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Parenting, Depression, and PTSD: Parenting with Mental Illness

I talk to my sister Catherine nearly every day. Today she’s here to talk to you – about her experience parenting while living with depression and PTSD. I love having Catherine as my sister – she is witty, caring, and insightful. And I am grateful that she is willing to share her story on a sensitive topic that touches homes around the world.


On Tuesday afternoons I take my toddler to a friend’s house and drive myself, my baby and a diaper bag filled with matchbox cars and yogurt melts to therapy. In the waiting room I dodge my 8 month old’s attempts to snatch my pen as I mark, on a scale of “never” to “almost always” answers to questions like: “In the last week, how often have you… Felt tense or nervous? Had thoughts of hurting yourself? Had a hard time getting along with friends or family?” Marking “never” is a rare experience for me. My name is Catherine; I’m a stay-at-home mom to two darling boys, and I am parenting with mental illness.

My diagnoses are depression and PTSD; both existed before I became a mother, and both have been exacerbated by traumatic birth experiences, the relentless ache of sleep deprivation and the constant stress of trying to meet the needs of young children who need more emotional and physical support than I feel able to give.

I often feel inadequate as I try to simultaneously soothe my own pain and my children’s. I worry about the impact my mental illness has on them and I wonder if they might be better off with a different mother, one who wouldn’t have panic attacks over doctor visits or feel irrationally angry at their need for near-constant physical contact, but I have great hope that they, and I, will be ok. Here are some things that help me keep that hope alive:

Parenting with Mental Illness

I don’t try to be perfect. 

I try to be a gentle, affectionate, validating and understanding parent,  but I also give myself space to be human. Aiming for perfection is a guaranteed way to feel like a failure, so I try to be realistic about my limits and to parent within them. Although I love the idea of parenting without TV and unhealthy snacks, my toddler watches Thomas the Train and eats goldfish crackers almost every day. It’s not perfect parenting, but it’s the best I can do. Similarly, I don’t wear my children in baby carriers as much as they would like even though I believe there are many benefits to babywearing, because sometimes I really need to not be touched by anyone, even my sweet children. I’ve come to accept that when particular parenting methods cause me a lot of stress, they are usually not good for my family even if they work wonderfully for other families.

I let myself feel what I feel. 

Noticing and processing my emotions helps me regulate them. Learning about and practicing mindfulness and validation–observing and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment and without feeling pressured to take action–helped me with this.

I let my children see me struggle. 

I talk about how I am feeling and what things I find difficult. I’m modeling emotional processing and regulation for them and helping them learn to talk about their own feelings and difficulties in life. These are skills that are important for anyone but may prove especially important for my children given the family history of depression.

I try to share my best times with my children. 

My children will inevitably remember some of my bad days, but I try to make the good days memorable too by focusing my energy and resources on providing my children with positive family experiences.

I remember that having bad thoughts doesn’t make me a bad person. 

My first instinct when I am overwhelmed by anxiety or depression is violence. Some of my thoughts are ugly and scary, and it would be easy to feel like I am a bad person because I have violent thoughts. I remind myself that those thoughts are depression talking, and depression is not the boss of me.

I make time for self care. 

For me, that often means using nap time to relax or read even though there’s laundry to fold and dishes to wash. It means taking a bath alone after the kids go to bed. It means always having chocolate on hand. It means finding ways to engage my intellect and excite my soul. I am a happier person and a better parent when I nurture myself as an individual.

I respect my limitations. 

I avoid taking my kids to doctor appointments without my husband there because I know I’m likely to get triggered. I try to monitor my stress level and take steps to protect my children when I feel I am losing control. Sometimes this means calling my husband and asking him to come home from work. Sometimes it means putting the kids in the stroller and going for a walk. Sometimes it means leaving a crying baby in a safe place while I step away to cool down.

I use lots of tools and get lots of help. 

