Recently I’ve been worried about fainting because of overwork and stress. Many people have told me to slow down, but I’ve never been one to slow down. In the face of stress and overwork, I stress more and work harder.
But the body can only take so much.
I need to take a break from writing this newsletter. That’s hard to write to members who fund this project and help in many other ways, not just financially.
I’m also very aware that I work on a beat that is chronically overlooked or dismissed in journalism. But my own situation — of being a mother who’s trying to juggle several jobs — is precisely one of the reasons that early childhood development is not covered.
So I want to share with you why I’m taking some time off. I’ll say this again, but thank you for your support. It means the world.
For months now, my dreams have felt heavy, yet I wake up not able to remember them. They are like little blobs of mucus piling up in my subconscious, clogging up my system.
The only thing I know is that I often wake up feeling like there has been a temblor or earthquake. I woke up not long ago when León, my son, was a few weeks old, thinking about possible landslides and how we would save our family.
But then I realize it must be a remnant of a dream I cannot fully recall.
The first bout of illness
I first felt very dizzy when I was 13. It was a weekend away at my best friend’s house not far from Naples, in the countryside. It was January. It came as a surprise: I was lying in bed and things were spinning around me.
A few days later, I fainted at school. I was in my second year of high school and I had taken a lot on. Imagine the normal teenage drama, but with extra additions. I was studying English and German and very active in the school’s political life. Silvio Berlusconi had become prime minister the year I got into high school and we public school students protested by occupying and shutting down schools.
I got involved and was told I was the youngest student representative in the school’s history. I even had political enemies, who made sure to let me know that I was not up to the job. I was not a good public speaker, my political ideas were not Marxist enough. Also, I was a girl, the only female representative in a world that was already quite sexist. People would call me Marco’s secretary, referring to one of my friends who was also active in student politics. He was a year older, was better known, and he was respected — probably also because he was a guy.
When I got sick, it was hard to explain that it was not in my head because my symptoms were happening in my head. I saw many specialists until the idea of brain tumour could be ruled out. The diagnosis was acute labyrinthitis — a delicate structure deep inside my ear called the labyrinth had become inflamed, affecting my hearing and balance. They did not know what to do. I spent a month in bed and started taking all sorts of medicines. With the knowledge and hindsight of today, what I probably had was depression. I gained weight. I felt lost, lonely, jaded. I found refuge in literature. I wish someone had suggested therapy, but that was not a thing at the time.
Getting on with life as the world spins
My parents did not know what to do. My younger brother was put in charge of checking whether I was going to faint or not if they were not around. For years after that my mother became tense if I told her I was riding a bike or doing anything that was on a forbidden list that doctors handed over to her at the time (mostly avoiding all public transport and sports that required balance). I of course took pride in slowly going through that list, somewhat subconsciously, eventually even skydiving at some point.
I became known in school as the girl who fainted. People made fun of me, but they also admired me for going back to school and making things happen. At some point, I decided I was going to do things even if the world was spinning. I guess I was better; I decided that the way to go about my vertigo was to get busy and ignore it. Among other things, I co-founded the school newspaper, which was a life line — there are some patterns in my life, and writing always played an important role.
The vertigo came to hit me again at different times of my life. Sometimes at high altitude (understandable, but it was more intense than for other people), or with stressful work, like in London, when I was working as a producer for the BBC World Service. I was in bed for a month, once again, without being able to work, asking people to walk me to the toilet, to prepare food, to be next to me as I thought my journalism career would be over.
Taking a break
I am now dizzy again. It started a month ago, at night, subtly, when I was in bed. And last week, after a work trip, it exploded. It coincided with Nacho, my partner, being away for a few days, finally doing his swearing-in ceremony to become an Italian citizen. And it is a long weekend here in Greece.
So imagine. Me, bed-ridden, hardly able to take care of myself. A seven-month-old who still breastfeeds and is currently teething and sleeping badly. A four-year-old with a long weekend off daycare. All of our (few) friends away for the long weekend, except one whose youngest baby was born just a week ago. Our nanny sick.
Nacho managed to schedule one day of people coming and going for a few hours before getting on planes. I got two different babysitters to come in for a total of 8 hours.
Where is everybody else, I ask myself? Why is everyone so far? I question again our decisions and lifestyles to live so far from close family. I think of this great piece by Anne Helen Petersen of Culture Study about why we should move closer to our friends (and why we don’t).
But, most importantly, why am I so sick again? And why am I vomiting this text while León naps? Last week I skipped another newsletter. I had a fever and couldn’t find it in me to write it. I wrote an editor after another saying I simply couldn’t work and did not know when I could work again.
I know why I write this newsletter, I cherish you so much. I want to continue.
But I need a short break — at least until I know the world won’t spin and I can lie down without my to-do list adding to my ever-growing feeling of not being enough. I am seeing doctors and getting tests done; I am taking the one medicine that is supposed to help with vertigo. I have a new therapist too, but that’s a story for another day.
My health is my priority. I need a break because what I am up to right now is not working for me and I don’t want to be a bed-ridden mother. I could push myself more, but I don’t think I would do anyone a service. So please bear with me for a littlee while until I regroup and reorganise.
Your support of this newsletter — which comes in many different forms — means so much. One of the common themes that has come up is taking it is easier on ourselves as parents and as humans. Because being a parent is incredibly tough. But I am one who is good at giving advice, but not the best at taking it myself.
So please know that I am not taking this decision lightly. Journalism — and media generally — can be very grueling. The average age skews younger, and it’s not the easiest industry to make a career in if you have a child. Perhaps that’s why my beat on the importance of early childhood has been historically neglected in journalism. How can you write about early childhood if you have to leave the industry as soon as you’ve had a child yourself?
Many, many thanks.
What I’ve been reading
Do yourselves a favour and read this piece by my friend Tanmoy Goswami, who runs the mental health platform Sanity by Tanmoy, about why children love dinosaurs. You won’t be surprised that there are no definite answers, but take a journey along nostalgic memories, research and films to get an insight into how we can interact with our dinosaur-obsessed toddlers.
What I’ve been listening to
This radio report for The World looks at a project that teaches children how to manage their emotions. This is happening in a preschool in Boston’s Chinatown. It has some great audio of children discussing their emotions through colours and looks at family stressors such as anti-Asian sentiments, job losses and more.
What I’ve been watching
I loved Blue Jay, an unassuming 2016 romantic drama I randomly came across on Netflix. Jim Henderson returns to his hometown in California after his mother’s death. While at the supermarket, he bumps into his former high school girlfriend Amanda, who is in town visiting her pregnant sister. The two haven’t seen each other since they broke up, it quickly transpires, and they decide to go for a coffee. But the day continues. I laughed and smiled along with them, and even let go of a tear or two when I finally understood why they had split up and why they were still hurting about it.
Who’s been inspiring me
Italian lawmaker Gilda Sportiello, a fellow Neapolitan, made news by becoming the first politician to breastfeed in the country’s parliament this week. In November a parliamentary panel had allowed women MPs to breastfeed their children in the chamber up to the age of one and Sportiello played an important role in helping the rule to be passed. This is far from the first woman politician to breastfeed at work, but in Italy things are slower, but thankfully changing.
What members have been saying
Thanks to M, a member of The First 1,000 Days community, who wrote to say that he asked his wife “What can I do to help?” and then realised that “the ask in itself was already a fail”. He remembered the newsletter I wrote about how fathers are not helpers and backtracked. Thanks for sharing, M, and I hope these newsletters resonate further in your daily life!
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by commounity member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.