10 Rules I Live By as a Parent With a Mental Illness
Parenting is hard work on the best of days. But when you add in something like depression, for some people it becomes nigh on unbearable. I’m not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV), but I do have bipolar disorder, and after fighting with the ups and downs of that for the last 10 years, I’ve put together my own list of things that have helped me be the best parent possible when I just want to crawl under a rock and hide instead of dealing with those darling monsters I helped create.
1. Take care of myself.
Being sleep-deprived, not eating and forgetting to shower can and will make those long days with my kids even longer and put everyone on edge. Research suggests that adults should get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night. If I don’t eat, I will be grumpier and more prone to mood swings and bouts of irritability or crying spells. Showering every day will improve my mood and will give me one thing I can check off my list of things I’ve accomplished that day.
2. Exercise as much as is feasible.
This is a hard one for me. When I’m depressed, getting up and walking to the fridge is too much exercise. Rolling over on the couch is too much exercise. But research has found that a little bit of movement, even just a short walk, can help lift your mood. I load my kids up in the stroller and take them to the park. It’ll feel like an impossible task, but the benefits are worth it. I’m creating memories with my kids and helping my mood at the same time. Win-win, right? If I’ve got a friend or family member who can help encourage me to go out, I take their advice and walk with them. It’s worth it.
3. Stick to a simple routine and don’t let chaos ensue.
Even if I’m depressed, or maybe especially if I’m depressed, having a simple routine can help keep the overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness at bay. It can be as simple as “wake up, playtime, lunch time, quiet time, snack, playtime, dinner, movie time, bedtime.” I don’t make things harder on myself than they need to be.
4. Let my kids be as independent as their age will allow.
If they want to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches three nights in a row and can fix them themselves, have at it. Fish sticks in the microwave? It’s A-OK. A summer dress with snow boots? No problem. As long as my child is safe and supervised to the level they need, it’s OK if I’m not being Suzy Homemaker with them right now.
5. Concentrate on the absolute “have-tos,” not “want-tos.”
I need to change the baby’s diaper in the morning. I want to clean and organize her room. That can wait until I’ve got more energy or have some help.
6. Ask for outside help.
I let my support system take the kids to the park, or over to their house for a few hours while I get a break at the bookstore with a friend. It’s important to take care of you when you’re feeling depleted.
7. Find a supportive person to lean on while I’m struggling.
It could be a trusted friend, a therapist, a family member, a clergyman or anyone I feel safe talking to that can help me make it through each day. This support person can be the one that helps encourage me to keep trying each day, even when things look super hard. A good support person will be an empathetic ear, is good at validating your emotions and respects your privacy.
8. Think “good enough” instead of “never enough.”
If I need to get paper plates and cups so I’m doing less dishes, there’s no shame in that. If I’ve ordered take out twice this week, so what? The kids have been fed. I don’t let my perceptions of what others may think get me even more down. That’s a negative spiral that doesn’t help at all. Anything to simplify my life right now is a good idea. If I do laundry and the kids have clean clothes, who cares if they’re folded or not? It OK to practice this idea of “good enough.” We live in an age of “never enough,” where we are never a good enough mother, or we never spend enough time with our kids, or never volunteer enough at our kids’ school. And it’s not right. We are enough just as we are, right now.
9. Practice self-compassion.
It’s going to happen. I’m going to yell at my kid. Or not feel like doing something they want to do. Or not put jammies on them and they sleep in the same clothes they wore the day before. It’s OK. I’m not making a habit out of this, and if I was feeling well, this would be a non-issue. If I had a friend who was going through depression, what would I say to her right now? Would I judge and condemn her for losing her cool, or would I give her a hug and say, “Hey, we all have rough days. You’ll get through this. I love you. I’m here for you.” Why can’t I tell myself that? I practice loving myself.
10. Get regular physicals.
If things continue to look bleak and dark, I get checked out by my doctor to make sure there’s nothing else going on. Low vitamin D levels or thyroid issues may be linked to depression in women, and just the stress of having children can be hard on many women as well. As always, seek immediate treatment if you have thoughts of harming yourself or anyone else.
In conclusion, getting past a depressive episode is not easy, especially when you’ve got little ones counting on you for their survival! I beg you to not run faster than you have strength. Things might seem bleak and discouraging now, but like Harvey Dent said in “The Dark Knight,” “The night is always darkest before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” I know holding onto a promise from a fictional character might seem silly, but that promise has gotten me through some of the darkest days of my life.
So although your kids may drive you up a wall, and you may feel overwhelmed, hopeless or thoroughly discouraged that you’re not living fully in the moment with your children, know that this feeling will pass, and joy and light will come again.