I get support from my husband. I go to therapy. I take medication when needed. I get support and encouragement from online mom groups. I call family and friends who I know will empathize when I am having a hard time coping with my kids. I put my toddler in the free childcare offered at church on Sundays and sometimes take him to the play place at Fred Meyer’s during the week. I do babysitting exchanges with a friend and also hire teenage babysitters. I read about parenting and about psychology, and work to apply the ideas I read about.

I remember that everything I do for my mental health benefits my children. 

I put a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of work into improving my mental health. I do it because it’s not just my well-being in the balance, it’s my children’s. My babies need me to be healthy enough to enjoy their childhood, to laugh and play with them, stable enough to soothe their tantrums and rock them to sleep. As they grow older, I hope that they will learn ways to process and regulate their emotions as they watch me work to process and regulate my own.

Mental illness complicates my life, but it doesn’t define me as a parent or as a person. If you are struggling as a parent with mental illness, try to be kind to yourself; you are fighting a hard battle. Reach out for help. Do it for yourself, and do it for your children. If you can, lean for a moment on the hope I hold, hope that with help and time and love and effort, you and I and all of our children will be ok.

Catherine is a crunchy feminist living in Portland, OR with her husband and two sons. She enjoys rock climbing, friendly debate, reading about parenting and psychology, and taking pictures of her kids. 

Read other posts from the Perfectly Imperfect: Parenting with Mental Illness Blog Carnival: 

  • the bipolar mom Andie from Crayon Freckles explores how living with bipolar disorder affects motherhood and the perceptions of those around her. She also shares what she’s doing to combat the stigma that mental illness carries. Find more from Andie on her blogFacebookTwitter and Pinterest
  • Parenting with Depression PlayDrMom, Laura Hutchison, PsyD, LP, RPT/S, shares her personal story about her lifetime struggle with depression spanning childhood through parenthood. She hopes that with her post others may recognize similarities in their own lives (or the lives of their children) and not feel alone or helpless in their own struggles. She also writes a guest post on A Healthier Michigan about the importance of talking about mental illnesses in hopes to help end the stigma. With openness of discussing the subject people will feel more comfortable with seeking help and continuing treatment. 
  • Attachment Parenting for Introverts Can an introverted, anxious, depressed mom still practice Attachment Parenting? Believe it or not, with the right amount of planning and forethought, it might actually be possible. Find more from Prickly Mom on her blogFacebook, and Pinterest
  • I’m Ready to Share: Mental Illness and Parenting Erin from RoyalBaloo.com talks about mental illness, how it effects her as a parent, and what parenting with mental illness means to her. She discusses some common myths regarding Bipolar and gives advice to what to say/not to say to a parent with mental illness. Erin is a mother to 3 boys who blogs about parenting and their homeschooling journey. Find more from her on her blog,  FacebookPinterest, and Twitter.  

If you would like to share this carnival, you can use the hashtag #EndStigma

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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

29 thoughts on “Parenting, Depression, and PTSD: Parenting with Mental Illness”

  1. What a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing this. I am a stay at home mom to an 18 month old, and I’m coping with General Anxiety Disorder, as well as huge sensory issues. I can totally relate to not wanting to be touched all the time. Will be referring back to this post often.

  2. I stumbled upon this today…as a single parent who struggles with PTSD after 8 years of domestic violence this is what I needed to see..I am human and I am NOT alone, so THANK YOU

  3. This is great! Mental health is a continuum and all moms have times of anxiety, depression, joy,so this post speaks to all women. Catherine also sounds healthier than many moms who have no comparable self-insight and I bet because of this she helps her kids to develop secure and sensitive people. I was drawn to this article having been diagnosed with PTSD and have never met another Mom with this. My symptoms are mild, but I know I have struggled with fears about encouraging anxiety in my own children and trying to not pass on my issues. Hearing another mom talk from this perspective has made e realize that self awareness is a good thing.

