The Guilt of Parenting with a Mental Illness

Ali Gail Southerland

Guilt is actually the most overlooked emotion that really unites all parents. I have felt guilty for losing my cool on a stressful day and yelling. For not being able to pay for gymnastics, for having to pass the playground on a sunny day because I was too tired to chase my rugrats. People have even tried to guilt me for spending too much time with my kids.

Guilt is something that rules my life, y’all. And my husband’s, too. We get to deal with all the “normal” guilt that comes with parenting.

But we also deal with the guilt that comes with mental illness. Parenting with mental illness is like being trapped with venomous snakes. Your heart races and every move seems like it’s the wrong one. You feel like one tiny mistake is the difference between life and death.

I had a traumatic childhood that gifted me a lifetime of debilitating anxiety and depression. My husband has been diagnosed, and is undergoing treatment for Bipolar Disorder, a mood disorder characterized by mood swings and mania (low self-control, high irritability, and high energy).

Some days, we wake up and everything is under control. It’s a low-stress day, and everything is going our way.

Other days, I can’t quit thinking about how my every mistake is a failure to my children. How every mistake I make is ruining their lives.

Or my husband had a bad day at work, and his mania has been triggered so he comes home bouncing off the walls but everything we say or do seems to the wrong thing. It’s exhausting for me to watch him have a steel band of control over himself on those days. I can see it on his face. He works so hard to keep from saying or doing something hurtful to our kids. I understand his mood and reactions, but they don’t.

It’s the nights that are the hardest. After all four of our kids are asleep, everything is slow, quiet, and calm. We often break down. We cry. We beat ourselves up about some little mistake we made, maybe snapping at someone or realizing that we skipped over someone’s special Mommy, Daddy, and Me Time that night.

But even on the good nights, the guilt assails us.

Because I have anxiety and depression, it’s more likely that my kids will, too. We don’t know if it’s genetic or learned behavior, but odds are they will also deal with it at some point.

Same for Bipolar. There is some evidence that Bipolar is hereditary, and my husband’s family has it in spades.

We watch our kids like hawks for this very reason. Our oldest has already been diagnosed with anxiety, way back when he was seven. We got him help as soon as we realized there was something going on. And it made a huge difference.

The guilt about his diagnosis, y’all. Sometimes, I can’t sleep because his anxiety gives me anxiety that I passed this on to him. My four-year-old boy is already biting his nails, a sign of anxiety.

There is nothing we can do other than get professional for them help when they need it.

But this has really helped shaped my parenting mission. When my kids were young, my goal was to make sure they never were affected by our mental illness. To shield them from it, to keep it a skeleton in the closet.

Like most goals I had during the early days of parenting, I realize now that hiding our mental illness from them is impossible. It’s slithered into our everyday life, built its nest, and hatched a brood of babies that are lying to wait to bite my kids.

Today, my goal is much more realistic and valuable. I strive, not to shield my kids from mental illness, but to be a beacon of hope, showing them that it is best to meet this challenge head-on and honestly.

To show them, there is nothing wrong with taking medication every day. To show them there is nothing wrong with going to the therapist and coming out dripping in tears and snot. To show them every emotion, even guilt is normal to feel and that with the help and work, every day can get better.

I would love to hear about something that makes you feel guilty and how you dealt with it. Let’s start a conversation on Twitter, tag Candor Magazine, and let’s all find some comfort in our guilt!

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