Reinventing Motherhood: Parenting with Mental Illness

This post is based on my own personal experience of parenting with mental illness. I am not a medical professional or licensed therapist. Please seek the advice of a professional if you have questions or concerns about your specific situation.

I was 21 when I had my first major depressive episode. I had failed 1/2 my college classes and most of my friends had graduated & moved on to their new careers while I stayed behind. I didn’t leave my apartment except to go grocery shopping at 2am or when I could muster up the energy to put on a happy face & go home for the weekend.

When I got pregnant in 2007, depression crept in again & introduced me to its friend, anxiety. Knowing my family history and knowing the affect parenting with mental illness might have on my baby scared me. I heard stories about postpartum depression & knew I might need support after my baby was born. But I had never even heard of peripartum depression until I shared how I felt with my midwife. She put me back on medication and I stared at the pill bottle for several days before working up the nerve to actually take one.

3 years later, a falling out with my parents sent me back into therapy. Therapy helped me process those initial emotions of grief and anger. However, that therapist was not a good fit and I chose not to continue after a few months.

In 2018, I started having panic attacks.

Everyone experiences anxiety and panic differently. For me, my heart races, I feel cold, I have no awareness of anything around me, there is an overwhelming sense of dread, and I feel as though I can’t breathe. Because it is such an inward experience it took me a long time to recognize my panic attacks for what they were.

Learning How To Approach Parenting with Mental Illness

Parenting is hard on its own. Parenting with a mental illness brought up a whole other layer of concern and worry. I felt much more pressure to do everything right and keep my family safe.

I realized I needed help for my mental illness when my family went on a hike and I freaked out because I thought my kids would get locked in the pit toilet & we had no cell service to call for help. While waiting for them to come out, my mind raced through many elaborate scenarios as to what could go wrong and what we could do to save them.

Later that night when we were all back at home, I actually had to check to make sure they were safe, sleeping in their rooms and not still trapped in the pit toilet.

Then a pandemic arrived in 2020. And now, here we are, navigating this period of re-entry back into the world and figuring out how to move through it all as safely as possible.

Learning To Approach Parenting with Mental Illness During a Pandemic

I am fully aware that my mental state influences my family. What we have and have not done over the last 16 months has been determined by how safe I feel the activity is for us all. I often feel like I’m holding my family back & keeping my husband and children from doing what they want. This becomes more tricky since what feels safe often follows no rhyme or reason.

Target? Safe.

Grocery store? Not safe.

X-rays, seeing a pulmonologist, doing a sleep study, my child getting braces? All relatively urgent so therefore deemed safe(ish).

Eye exams? Not safe.

Meeting up with friends at the park? Safe one week, not safe the next.

And you know what? That’s ok.

Learning How To Approach My Mental Illness & Mental Health

It’s taken me a long time but I’m starting to accept that being a parent with mental illness is not a flaw. I have periods of better mental health than others.

Here’s an article I read recently that explains the difference between mental health & mental illness.

Depression and anxiety are a part of me but they are not the whole me. I’m never quite sure when they’ll come back. But I’m realizing that they come from a place of caring. From a place of not wanting to get hurt. And a desire to keep my loved ones safe in a world that feels uncertain.

Parenting With Mental Illness: How I Improve my Mental Health

Disclaimer: This is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Every situation is unique and requires advice to be tailored and adapted to that situation. If you are looking for advice about a specific situation, seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

Therapy & Medication

Over the past 20 years I’ve been to 5 therapists. 2 were great, 1 was ok and the other 2 were not. I’ve been on medication off and on during that time frame as well.

When I started having my panic attacks, I asked my doctor to put me on medication and started looking for a therapist. For me, medication helps but is not enough on its own.

Because of some previous negative experiences, I was extremely hesitant to go back into therapy. It did not help that the therapist I started seeing was not reliable. Our appointments either started late or got canceled last minute. They also texted or answered the phone during a few of our sessions.

Despite every inclination to put up with it, or quit therapy all together, I knew I could not move forward on my own. I summoned up the courage to find another therapist and am so glad I did. 2 1/2 years later, I still have weekly appointments. At this point, I could probably take a break from therapy or reduce my visits but I choose not to.

Having a solid therapeutic relationship reminds me to stay grounded and helps me keep going. To have someone help me process the past and present with the intent to heal and feel better about the future has made a HUGE difference in how I approach my life and makes me a better parent.

Self Care

I feel like self care has become a huge buzz word over the past couple of years. I struggled with even using the word in a sentence. Self care, self maintenance, ‘me time’, it all sounded cringey. But getting in the habit of doing things that feel good and nourishing keeps me more mentally healthy.

My regular self care includes drinking my morning coffee out of fun mugs, lighting candles, guided meditations on the insight timer app, coloring my hair fun colors and using body scrubs in the shower.

Whatever you choose to call it, take care of yourself. If you practice self care during the good times, it is much easier to take care of yourself when you are struggling.

Create a Ritual That Feels Good

This also ties into self care. I have a morning ritual that helps me set the mood for the day. It doesn’t always happen in the morning, it doesn’t always happen every day but my morning ritual is something I always go back to when I’m feeling ‘off’. For me, it’s some combination of lighting a candle, putting on lotion, setting an intention, listening to music or dancing, pulling a tarot card, writing down my schedule for the day, and doing a little writing or drawing in my journal. Some days it takes me 5 minutes, other days I get a full 30 minutes in.

I believe what you do and for how long isn’t as important as spending time to do something that feels good.

Being Creative

This is a big one. Being creative is essential my mental health. Having a daily(ish) art practice helps me to process what I’m feeling when I don’t have the words. Plus it’s just fun. Trying new things, experimenting, giving myself permission to play…it feels good. It gets my brain moving in a positive direction.

I’ve recently started putting gold leaf on photos which I’m really enjoying and has me thinking about all the different ways I can incorporate gold leaf into my art.

Again, what you do doesn’t matter so much as the time you spend creating. Move your body, make some photos, write a poem, doodle. Don’t judge the end product, let yourself enjoy the process.

One final thing….

It’s OK to not be OK

We all have ups and down. Life is messy. There will be struggles. Remember that you are not alone. Reach out to someone. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself.

And, if you need a safe space to show up just as you are on the days that you’re not OK, I encourage you to check out Momtography Club. This is our creative community space, a place you can add to your mental health toolbox and be encouraged “present not perfect” just as you are. We’re here for you and ready to welcome you with open arms.