Parenting is a never-ending adventure of what’s around the corner. It’s comprised of scaled-down versions of yourself, a little you that often fail to recognize that you are only human too. Most days it feels like you are a home invader, operating in stealth just to go to the bathroom for a moment of peace. One little noise and you’ll have little knuckles tapping at the door, and if not responded to promptly, you’re sure to hear a tiny voice coming from the space between the door and the floor; “Daddy”. Do you ever freeze when you think you hear little footsteps just outside the door? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change being a parent for anything in the world it has been a wonderful experience and in a lot of ways has been my saving grace. It has been without a doubt the greatest adventure I have ever been on.
Any parent can tell you that it is the most difficult thing they have ever done. So how does one handle the never-ending duties of parenting when they are stuck with mental illness when they wake up to find themselves full of dread fear and anxiety? How do parents or a parent minimize the impact that these darker days have?
For me, the days when my mental illnesses flare up like arthritis on a damp and rainy day, makes dealing with myself a tall order, fighting with the inner voice that tells me to “stay in bed and don’t you dare go to the gym today”! This internal a**hole also likes to whittle down my self-esteem on these days like a schoolyard bully, always putting me down to the lowest; saying things like “You can’t do anything right?” Or, “Nobody likes you.” It’s a hell that is the equivalent to having your most hated song being put on repeat for the entire day. When my mind works against me I want nothing more than to be alone in the quiet, sleeping the day away.
Because I have children, this is not an option for me, it’s a little better now that they are older but nonetheless, they still have to get to school and extracurricular activities, get to their friend’s place etc. More challenging still are the moments when they are having a tough day mentally too. They need me! It’s not optional therefore, I had to come up with ways to swim through my own mess to help them with their everyday life.
Fortunately, I am self-aware enough to see that there is something not quite right with how I deal with the outside world and understand that the war within is not normal. Irrational thinking and fear were unfounded. I finally concluded that living in a headspace that was almost always unpleasant wasn’t the way it should be, I was then able to realize I needed help. Through getting help, I was able to understand that what was going on with me was real, and I learned that this was being produced by one or more of my disorders. Then I was able to help my children understand and get through it too.
When they were smaller I would tell them that daddy doesn’t feel good inside his tummy and in his head. I took the time to explain to them that daddy’s body can’t handle really loud noises when he’s not feeling well. I set up a scenario where it would feel as though we all had to work together to make the best day for everyone. Like; “What are the things we can do today that are quiet activities”? It was always a huge priority for me to make sure they understood that when I am not feeling well and when they are noisy, that they weren’t doing anything wrong, just that my sickness would worsen when they were being loud.
Most of the work I do with my kids is concentrated on my good days, this ensures that they know they are loved and that we can work together to get through all of our difficult moments. Our one on one time is super important and has always been a top priority. All my kids ever wanted was my time, so I would give it to them, not every five seconds of the day, but they could earn the one on one time for good behaviour. Once I taught them what good behaviour was and what was expected from them, it became easier and easier. This one on one time alleviated the bigger behavioural issues and allowed me to build a relationship, a bond that set the stage for mutual respect. Mutual respect goes a long way in sponsoring a cooperative relationship. This relationship-building became an essential tool for getting through the times when mental illness consumed me because they had enough understanding knowing when daddy wasn’t well and that we had to work together to get through it. I worked hard to also respect the times they were experiencing difficulties of their own. Lead by example.
Also, I realized that doing every little thing for them and running to their beck and call turned me into their butler, chauffeur, and unpaid personal assistant. This was hell on my anxiety and compounded my depression because I was a slave to my children, not a loving family member. So in order to sponsor their independence and help me get through the days when I was sicker, I took every opportunity to teach them how to be independent.
At first, it was a lot of work because it required my participation, teaching them skills like cleaning their room. I would help and teach making common sense statements as we went like, “We put things away, so we don’t step on and break our favourite toys.” I walked through every life task, step by step. I taught them to do laundry, going through the entire procedure a few times, then I left them to it, helping them out only if they had questions. Eventually, much sooner than I expected they were doing many things on their own and were happy to do so. This work paid dividends, not only for the kids independence and happiness but for my illnesses as well. It allowed for a far less chaotic environment which in turn helped and still helps me on the darker days, the result being that I can slug along and help them with their needs and enjoy their company much more.
As they get older they are able to understand better what anxiety, depression and PTSD are. I am an open book and invite them to ask me questions, I explain to them what the symptoms are and I tell them when I have days when I am struggling to make it through. They may not completely understand, but they understand enough that we all engage our mutual respect for one another to make the day go as well as it can. Having a very supportive partner has been a lifesaver. She helps me with the kids on my bad days with understanding and compassion. She is the glue that holds our family together.
So, if you’re struggling with mental illness and are trying to parent your way through the tough days, you can try some of these things that work for me. My position on parenting is this: We are their parents, not their slaves. (How anxiety-producing is finding yourself in this position?) I feel like when they are old enough to carry their backpacks, tie their shoes and fasten their seat belts, teach them. Doing everything for them will act as the fuel that makes your angst worse, makes your symptoms worse, and robs you of the moments with your kids that you will always regret. Independence is what we, as parents, should be striving for with our children. Its personal benefit to you is that you get to be left alone more with a little more room to breathe. This, in turn, helps you navigate through the tough days and helps you raise your kids too.
For tips on how to parent with mental illness: Psych Central