I have always wanted to be a parent, even as a child myself. When I imagined myself as an adult, I imagined myself with children – playing games, painting together, and planning outings.
But, as they say, nothing prepares you for reality. This is especially true for a parent with mental ill health.
Putting my mental health first made me a better parent
For me, parenting was the catalyst for some of my biggest challenges with my mental health, but it was also the impetus for finally committing to my well-being. I loved my child more than I had thought possible.
However, I was convinced that the kindest gift I could give my child would be for him to live without the burden of growing up with me as his mother.
I was filled with years of shame and self-loathing. This beautiful child deserved the best of the world. How could I give him the best when I believed I was the worst?”
I spent a few weeks in hospital and every day I missed him. When I saw him, I could feel hope. I had believed that taking myself away from him was a selfless act, but something deeper shifted, and a question arose.
What if it was okay to be selfish? I wanted to see him grow up. I wanted the joy of his laughter, games, painting, and outings. I had always wanted those things. It may sound awful to admit that selfishness was what saved me, but it was what I needed to go on. To put myself first and commit to doing the hard work. To put on my oxygen mask before helping others.
My recovery journey is intimately intertwined with my journey as a parent. Becoming a parent made me acutely aware of my ‘inner child’ wounds and the pain that followed me through my life. I’d spent years contemplating the kind of parent I wanted to be, but when I got there, it was so much more difficult than I imagined.
But it’s so important to share our stories when we can and to ask for help and support.
Writing my story still gives me a sense of trepidation. I do it because I know there are so many of us who never see ourselves reflected. We only see the funhouse mirror version of parents with mental health challenges.
I think my younger self would be delighted, and proud, of the parent I’ve become.
No such thing as perfection
The reality is people with mental health challenges can be brilliant parents. We bring compassion and understanding, and the skills we have learned can be taught to our children.
But shame stops us from sharing our stories, from connecting with others, and from changing the narrative.
Shame when our children have big emotions in public.
Shame that we’re doing it wrong.
Parenting with a mental illness compounds that. The scrutiny feels more acute. The shame hits more intensely.
As a parent, we not only parent our children but we are also forced to re-parent ourselves, to unlearn, to not cause that pain in our children. We know that we never want to do the things that our parents did, and changing that means showing ourselves, and our children, deeper compassion.
When I first committed myself to this new recovery, I saw so many comments and articles about how awful it was to grow up with a parent with a mental illness, and how unfair it was to children with parents who struggled. I knew logically that this didn’t need to be true, but it hit all my insecurities.
You’re good enough
No one can ever be a perfect parent, but I encountered a concept that helped me understand parenting differently. The concept of the ‘good enough’ parent – derived from the work of Dr. Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst in the 1950s.
It shows us that good enough parents provide children with the emotional standing to survive the world.
I could do that. I could be good enough.
I have a child who is thriving, who has emotional insight into himself and others, and a sense of fun and adventure that I can foster and support.
I could do that. And so can you.
5 tips to remember when you’re struggling
1. It’s okay to be selfish and tend to your needs. It’s okay to be selfish as a parent, to tend to your own needs, to do things because they bring you joy or comfort, or to leave the dishes in the sink so you can reset. You’re no help to anyone when you’ve no gas left in the tank.
2. Give yourself a parent ‘time out’ when emotions get too big. Taking the time to breathe, calm yourself and reset can change how a situation plays out.
3. Some things have to give. Prioritise what’s important. Parenting under the best of circumstances can be exhausting. Add in the pressure of managing mental health issues and some things have to give. For me, this is often life admin stuff. The laundry might not get done, or dishes sit in the sink. That’s hard to admit but I know I’m not alone.
4. Communicate. Trust in your loved ones and supporters and let them know you are struggling. I’m lucky to have found an affordable, competent therapist, and to have a supportive family. I know many parents who don’t, which makes it so much more challenging.
5. Help is available, you don’t have to do it alone. A good start is the COPMI website (Children of Parents with Mental Illness) which has some great free resources.
Here are some tips to help support someone you know:
- Offer some practical help – take some laundry off their hands or do some life admin with them. Offering specific things can be helpful because it can be difficult to know what to ask for.
- Make space to listen, you don’t need to offer advice, just show curiosity.
- Do something kid-free with them, it can be hard to make time to connect with other adults, organising something for your friend can help make sure they maintain their own identity.
- Stay in touch – send messages without necessarily expecting a reply. Just keep showing they’re on your mind.
- Learn more about how to be a mental health ally. WayAhead has some great resources at mental health month.org.au
Asha Zappa is a parent with lived experience of mental illness, and the Mental Health Promotion and Program Manager for WayAhead, the NSW Mental Health Association. If you feel you need extra support to help guide you through mental health challenges as a parent, you can visit www.wayahead.org.au or www.copmi.net.au for information and resources.
Originally published as https://mumcentral.com.au/parenting-mental-health/