care they receive provides the essential foundations for all future physical, social and emotional development. Whilst most parents do provide the love and care their babies need, sadly too many babies suffer abuse and neglect. The emotional abuse, neglect or physical harm of babies is particularly shocking both because babies are totally dependent on others and because of the relative prevalence of such maltreatment.

No one’s going to argue with that. However, the report repeatedly refers to the “toxic trio” (their words) of “domestic abuse, substance abuse and parental mental illness”. Whilst the first two are fairly obvious indicators of potential harm to children, why is mental illness parity-linked with them? Some forms of parental mental illness, such as psychosis or dissociative disorders, may indicate an increased risk of the potential for harm, but not all mental illnesses involve psychosis or dissociative disorders. So should  parental mental illnesses be part of this “toxic trio” at all? Or is there due to a lazy stereotyping and stigmatic approach from the NSPCC?

Let’s look at the report:

144,000 babies under 1 year old live with a parent who has a common mental health problem.

So what? Post-natal depression is a common mental illness but it doesn’t mean the mother is at risk of harming her baby, just that she needs support to see that  her perception of not being able to cope is not the same as her actual ability  to cope. All the statistic tells us is that more information is needed.

The report makes that case that prevention of child abuse isn’t just a moral  intervention but one that saves money too. The effects of abuse in early  infancy cast a long shadow over both the child’s own development into adulthood and their own ability to parent in turn. Again, not an argument anyone’s likely to disagree with.

Some families face additional challenges that can negatively impact on attachment. These include poverty, relationship conflict, domestic abuse, mental illness and substance abuse. Such families will require additional more intensive and coordinated support if they are to get off on the right tack.

Replace “mental illness” with “physical disability” and see if you read the paragraph any differently.  Physical disability is an additional challenge to parenthood, but the NSPCC daren’t mention it. Wonder why?

No  one wanting to be a parent can predict the future and no one can predict how they will react when becoming a parent. In the UK a third of pregnant women lose their jobs simply for being pregnant. Some parents face redundancy, serious illness or bereavement during or immediately after pregnancy. Some of
these life-changing events can trigger a mental illness, it is right then to taint these parents with being part of the “toxic trio”?

Disorganised attachment patterns are particularly likely when parents:

•         have unresolved losses or have themselves suffered traumatic experiences, including childhood abuse

•         have serious affective disorders, including depression

•         are active alcoholics or heavy users of hard drugs

•         are maltreating.

It is therefore not surprising that the majority (typically around 80 per cent) of maltreated infants are classified as disorganised in their attachment behaviour. However, by no means all ‘disorganised’ children have been maltreated.

Pity the mother suffering from post natal depression, then. Don’t expect a supportive reaction from the NSPCC. Don’t they know depression isn’t always a “serious affective disorder”?

Mothers with depression are more likely to harm themselves rather than their baby. In some cases depression acts as a spur to become better parent, as it distorts  the parent’s view into believing they are not good enough so strive to become  better. I am not suggesting that parents with depression should not have proper support, but that the NSPCC are demonstrating that they do not understand depression so cannot support children who have one or both parents suffering from  depression.

The report moves on to consider mental illness in pregnancy and infancy.

Mental illnesses affect a substantial poportion of women of childbearing age and their partners. The impacts on children and the family can vary considerably according to the specific condition, its severity, the timing of onset and its duration. Below we consider evidence on maternal depression, on mental illness in fathers, and on serious mental illnesses. 

Maternal depression, characterised by a prolonged period of low mood and a profound loss of interest and enjoyment, is the most common mental health condition. The emotional swings experienced by many mothers shortly after childbirth should not be confused with major depression. Depressive symptoms include difficulty sleeping and concentrating, loss of appetite, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and low energy. 

Compared to older children, very young babies are especially vulnerable when mothers experience depression because of their total dependence and the frequency of care they require. Deep depression is debilitating, making it difficult for mothers to provide routine care and maintain nurturing relationships with their children. There is considerable awareness of the prevalence of ‘postnatal depression’. Consistent with other developed countries, it is estimated that around 14 per cent of mothers in the UK experience postnatal depression.

