How Bipolar Disorder Shaped My Experience of Motherhood
Living was easy in my early 20s, but times got dark pretty quickly for me. I displayed maladaptive behaviors that were self-destructive and reckless. I felt life was intolerable and I could not find my footing. I suffered in silence as I toyed with ideas of ending my life, the fantasy of nonexistence filled my days. It would be years until I received the news that would change the trajectory of my life: when I finally learned that I had bipolar disorder type II.
What my therapist told me blew me away: bipolar disorder, he told me, is something we can manage. He told me I could go on to live a productive and fulfilling life. “It is a condition like any other health condition,” he said, “like diabetes.” I did not believe him at first. I had thoughts of my own about what the diagnosis entailed. To me people with this diagnosis were unreliable, volatile, incapable of being a part of society. I sunk into despair despite his words of encouragement. I was basically an invalid.
If I were to have taken a step back and viewed my state of being at the time, perhaps I would have had a bit more clarity—which is that I already was unreliable and volatile. Maybe not an invalid, but certainly withdrawn, not living the kind of life I had imagined for myself. Through treatment, I started to understand the root causes of my irresponsible behaviors and listless state of living. I wanted out. I was desperate for a change. And those feelings won out over my fears about what the diagnosis said about me. Treatment offered me an out that was not the ending of my life. I trusted and committed to all of it, the thinking modification tools, talk therapy, and the drug therapy. For years I complied diligently, until the day came when I started to consider the possibility of becoming a mother. I had moved since and met with a new therapist who advised me against having children. She suggested I’d be unable to manage motherhood having bipolar. My insides sunk and my heart, already brittle, nearly shattered inside of me. I took her advice hard, but I still changed therapists, finding one who was willing to work with me to consider motherhood, to manage the symptoms that came up, to advocate for me.
I have since been blessed with two magnificent daughters, brown-eyed beauties. My pregnancy and year after with my firstborn was bliss. I was primarily in baseline, and I thought maybe I’d conquered my diagnosis. Maybe getting pregnant and becoming a mother was all it took. But then came the second pregnancy. I struggled throughout, unmedicated, and the first few months of her life let me know that I was not, in fact, out of the woods. I chastised myself for needing to go back on my meds, since I had wanted to breastfeed her longer, a goal I had set upon seeing and internalizing the importance of breastfeeding for the first entire year on random Google searches and mom groups recommendations. I eased into it, reminding myself that what was best for my daughters was a healthy version of me.
I felt better once I got back on my medication, but later episodes were relentless. As my children grew up, they became more aware of the condition I was in. I served their primary needs—feeding them, caring for their health, driving them to where they needed to be, reading to them—but then I had nothing left for myself or for my husband, who stepped in when I was in a depressive episode. He took charge of the household and managed dinnertime, bath and bed times, and packing lunches. I felt useless and sad that I wasn’t able to do what was prescribed as mom duties, not to be able to contribute to our family like I should have. But I also forced myself to remember that the episodes would pass, and I would soon bathe in the sunshine again. Having bipolar isn’t swinging from one end to another at a moment’s notice, contrary to popular belief; it’s an exercise in patience, knowing that the prolonged episodes will eventually end and that the best thing I can do is to manage triggers and thought distortions.
My oldest started to ask questions. I overheard her confiding to her dad, “Why is Mommy crying? She doesn’t want to play with me?” Guilt and shame for being in a depressive episode took over. I wanted to be there for her, but I simply couldn’t. It was as if a lead ball was on my chest, melding me to the bed. I cried even more, disappointed in myself, and considered what the therapist had said about me not being able to be a mother. My current therapist did not stand by that thought, however. “The children are happy and healthy. That’s what matters most—and you’re doing an excellent job.”
Depression did not allow me to feel this truth, I chastised myself for the inability to be like other moms—the picture of perfection in my mind of those soccer moms, dance moms, baseball moms who took their children to all the activities so effortlessly; the moms who did their children’s hair in fancy styles; the moms who dressed their kids in cute matching outfits. It would take a miracle for me to execute any of those things.
It dawned on me that my behavior was confusing to the girls at times, so my husband and I made the decision to be open with them when they were 3 and 5.
“Mommy has bipolar disorder, it has to do with the way I think and feel,” I explained. “Sometimes Mommy gets very tired and has to rest, sometimes Mommy gets sad and needs time.”
“Why are you sad, Mommy? Did we make you sad?” my oldest asked.
“No, baby. I just feel that way sometimes, without a reason in the world, especially not you,” I replied with a rock in my throat, the guilt that she could have possibly have thought it was her fault threatening to choke me.
“Crying from nowhere?” she added.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Can I help you?” asked my empathetic, sweet youngest child.
“Yes, you can. I like hugs and cuddles when I’m feeling bad. Sometimes I need you to play by yourself until I feel better. I just want you to know that Mommy loves you very much and bipolar makes that tricky to see sometimes. But none of it is your fault. Mommy loves you very much.”
I needed them to understand how deep my love for them ran, but there were demons in my closet that showed up to get in the way of how I wished I could show up for them.
We continued to have conversations like that as they got older, and I used the productive ends of bipolar to our advantage. There were times when I was hypomanic and had a burst of energy, euphoric, so I indulged in them. We instituted “yes days” where I did whatever they wanted—go out for ice cream, go to the arcade, play bowling, watch a movie, whatever they felt like. On those days, my children basked in joy and my presence. I had learned to manage hypomanic episodes, which made me happy and energetic, but also highly irritable. My speech accelerated, my mind raced. I dampened my impulses with tools I had learned over the years and used everything I had in me to focus on my children and their joy.
I may not have been the perfect mother given my condition, but I now understood what it meant to be a mother. I was intent on providing my children with all that they needed, and to ensure they were provided for. I focused on the evidence of the quality of my motherhood—joy in their little faces, their health that I cared for, their intellect that I nurtured, their manners that I cultivated, their empathy born of understanding my condition, their compassion grown from caring for me. My children were a testament to my mothering, and finally, by the time they were 8 and 6, I was starting to own it. I accepted the fact that our life was different from other families, and it took us steps to learn through this adventure together.
I stopped comparing myself to other mothers who seemed to have it all together. I learned to set boundaries and limitations. I acknowledged the fact that there were lines drawn in my life that I would be wise not to cross. I knew that being a mother, no matter the conditions, was having my kids’ best interest at the center of our lives, and together, my husband and I managed that quite well. Bipolar presented challenges that I had to learn to overcome, but I stopped lingering in the stigma of it. I began to see myself apart from the condition. I took control over my life, no longer submitting to self-doubt and self-deprecation. Bipolar disorder is something I have, but it does not define who I am as a mother.
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