Parenting in general is difficult. There is a real struggle to find a harmonious balance between your needs and those of your child(ren). Sometimes it seems more impossible than a difficult task.
Those parents who are simultaneously coping with mental illness tend to see those struggles amplified.
The fact that I never wanted children is not unknown. To anyone. It threatened to be a hurdle in the early stages of my relationship with my (now) husband. His life long dream was to be a father. To have a family.
As we grew in our relationship things changed. He assured me this difference between us would not be a “deal breaker” and we would be happy together. Just the two of us.
…riding nowhere, spending someone’s hard earned pay…
After my first miscarriage (a pregnancy we found out about as it was ending) something in me shifted.
Traumatized by the whole ordeal (which included but was not limited to a great deal of hemorrhaging at work, less than gentle health care professionals, and many, many invasive procedures), I was scarred by the experience but also the vacancy I now felt both in my womb and my heart.
We were not actively trying to have children. In fact, I had been told long before our meeting that it was simply not in the cards for me. Which had been fine because I didn’t see myself as mommy.
Then, after unrelated surgery, we discovered I was pregnant (again). It was exciting and terrifying all at once, as I am sure it is for most soon-to-be parents. So many questions begin swirling…
What will it be like? What kind of diapers will we use? Do they really poop green?
However, my life with mental illness had me asking different questions…
Is it fair to the baby? Is it right? Should I even fucking be doing this?
When I was pregnant I read some horrific things about parenting with mental illness. Part of why I am so vocal now about my illnesses is to abolish the stigma surrounding those of us living with them.
The things I had read exacerbated those initial fears and feelings, causing some significant emotional trauma. The things I read caused me to very seriously question whether I should have the baby, making those first three months of pregnancy especially difficult. The things I read were incredibly and unfairly skewed.
From the moment I found out I was pregnant I was engulfed by guilt.
To be totally honest, I felt completely unworthy of the healthy life inside of me. Instead of being joyful I was doubtful and felt horribly uncertain of the choice we had made.
Often times I would question whether it was fair to the baby I was carrying.
These thoughts were then compounded by the fact that I also live with several chronic physical conditions, including Type 1 Diabetes. Anyone living with chronic/severe/mental illness will find times where functioning is compromised. While that is expected and normal, I wondered…
…would it be fair? Would my mental and physical illnesses cause parenting shortcomings?
I worried that my anxiety issues and depression would be passed down, thus inflicting my child with the same turmoil and torment as myself. In addition to not wanting to turn out like my bio-mother, my mental illnesses, and worry about passing them on, was why I did not want children.
Studies have shown time and again that children respond most positively to consistency.
Well, I’m fucked.
The ebbs and flow of my mental illnesses would most certainly disrupt this. And they did. They have. And every time it happens I am once again engulfed by guilt, left questioning whether I should even be a parent.
Navigating parenthood with anxiety and PDD have been interesting. Comprehension and age have eased the tension surrounding discussion, but the latter has proven more difficult to tackle.
My now ten year old son has been privy to several anxiety attacks. Most of which came as a result of my needle phobia (and before I switched to an insulin pump) but also a number that were the result of me being overwhelmed. In very big ways. In very public spaces.
We have discussed what anxiety struggles I have, how they effect my life and ability to do things, and what I/we can do to navigate overwhelming situations. He has some mild anxiety too so he has come to understand it in a more complete way.
PDD is a little more complicated. At least helping him understand it has proven to be a more mountainous climb.
I have had several episodes where my parenting has come via moans and grunts on the couch (me not him) and him spending an entire day in front of the television, left to fend for himself (while my husband is at work), because I’ve been rendered useless and unable to move due to either a physical episode or a mental one. I worry that one day he will look back and remember these moments, and I worry about what kind of burden they will levy.
I also worry because my episodes of depression often result in poorer overall health and many times have caused me to leave employment and/or be hospitalized.
How do you set a good example when you consistently have bad days?
The grey zone is a good introductory narrative. We explained to him that while mommy has really good days, sometimes for long stretches of time, she mostly feels grey. And sometimes those feelings become bigger than her (me) leaving her exhausted. And sad.
When he was in school those days, weeks, months were easier to hide. If I couldn’t scramble it together for school pick up, my husband would do it solo. If my husband was at work, I would make sure I left in time to be on time, but never early for fear of interaction with others.
Then he left the public school system (pre-pandemic, I should add) due to varying circumstances. And those days, weeks, months became more difficult to hide.
And came with greater amounts of guilt. And now had real consequences – I was responsible for his schooling and “off” days are beyond challenging.
This new territory highlighted the importance of disclosure.
Out in the Open
Depending on age, situation, comprehension having a conversation about your illness will give your child(ren) insight. It will promote understanding. And, ultimately, it will help them cope better.
If your child(ren) are left in the dark about the situation it will give rise to confusion. This is especially true in instances of invisible illness. When my son was little and we would tell him mommy was sick, he would look at us perplexed, often times asking, “why isn’t she barfing?”
Secrecy can fuel a child’s own stress and anxiety. Most children are wildly imaginative. Left to their own devices, they can spin some equally wild tales about what is going on and it is often times never the truth.
Disclosure promotes understanding on multiple levels. It encourages questions and forces both sides to examine the situation from new angles.
I have avoided relationships in past fearing the other party would grow to resent me because of my illnesses, both mental and physical. They can be quite consuming, both of my time and my person.
I am terrified that one day my son will grow up and begrudge me.
I also worry that my episodes of depression may create a disconnect between my son and I, because I am not available 100% of the time. The constant buzz in my head and occasional need to emotionally vacate make that impossible.
I was petrified that I wouldn’t have the capacity to love a baby, and spent most of the first year wrestling with my emotions.
I was parenting mostly alone (my husband was working long hours, far away). I struggled with breast-feeding only to find out it wasn’t in the cards for me and then a trip to Sick Kids Hospital confirmed the little fella had a milk allergy (something I assumed and others dismissed). My blood sugars were wildly out of sorts and I was physically exhausted.
All. The. Fucking. Time.
I still worry he doesn’t know just how loved he is. Those episodes feel so much bigger (to me) than all the “good” times in between them.
I hope the take away from our many discussions will help to normalize our situation and mental illness. So that he will have a greater compassion for others.
Another Day is a New Day
Living with mental illness doesn’t make you a bad parent. It can make the day-to-day more difficult and challenging. But that doesn’t make you bad. Neither does needing a little extra help.
Yet, there is still a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding mental illness. People awkwardly acknowledge the mention but deny the discussion. And often it is masked with the term mental health (not the same).
Mental illness isn’t temporary. It cannot be rectified with optimistic thoughts or a changed mindset. It is the result of something changed in the mind.
People with mental illness are still marginalized and vilified. I don’t want my son to grow up thinking poorly of me because of how mental illness is portrayed in the media. Or because he witnesses a bad day now and then.
I want him to know that I try my absolute best, seek help when needed, and love him. More than anything. I love him.
And that my mental illness doesn’t define me as a person. Or as a parent.
I hope one day doors will be opened for people like me to honestly discuss our experiences. Absent of shame and judgement. If we allow for explanation we give opportunity for understanding.
When my son was born, I entered into a role I never imagined having and one I was definitely unprepared for. It has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life.