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Mothering with mental illness

Matt, Anne and Theo. (Diana Nazereth)

I was lying in bed the other day when my husband and son came home from work and preschool. I heard the front door slam, then the usual kerfuffle of taking off shoes, setting backpacks and grocery bags aside, and enthusiastic greetings for the cats.
“Mama’s home, I see her shoes and bag!” said my three-year-old.

And then:

“I’m just going to go into the bedroom to check on my mother.”
I wish I could say that I don’t know why a preschooler might feel the need to check on his mother, but the fact is that I do. He’s heard similar things countless times, from my husband, my mother, my sisters, my friends. As someone who struggles with anxiety and major depression, I am a person who bears constant checking on. And mostly I’m incredibly grateful for these people who are willing to take a second to make sure that I’m all right, but up until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that my son was there too, drinking this all in. I’d thought that I could keep my illness separate from him, but in retrospect I can see how ridiculous that hope was.

How could I hide these things from him – the constant metallic taste of fear in my mouth, the tearful meltdowns over any little thing that might trip up my routine, the relentless self-loathing that sometimes paralyzes me for days – things that have so profoundly shaped who I am?

I’ve spent most of my life hiding my depression and anxiety, but being a parent makes this so much harder. For one thing, the chronic lack of sleep deflates my mood and heightens my jittery dread. For another, all of my fears have found a perfect vehicle in my child; I’ve gone from being preoccupied with my own death to worrying almost exclusively about his. And while it’s pretty easy to avoid discussing fears about my own mortality, it’s much harder to, say, hide the fact that I was certain I’d caused some kind of brain damage because I didn’t have his squishy little infant head placed at exactly the right angle in his carrier. When I started weeping in the clinic while trying to explain that I was sure that my son would never be able to walk or talk or feed himself, the doctor just smirked and said, “Does he look brain damaged to you?”

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. There was also the psychiatrist I saw for my postpartum depression, who, after I’d told her that breastfeeding was literally the only thing I felt like I was doing right as a mother, advised me to stop because the medication I was taking might poison my son. When I explained that my family doctor and I had chosen this antidepressant specifically because it’s widely known to be safe for nursing mothers, she just rolled her eyes and said, “Well, I guess some people are breastfeeding fanatics, even at the expense of their children.”

Then there was the psychiatrist I saw last year as part of my intake for a cognitive behavioral therapy program. When I told him that I’d had postpartum depression, he looked at me hard and asked if the Children’s Aid Society [social services] had ever been involved. I started tripping over myself, trying to tell him that no, I wasn’t like that, I wasn’t one of those mothers who drowns her kids in the bathtub or whatever. And then I tried to explain that while some mothers with postpartum depression might have intrusive thoughts about injuring their children, that does not mean that they will, in fact, hurt their children. Then I panicked, wondering what he was writing about me on his neat yellow legal pad. Would he call Children’s Aid on me?

I worry about losing my son, and with every story that comes out about mothers killing or injuring their children, that anxiety sharpens just a little bit. It’s clear that these doctors don’t have any faith in my agency or ability as a parent; some days, when my usual state of existential dread is particularly bad, having my son taken away from me seems like a very real possibility.

Most days, I don’t feel like I’m a great mother. I spend a lot of time in bed. My energy is so low that if I take my kid to the park in the morning, I need to lie down for an hour or so afterwards. I cry easily. Sometimes I have panic attacks. None of this feels like good parenting, and it’s hard not to think that if I just tried a little harder or was just a little less self-indulgent then I wouldn’t be like this. I’ve had days when I feel like bringing my amazing kid into this world is one of the stupidest, most selfish things I’ve ever done; I worry that there is nothing I can do to mitigate the damage my existence is almost certainly inflicting on him.

But when my son ran into the bedroom to “check on” me and I saw his funny, loving little face, I wondered if he might also be gaining something positive from all of this. He’s compassionate, kind, and can be sweetly patient in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a 3-year-old. And while my personality quirks can make our lives tricky sometimes, they also mean that I’ve learned to be creative in how we have fun together – if I’m not up to leaving the apartment, we might build a couch fort and spend the morning in there reading and listening to music, or we might spend an hour trading increasingly silly versions of favorite fairy tales back and forth, stories about the three little squids who build their houses our of sand, seaweed and driftwood and live in fear of the big, bad octopus. We invent our own ridiculous languages, like replacing the first letter of every word with b. We draw pictures together, sliding the same paper across the table, adding on to each others’ illustrations.

I am trying to take a cue from my son and become more compassionate towards myself. When you live with depression or anxiety, there are two things that are incredibly important: self-care and a solid support network. Accepting that there are some days that I have to spend in bed, and learning not to feel guilt-ridden about the fact that those are days I miss out on spending with my son, is a form of self-care.

Going out for a walk late at night and counting all the different bird calls I can hear because I need to think about something, anything, other than suicide is a form of self-care.

And, finally, trying to let go of all the ways that I perceive of myself as failing as a mother is a form of self-care. I have to take care of myself, because I have to be there for my son.

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and cat enthusiast who blogs about feminism, mental health, and parenting. You can follow her on twitter at @anne_theriault or her blog at The Belle Jar.

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