This week, we present two stories of learning experiences connected to early childhood, from an expert in maternal and infant health discovering the reality behind her research to a first-grader striving to be one of the "smart kids."
Part 1: Psychologist Amy Brown researches maternal and infant health, but when she has a child of her own, she’s confronted with the reality behind the research.
Dr. Amy Brown is an Associate Professor in Child Public Health at Swansea University where she researches experiences of becoming a mother, particularly around how babies are fed. She has published widely in how social, cultural and psychological barriers can damage breastfeeding and subsequently maternal wellbeing. Amy is fascinated by how culture defines motherhood, through pressurising mothers to have it all and enjoy ‘every precious moment’, whilst simultaneously devaluing their role. She also has three children of her own and switches between hearing women’s tales about becoming a mother and experiencing it first hand herself. Sometimes life feels like one long never ending ethnographic research project but offers her insight into these complex issues.
Part 2: As a first-grader, Cassie Soliday finds her coveted spot in the gifted class is at risk.
Cassie Soliday is The Story Collider's LA-based producer. In addition to being a producer, she is a writer, comic artist, and the love child of a poet and a parrot head. She's an advocate for women in the arts and produces two podcasts, 'Ink and Paint Girls' and 'Jammiest Bits of Jam'. Afflicted with wanderlust and the desire to run away with the cat circus, she has three great and terrible ideas that could get her fired so she could do so. She lives and works in California making cartoons. She is @cassiesoli and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 1: Amy Brown
So last night, about ten o’clock, I was sat on the sofa drinking a glass of champagne because this is how all good stories start, I think. The reason for the champagne was it my eight-year-old daughter’s birthday. Finally, she’d had a present. We’d got her into bed. It was all all right. I could finally sit down and start thinking about my talk for today.
So I had my glass of champagne in one hand and in the other hand I had my phone and I was Googling stuff, because I just wanted to check that I had things right. Because when I was asked to do this, I thought I've got a brilliant idea of what I could talk about. And I was thinking about this idea of life imitating art and art imitating life, but actually swapping that for science. So life imitating science, science imitating life.
This kind of becomes more apparent when I tell you a bit about myself. I’m a psychologist by background. I work in public health at the moment, but I've always explored why we do what we do, why we make the choices.
And the people around me, the people I work with, it’s quite novel, I think, working with human behavior because, unlike a lot of other disciplines, people often come to it quite late in life. They've often had experiences or they've had a different career and something has happened to them which has made them want to go into research.
So, for example, perhaps they had a parent who had dementia and they had a really tough time trying to get the right services for them. So I had colleagues who would come into academia to do that research to try and give those people a voice, to try and highlight the need for those services.
Now, as a psychologist by background, I have particular interests around developmental psychology, which is all about babies and how they developed. I also liked health psychology and clinical psychology, which was very much about well-being and health. So anxiety, depression, your identity, how you're a healthy person.
So these are my interests and I combined them with my undergraduate degree. I went into teaching, teaching psychology students, teaching childhood study students. And there I was, the academic there, teaching these things.
I would teach about what it was like to give birth without having given birth myself, what it was like to be a mother, what it was like to become a mother. And I would do these lectures, you know, This is how your baby should sleep. This is what your baby should eat. I was kind of like the ultimate expert, shall we say, in how to look after your child and how to be a mother. Because we all know, don’t we, you can just go and read the research articles and they'll tell you what this is really like.
And I would see my colleagues and they would be researching their own experiences, perhaps about their childhood autism or about how their parent had had dementia. I’m thinking, isn’t this and that valuable? Isn’t that lovely? They can really see the insight.
And I was missing that. I thought, well, wouldn’t it be lovely once I've had a baby, I'll be able to see how experience really matches my science.
So go back ten years, I just had my first baby. It was like any experience of becoming a mother. What you said to people wasn’t necessarily what it was like at all. I mean, when you have a baby, there is this strange almost public grouping of you, in a way, in that people think you can walk down the street and when you're pregnant they'll literally touch you, which is strange in itself. I mean, try it with someone who’s not pregnant, come and rub your stomach. No, don’t.
