Guest Post by Rachel Swanick: The Courageous Whisper

As a woman in 2019, there is a lot going on. Now, more than ever, women are determinedly working out their roles in the world. On social media, the press, through television and music, women are actively thinking about who they are and what they represent to the world. In some circles there is an anger with this as women fight back against hundreds of years of oppression. In others, there is a quiet doggedness, which reminds me of my favourite quote, “Courage is not always a roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice, telling us try again tomorrow”. In these post-modernist times, we are encouraged to be what we want to be – we can apply for that job, wear what we like, share our opinions with the world. Show yourself and be accepted.

As I mentioned, this is the view of the media, of suffragette-like energy. It made me think about my own roles – a mother, a wife, an employee (the vocational therapist) and the many other women who live this life. In my own home, my husband and I are both educated and reflective people. With this, we take on many of the ‘traditional’ roles – he puts the bins out and I do the childcare, for example. Sometimes, this doesn’t work and resentment can build on both parts so we work it out. I feel very grateful that I get to spend a lot of time at home with our children. My need to be with them feels biological and instinctive. But as a family, we are not an island. I rely on people throughout my day for help – and here’s the rub – they are all women. It’s the school mums in the morning as we congratulate ourselves for making it on time with partly clean children, it’s our wonderful child minder who supports, nurtures and counsels us daily, it’s the woman who was struggling to balance a career and children so opened the little shop that sells the gifts that I buy for the various family celebrations that occur almost weekly, it’s the woman on the supermarket till who works part-time so she can look after her grandchildren so her daughter can work, it’s the woman who runs the Church office and organises births, deaths and marriages for the town, it’s the reception staff on the gym reception who sometimes have to take their children into work and it’s my work colleagues whom I speak through email or on the phone (a slight disclaimer, my main work support is a man and I will write more on this in my next missive). 

These women help me emotionally, as well as in my work, in keeping my family together and my own wellbeing. And I have all of this with a ‘normal’ family. Imagine though, that you were struggling, that your child was experiencing difficulties or that you did not have a partner for support and that you were juggling challenging children (often more than one), work, trying to find time for yourself and a difficult partnership?

In my work with adoptive families, this is more often than not the case. Before adopting a child, a couple will usually have tried all of the normal – and a few clinical – ways to fall pregnant before deciding to adopt. That sense of loss, of not being good enough, doesn’t go away easily. The couple may be struggling with their wellbeing and resentment could be present. So, they decide to adopt a child and give the child, as well as themselves, a second chance. Except, the child will bring a hundred experiences and memories of their own that the parents were not part of. The family will not have grown together as in a birth family and each member will have a different purpose or challenge to heal. The parents to help the child have another start in life and the child to help the parents feel happy and worthwhile. This feels very different to the ‘happy accident’ of falling pregnant in a close relationship. 

To explore this further, I would like to share an experience I had through my work with adoptive families. All names have been changed for confidentiality. Susan and Mal had been married for ten years before adopting Noah. They had tried for many of those years to have birth children without success and decided to adopt – with the added reason that Susan herself had been adopted as a child. The years before adopting Noah had been filled with heartache and medication as the couple tried IVF and different specialist help. Noah was three when he arrived and had obvious learning and emotional difficulties from the start. The family worked hard with social services and health care professionals to help Noah’s development. When Noah was five, social services asked the family if they would take Noah’s birth sibling who had been removed at birth (she would be 18 months when placed). Susan felt like this was the only option whilst Mal did not want the extra responsibility of another traumatised child. They had enough challenges with Noah. Susan said yes and Lily arrived within a few weeks. Mal retreated from the family and could not cope with the growing resentment he felt towards his wife and children. He refused to speak to Lily for the first few months and started working more. Susan struggled to manage both children and full time work. She became more stressed – often crying and asking for help from teachers in school. When the children were eight and five, they were referred for music therapy, whilst the parents were offered dramatherapy. The therapy continued for three years and in that time Mal remained distant and detached from his family and the process of therapy. Susan kept going – she turned up to every meeting, she cried and asked for help, she shared successes and tried to engage with new interventions and ideas, she stayed in work and tried to do social things to keep herself well. She looked after the children, ran the house, taking them to after school clubs, managing Noah’s increasingly aggressive behaviour and Lily’s reactions to Noah’s difficulties every day. And she did this on her own, without the support of her husband. In turn, Mal had given himself the role of ‘bread winner’ and would do some jobs to help organise the house. He was giving as much as he could at that time and was obviously still struggling with the resentment and hardship of adopting children. Towards the end of the therapy, I spoke with Susan about family life. “I feel like I have accepted that Noah isn’t going to change that much and I have to manage. Lily will be fine, I know she will be. I have to make the best life possible for my children with what I have in me. Mal will get here in his own time”, Susan replied. Susan is holding the hope for the children. She believes in change and wants something different for the family so keeps trying. There will be times when she has to accept that change is not possible and she grieves at the life she imagined having with her beautiful children. And she does this on her own – always trying to get dad on board, always seeking the light in the dark.

In my work as a music therapist, I feel it is my role to help the client find a voice. This voice maybe many things including a disjointed crash and bash on a drumkit or the sound of a lark singing. When working with adoptive families, it is important to understand the difference voices of each family member. Essentially, the adoptive family is a group of strangers, living in the same house. Mum and dad will have memories of life together before their child arrived, but there will also be a time when they weren’t together. The child – or children – will have some shared memories with their ‘forever parents’ but, again, there will be memories that are not shared and that are unknown to his new parents. This makes communication harder. Music therapy can provide a space for each person to find their solo voice and then to bring those voices together to create their own harmonies, in their own family choir. By acknowledging the individuals at a preverbal level (using music), we can help them to move forwards to being together, supporting each member to read the cues of when to take the lead and when to support the others.

So, this is a shout – sorry, a courageous whisper – on behalf of all the women who scaffold our society, who look after the children with nowhere to go, who listen to the stressed out mum on the playground, who talk to the women balancing home, children, work, elderly parents, keeping up with the world. This is a courageous whisper to say you are not alone and that we’ve got you.

This article is dedicated to Em Inman, who inspired and contributed.

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Rachel Swanick Written by:

Rachel Swanick is the Senior Clinical Therapist for Chroma in the U.K. and specialises in psychodynamic music therapy for attachment, trauma and wellbeing. Rachel's work encompasses clinical work and assessments with children and families, the supervision of therapists, as well as presenting and writing about music therapy. Rachel is an Artist in Residence for the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery where she leads the multifacited arts and wellbeing project, Here and Now, and a Social Prescribing programme for families. Rachel plays violin and piano, performing regularly.

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