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The First Day of School for the Mom of a Child With a Mental Illness

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As I sit in my comfortable chair outside listening to the bird’s chirp, I think to myself: life today is not bad. It feels smooth, easy and comfortable. I relish in the fact that today, school is starting, and it is no longer a part of my world. I consciously make a decision to ignore those old feelings of what it used to be like struggling to get a child to school. I say to myself, “not this year.” It is my turn to avoid the feelings of the first day back to school, or so I think.

My thoughts of bliss are quickly interrupted as I hear a child’s cries from afar. I surprise myself at how quickly the old feelings well up. My heart begins to beat faster, and my mind starts racing. Oh, that out of control sound. I wonder, will it rise to uncontrollable or will it be a short quick outburst?

I know change can be hard for anyone, but add mental health issues and the first day back to school can be excruciating. It can catch you off guard, and things can quickly escalate to a level one rarely expects.

The shouting now rings throughout the neighborhood. I don’t know why, but I go to that familiar place of shame. Are the parents worried about what others will think? Are they so consumed at the moment, they just don’t care who hears?

Many children and parents find the first day of school each year to be a tough day. Children with mental health issues have extra challenges to overcome. It can be a day filled with anxiety, fear, and trepidation. The children may have a running conversation in their heads: “My teacher will hate me,” “My parents will be mad at me,” “I hate school,” “I am a failure,” “Nobody likes me,” and so on. My heart hurts for the child in such pain.  Oh, how I wish I could wish it away.

I think back to a time before I understood what I know today. The ignorant things I said to my child, “It will be OK, your teacher is kind,” “Your teacher will like you,” “Don’t be silly, of course, you will have friends.” Though they are well-intended and sincere statements, those remarks brought no comfort to a child who was hurting. It was her pain, not mine. It was a real pain, one needed to be…

Recognized, accepted, and validated.

Instead, in my ignorance, I sent a scared little girl to school thinking her feelings were invalid, “stupid,” and wrong.

I go back to the screams and Momma Bear trying to do what is right and get her cub to school. I wonder, did Mom wake up thinking and hoping this was the year when the first day back would be different? Did she have her armor on and was her skill belt tight, ready to face the day? Would she be able to coax patiently on, her child, in the midst of the hurling accusations aimed at her?

The screaming stops, and I think to myself, what just happened? What worked, or did they just shut the windows so no one will hear?

I remember before mental illness came to reside – when I stood so proud thinking to myself, “I will never have a child who screams at me.” “I will do it right.” “I will always be that encouraging mom who coaxes her child lovingly into every difficult situation.”

Oh, how I used to judge those parents ever so harshly. I had all of the answers: more discipline, do it like me, tough love, more love, etc.

But today I am wiser. I know how very difficult it is to coax and patiently prod along anyone who doesn’t want to do something. Adding unique struggles like mental illness means the challenges are compounded. These are battles that can’t be wished away or entirely understood. I know what it is like when school officials breathe down my neck insisting I make my child perform. I know what it feels like to stand there and be judged by others who have not walked a minute in my shoes. I know what it is like to have your heart broken as you gaze into the eyes of the child who wants you to take her pain away, yet you push on with doing difficult things.

I apologize to all of those moms I once judged. I was ignorant, and I didn’t realize, until you walk in someone else’s shoes you have no idea.

I applaud all you parents out there struggling on that first day back to school. I encourage you to keep pushing, keep learning new skills, and keep fighting for what is best for your child.

So when the stares from others begin, the judgments fly, and the shame starts to rise…

Hold your head high.

Know you are not alone.

Remember, you are an exceptional parent warrior.

You love and care for your child in a way most will never know or understand.

So maybe today you didn’t use your skills or handle it well. Don’t beat yourself up. I am sure you will have more opportunities to try again at helping your child through the changes they don’t want.

If you are not a mom who struggles with getting a child to school, seek out that mom who is struggling. Find a way to help her. Offer encouragement instead of judgment and advice.

Follow this journey on Embracing Life in the Midst of the Unexpected.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: August 29, 2016
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