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Working on My Mental Health as a Parent

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There is a battle between the kind of mom I imagined myself to be and the one I actually am. Before I had a child, I had an image in my mind of the mom I wanted to be. I wanted to be a fun mom. I wanted to be the cookie-baking, art-making mom who was always in a good mood.

When my son was born, I had to admit to myself that my brain chemistry was not going to change overnight. And that, in fact, I had a higher predisposition toward postpartum depression than most of my peers, given that I’d already been diagnosed with clinical depression years earlier.

No amount of newborn snuggles and excitement over adorable outfits could change that fact. At first, I tried to deny it. Then, I had to properly mourn that the mom I’d dreamed of being. I’ll admit: That would have been nice.

But I’ve learned to welcome the mom I actually am, the same way I’ve embraced the child I actually have (and not some projection of who I thought he’d be). Together, we are navigating our imperfections and finding our way toward deep love. If anything, learning to respect my mental health has helped me to be more present for all of his feelings, the lows as much as the highs.

For better or worse, he’ll never place me on a pedestal: I’ve been upfront since he was small that I make mistakes and have tough days. I tell him that he’s allowed to make mistakes and have tough days, too — that it’s just part of being human. I don’t ever want him to feel like he has to hide that part of himself from me.

And yet, for all of my self-acceptance, there is still a sense of guilt and the shadow of stigma around mental illness in parenting.

To break free of that, I’ve had to create new goals for myself, rather than comparing myself against the Instagram-perfect moms with minimalist homes and perfect hair. I’ve had to redefine success for myself — the real me, not the ideal of myself I had in my mind.

I know I’m not alone in having my share of mom-guilt. Whether it’s not doing enough for my son, my marriage, or the world, I always feel like I’m falling behind somewhere in my life. (Please don’t ask my friends for my track record on returning text messages!) It’s hard to balance it all. I’m an ambitious person who also has a family and mental illness.

So let me be frank: I’m not “doing it all.” I’m not operating at full capacity in every area of my life. I’m no longer trying to be a perfect mom. Nor am I apologizing for giving myself what I need when it comes to rest and self-care.

I work on my mental health every single day. I do what I need to do to nourish myself, to honor myself, and to support myself even in my tough times. I prioritize movement and fresh air and quiet time to myself — all the things that support my mental well-being. I talk out my problems and sit with my sun lamp and I actively work on it. Is this going to magically cure my depression? I doubt it. But “fixing myself” isn’t the goal anymore. I know now that I’m not broken.

Instead, I’m creating new goals for myself and my family. One of my goals right now is to laugh with my son once a day. Big, raucous, laugh-til-we-cry kinds of laughs — just once a day. I let myself succumb to his silliness and let go of the darkness that sometimes keeps me stuck. If I accomplish that, I feel like I’ve done my job right. I look for ways to make it happen — for both of us.

That might seem like a trivial goal. Maybe other moms would focus on teaching their kid math or doing complex projects together. Some days, I tell myself that I should have bigger goals when it comes to my activism or getting my book published. But making memories of us laughing together is my goal for right now. The rest, I’m still working on it.


Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Originally published: January 30, 2021
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