But they seem to kind of ask all about your life. You go to Tesco’s and you've got your baby in the buggy and you're completely sleep deprived, and someone will start asking you questions. Favorite one is always, “Is he good?” which means is he sleeping. No.
But you don’t tell them that. You say, “Oh, yes, he's so good. Yes, he's sleeping.” You lie because a good mother has a sleeping baby. You don’t want to not be a good mother.
And the favorite one is when complete strangers come up to you in Tesco’s and say, “Aren’t you lucky? This is the best thing that will ever happen to you.” What’s the other one? “Cherish those precious moments.” And, yes, put them aside.
So fast-forward a few months again. I always used to nod, by the way. Yes, yes. Best thing that’s ever happened. Wonderful, wonderful.
So I went back to work and I went back to my lecturing. And of course, absolutely everything had changed. I looked at my slides and I thought, Wow. This is something completely different.
One of the more amusing examples is that I used to teach about how you don’t need all these expensive toys for babies. You can give them some pots and pans and they'll bang about with them. They don’t need these expensive things. And of course then I had absolutely every expensive gadget there was.
But the part I really want to focus on, and obviously so much has happened in the last ten years, but the part I really want to focus on was when I was talking about these lectures about becoming a mother and about maternal well-being and about how mothers really felt. I got my slides up about postnatal depression and I'd read them out and I'd say, “Well, you know, fifteen percent of mothers have postnatal depression.”
But it’s suggested that perhaps the figures are higher because not every woman tells somebody that she had postnatal depression. And the little quirk there was that I was that woman with postnatal depression. I had had a hideous time after the birth, and I'd kind of kept going, kept going. And I'd come back and seen these slides and it was like some kind of surreal reality. I was reading them thinking, I've not told a soul. Well, I’d told my health visitor and I'd literally told about two friends. Otherwise, I'd absolutely, completely buried it.
Suddenly, I was that academic who was plunged into her own research experience but kind of the other way around. I'd become almost the science I taught, and it was such a strange experience.
So we’d read these slides about all these women not telling anybody and I'd say, “Well, people don’t tell their doctor because they're worried that someone would take the baby away.” And I'd know, really deep inside me, that that’s why I wouldn’t tell anybody -- because if somebody knew what a terrible mother I was, then somebody who would come and take my baby, wouldn’t they? But don’t let on to the students. Just keep smiling here. You know, just keep swimming.
Then we’d get to the next slide and we’d talk about the symptoms of postnatal depression. If you don’t know too much about it, it kind of has its similarities with depression, but actually there are some quite specific symptoms. The media would make you think that, postnatal depression, you don’t want to be a mother, you don’t love your baby, you don’t want them. But actually, often with postnatal depression, your baby is the most important thing in the world to you, but you think you're not good enough for them.
Two of the main symptoms, one of the main symptoms was anxiety. And there I was, people always used to say to me, “You're superwoman. I don't know how you do this. You're doing your PhD. You've got a tiny baby. You're really coping, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yes, it’s easy.” “Yeah, you know, you just carry on.” Whilst, inside, I was that person who, midway around my Tesco shop, would have to abandon my shop and run from the store because I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so anxious, the world was closing in.
And they talk about symptoms of complete sadness, feeling like you had a loss. I did the sadness. It was a feeling that you just could not stop crying because you'd lost something and you couldn’t figure out what it was. And the worst bit was when someone was nice to you.
I always remember the particular breakdown I had in Marks & Spencer’s, by the cheese. Because if you're going to have a breakdown, you know, this is not just any breakdown. This is a Marks & Spencer’s breakdown, and every time I see a Marks & Spencer’s advert…
But what happened was the public were doing their usual thing of coming over to it and admiring the baby, because they ignore you once you've had the baby. It’s all about them, not you.
So this older couple came over to me and the man was playing with my son in his pram. The woman turned to me and she said, “What about you? How are you feeling? It’s really tough, isn’t it?” And I just collapsed… I burst into tears and I was sobbing by the cheese in Marks & Spencer’s. And this poor woman, because I ran away from her, I really hope one day I meet her again and say I’m sorry.
But the irony of it that there I was, as the academic, telling everybody about postnatal depression when deep inside that was me, and it was this just strange colliding of worlds. My academic knowledge and then my real knowledge, it was almost like a film script written out for me.
