My children wake me up most mornings, and as I yawn and stumble toward the source of the crying, my subconscious is already assessing what kind of day it will be. Some days I shine with the steady light of normalcy; some days I pulse with the intensity of hypomania; some days I am swallowed in the darkness of depression. The light is unpredictable, uncontrollable. I blink awake while the children play at my feet, and as eggs sizzle in the pan and the bread heats in the toaster, I reach for my plastic bin of prescription medicine bottles. “Mommy has to take medicine,” I explain to my children, in wanton violation of the edicts of parenting experts to always speak in the first person. I open bottles, splitting one pill, counting others. I will repeat this routine twice more before bed.
Before the pills entered my life, I could not bond with my children. Exhausted and hopeless, I changed diapers and prepared bottles in a haze. A thick veil fell between my sunken eyes and the shining faces of my babies, and as though I was weighed down by blankets of guilt, I could not lift it. Their cries annoyed me; their laugh barely reached me. I cried while I cared for them, tears of sadness, because sadness was the only emotion I could feel.
The darkness reached a breaking point, the therapist appeared, the pills appeared, and suddenly I could see. I still had hard days, but the veil between myself and my children was finally gone. I gloried in the softness of their skin, the music of their voices, the closeness in the tasks of caring for them. With my new abilities to plan and multitask, I was finally able to do housework, take the children to the market, go to the park; these were privileges of normalcy that I had never before been afforded.
I will always feel the pain of losing my son’s first year to the darkness of deep depression. I can only be thankful the storms now are shorter and less intense, and that I can hold him and his sister close now and offer them the empathy and strength that I could not then.
What do I want you to know about parenting with mental illness?
I want you to know that we who suffer from darkness of the mind, we do our best. But sometimes our best just isn’t enough. I clawed at the dirt walls of the pit that entrapped me, desperate to be on the surface with my children, but my scrambling only buried me further. How can I possibly describe the wrenching pain of that separation? How can I describe the desperation of the clawing, the total exhaustion of the effort? As a mother sickened by mental illness, I was too weak to weave the bonds of trust and connection with my children, and the knowledge that this has hurt them leaves scars on my soul.
I want you to know that on the good days I feel like a normal mom, and on the bad days I can barely direct my body in the simplest tasks of childcare. My mind struggles to claim a thought, to plan out how to make breakfast, to access my parenting toolkit. My children cry, and I hold them and cry, because the only thing I have to offer them is my own pain in that moment. How can I describe what it is like to sit on the floor, holding a wailing toddler in each arm, with tears of anguish pouring down my face because I cannot form a coherent thought, cannot remember how to soothe them?
I want you to know how my suffering has made me a better mother. We whose minds are broken, we know intimately what it is like to fail, to be alienated, to be weak. I access these places of brokenness to empathize with my children when they struggle. If the best I have to offer isn’t enough, perhaps my brokenness is, and so I offer empathy for the hard times, the failing times, the quitting times, the not-enough times. I know that internal suffering doesn’t always require external justification; heart-pain is always valid, even if it is caused by a broken cookie. I have cried over less.
I want you to know that mental illness doesn’t just disappear; it can rarely be conquered. It is a disabling, progressive, lifelong condition that requires management and often medication. I am legitimately sick, and the suffering caused by my sickness touches my family and my community as well as myself. The grace in the diagnosis, in identifying the disease, is that I am absolved of blame. Please understand this: we who suffer in the dark are survivors, fighters, bravely reaching and taking hold of life even as the illness loosens our grasp. I do this for myself, my husband, my community, but mostly I do this for my children. I want them to see their mother struggle; I want them to feel, in that deep place where motherlove lives, that life is good, life is valuable, life is worth fighting for. Always.