I’ll ignore the sudden invented commas around postnatal depression. The problematic sentence is actually “Depressive symptoms include difficulty sleeping and concentrating, loss of appetite, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and low energy”. Show me a new parent who doesn’t feel all of those in the first three months (not necessarily simultaneously). Lack of sleep can be caused by having to feed a baby every three hours and can be a cause of loss of appetite, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness and guilt and low energy. Similarly loss of appetite can be cause of the listed symptoms too. So can being an isolated mother also recovering from a caesarean with a husband working long hours and not offering support. And how about preventing postnatal depression in the first place?

The report doesn’t show understanding of the difference between perfectly normal reactions and reactions that are warning to a more serious underlying illness. But report’s not finished with depression yet:

Seminal research in the 1980s with depressed mothers living in conditions of high adversity found elevated levels of maternal insensitivity. Two types of insensitivity in parenting styles have been highlighted, typified by ‘intrusive and hostile’ communication at one extreme, and ‘withdrawn and disengaged’ at  the other. In turn, the infant of the depressed mothers in these studies showed high rates of distress and avoided social contact. Studies with lower risk samples have shown less marked disturbance in the contacts between depressed mothers and their infants, though there is still evidence of reductions in maternal responsiveness, particularly in cases where depression persists. Recent research has found that the adverse effects of maternal depression on child attachment were reduced when the mothers themselves were securely attached.

There is accumulating evidence of the long term impacts of maternal depression. We know that women who have suffered from postnatal depression are twice as likely to experience future episodes of depression over a 5 year period, implying continued or recurrent vulnerability among the dependent children concerned. Halligan’s longitudinal analysis of a sample of families in Cambridge found that maternal withdrawal during early interactions predicted elevated levels of cortisol at age 13 among the children of postnatally depressed mothers.

It can happen to men too. All these tells us is that mothers need support, not stigma.

Finally the report considers fathers:

Whilst researchers and practitioners have made enormous strides in understanding maternal depression, until relatively recently there has been a dearth of work around fathers and depression.

Fathers matter both because of the direct impacts of their depression, and because of their indirect(potentially ‘buffering’) role in relation to maternal mental illness. A recent study has found that the prevalence of paternal depression is around 4 per cent during the first year after birth (compared to 14 per cent among mothers). The peak time for paternal depression is between 3 and 6 months after birth. By the time a child reaches 12 years of age, two fifths of mothers and a fifth of fathers had experienced depression. A recent systematic review identified low relationship satisfaction as a key element of a father’s depression when his partner had depressive symptoms. Between 24–50 per cent of new fathers with depressed partners were depressed themselves. Research has found that fathers experiencing depression have less involvement with their children and higher rates of ‘infant directed negativity’ Severe depression in fathers has been associated with high levels of emotional and behavioural problems in their infant children, particularly boys.

The report doesn’t clarify what it means by “infant directed negativity”. That’s worrying because there’s a big difference between thinking something and acting on it. All parents have moments where they have negative thoughts about their children or their partners, but not all parents will act on them, and thinking it doesn’t make an individual a bad parent. Again, there’s no differentiation between behaviour accepted as normal and behaviour considered worrying. More worrying is that depression, with all its apparently serious outcomes, is not included in the section headed “Serious Mental Illnesses”.

Serious Mental Illnesses (such as schizophrenia and related psychoses, and affective disorders) can pose significant challenges to parenting and risks to dependent children, particularly when mothers lack insight into their disorder and are acutely unwell.

There are two problems with this statement. Firstly “serious mental illnesses” is too broad an umbrella term. Secondly it immediately focuses on mothers. The report does mention that fathers may ‘buffer’ the effects of a mother’s mental illness, but doesn’t acknowledge that mothers can do the same when fathers suffer mental illness. So why the focus on a mother’s mental illness?

The report continues:

The peak age of onset of schizophrenia among women is in their 20s, coinciding with the main reproductive years. The condition affects around 4 in 100,000 of the population. Development of babies may be adversely affected during pregnancy because of a range of factors associated with chronic schizophrenia, including poor attendance at antenatal appointments, unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, smoking and the effects of both prescribed and illicit drugs. Once the baby is born, research has found that mothers with schizophrenia can experience a range of problems in care giving, including lack of emotional warmth and intimacy, remoteness, attention deficit, impaired maternal sensitivity and responsiveness to an infant’s cues, self absorption and intrusiveness. Intrusive interactions can interfere with an infant’s activities and lead the baby to avoid contact with the mother. Consequently, the infant may internalise an angry and protective coping style. Early experiences with mothers suffering from SMIs [Serious Mental Illnesses] may interfere with infants’ regulation of emotion and attention, with cognitive and memory function and with the ability to make self/other distinctions. These impacts may continue to exert direct effects on children’s lives over a decade later. Women with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are significantly more likely to have higher scores on perceived risk of harm to their babies compared to mothers with a diagnosis of psychotic depression. Around half of mothers with schizophrenia receiving inpatient psychiatric care in the postnatal period do not retain custody of their babies. Mothers who lose custody of their children may grieve for several years and are often not supported adequately when this occurs.