One more example was when I turned to the next slide and they were talking about predictors of postnatal depression. You know, in psychology, you have the checklists. If you go on Google, you can diagnose yourself with absolutely anything you like really with these checklists. But you'd read down the checklist and you're like, “Oh, dear. This is me. Yes, keep going.”
And one of the ones was partner support. Ten years on about, we joke about this. It’s in all my lectures. But I remember going to the GP finally and then talking about it, and her saying, “Look, you really need some support from your partner. You really, really need this or you're going to end up really, really ill.”
So I talked to my husband and I said, “Look, I really, really need this support.” He said, “Right. I'll book a week off work.” He booked the workweek off work, and you know the science stereotyping slightly, but women like to talk about things and men like to do practical things to help. Well, he booked the week off work and he built me a patio. When I said to him, “Why are you building a patio?” he said, “Because it would make you happy.” To be fair, I've been divorced a while and the patio is still there so it’s that.
But it’s very… quite shiny, you see. And he's not underneath it, before you ask. But it’s his world.
And when Rosie asked me, “Do you want to take part in this event?” I kind of had a thought. I think and I thought, But what am I going to talk about? And I thought, I know what I'll do. I'll stand up in a roomful of people and tell them about the postnatal depression I had ten years ago, because I've never told anybody.
Ten years of academic teaching. Twice a year, every year, I do a session on postnatal depression. Nobody would have a clue. And it’s this idea that we never know really what’s going on underneath the surface, and this idea just of the science mimicking life and life mimicking science and it all being so intertwined, and the idea that if you speak to most academics they often really have a personal story underneath. It isn’t necessarily so personal as this that you end up in the research, but what led them there, what has become of them because of it, and the experiences that they have.
So not wanting to end it on such a miserable note as depression, obviously, things are fine now, honestly. I’m now doing lots of work around supporting women with postnatal depression. We’re doing a great project where we use creativity, poetry, creative writing to get women to actually talk about their experiences and get their voice out there and say, This is honestly how I feel. This is who I am. I don't need to hide it. And that in itself is going to be turned into research papers, which I'll present in the lectures. It seems to be sort of this ongoing cycle of life and science, and science and life, and motherhood And it continues to create itself. But whenever I meet a scientist now, I think, what got you here? What’s your personal story? And I think certainly tonight, I’m not the only one who’s going to tell you something like this. And thank you for letting me talk to you, really.
Part 2: Cassie Soliday
So I have a lot of fears in life, one being public speaking; two, the weeping angels from Doctor Who; and probably the silliest of all of them is that I’m afraid of being called stupid. It doesn’t matter if I know the person or not, I’m just so afraid after anything I say that six-letter word is going to leave their mouth and come and slap me in the face.
There's way cooler fears to have in life. So I thought back. I was like, why did this even start? And for me, emotion is like a time machine, that if I can remember how I felt in a certain moment, I can remember incredible details.
So I thought back and narrowed it down to a series of events that happened to me in first grade when I was six years old. To give you some insight into my six-year-old world, here are some of the most important things to me.
Seeing long mathematical equations fill a college-ruled notebook. I would get these huge math books from the library and copy all these math problems and then I would flip to the back of the book and copy all the answers. I had no idea what I was doing, what it meant. I just knew it looks so good on paper. And I would show it off to my teachers and friends just waiting for that beautiful compliment: “Oh, you are so smart.”
I also loved carrying around my dad’s encyclopedias. When my parents would take me to our tiny, tiny library in southern Illinois -- it’s smaller than this room, I kid you not -- I’d get their biggest book. And I don’t mean big as in like the pages, but it literally looked like this book was walking down the street when I carried it.
I wished that every day was star lab and that my name was Cassiopeia. I had a big imagination and a big love for how smart things looked.
So you can imagine when I got into the gifted program in first grade I was ecstatic. I was so excited and happy. Some of the prerequisites for getting in this gifted class was you don’t pee or poop your pants anymore, you only speak when you're spoken to, and you had to be smart the top of your class, a.k.a. me. I didn’t know how to tie my shoes yet, but that was totally me.
