The decision to start a family did not come easily to me. In the years preceding the birth of my daughter, I had all but concluded that the best thing I could do would be to repress any desire to reproduce.
The rationale behind this did not relate to overpopulation, finances or the environment, but rather the fact that I had experienced a period of mania in my early twenties. It climaxed with a serious episode of self harming, and subsequently a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was told there was no cure and to expect to be on medication for the rest of my life.
I spent the next four years recovering from that one episode. I felt like I’d been benched: frustratedly watching the other players on the field, powerless to make any meaningful contribution. I didn’t think someone like me deserved to be a parent, nor did I want to inflict myself on an innocent and defenceless child. I also feared the possibility of my illness being hereditary (two of my close family were diagnosed with severe mental illnesses). I knew I could not be a “normal mother”, could not offer a child a “normal” life. Thankfully, life didn’t wait for me to get everything figured out.
Those hesitations paled in comparison to the joy I felt the day I had a positive pregnancy test. The gravity of what I’d been entrusted with pulled me to my knees, where I made a solemn commitment to become the best possible mother I could. Knowing there was much to learn, I refused to allow my past to dictate my future, and read all the books and solicited all the advice I could. I wanted to shield my child from any notion of mental illness for as long as possible and to provide my family with a normal mother. “Fake it ‘til you make it” was my game plan, and I white-knuckled it through my precious children’s early years. Fortunately, my steadfast husband was hell-bent on supporting me as I navigated my way into motherhood.
I’ve been mostly stable for over ten years now. Even though I’ve come on leaps and bounds from my worst episodes, I still wobble now and then. My bipolar leanings are still there. I still have a mood disorder. It does not define me, and I still do all I can to protect my family from its effects, but I am learning more and more that children are very perceptive and that I’m not as good an actress as I thought.
Although they can’t always articulate it, the children are affected by my level of well-being. While I have come a long way on my recovery journey, I’m still not in a position to completely disassociate myself from my starting point. Nowadays, my mood spectrum spans not much more than PMS-level crankiness to a couple of days of superwoman productivity per month, but even this has proven enough to make me reconsider my approach to parenting with a mental illness.
Mental health is something that needs to be discussed both in society and at home. Age-appropriate transparency and understanding are essential if my children are to understand that my crankiness is not related to how I feel about them. I want them to know that, while my moods can shift, my love for them will not. And so, I need to create space for us to have conversations about mental health.
When I started tutoring at the Recovery College, my children asked me about my students. We spoke about the fact that some illnesses are invisible but nonetheless challenging. We talked about how no one is perfect and that we are all learning – in different styles and at different rates. We talked about how powerful the mind is and that it can achieve amazing things, but when unwell it can make life very difficult – but not impossible. Happily, I found that I was building on some fantastic knowledge they had already learnt at school!
We have managed to normalise the idea of having ups and downs. I realised my goal was no longer to paint an unrealistic picture of a perfectly happy mother, but instead to model a mother who accepts the need to struggle on in the face of shifting hormones and chemical imbalances, one who is learning to self-regulate and is quick to apologise when things don’t go well.
This is where stories come to the rescue.
‘We are Storytelling beings,’ poet Ben Okri says, ‘…part human, part stories.’ Indeed, stories are my first port of call whenever I’m unsure of how to handle anything tricky that life throws my way. I’ve consumed huge numbers of memoirs as part of my own mental health recovery journey; I want to know if anyone else has encountered what I’m going through, and stories can be relied upon to answer with a resounding yes. They have a magical way of safely containing experiences that might be frightening, disturbing, or just unfamiliar. This is why I have chosen to look to them to help me with my most recent challenge: how to talk to my children about mental health.
It’s no coincidence that childhood – our formative years during which we soak up new information and experiences like sponges – is traditionally when we are most surrounded by stories. Fairy tales, picture books, myths, legends and fables: these are things generally associated with children. As a parent I make full use of them for both enjoyment and instruction. Shared reading is my favourite way to bond with my children. Stories are wonderful ways to learn about all aspects of life and human behaviour. Reading Wonder and praising August’s bravery for going to school has been more effective than simply telling my daughter to stop being nervous. It is because stories are such wonderful teachers that I keep my eyes peeled for any that I can relate to some of life’s trickier issues.
Take, for example, the Pixar movie, Inside Out. The basic premise is that there are fundamental emotions that exist inside all of us, some more favourable than others, but that each has its role and should be valued. Things go wrong when the more pleasing emotion, Joy, tries to compensate for Sadness. There’s a moving scene at the end when Riley (the girl the emotions belong to) is finally able to open up to her parents about how she feels. It’s a fun film that offers children a fresh way of understanding their feelings, but I know my children took it in because if they’re upset and I tell them to calm down, they’ll say, ‘I’m crying because I’m sad; it’s important to feel sadness!’
Stories are a great way to bring tricky issues to light because they are just removed enough from a child’s own sense of self (although I do think it’s particularly important for children to enjoy a story at face value before delving in at deeper levels). It’s far less threatening to talk with my son about Anakin Skywalker’s poor choices than his own!
Although I know my role as a mother will never change, I don’t know what the future will hold for my children. I don’t know if they’ve inherited my mood swings or whether they will experience mental distress in ways I have not. What I do know is that I can only play the cards I have in my hand. We’re living in a time when awareness of the importance of mental health is at the highest it’s ever been, so it’s with this in mind that I’ve chosen to be as open and honest with my children as I feel they can handle. Since these things can run in families, I will be honest about the fact that I am speaking to them as someone with lived experience. I will represent someone who plays the cards she’s been dealt to the very best of her abilities. I will not skirt around the subject of mental health; I will commit to struggling on through the ups and downs as they come, and in doing so I will re-examine my old ideas of what is “normal”.
– Jacinta Read
Wondering how to talk to your own children about mental health issues? We’ve got the perfect book for you: Anxiety, Worry, OCD & Panic Attacks. The complete guide for your family.
From the heart and soul of lifelong mental health sufferer, Adam Shaw, combined with the expert mind of the talented and leading psychologist, Lauren Callaghan, this book for young OCD and anxiety sufferers (ages 6yrs to 17yrs) and their parents/carers is divided into two helpful parts.
This complete guide for your family provides both first-hand evidence for sufferers that recovery is possible, and a user-friendly blueprint for mental health support and recovery.
In Part I we follow Adam’s desperate childhood struggle with OCD, anxiety and panic attacks. We see how he was tormented with mental health issues and hidden worries from an early age: worries that only became worse and more debilitating as he grew older. Drawing from Adam’s experience and narrative skills, combined with Lauren’s wisdom, expertise and compassionate approach, Part I explains how Adam struggled with his condition as a child and what needed to be done to ensure his path to recovery and beyond.
Part II is the definitive recovery approach for children and young people with anxiety, worry, OCD and panic attacks. This is an innovative, user-friendly self-help approach which supports and guides mild, moderate and severe junior and teenage sufferers to a place called recovery and beyond, while including invaluable advice for parents.
You might also be interested in this powerful blog post from our MD, James.