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:
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.