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Artist Dawn Tan On Her Scary Start To Motherhood + Keeping Calm In The Time Of Corona

Family

When Dawn Tan took her baby to the emergency ward asking for help, a misunderstanding had her temporarily committed to a Mother & Child Unit for critically troubled mums. She spoke candidly about the experience, as well as the many ups and downs of the parenting ride. 

Dawn, her partner Darren and their baby Louie (1) welcomed us into their Yarraville oasis. The backyard features an honest-to-god yurt, where Dawn teaches art classes for kids (before the days of self-isolation were upon us!). 

27th March, 2020

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Photo – Sarah Collins.

Ashe Davenport
Friday 27th March 2020

Whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I want to acknowledge it. I feel, to become better parents, I need to let my emotions out, accept them, then move on’ – Dawn Tan. 

Dawn Tan is sunshine in human form. One only needs to glance at her watercolours of Care Bears, croissants and Iced VoVos to figure that out. She makes things that make people happy. And very, very hungry.

Anything’s possible in Dawn’s world. Take for example, her yurt out the back of her Yarraville home, where she teaches art classes. It had been a dream of hers to build one, so that’s exactly what she did. She’s a dreamer and pragmatist, which, objectively speaking, is an unstoppable combination of things. When self-isolation became a reality only a few days ago, Dawn pivoted straight away to offering art resources and classes online to help cooped up kids and parents.

We spoke on the phone on a rainy weekday. Dawn was in her car outside a cafe, inside of which Darren and baby Louie were kindly buying us time. I was struck by her honesty, generosity and strength, both in general and regarding a truly messed up situation. 

Dawn Tan for PM.

How are you guys coping with this whole Corona business?

We’re trying to keep calm and carry on! I guess we’re just going with it day by day because who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? A lockdown for a month? You never know!

Despite the uncertainty, we’ve chosen not to panic buy, as we figured we won’t be building any toilet paper + tinned food forts for protection. Instead, we’re choosing to try and keep things as normal as possible for Louie. I believe kids pick up on their parents’ anxiety, so we’re trying our best not to get too carried away with all the inaccurate social media reporting and political arguments. We’re upping our game with our sanitising regime and I’ve been wiping every surface down. I feel like I’m 38 weeks pregnant again, when my one sole mission was to clean down the entire house Hazmat-suit style! Call me crazy, but I actually do love cleaning.

What’s your parenting mantra?

Go with it. That’s our take. Darren and I made a conscious decision not to read any parenting books or download any of the (parenting) apps. All babies and kids are so different. There’s no ‘one size fits all.’ We figured we’d just wing it, and deal with the poop when the poop hits the fan.

Has it hit the fan? 

Oh yeah. Several times. It’s been a pooplosion. Late last year in particular. There was a lot of crying from all involved. A huge amount of stress. Basically I was sent to a psych unit. It’s a long story.

We have time, if you feel like sharing it.

Well, Louie had severe eczema. He still does. It’s been tricky to manage. In spring last year, it was the worst it had ever been, because it was his first exposure to hay fever season. I couldn’t handle it. He was five months old and just always crying, always screaming, all day and night from all the pain. His onesies and sheets were often stained with blood from scratching. Darren and I slept on either side of him so that we could pin one of his hands each, to try and stop more irritation. We finally took him to emergency one night after his entire torso turned bright red. We were provided with a treatment plan, but it stopped working after two weeks. So we went back. And that’s when it all turned upside down.

How so?

I broke down in emergency and cried my eyeballs out. In addition to seeing Louie in so much pain, an immediate family member had just been diagnosed with cancer and another faced a job loss. Being so far from family, it was hard. Long story short, a social worker told me I had severe postnatal depression and anxiety. I was told it was okay that I couldn’t cope, but that it was normal for babies to scream and cry a lot. I was confused because I knew my normally happy baby was screaming because he was in pain, and yet I was told to accept it.

I was then recommended a night at the psychiatric ward, but I refused to be away from Louie, so we ended up staying with him while he was seen for his eczema. An MRI and scans were ordered, but I wasn’t sure why. We were stuck at the hospital for a week. Turns out, Louie’s MRI was to rule out head trauma. Child protection services even got involved!

HUH?! On what grounds?

I was asked if I’d hurt Louie by a social worker, who thought I’d said, ‘Yes.’ That was it. I had to be placed under supervision and could not be alone with Louie. I couldn’t even feed him in peace. All throughout the week, I was made to believe I had completely lost it. I kept questioning myself and wondering how I ever let it get that bad. There was so much self-blame. It broke me. I was ‘strongly encouraged’ to check into a mother and baby unit. We were told it would be nice and gentle, “like a sleep school.” So we went.

