Life at 1, 3, 5: disability

Background: this post is about the Life series that just finished airing on the ABC and which is affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Life at 1, Life at 3 and Life at 5 are available on ABC iView for a little while longer for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.

It’s not uniformly positive, but I was a bit more impressed with the handling of disability on Life than I was of breastfeeding or obesity. It’s quite possible I’m not as sensitised though.

As one would expect statistically, when you select eleven families and follow them for four years, there are several families with members who have illnesses or disability. Sofia’s father Anthony was treated for lymphoma just prior to Life at 1, so that’s only briefly treated and shown in a few still shots of baby Sofia visiting Anthony in hospital. Anthony is shown in hospital again briefly in Life at 5, receiving test results after a false recurrence scare. But the families who have members with disabilities during the series most prominently are Loulou’s and Daniel’s.

Daniel is the second child of Rodney and Kathryn, and in Life at 1 he is shown visiting his brother Jamie in hospital. Jamie was about three at the time and had a brain injury recently acquired in a near-drowning. He was almost always shown in Life at 1 and Life at 3 seated in a slightly reclined wheelchair, with little or no limb movement shown (in Life at 1 he is also shown in Kathryn’s arms in a couple of scenes, and once in bed with Daniel touching him). In Life at 3 he was described as also experiencing high levels of chronic pain, and at the end of the episode, there is a second segment returning to Daniel’s family for Jamie’s funeral (which was filmed and broadcast), as Jamie had died of pneumonia aged four and a half.

I was pleased that the circumstances of Jamie’s accident weren’t dwelt on very much (other than the fact that it occurred in a backyard pool, no details of the accident are given), it would have seemed trite to insert a long pool safety lesson. At least to me, the narration seemed generally to portray Jamie as a person in a family as did Jamie’s parents, although Rodney has a piece to camera in Life at 1 in which he discusses avoiding Jamie.

The main concern in Life at 1 with the treatment of Jamie was, to me, the extent of “what about Daniel?” about the portrayal. There’s quite a bit of “what about [child]?” in the discussion of the families generally. In this case it’s playing into a cultural narrative of concern about a disabled child focussing mainly on their abled sibling. The family themselves express some similar concerns, Rodney and Daniel’s grandmother more than Kathryn.

Kathryn is herself disabled, with a vision impairment. This is treated fairly neutrally: there are small sequences in Life at 1 showing her dressing Daniel by feel:

[Kathryn is pulling a red t-shirt over Daniel’s head.]

Narrator: Daniel will not only have to adapt to life with a disabled brother. His mother is completely blind in one eye.

Kathryn: Where’s your head?

Narrator: Over the past two months a cataract has formed on Kathryn’s good eye. Her sight is now extremely limited.

Kathryn: I can see but most of it is feel. Most of it’s my hands, knowing what to grab.

In Life at 5 she is shown teaching Daniel to help her with crossing roads and with bus travel. As is shown a little in the segment above, it’s again almost entirely considered in light of Daniel: is it a good challenge for his development, or too stressful?

Life at 3 Part One also describes disability. Both of Loulou’s parents have had depressive illness between Life at 1 and Life at 3, Louise’s is described as having grief following from miscarriages after Loulou’s birth and then post-natal depression and Shannon’s as an acute episode in a chronic condition related to a motorcycle injury.

There’s a moment of problematic framing in the discussion of Louise’s depression, in which a decision about medication is framed as the “brave” choice:

[A close-up of a cake being cut is shown.]

Narrator: By the time Loulou was one, Louise had been assessed for post-natal depression.

[Louise is shown in front of the cake, look around at adults attending Loulou’s birthday party.]

Louise: Everyone for cake? Yes?

Narrator: She was borderline, and the doctors recommended medication. But Louise bravely tried to soldier on and said no to the drugs.

Later, after Loulou begins childcare:

Narrator: The depth of her anxiety made it clear Louise needed help. She took her doctor’s advice and went on to anti-depressants. By the time Loulou turned two, Louise was back on track and emotionally stable.

Shannon’s acute depression episode occurred shortly after, and the narration leaves that alone more so that Shannon can himself consider the impact of his illness, although again at least the portion shown is largely “what about Loulou?”:

[Shannon, a pale-skinned man with close-cropped dark hair is shown speaking to camera inside a brick walled building with light coming in through the windows and surrounded by vehicle parts, where earlier he has been working on a motorbike.]

Shannon: That was a big step for me. “You have a mental illness, a depressive mental illness, that you will need to deal with and be conscious of and shield your daughter and your partner and and anyone else who could be collatoral damage from for the rest of your life.” That was tough. That was really tough.

