Over the last few weeks, as well as working, packing bags for nursery, changing nappies, and soothing night-time fevers, I’ve been going through a mental-health bad patch. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 68% of women who have mental health issues are also parents. I am one of them.
My mental health issues first showed up when I was 21, and I had a major breakdown that left me housebound with agoraphobia. My recovery was painfully slow; it was four full years until I could even visit a supermarket.
Two decades later I’m much improved – panic-free and functioning, able to leave the house at will (sometimes I hit up three different supermarkets in one day, just because I can).
The anxiety and depression are still there, and I have two bouts of postnatal depression, a couple of relapses and a shiny new ADHD diagnosis under my belt. But mostly I rub along with it the way you would any other chronic condition.
While the Mental Health Foundation reports poor outcomes associated with children with mentally ill parents, I went into parenting knowing that I might relapse on occasion but hoping to protect and even empower my children.
Here are four tenets I try to follow to help us all along the way.
1. I involve my kids when I’m having a bad patch.
That’s not to say that I let my two small sons crayon all over the mental health evaluation sheets from the GP. No one is creating pasta-and-glue dioramas of my anxiety dreams involving 90% of the scenes from Chernobyl. At least, no one is doing this yet.
But I do talk to them about what is happening. I’m honest about when I’m feeling rubbish mentally, just as I would be if I had a cold. I may say Mummy’s having a panic attack because of her mental illness, and ask if we can go for a walk to help her shake it off. Or that Mummy’s feeling a bit down in the dumps because of her mental illness, so we need to have lots of cuddles, and take our mind off things by reading books together – or just letting her sit down with a cup of tea for a minute.
I like to weave it into the fabric of our family vocabulary as something we can cope with practically but don’t have to fear.
2. I try not to fix the things I think are wrong.
My depression likes to lie to me. It tells me that I’ve chosen the wrong curtains and that people will laugh at me; that I’m a terrible parent and the only way to rectify things is to learn to make a perfect, Instagram-worthy rainbow cake, which is why when I’m depressed I find myself staying up till 4am frantically scrolling through Pinterest to prove that I’m a good mother.
All of this is all a fool’s errand, however, and just serves to makes me more exhausted and anxious, when what I should be doing is bolstering my wellbeing instead of burning the candle at both ends.
3. I make sure I prioritise self-care.
I used to have real trouble with the term “self-care” because I bought into the stereotype and could never figure out how having a mani-pedi could relieve burnout from my mental exertions.
But since becoming a parent and making sure my kids are fed and watered, have enough sleep, and love, and running-about time, I’ve realised that this applied to the self – is self-care and I’ve got better about caring for myself.
In doing so, I hope I’m setting a decent example for my kids.
4. I spend time with my children.
I do not want to suggest for one minute that having children cures mental illness; particularly not my children who are at this moment physically fighting me for access to the keyboard so they can “spell zoo and elephant”.
But when I’ve taken my medicine and had my therapy (which are the best treatments for mental illness I know), getting out of my own head and spending time with my kids can help immeasurably. Actual time, this is, not loading-the-dishwasher-while-shouting-at-everyone-to-put-their-shoes-on time.
Just packing up some snacks and heading off to feed the ducks, or curling up with them for a movie night is a tonic, because it’s hard to stay in your own head, overthinking everything when your four year old’s asking “What if your NOSE was in your EYES?” and my one-year-old is roaring at passing cars.
I should note that I don’t always succeed in taking my own advice. In fact, often when I have a bad patch I do withdraw, I don’t look after myself, and I don’t involve my kids. That’s just part of having a mental illness. My point is, once I gain some control over it, implementing the four tenets above is my priority.
When I was growing up, mental health was only mentioned pejoratively, so when my own mental illness struck, it totally blindsided me, I wasn’t equipped to deal with it, and it was a great source of personal shame.
While my family never admitted it, it seems clear that mental illness ran through our shared DNA. This means my two sons run the risk of developing mental health issues. But I hope by being informed, loving and open about my own illness, I am giving my boys practical strategies to deal with any future issues, and helping them understand that bad patches do pass. At the very least, they’ll grow into adults with a great deal of empathy – which as far as I’m concerned is the best possible scenario.