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Mental Illness Adds Another Layer to My 'Mom Guilt'

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As I sat and cried for no reason at all, my son asked, “Why are you sad, Mommy?” I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. All I could do was reassure him that I was sad at the moment, but I would be OK soon. He said, “I will give you a big squeezy hug and a kiss to make you feel better and I will dry your tears.” My heart grew a thousand times larger as I hugged my sweet boy tight.

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My therapist says I am teaching him resilience by showing him I can be sad, but get better. But, I feel like a crappy mom.

All kinds of “shoulds” go through my head. I should be playing and laughing, I should take him outside, I should turn off the TV, I should, I should, I should. Later in the day, after that big squeezy hug, I did feel better for a bit. We baked together and even danced a little.

I think every mom has “mom guilt,” but moms with a mental illness can have an added layer of guilt. As I cry in front of my son, I wonder if I’m causing him unnecessary stress. Already genetically predisposed to anxiety, am I damaging him by letting him see this side of me, or is he learning about resilience like my therapist says?

Both of my parents have Crohn’s disease, so I know what it’s like to grow up with the stress associated with chronic illness. While they didn’t hide their illness, they didn’t fully disclose how sick they were at times. They always told me they were fine when I knew they weren’t. They told me they were fine as the ambulance drove them away. That caused a great deal of stress and anxiety in me as a child. I knew something was wrong; what weren’t they telling me? This left me to imagine the worst-case scenario. By being transparent with my son, maybe I am preventing the kind anxiety I endured at a young age.

When I woke up the next morning he said, “Mommy, remember yesterday when you were sad? Today you’re happy!” Then he gave me another big hug. He didn’t seem scarred by my tears. In fact, he didn’t even ask anymore questions. He was just happy to see I felt better today and went back to eating his breakfast.

Bipolar disorder puts me on a roller coaster sometimes, especially when the seasons change. Fall is always the worst for me. As my moods fluctuate by the day and sometimes by the hour, it’s hard for me to keep up. Throughout it all, I try to keep myself together as much as possible. I try to keep the worst of it to myself. But, sometimes those tears sneak out when I least expect them to.

We all want to protect our children, but I can’t hide reality. I guess one way to help erase the stigma of mental illness is to show our children that we can still be good parents and lead successful lives despite our illnesses. Maybe we teach our children that tears are a sign of strength; we acknowledge our feelings and do the best we can. Most of all, by being our authentic selves, we teach them to embrace who they are; even the parts they might not like as much.

So, I will bottle up those hugs, keep fighting through the bad days and remind myself that I’m doing the best I can.

Getty Images photo via SeventyFour

Originally published: January 19, 2019
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