Updated: Aug 16
It seems like no one wants to talk about how incredibly difficult it is to be a parent struggling with mental illness. It feels like even admitting that you have been struggling with depression, anxiety, ect, you might as well go scream from the rooftops to the world that you are in fact, a bad parent. You have this incredible child, who loves you unconditionally. You should be happy right? How can things be so bad that the thought of getting up and caring for this beautiful creature (child), is exhausting. Being a parent just in itself is a HUGE challenge. It's hard. Then add this dark and heavy cloud of depression that makes even the simple responsibilities of parenthood damn near impossible.
During some of my darkest days of depression, my only desire is to curl up in my blanket cocoon on the couch and pretend like the rest of the world doesn't exist. In comes my 8 year old who, for the 100th time this week, wants to lay out all of his Pokemon cards and give me a full background of each card. This coming just 10 minutes after his very detailed and loooong description of the 2 hours of minecraft youtube videos he managed to squeeze in this morning before I was finally able to stop the tears and get myself out of the perceived safety of bed. As much as I want to be the perfect and attentive parent who has mastered the art of faking giving a shit about my child's favorite youtube minecraft gamer, some days, I just can't.
I can look back and think of so many times when depression had its grasp on me, that my son certainly wasn't getting the attention he deserved. Things like acknowledging him when asked to watch and rate his “super rad jump” he can do off of your couch and onto a freshly folded pile of laundry, it's hard to muster out a “cool bro” before quietly slipping into your room to scream into a pillow and wonder if it's too early for a glass of wine. And that is the best case scenario, at worst, I have caught myself sharply yelling out a “dammit, THIS WAS JUST CLEAN” to this poor kid who was just hoping to impress his mom. I have watched, with a deep pain of pure guilt building inside of me, as he attempts to refold all of the clothes he has just knocked over, his head bowed in defeat and tears filling his eyes. If I could count the amount of times I have had to apologize to him for moments like this, I am pretty sure I would be sick.
Most people think depression is just a constant sadness. Not fun, but simple. Right? WRONG. Although feeling sad is a big player in depression, it certainly isn't the whole team. Depression can manifest itself in many ways, and these are the symptoms I have noticed in myself:
Increased or decreased appetite.
Painfully low energy levels.
inability to feel joy or desire.
Overreaction of emotions.
So why can't my child seem to understand this? Why cant he see that his inability to put the toilet seat down, and me reminding him for the 10th time today is putting me over the edge. Why doesn't he understand that the simple chores, such as a load of dishes literally the only thing I can get myself to accomplish today and the small sense of pride I feel when I am able to complete these task is destroyed because he used THREE cups for drinking water today, and the sink is no longer clean?? Depression makes providing yourself with your own basic needs painful and difficult. Then you add this little person, who can't even safely use the microwave yet, not only do you have to care for both of your basic needs, but also trying to make sure he is happy and entertained and challenged, and making sure he receives proper exercise, outside time and meals, because the last thing you want is for him to grow up and have his only memories be watching TV with boxed Mac N Cheese while mommy cried on the couch all weekend.
I am sure that there are many people who will tell you that your children should be the reason for you to be happy and your reason for getting out of bed every day, hell even their reason for living. Well good for you Mrs. Perfect Mom. When your mental health is poor, it is impossible to feel that way. I love my child more than anything and would fight anyone who does him wrong (try me), but he isn't my reason for getting out of bed. But do you know why? When you are and pretty much always have struggled with depression, you have to be your own reason for getting out of bed. The only person who can help and motivate you to overcome depression is… you.
I know I am not a perfect mom, but I also know that I am not a bad mom. We have learned to compromise. I have learned that I can't just force myself out of bed because I need to make breakfast for my son. I need to find something in the day for myself. Something that I can look forward to that day that isn't related to my child. I know that I no longer want to have my son ask me why I look so sad, or if we will once again be cancelling out park plans. But I know that just feeling guilty isn't enough motivation to have a productive day.
I have learned to take advantage of the good days. To use those days for spontaneous hikes, kayaking around the lake and trips to the park. I have learned not to promise outings in advance, eliminating disappointment from my son when I have to cancel those plans. And when a bad day hits, we treat it like a snow day (yes even in the middle of summer.) We use these days for ordering delivery and having movie nights. I take advantage of naps, giving him an extra hour to play his beloved Minecraft.
When I was young, we had a giant park like backyard. I remember many nights where we would “camp out” back there. We would set up my brother's little tent and pack in all of our sleeping bags. These nights are a treasure to me. I have so many wonderful memories of my mom, brother and I all squished into this tiny child tent, telling stories and laughing till late into the night. I had later found out from my mom that this was her escape from my abusive father. I know things weren't good and that he was mean, but I never knew the extent of how much it had affected her. We have these in our memories as some of the best nights we can remember. And although she loved these nights too, it was her way of coping, her way of hiding abuse and depression. Although this all made sense, hearing her tell me this as I was an adult was mind blowing. She was able to provide me a decently happy childhood, regardless of the trauma and abuse my father was putting us through and even through her struggle with severe depression.
Having a mental illness does not make you a bad parent. You can provide a safe and welcoming environment for your child, even while struggling and coping with mental illness. I cannot always hide and protect my son from my depression, there are still times where I struggle to function or snap at him over minor inconveniences. I cannot be the mom who can wake up and cook a giant breakfast every morning and play legos with him all day every day. But I know I am doing my best and my promise to him is that I will always continue to improve myself. To fight the anxiety, depression and PTSD that tries to hold me down. I have learned to pass the tools that I have taught myself for coping, down to my son. Every parent who struggles with depression fears that it will rub off on their child. I used to fear this too. But I now believe that he sees his mom as a strong, independent woman who has been able to overcome a lot.
You are not a bad parent if some days, the only thing you can manage to do is order a pizza, turn on Disney+ and curl up on the couch with your kiddo. You are not a bad parent if you let the irritability side of depression out and snap at your child for leaving his legos out and your foot just happens to find the sharpest one. We are human. I have learned that when I do have those moments where I snap, although they have gotten pretty rare, the best thing to do is be honest. My son is 8, but he is not too young to get his feelings hurt when mom is mad at him. And just because you are the parent doesn't mean you are always right. I have learned to show him respect, to sit him down. To explain that today, mom's mood just isn't very good. That I am very sorry and that my reaction was not his fault at all. The last thing I want is for him to feel like he is walking on eggshells at home. So when I feel a small outburst building inside of me, I shut myself into my room for 5-10 minutes. We have a rule at our house that if either of us are starting to feel frustrated, that we are allowed to shut ourselves in our room for a bit, to calm down and take a few breaths, and most importantly, give each other space. If I am in my room with the door shut, he knows to respect that and wait until I come back out to talk, and I show him the same respect as well.
I was once told by my counselor that the fact that I am even this afraid of being a “bad mom” shows that I am not. We all feel like bad parents at some point or another. Mental illness does not make you a bad or unworthy parent, and honestly fuck anyone who says otherwise.
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