We were promised a calm and nurturing environment, a space where I could chat through my ‘problems’. But it was far from what was promised! Turns out, the unit was for mothers who had been deemed a danger to themselves or their babies. There were no locks on doors. You could tell, everything was ‘suicide-proof.’ We were checked on every hour during the day and even at night, a flashlight came poking in through the door hourly!

I was told admission was voluntary, but it felt like all my rights got taken away the moment I entered. There were words like “applying for leave” and warnings of what would happen if I didn’t return. Sleeping pills were prescribed to “calm my anxiety.”  So yeah, the poop hit the fan, and by that stage, it was flinging everywhere.

How did you get out?

Eventually Darren got quite firm and insisted we speak with the head psychiatrist sooner rather than later. I also spoke to the admissions doctor prior to that, which was when we discovered the grossly inaccurate report. It was stated on my file that I’d hurt Louie, despite all the scans and checks coming back clear. Of course I didn’t hurt him!

Miraculously, I was fast-tracked to see the psychiatrist. And after all of five minutes she could see there had been a huge error. I’d been misdiagnosed. Any new mum would have had a total meltdown given the situation I was in… Simply put, I was under a tremendous amount of pressure, stress and coupled with the lack of sleep, I turned into an emotional wreck at Emergency. We were told to go home right away as being at the unit would do more harm for me mentally. Soon after, Child Protection Services came visiting and ended up apologising for all that had happened. They explained this was the first time in over 20 years that a case had escalated as quickly as mine! Lucky me!

What was the aftermath like?

We’re in the process of making a formal complaint now. It’s a tonne of paperwork, but we have a letter of support from the head psychiatrist, which should be helpful. It’s not a nice thing to have on my file, especially given that I’m a teacher. We’re just trying to stay positive. It happened, and we can’t change it. It can only make us stronger. We’re just so grateful for the two nurses at the crisis unit who could tell something was amiss with my report and advocated to have me discharged. And for all the nurses and pediatricians who took such great care of Louie and supported us.

Has the experience changed the way you seek support now?

Going to or even driving by the hospital can be quite triggering, but we tell ourselves if we are there, that we are there for Louie. So he can seek the best medical help possible. Fear aside, I still believe in speaking up. I always have. That’s why I spoke up in the first place. I think it’s really important to acknowledge and share what you’re going through. Especially if you need help. Mental health is so important and I believe the first step to helping ourselves is to speak up. Darren and I have an open and honest relationship. We share when we’re frustrated or pissed off about something. We have conversations all day long.

‘This too shall pass’ is a thing parents say when things are hard. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t like it. I know it ‘shall pass.’ Louie has lots of allergic reactions, some that have required ambulance rides to the hospital, and he still has severe eczema. He has flare ups almost every other week. Even a play with some tan bark or a walk on a mildly windy day can trigger an entire week’s worth of flare up. He’s never slept all that much from day dot. He’s a piglet who prefers cat naps and breastfeeds every few hours, 24/7. Needless to say, he’s never slept through the night. The one time he did, we thought Christmas had arrived! 

We count our blessings as we know we have it so good. We are so grateful that Louie is overall a healthy, happy and thriving baby. That said, some days are so hard. I cry my eyeballs out. Sometimes I even regret and question if I’ve ruined my life by becoming a Mum. Then I feel guilty that I’m not appreciating him more, and because I know not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to have kids.

Darren and I went through our own fertility journey with Endometriosis and tricky Fibroids. Louie’s our little miracle. So surely we should never ever feel frustrated about our new life as parents! But some days, it’s just so hard! People often tell me ‘This too shall pass’ but I see it as closing the door on what I’m feeling, and I don’t like that. Whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I want to acknowledge it. I feel, to become better parents, I need to let my emotions out, accept them, then move on. There’s the good days and the bad. The ups and downs – It’s all part of parenting!

Family Favourites

Favourite at home family activity?

Snuggling in bed solving a Rubik’s cube – Louie’s favourite toy. Hah!

Sunday morning breakfast?

Pancakes with lots of berries and honey!

Go-to album?

We’re classical music nerds. We like old school jazz classics too, Etta James or Frank Sinatra.

From today, every Friday, Dawn will be releasing a FRIDAY FREEBIE FUN Art Lesson on her Instagram TV / Facebook page. Simple, easy to follow along videos for all ages. More great stuff will be released next week, and you can purchase art supplies from Dawn’s online store!

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net