Weathering Family Storms
Moms and Mental Illness
Most moms have stories about the times when things didn’t go right. One of mine is of the whole family — me, dad, and two young children — coming down with a gastro-intestinal flu. All of us; all around the same time. That was a week from … not fun. We did survive. However, as much as I appreciate survival, I would never want to be judged for my parenting skills based on that period. Thinking outward, I realize that other moms have to navigate their own dilemmas around the huge variety of illnesses and accidents that befall humans, and there are things worse than the flu.
May is the month for mental health awareness. Almost smack-dab in the middle — May 14 — is Mother’s Day. Put these together, add a dash of post-pandemic angst and a rapidly changing worldview knocking us off balance from time to time — and social connections become critically important. Mother’s Day tempts us into idealization. A dose of reality might better serve the moms grappling with roles that carry huge responsibility and little training or support. This is particularly true for moms living with mental challenges.
Mental health is one of the last fields left in the dark. It is just now becoming recognized as important. We are starting to assemble the tools to explore how the mind stays well or is damaged — and how to correct damage. Genomics, functional brain imaging, and determining successful treatment through scientific processes are a few modern factors that have advanced understanding since roughly the turn of the millennium. There is a lag, though. Many people haven’t yet caught onto the information surfacing, and stigma sticks to mental illnesses like a dark-magic spell that makes those who come down with mental illnesses feel particularly lonely.
“My advice for parents who realize they have mental health challenges is to get [professional] help as soon as possible and not to give up until they find the right professionals who actually make you feel better.”
The thing about mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorders, and severe anxiety or trauma responses is that they strike people from all walks of life and in all sorts of positions or roles. This includes moms. They can have an illness before pregnancy, during pregnancy, or at any time after childbirth. In fact, becoming a mom might even trigger an illness (e.g., postpartum depression). Parenting while struggling with managing a mental illness can be extremely difficult and affects the entire family. Its impact may touch upon wider concentric circles as well, involving neighbors, and social and justice systems, as family welfare comes under scrutiny.
Yet children grow, and parents learn. If we are lucky, we may circle back as adults to mend what was exceptionally difficult at the onset. The past isn’t changed, but the answers heal rifts and provide directions for progress. Perhaps just as importantly, sharing the stories with honesty and scruples offers valuable knowledge and insight for the next generation. They may get help earlier, and that could ease or shorten their journeys.
In the 14 years in which I have worked with adults experiencing serious mental illnesses, I have heard many stories from many moms. Granted moms are just people who have given birth, and thus reflect a cross-section of humanity, what strikes me most often is the thread of concern for children’s well-being that is expressed so frequently. Although, at times, the voices of the moms living with mental challenges can be very quiet, somewhat muted, their words still come through. The diffidence is often explained by their perception of an audience that may be aloof, if not hostile, either due to stigma or in reaction to symptoms of illness. Even so, the moms return consistently to themes of worrying about their children while also wishing the best for them.
“My wish for my child is for him to do well and be happy. I wish I had known more sooner. I would never have exposed my son to my parents. Probably my worst decision. I guess there was no way of avoiding them, but I do wish that I had known more and could have managed things better.”
Another noteworthy point about being a mom living with a mental challenge is based on hindsight. Moms whose children have reached adulthood have the luxury of looking back and reflecting on the process, whereas those who are still in the thick of child rearing are usually too busy managing day to day. Plus, an outcome hasn’t been reached yet — mature adults can be very different from the teenagers they once were.
Most often, I hear moms who have experienced mental challenges — whose children are adults — say they wish they had gotten help sooner and didn’t have to struggle alone so much of the time. Below are few other messages they also have:
- Get professional help (medical or therapeutic) and ask for support from those who care about you. Listen to the people who show you that they care. You are worth healing, and if you can’t ask on behalf of yourself, try to do so on behalf of your children or other loved ones.
- When you get professional help, make sure it works for you and that you can use it. (Mental health care is still an emerging field of practice and finding a specialist for your particular condition can take time, energy, and multiple attempts).
- Treatment is working when you can use it to organize your life more effectively.
- Never give up. You can take a break, but surrendering to being defined by an illness steals the best part of yourself from others, especially from your children.
- While medical treatment and therapy can be expensive, if it is in your capacity, prioritize mental healthcare on par with physical health care. If you don’t have the means, look for alternatives that achieve some sort of improvement. Lifestyle changes and eating habits, psychoeducation, and self-awareness training are free, and using them can chip away at how mental illnesses are experienced. (Just remember that because cognitive changes and hallucinations and delusions occur within the body, they tend to respond more fully to the right type of medication or medical treatment).
- Stay gentle with yourself as much as you hold onto hope for the future. Time does have an advantage for healing. Everyone makes mistakes, and struggling with illness can make figuring out a way forward even harder. The truth is that sometimes, the best a mom can do is own up to what went wrong and break it down, so that your baby (who is now a fully grown adult) gets answers that wouldn’t have made sense to the child at the time.
As with all types of illness, moms dealing with mental illnesses still have to be moms at the end of the day. The bright line on the horizon is that recovery is not just possible but very likely. As our society continues to learn more about mental health care — what it is and how it works — preventing and treating mental illnesses and reducing challenges overall will happen more quickly and be much easier. Moms can be more fully present for parenting over the long haul.
“Self-recovery is about being kind to myself, practicing self care, and incorporating my 12-step program in my life. Also, it is taking care of my mental health, seeking outside help. Without all that, my life is unmanageable. Exercise is vital for my body, mind, and spirit. I can’t attain any of this without a higher power, which I believe to be God!”
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