There were five of us in this class, and every day at 1:45 p.m. the gifted teacher, Ms. Beth, would come and escort us from our normal first grade class and into a small room with no windows. I loved this because we were leaving those other first-graders behind in that normal class and we were going to the special gifted class. I felt like the other four students in this class are my best friends and that we were bonding over our growing brains. Those other students were just learning how to write a sentence and what that meant.
But one day in gifted class Ms. Beth announces that we’re going to have an exam, a qualifying exam. Let me be more specific. A timed qualifying exam. And if you didn’t make over eighty percent you’d be removed from the class.
But I was not worried. I was a little concerned for Trevor. If anyone wasn’t going to make it into the next level of first-grade academia, it was going to be Trevor and his camouflage hunting pants.
So the day comes and we take this test and I whizzed through it… because I didn’t know most of the answers. So I go back through it and I read all the questions very slowly, looking for context clues. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t know these because I was so smart. Everyone said so.
And there is this one question I remember. It was, “If you have six pirate ships in a lake and you remove two, how many do you have left?” It occurred to me that this was a trick question because it had said that it was in a lake, but pirate ships belong in the ocean.
So I take my number-two pencil and I cross out “lake” and write “ocean” above it, and then I write a little note to my teacher to the side. Then the answer comes to me, Oh, four.
So I go through all the questions thinking that they were trick questions and I still get done before all the other students. I felt guilty because my friends would never think to question the questions. I had come into this treasure chest of information that I cannot speak of or share.
So time’s up. Pencil’s down. We hand in our tests. And because there's only five of us, Ms. Beth is able to grade them really quickly and hand them back.
I’m holding my test and there's a flood of red ink all over it. There's huge Xs through my little notes to her with the word “No” and an exclamation point beside it. I had got a sixty percent, the lowest grade out of all five of us. Even Trevor got an eighty-two.
So the next day, around 1:45, when Ms. Beth comes to get our smarty pants clan, I tried to leave with them hoping that everyone forgot that I failed the test. And my normal teacher tells me to sit back down and that I will not be joining them anymore. In front of my friends in the gifted class, and in front of those dummies in the first grade class.
I was embarrassed. I had to see my best friends leave everyday at 1:45 after that. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, and I felt really stupid. I even tried to make excuses that I couldn’t see the blackboard, that I couldn’t see the test. And my parents, being good parents, take me to the eye doctor and he tells them that I’m lying, that I have twenty/twenty vision. But at least in glasses I would have looked smart.
Even worse than this, the school realized that I had a speech impediment. So they threw me into an even smaller room with no windows with a speech therapist and another kid that could barely form words. We spent hours on end rolling our Rs, learning the difference between wiver and river, and clenching out teeth together to make T sounds. “T-T-T-T.” I definitely felt stupid.
So what do I do now? asked my six-year-old self. That’s around the time when everyone is asking, “What are you going to do?” Like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t know because I wanted to be smart and do something smart. I didn’t really know what that would be, but I knew that it was no longer for me, I guess.
To cheer me up, my parents took my little brother and I to opening day of Toy Story, Thanksgiving 1995. I remember sitting in between my parents with a bag of popcorn on my lap. And the first time that I saw Woody blink and come alive, I was floored. I was just amazed. This very normal toy… like I have toys at home so it really threw me that something so normal could have a life, and here, all these toys are running around. Were my toys running around right now at home?
I basically knew two things after I saw Toy Story. One, that I wanted to be an animator, and, two, we needed to get home as soon as possible so I could catch my Care Bears jumping on my bed.
I had always loved cartoons and to doodle and draw, but I'd never really given it any merit. I always thought that, Oh, we’re reinforced to be smart so that must be what you need to do. But after this, seeing all those credits of the people who worked on that movie, I knew that that was an option.
So I really took that on as my identity. I grew up being known as the artsy girl, the girl who wanted to be an animator and work for Disney. What being an animator entails is really looking at life and then recreating it in this 2-D space and this 2-D world, and I really loved that.
So I’m never going to be able to make my own math problems in a college-ruled notebook or get through a long, thick book without falling asleep on page two, but someone has to draw silly cats in top hats and monocles. It took seeing a cowboy doll push a space ranger action figure out the window and go through this incredible journey to learn that there was room in the world for both. Thank you.