The challenges of parenting with mental illness.
by Hilary D. Moore
What kind of monster screams at her children like that? Red-faced, chest heaving, spitting as I snarl. How horrible it would be seeing myself through their eyes.
I’m teaching them to be like me, even though I desperately want them to be different. How are they supposed to be different when I am their example? I’m so sorry for who and how I am.
I know what it’s like when your parents — the people who are supposed to love you most in the world — lash out in rage, glare with contempt. How worthless must I be? That’s what I think. Is it what my children think too?
If I worried less about ruining them, I’d appreciate their good. Instead, I hunt down our similarities, hoping to excise them. Am I teaching them to overlook their own goodness? Please don’t miss it, my sweet children. Please don’t miss it.
Ups and downs
I’ve failed countless times, thanking God for another day to try again. I’ll do better. I’ll breathe deeply, avoid triggers, pray, meditate on Scripture, seek counseling, take my medications, fill my gratitude journal. Tomorrow or next week or next month will be better. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.
Things go well for a while, until repeated requests turn into yelling, name-calling, rage. I go into a tirade. I throw things on the floor, across the room. Thank God I don’t lay a hand on them, but words hurt too. Bruised bodies heal quicker than bruised souls.
Perspective on anger
Why can’t I be a crier instead? Tears and rage have the same origin, after all. I learned that crying was weak and vulnerable, but anger — anger was strong. I’ve got to teach myself something new now.
The more I stew and rant, the angrier I become until I’ve lost my mind. My hands cover my face, shielding me from the world. My heart pounds. I sweat, shake. I explode.
Exhaustion and shame
Then . . . I’m empty. I beat my chest, fall to my knees. I know I can’t do this on my own. I’ve tried and failed for so long. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, ashamed. Why can’t I just be kind to the people I love most? Why is this so hard?
They say an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even if he’s sober, because the urge never leaves. Is it the same with rage?
The problem is not the expectations of a 2, 6, and 8 year old. The problem is my conviction that I am nothing unless I meet all expectations. Their age-appropriate demands echo my own fear: I’m not enough.
The demands compound. Their heft is on my shoulders, and I’m trembling under their weight. There is no end to the to-do list, because they are 2, 6, and 8. I’m rarely praised, because they are 2, 6, and 8. They love me with their whole hearts and still ignore what I’ve asked them to do one hundred million times, because they are 2, 6, and 8. They are not the problem. I am.
Maybe it’s arrogant to think I have the power to “ruin” them. Maybe I’m despicable for looking at their sweet faces and thinking for even one fleeting second that they’re “ruined.” They are divine . . . and maddening. Even through the fog of mental illness, I see flashes of beauty, enough light to guide my way.
Misery and joy
My counselor says parenting can be at once misery and joy. It must be true because it is neither one alone. My children are the loves of my life. Parenting is the most beautiful and difficult thing I’ve ever done. Depression and anxiety have stolen happiness, self-confidence, relationships. I won’t let them steal this.
I am not alone. I have faith, family, friends, my husband. He loves me, supports me. Even though he admits I’m not the same woman who he married. He is there whenever his work schedule allows.
I apologize to my children, admitting when I’m wrong. They know I see a “yelling doctor” and take meds. I read my daily devotional, pray, and meditate on the words to build compassion, love, forgiveness, and self-regulation.
I focus on what matters, who matters. “It’s for my brain, sweetie. I want to be happy. I have so many reasons to be happy, and I want to make you feel loved. I’m fighting for you, for us.” It’s not just for my brain. It’s for my soul.
Benefit and blessing
They may turn out like me — struggling with depression, anxiety, and anger. I fear most for my boys, who will be testosterone charged and muscle bound.
But they’ll have a benefit I did not: a parent willing to talk about it, to show them how to get help, to show them Christ. He will not wash away our troubles in a rush, but He will soften the edges of our hearts, gently, through time — like stones in the riverbed. He can make good from all things, including mental illness.
Weakening the chain
This is the way of the world. There are times of struggle, and there are some struggles that never leave us. But my children will never be alone. They will always be prepared, loved.
Sometimes it’s OK to be like Mommy — a fighter. If I can’t break this chain, I will weaken it. Maybe they’ll break it.
Despite mental illness, I embrace joy. Joy in an unsolicited cuddle or kiss, in a toddler body clinging to my side or a small hand reaching for mine. In an excited voice sharing a secret, a smile that meets me from across the room. In a voice saying he just wants Mommy. In the support of my husband, friends, and family. They still want me, love me. So does God.
This is unconditional love. This is Christ’s love for us and our example of how to love one another. We love hard. We love through it. Perfection is not a prerequisite for love. We will never stop trying to love better.
God forgives me, my children forgive me, but can I forgive myself? I must, at least to teach them self-forgiveness. At the same time, I must learn to love myself as one of God’s creation. I am not a mistake.
Love and hope
There is growth in the reflection that parenting thrusts upon us. Nothing holds a mirror to your face like a child. Maybe nothing teaches you to love that reflection, despite its imperfections, quite like Christ.
Though I struggle, I am better for it, day by day, bit by bit. Maybe my children are too. The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV). Are we the irons sharpening each other, or is it just me against myself?
Thank God 1 Peter 4:8 also promises that “Love covers a multitude of sins.” So long as there is love, there is hope. And there is always love.
Some days I swing in the backyard with my daughter on my lap. She lays her head back upon my chest, and it rises and falls with my breath. We soak in the fall sun. Birds rush from the treetops and turn on the wind. The breeze sweeps dry leaves across the grass.
She is safe, happy, loved. Our bodies swing together, back and forth, back and forth. This too is parenting with mental illness. With Christ’s help and others’, I can do it.
About the Author