What did you think? I think this could have been worse with either a more tragic air or the Fighting Fat episode’s constant refrain of “risk” but that this is still a particularly problematic area for the show to be keeping its tight focus on the particular impact on the abled child when talking about family members with disabilities.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 1: breastfeeding, Life at 3: obesity

Categories: health, media, parenting

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6 replies

  1. I agree that the focus on the impact on the abled child is problematic, but this is mostly a side effect of the show’s structure, isn’t it? The children chosen for the show are its protagonists, and everything that happens is pulled back to “but how does this affect X?” It does lead to some quite clumsy moments, but not all of these are to do with disability, (their handling of divorce, for instance, or the arrival of new siblings) and the show is at least consistent in its focus on these children above and beyond their families.
    One could, of course, ask why the children chosen for this experiment were all abled to begin with, when the show achieved diversity in some other areas.
    The bit about refusing medication for depression being a ‘brave’ choice did make me very cranky, though! The omission of that one word would have given a very different slant to the piece, and in fact distracted less from the key message that she was able to manage her illness with medical assistance.

  2. The bit about refusing medication for depression being a ‘brave’ choice did make me very cranky, though! The omission of that one word would have given a very different slant to the piece, and in fact distracted less from the key message that she was able to manage her illness with medical assistance.

    That whole thing about “bravely” refusing medication seems inextricably tied to the “just pull yourself together” school of dealing with mental illness. Makes me stabbity.

  3. I agree that the focus on the impact on the abled child is problematic, but this is mostly a side effect of the show’s structure, isn’t it?

    I agree that it’s consistent with its overall structure, I just think that while in many other cases it’s either understandable or merely annoying it’s actively troublesome in the case of disability. The impact on ethical storytelling around disability should have either caused more of a break from the “what about X?” style or modified their approach in the first place.
    In terms of overall diversity, there’s no child identified as having a disability during filming I think (Ben was critically ill for an extended period after birth), and the other one I really noticed was that there’s no child whose parents were in anything other than a different-genders partnership configuration at the opening of the series (although four of the couples have since split up), nor I think is there any child living with non-parental guardians or with extended family in the household at the beginning.

  4. Well, that comment about the bravery of refusing antidepressants certainly makes me feel all the braver for having chosen to take antidepressants. Grr.

    Great to see at least some representations of disability, though of course it could have been done better.

  5. My position on the whole depression thing is complicated – I’m the child of two parents who were (and still are) chronically depressed, and I’ve since developed chronic depression myself. On the one hand, I never really realised that my parents were depressed; as per the experience of most children growing up in unusual circumstances, the circumstances normalise themselves because the child doesn’t have anything to compare against (exacerbated, in my case, by the cheerful reality that depression was a multi-generational illness on both sides of the family). I didn’t really become aware of my parents mental illness as mental illnesses until I started developing the symptoms of depression myself; I was terrified I was going to wind up being locked up, but instead I was given the standard family lack-of-treatment of “buck up, soldier on, don’t let other people know there’s anything wrong” and effectively told it was part of being who I was. This attitude is why I didn’t seek medical assistance for my depression until I was in my late twenties, and didn’t ask for psych meds until I was about thirty and falling to pieces in a rather nasty fashion. I suspect if I’d been encouraged to speak to a doctor about my mental health issues when I was still a teenager, I may have wound up a little less self-destructive.
    One of the things I’ve come to realise over the years through my own experience of depression is that it’s rather like living with your own personal vampire, leeching the energy out of you. In my case, it makes me very self-centred and self-focussed – I spend most of my emotional energy on monitoring my emotional state and keeping an eye on the condition my condition is in. This, for me, is part of the reason why I chose not to have children in the first place. Growing up as a child of depressed parents, I now realise my parents depression (while not being either their fault or mine) robbed them of the emotional and physical resources to deal with my emotional needs. Again, this wasn’t their fault – heck, I look back over the family histories for both sides, and I can see a long trail of emotional neglect running into the distant past – and it wasn’t something they realised was hurtful either (because they grew up in the same sorts of circumstances… which as children they normalised). But it wasn’t something I was willing to make a child of mine undergo without their consent.
    It isn’t easy to seek help for depression when the social treatment of it is along the lines of “cheer up, buck up, don’t let it get you down” and seeking medication is seen as giving up or taking the easy out. I’m annoyed that the ABC is giving this view even a mild measure of support. No other metabolic or endocrine illness is regarded as something which can be overcome by willpower alone; no other course of medication for metabolic or endocrine illness is treated as being the “easy out”. Depression has a lot in common with diabetes – yes, it can be managed, in some cases, without any recourse to medication; but gods above, it’s so much easier for the patient if they’re given medication to help them out in the acute stages and allowed to make the decisions about whether or not to continue the medication after they’ve stabilised.

  6. Funnily enough I read the “brave” refusal of medication in a different way, as a sort of patronising assurance that “she’ll try this out, but she’ll make the right choice and take the medication eventually”.
    Maybe this was coloured by my reading of some of the other ways Louise had been framed along the way. The narration has been very sympathetic to the parents involved, but even then some of the representations have, to me at least, implied a value judgement of sorts. Louise has been seen as someone desperate to have a child with or without her partner, someone who “had been told” breastfeeding would be good for the baby and who is then seen in agony because of it. For me the implication has been that Louise does borderline reckless and dangerous things in her desperate pursuit to be the perfect mother, but that in the end she can always turn to modern science for a happy ending: an IVF baby, safe and non-traumatic formula feeding, medical treatment of mental illness…

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