Shannon L. Gwash, Peak to Peak. As May is Mental Health Month, I thought it would be an appropriate time for me to share a little of my own experience. Parenting is hard. Parenting with mental health struggles is incredibly hard. But my message to anyone out there going through the same thing is: you are not alone. I promise you that.
My 3-year-old daughter was a difficult baby, at best. She was colicky, didn’t sleep through the night until she was 13 months old and incredibly “spirited.” During the first 18 months of her life, my anxiety was through the roof.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to manage my symptoms, but parenting brought a whole new level of barriers. I can’t just go for a run, journal or listen to music to lessen my anxiety. I had to adjust and develop new ways to care for myself while parenting a tiny human. Because, at times, it was too much for me to handle.
But it turns out, I am not alone: approximately one in six parents has a mental health problem.
There was a lot of trial and error that first year and a half, but now I have a much better handle on my anxiety symptoms and find myself being a much better parent – largely because I’m taking care of myself.
Linda Nordin, director of family services at Jefferson Center for Mental Health agrees. “How well you care for yourself will greatly influence how well you care for your child,” she said. “Do not feel guilty about taking that bath or going for a walk alone.”
She offers these other tips for parents who suffer from mental health conditions:
Be aware of your body and emotions. Becoming in tune with your body and emotions is key. I can often sense when my anxiety is creeping in both physical symptoms – digestive issues, hot flashes, inability to sleep – and emotional symptoms – a short fuse, frequent crying, feeling claustrophobic. It’s helpful to be aware of any patterns your body is trying to show you.
Make connections. It’s easy to revert into a turtle shell when struggling with mental health conditions, but reaching out – no matter how difficult – is so important. Isolation is detrimental to both parents and kids. Surround yourself with supportive individuals, whether that’s family, a spiritual leader, school counselor, mental health professional or parents with similar experiences.
Get involved in extracurriculars. Though it may seem counterintuitive to add one more thing to your plate, signing your child up for a community recreation activity can be incredibly beneficial. You both meet new people in your community and you get some time to yourself. (Even if it’s just sitting at soccer practice reading a book or checking social media.)
Give your kids the best. Know the times/days when you’re both on and off. Mornings are usually good for me and because my daughter is an only child and still so young, our weekends rarely are jam-packed with activity; therefore, weekends are the usually my best as well.
Celebrate your strengths. It’s easy to get hung up on our failures: I went through the drive-thru last night; I was late for work twice last week; I haven’t been to yoga in a month, but focusing on your strengths will put you in a much better frame of mind and give you something positive to build off: I read to my daughter for at least 30 minutes every day this week; I presented a successful idea at a meeting last week; I mediated last night. Focus on the good; it’s there, I promise.
Don’t lose yourself. Both parenting and mental illness can be all-consuming, leading you to forget what makes you unique and happy. Whether it’s art, yoga, music, cooking or planning parties – do something for yourself. Individualization is so important to me and I have learned to keep myself, in spite of both being a mom and having anxiety. And sometimes, this mindset benefits my daughter greatly, as she’s done some pretty cool things – concerts at Red Rocks, hikes all over the Front Range, baseball and hockey games, tiny tot yoga and yes, even the occasional beer fest.
Keep these tips in mind when you’re feeling overwhelmed by parenting. “Feeling good about yourself – as an individual and as a parent – means taking care of yourself.” Nordin said. “And if you need additional help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.”
If you’re a parent with a serious mental illness and need some support, or worry that your child is being disadvantaged by your illness, it’s important you try and get help. This is especially important if you feel you need to spend time in hospital, are becoming violent or losing control, or are finding it difficult to cope financially. Check out Jefferson Center’s website for resources and services. (link: www.jcmh.org)