‘He’s the reason I sought that help’


By Casey Neill

Becoming a mum was the push Penny Moodie needed to take a step forward in controlling her OCD.

In her book The Joy Thief, the Melbourne author said she’d always wanted kids and thought her husband, The Resilience Project’s Hugh van Cuylenburg, would make “an incredible dad”.

During her first pregnancy, Penny’s obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) simmered down to what she described as a ceasefire.

But when Benji, now age 7, arrived the battle recommenced.

Penny told Kids that a desire to be more present for her son made her seek help from a therapist with experience in OCD and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.

“That was all driven by my desire to be a better parent,” she said.

“He’s the reason I sought that help.”

Penny gave birth to daughter Elsie about six weeks before the Covid pandemic hit, and third child Patrick while writing The Joy Thief.

“In some ways it was cathartic,” she said of writing the book.

“It was therapy in a way, and therapy doesn’t always feel good.

“I was nervous putting it out there.

“There’s plenty of information out there about OCD but not so much lived experience.”

Penny said we can often look too hard for silver linings when it comes to mental illness, but her OCD does help her to be a more empathetic parent.

On the flipside, she’s very aware of exposing her children to her illness.

“I fail at it all the time,” she said.

“I’m sure I’m constantly anxious in front of my kids.”

Penny’s also “a little too vigilant” with her children’s mental wellbeing, as is Hugh.

“We can be hyperaware,” she said.

“I think it’s probably better than being completely oblivious to it.

“I do worry if my child’s displaying signs of OCD and I start feeling guilty. There is a genetic component to it.

“If my kids do end up having OCD I feel like I’ll be in a good position to help them.”

Penny and Hugh speak very openly about mental health with their kids.

“My husband and I both talk a lot about seeing our worry doctor, which is our psychologist, and try to normalise talking to someone about your feelings,” she said.

“I think that can be really helpful. It’s just that general awareness.

“My son was really angry at something a few months ago and said something like ‘I’m going to think of every swear word I can’.

“I told him ‘You can think whatever you want to think. No thoughts are bad. Saying it would be different, that would be another thing, but you can actually think whatever you want to think’.

“We had that conversation.

“From such a young age, whether you have OCD or not, you can worry that certain thoughts can be bad or make you a bad person.

“To have that conversation with him was really important and made me more aware for my daughter and my younger son as well.

“Maybe if I hadn’t gone through all this I wouldn’t have been aware of these conversations.”

Speaking of conversations – Penny and Hugh spoke openly on his podcast The Imperfects about their efforts to better balance the mental load in their household.

Penny said it was an ongoing convesrtation.

“I think often we think if we bring something up and we talk about how important it is and we make a plan then it’s going to improve straight away,” she said.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience from both sides, and a lot of willingness to revisit it and reevaluate.

“I was so motivated to do it because I really didn’t want my daughter and two sons to absorb this – live in a household where it’s normal for Mum to be doing all the household tasks while Dad goes off to work.

“I really wanted them all to be seeing us trying to divide it up where we can.”

Alongside the weight of the mental load, Penny was also unprepared for how fun parenthood would be.

“Everyone tells you it’s going to be the biggest slog of your life – and it is – but from the get-go, the fun side of it, seeing these little people develop this personality from such a young age and seeing how that changes and evolves – that’s just so much fun,” she said.

“Kids kind of ground you so much and remind you of little things that are so important.”

Benji recently commented that the world was magic following a discussion about dinosaurs and evolution.

“As adults, we forget how fascinating the world is,” Penny said.

“Every now and then being reminded of that’s really beautiful.”

Parents can find OCD resources at soocd.com.au.