Managing Your Mental Health While Parenting

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**I am not a health professional of any kind. The following is a description of my choices and how I manage. Please seek help from a licensed therapist or doctor to diagnose and treat any and all mental health conditions.**

Last month I had one of the most crippling anxiety attacks I’ve ever had. On a random Tuesday morning, I found myself shaking and my mind reeling. I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet. I could hear my kids playing in their rooms, already ready for the day. I was overcome with fear and anger, and I couldn’t bring myself to move.

I sent my spouse this text, “I’m staying in bed. Tell them I’m sick. I’m paralyzed with anxiety. I’ll lose it if I get up, I know it. But I can’t even get up. Can you please manage?”

Because he knows I suffer from a handful of mental illnesses, he simply responded, “Got it.”

I don’t know what I would’ve done if he hadn’t been home.

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My first diagnosis and treatments came at age 16.

More would continue to come for another twenty years through a variety of life experiences that both helped and hindered my progress. Traumas and the deaths of loved ones have intermingled with the triumphs of a “normal” life (college, grad school, career, marriage), as they do for so many. But nothing, no celebration nor damage, has made me more acutely aware of my mental health than being a parent.

Our kids see EVERYTHING we do and do not do. Making the right choices for ourselves and our world suddenly has huge implications for these adorable little darlings.

First, it was the fear of passing these genes on to another generation (as they were passed on to me). Then, it was the emotional roller coaster of trying to conceive and pregnancy. Finally and forever, it’s the intricate balance of honesty and withholding, self-care and sacrifice, high standards and just getting by.

I don’t tell my kids more than they need to know, and I don’t lie.

My kids know I go to therapy. They know she helps me make decisions and manage my emotions.  They don’t have to know the names of my illnesses or what they make me think and do. At least not yet. My kids are 8 and 5. Deciding what to tell them about my mental health gets increasingly difficult as they get older. Summer is approaching, and they will be home from school with me. I will lose my very valuable alone time, which I am super lucky to have in the first place. They will witness whatever I can’t manage to hide from them. When they are old enough to understand more completely, I will tell them everything, because of the aforementioned genes. If you don’t know what might be coming down the pipe for you, you will be less likely to equip yourself with the tools you need to manage it. #letstalkaboutit

Self-care means taking care of yourself.

I’m not sure when pop culture decided taking care of yourself was an indulgence of bubble baths, pedicures, and pink wine, but it has got to stop. Self-care means knowing what I need every day, hour, or moment. A constant state of analysis is my norm. I am scanning myself for reactions to triggers, changes, and emotions. The hard part is the sacrifice it often requires. In order to prevent a spiral, I need to react in a positive way to my scans. If my gut wrenches and my skin starts to prickle, it is my responsibility to fix my situation. Often, the easiest fix is leaving, kids included. Sometimes I tell them the truth. “I’m very uncomfortable with what’s happening, and I can’t handle it. We need to leave.” Sometimes I don’t. “We have to get going! Pick one last thing to do!”

Bringing the kiddos is sometimes soothing, sometimes infuriating. Jump in all the puddles you want, my loves, just let Mommy relax.

Self-care for me can be as simple as disconnecting. If I am unable to control my spiraling thoughts, I have to distract them instead. I can blast some music, escape into a book, watch a movie or a show, or call a friend to hear about their day. When I miss the cue or choose to ignore it, and the spiraling thoughts win, it can be hard to snap out of it. I am easily paralyzed by overthinking and overanalyzing, so I also make an effort to intentionally move my body daily: the earlier, the better. It seems so reductive, but every time I intentionally get physical with my body, the more successful my whole day becomes.

(A side note about my toolbox: I don’t take any medications. I am pro-medication, but unfortunately, I am one of the people who gets every side effect in the small print. The annoying stuff and the life-threatening stuff alike. So I use movement, talk therapy, aromatherapy, vitamin supplements, literature, and Netflix. Don’t forget to talk to your own doctor about what things you need in YOUR toolbox.)

Finally, I have had to lower my standards for survival and raise my standards for commitment.

I love to cook, but I don’t make meals from scratch very often. The rejection is strong with the little ones. I take it personally. So, truly as a coping mechanism, I only make foods I know they’ll eat. Because a happy dinner is better than a from-scratch dinner. I also only keep the first floor of my house clean. I need to keep it clean because order outside helps order inside, but I only do what I can handle. I can work up to having an entirely clean house, but it’s not in my plan right now. Speaking of which, having a plan is an excellent tool for me. Always having a plan.

Never underestimate the power of friendships, either. Another important tool. When one of the women in this picture passed away suddenly in 2018, our worlds were rocked, but we were brought together fiercely in a way we didn’t even know we needed.

One of the hardest things for an extrovert, perfectionist, social butterfly like me is having a plan for how I spend my time. I want to do all the things! But I know I can’t handle them all. Instead, I make priorities and I do everything I can to keep them. The things helpful to my mental health always come first: church, daily movement, family time, social time, and volunteering at my kids’ school. Commitments and invitations not suited to my current mental state get a hard no. It has taken many years and many hours of therapy to learn to use that “No.”

It has become my greatest tool.  

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When your chronic, invisible health problem is mental health, your safety is your salve. The question I have to ask myself is “What would make me feel safe right now?” Sometimes it’s finding someone to talk to ASAP. Sometimes it’s yoga or dancing. That Tuesday morning last month, it was staying in bed. Everything was scary. Not moving was the only answer.

My kids came in to say goodbye before leaving for school.

“What’s wrong, mom?”

“I don’t feel well. It’s my head.”

“Okay, mommy. Feel better.”

“Thanks, babies.”

I stayed in bed all day and part of the next. My partner brought me food when I asked for it. My kids came in and cuddled.

I felt utterly defeated but also incredibly uplifted by the support my family provides.

When I greeted my kids at the door when they came home from school on Wednesday, the panic had gone. I was fine. Not great. But fine. On days like those, fine is about as wonderful as I can hope for.

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If you identify with any fraction of this, know that you are not alone. You do not have to suffer in silence. You don’t have to change your whole life today, but even a slight pivot can be all it takes to change direction.

**Please seek professional help if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others. You can call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741. Please check in on your friends and family. Please talk about mental illness. **

 

 

 

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Emily is a former communication teacher and speech coach. She earned her BST and MA in Communication Studies, both from MSU, Mankato. When her first child was born (Olivia, now 9), she took an extended maternity leave that turned resignation. When her second child (Nathan, 6) started kindergarten, she returned to work to teach Oula Dance Fitness at the Y and serve her church as their Congregational Services Coordinator. In her spare time, Emily enjoys drinking wine in the bathtub, painting and writing lovely things, and trying not to swear in front of her kids.