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What We Need to Know About Mental Health in Parenthood

“Spider! Spider!” Addy exclaims. Glancing over, I scan the room, quickly retrieving my shoe off my foot, ready for an instant squash if it comes to that. “Oh no.” Chills crawl up my spine, and I take a deep breath. It’s not a spider. I really wish it was. No, this intruder is at least three inches long, hard-shelled, crunchy, brown, has antennae and six legs — a cockroach. Damn. Two years ago, I would’ve screamed while jiggling my body about, shuddering away the inevitable. I don’t know why, but I know that’s what I would’ve done.

But she’s looking at me. And for some reason, she is scared of this “spider” and is waiting for Mama to fix it for her. Wrapping my shockingly steady arms around her, I lower myself to her level and calmly explain to Addy, “It is fine. Mama will remove it from the home. It cannot hurt you. Thank you for letting me know.”

Instantly, Addy visibly relaxes her shoulders and assuredly nods her head in agreement. “Mama take care of it.” I quickly gate off Addy in case the chase goes awry and trade out my weapon of choice for my husband’s loafer, which is lying on the kitchen floor. (Guess he should’ve picked up those shoes after all).

It was on. I will spare you the gory details, but “Mama took care of it” with a swift efficiency of execution I was unaware I possessed. Whew. Crisis averted.

This got me thinking though: how hard it can be for parents, constantly having to present our calmest self possible to our children? Once upon a time (pre-children), we only had to call upon our most put-together version during interactive work hours or social occasions. Personally speaking, I have a lot of “crazy” inside me, which comes out to haunt me at times in bouts of anxiety and mild depression. In the old days, when I was feeling off and not myself, I would hole up in my apartment, avoid social contact that weekend and binge watch television until I felt recouped enough to reconvene with the world. I no longer have that option.

Oftentimes, people speak of the struggles of parenthood in terms of lacking “sick days.” Simply put, you can never check out of being a parent, even if you are sick.

But there is a different type of “sick” that we don’t often talk about in parenthood — one that is not only depleting but all-consuming. I fear a parent’s mental health can be one of the most neglected aspects of his or her life. The conversation is beyond the advocated “self-care” type of “spa day,” “golf day” or “night out.” The issue lies in the patterns created to mask symptoms every waking moment.

It is normal to experience periods of self-doubt and to just have a bad day. Truth is, some days I tell myself I’m awesome, and some days I tell myself I suck. And the truth is… some days I am kinda awesome, and some days I do kinda suck. So that’s fair. But what happens when we are constantly flushing away our internal dialogue without really acknowledging the root of the issue? Well for me, anxiety happens.

Last Friday, I had a bad day. Just “one of those days.” Nothing in particular happened — a small fight with my husband the night before, which we hadn’t had time to resolve before he went to work, followed by an unexpected heap of social anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. What went wrong?

The cockroach went wrong.

All those lovely self-doubts crept into the cobwebs and slowly but surely infiltrated my thoughts. “What am I doing with my life? What will my children think of me if I have nothing to show for myself? I am different. I talk too much. I am desperate. I am not a good person. I am not a good mom. I am not enjoying my children enough. I yelled. Oh my God, I am writing unpaid articles no one one even reads.” You know, the usual…

But I push everything down, put on my smile and dance for my daughter. She has seen me cry. I even feel that it is appropriate for her to understand people have ranges of emotion, but she has only seen me cry when I am sad about “something.” I have never let her see me sad “just because…” because I don’t know how to explain this ambiguity to a two-year-old. So, day in and day out, I filter out all I don’t want her to see and put forth my best brave cockroach-fighting strength.

This last Friday, when I was on the job as a parent (because I am always on the job as a parent), a stampede of unprocessed negative thoughts and emotions swarmed me into an oblivion. Sitting in front of me was a hungry baby I was shakily trying to feed, and clinging to my leg was a jealous toddler who wanted “Up! Up! Up!” As she tried to climb up my leg, while I was spooning food into her brother’s mouth, she crunched the styrofoam plane she was holding in her hand, and her sirens roared. “Fix it mommy!” she sob-begged.

My heart started to race. The room span. I knew I had to “pull it together.” My children need a fully functional mother. So I did. I just shut it out. I bent over to my daughter as calmly as possible, and softly explained, “We cannot fix what you have broken sweetheart, but look, you made it into a butterfly!” Her sobs slowly softened to a high-pitched purr while her lips spread upward slightly, almost resembling a smile. I exhaled and went back to feeding Henry. Usually, this parenting ingenuity would warrant a self-high five, but not this time. I was still feeling “off.”

So I forced the three of us out of the house into what turned into an incredibly overwhelming outing. But it was all I knew to break up the escalating chain of negative thoughts and self-doubt. I needed to completely focus externally on parenting, and figured I would have to wrestle out my internal dissonance when I found some time later. This is parenthood. There are no sick days here.

We are all broken. I have yet to meet someone who is not a little broken in some way. I truly believe it is the essence of our humanity and connectedness. But I worry about the mask we put forth in parenthood, where there is no space to be “sick.” Sometimes I wonder: Do we mold into the confident, assured personas we present to our children? And other times I worry: Are we just putting casts on broken bones we have yet to properly set?

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Thinkstock photo via Hemera Technologies