Dads can have schizophrenia too, but that is ignored here. The peak onset of any mental illness tends to be when the sufferer is in their 20s simply because it is not always possible to diagnose a mental illness with confidence in someone younger and doctors often take a ‘wait and see’ approach. That this happens to be during the main reproductive years is coincidental but not inter-related. The report states that “poor attendance at antenatal appointments, unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, smoking and the effects of both prescribed and illicit drugs” are associated with chronic schizophrenia but does not explain the association, which is only an indirect one. With proper care and support, the association can be broken. The implicit assumption here is that women diagnosed with schizophrenia should not have children: is this what the NSPCC is actually trying to say?

Surely the key point is that final phrase “often not supported adequately”. A diagnosis of schizophrenia should be a factor in giving increased support to parents not an automatic assumption that the baby is at risk. Generally women don’t have babies on their own, there is usually a biological father so why not focus the support on them? Notice how in the entire paragraph, fathers are not mentioned once.

The  following statement is breath-taking in both its stigmatising assumptions and inability to separate cause and effect:

Affective disorders, characterised by dramatic changes or extremes of mood, include bipolar I (‘manic-depressive psychosis’) and bipolar II (recurrent episodes of depression with at least one episode of hypomania). Symptoms of mania include persistent and abnormally elevated mood. Because of the dis-inhibition associated with mania and hypomania, women are vulnerable to exploitation (including rape) and risk-taking behaviours (high numbers of sexual partners). Denial of pregnancy poses the risk of a host of problems, the most serious among them being neonaticide. Neonaticide is also associated with dissociative symptoms, dissociative hallucinations, depression and suspicion of early trauma in isolated, rigid family structures. Women who deny their own pregnancy are often young, fail to manifest symptoms of pregnancy and fail to attend antenatal clinics, a situation frequently complicated by their families’ collusion in denying the pregnancy.

Where did this come from??

For a start bipolarity or manic depression (or whatever it’s called this week) is not automatically connected with psychosis. In fact, there’s no link at all. One person with mental illness may suffer more than one mental illnesses, but that does not prove an interconnected link between those illnesses. In fact, as with most mental illnesses, people with a bipolar disorder are more likely to harm themselves than others.  People with bipolar II may get recurrent episodes of hypomania and one episode of depression: the extremes of mood are not predictable.  Hypomania and mania does not automatically lead to exploitation and risk-taking behaviour. Again the NSPCC have failed to understand that thinking and action are separate entities: just because you catch the eye of an attractive shop assistant and briefly think about an affair does not mean you will have an affair.

I don’t see the link between dis-inhibition, risk-taking behaviours and denial of pregnancy. Women without an affective disorder have denied pregnancies. Pregnancy occurs where contraception has not been used or failed, not because the women had a high number of sexual partners. It’s not just bipolar women that are “vulnerable to exploitation (including rape)”.  Denial of pregnancy and bipolarity are not interlinked so what on earth are the two doing in a paragraph that clearly implies they are?

By failing to separate neonaticide from bipolarity, the report implies the two are inter-linked; that a mother with bipolarity is at a higher risk of committing neonaticide. This is so wrong.

Again the focus in on the mother. Bipolar fathers apparently don’t exist.

In conclusion, the NSPCC report contains breath-taking inaccuracies and ignorance about mental health issues. It also fails to convince that mental health should form part of the “toxic trio”. In fact, it shouldn’t. Parents with mental health issues need support, just as parents with physical disabilities do, but the NSPCC should leave it to those charities that can offer non judgemental, compassionate support.

Damagingly, what “All Babies Count” does is further stigmatise mental health and will deter parents from seeking help. If anything is toxic, it’s the NSPCC’s attitude towards mental health issues.