  4. Thanks for sharing — these are challenging but very important ideas and strategies for many moms (and non-moms). Some thoughts/responses:

    1. I think not trying to be perfect is key. Research shows that “good enough” parenting is beneficial for kids’ development — perhaps even more so than “perfect” parenting, which might not allow kids the freedom to be themselves imperfect;

    2. My guess is that the kids will remember the love/affection the most, and it’s wonderful that Catherine is doing so much to take good care of herself so they do not interfere with that process. From what I understand, kids are typically better off getting to see Mom’s challenges and coping strategies than otherwise — especially in cases of PTSD — at least, kids who grow up knowing that “there is something wrong but Mom/Dad never told me” seem to have a tougher time than those who are provided age-appropriate ways to understand some of the situation.

    In short: Way to go, Catherine! Thanks for being such a great Mom (that must run in the family, huh?)!!

  5. I’m so glad that your sister was willing to share her parenting experience. I think she is doing an admirable job both as a parent and with copiing with her depression and PTSD. Shedding light on this is the first step towards taking the stigma away. I love how she focuses on kindness both to herself and her kids. Isn’t that a great message for us all? Thank you for this powerful post! My best wishes to your sister!

  6. What a wonderful post. I think a lot of us have these kinds of thoughts even if we don’t have a full-blown case of PTSD and the advice is good for all parents. Such an important topic. Thanks so much to you and your sister for sharing, MaryAnne.

  7. Mental health is one of those things…you know – that people are ashamed of talking about.

    I think we are in the Pinterest age – where everything and everyone seems perfect. Not so. I think it’s important to get that out there! There are mothers who are alcoholics, Mothers who are bi-polar, mothers who are depressed, Mothers who feel depressed, Mothers who hate their husbands, Mothers who are sad, and Mothers who don’t want to be Mothers – and so on and so forth.

    Everybody has their struggles, don’t they? If we could all wear a sign around our necks – saying what are struggles actually.

    What makes the difference is how we deal with them.

    Thanks for this post, Mama!

  8. Medical, mental health or social service professionals working with mentally ill adults need to inquire about the children and adolescents, especially about their mental health and emotional development. If there are serious concerns or questions about a child, it may be helpful to have an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional. Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development, despite the presence of parental psychiatric illness. The child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child. With treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of the parent’s mental illness on the child. Unfortunately, families, professionals, and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of a psychiatrically ill parent is an important consideration when treating the parent.

  9. Thanks for being so brave and sharing something so personal. I’m sure your story will help so many people in a similar situation.

  10. I am so glad that your sister felt comfortable sharing this through her blog. It is so important. As someone whose father is bipolar and who often wonders if I might be too, articles like this are so important. I feel that if my father had been honest about his mental illness earlier a lot of pain and suffering could have been avoided. It reminds me to always be honest with myself about my feelings and emotions and to be willing to recognize potential signs in myself if they ever present.

  11. Dawn @ PricklyMom

    Great, great, great post. Thank you for reminding me that it’s probably better to let my little guys know that I’m feeling sad or angry–so that they can see me working through it–rather than trying (unsuccessfully) to hide it.

    Thanks for your honesty. :)

  12. Olga @The EuropeanMama

    Oh how I love this article! I most probably have SPD (I never got diagnosed, but reading about this was so very familiar), and many of these points can apply to me as well. In fact, they can apply to ALL moms. What a beautiful, poignant article and how happy you are to have such a wonderful and brave sister.

  13. I am in awe of the mental HEALTH that I see here. I think a lot of women could use these tools, even those not suffering from PTSD. Reading this and seeing all the awareness – these aren’t kids I worry about at all. They will grow up to be sensitive human beings who understand the human condition. Don’t worry about daily goldfish, during bad moments (living with pretty bad bouts of Lyme Disease), I’ve fed my kids pizza in the bathtub so I wouldn’t have dishes to do. We now call it Bath Pizza and they ask for it by name. All the shortcuts I’ve taken to make things easier do cause guilt sometimes but they are real, honest, and just the way things are, I guess. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

  14. Elisa | blissfulE

    What a great post! Brilliant, beautiful, and brave. So many things in here that I do, too, even without the complicating mental health issues, and some things I need to do more, like self care and processing my feelings aloud so my children can learn to do the same.

    As parents, we all need to cling to hope, and hope does not put us to shame!!

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