Having bipolar disorder does not mean that you are incapable of being a loving, supportive, and kind mother. But it does mean that you need to proactively prioritize physical and mental wellbeing.
All moms must be unbalanced to one extent or another. After all, if committing to decades of, in the words of author Elizabeth Stone, “having your heart go walking around outside your body,” isn’t a little illogical, I don’t know what is.
However, I’m not only a mom: I also, like one in every 25 American adults, have a serious mental illness. I was first diagnosed with clinical depression after graduating from college, although my guess is that I became symptomatic much earlier in life. For the past 20-plus years, I’ve been in treatment for bipolar disorder, a condition known for its typically cyclic highs and lows. My personal experience is characterized by far more of the latter than the former – although I periodically go through mania-induced spells of frantic activity, I generally suffer more with depression that can range from annoying to almost completely debilitating. Since giving birth to my older son in 2003, the worst of these episodes was a nearly two-year-long depression during which I was almost completely housebound and partially bedridden. During this time, I was almost completely unable to care for myself, not to mention my children, paralyzed as I was by severe anxiety.
If it sounds awful, it was. Seven years ago, it made me panic when I had to turn over in bed and face the window during the daytime. Now, I’m a totally different person from the woman for whom taking a shower was usually an insurmountable accomplishment. I overcame my depression, and with the help of time, the love of a lot of amazing people, and therapy, my kids, who suffered so my during that time from my absence and sickness, continue to grow and flourish. We are all healing together on an ongoing basis.
The message here is one that women with mental health diagnoses don’t hear often enough: Yes, you can be a mom even when you have a serious mental illness. It’s okay. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way in my continuing journey that may help:
#1 Check in with your doctor when you first start thinking about getting pregnant
Have all the routine checks to ensure that you’re ready to carry a baby, but also check with your doctor and make sure that any mental health meds you’re taking will not be an issue during pregnancy. If you need to make changes to your prescriptions, allow time for your system to adjust before you start trying. Also, when you choose an OB/GYN with a view toward getting pregnant, you may want to see if they have experience in dealing with psychiatric meds. Before getting pregnant with my older son, I had a conversation with my doctor in which she ensured me that my meds would be okay until I was pregnant. However, one of the drugs I was taking was very new, and when I subsequently showed up a month or so later and tested pregnant, the doctor took back what she’d said about it being safe out of an abundance of caution. I ended up at a high-risk maternal-fetal medicine doctor, which ratcheted up my already-raging anxiety several notches. If I had checked beforehand to made sure I was working with an OB/GYN who had more experience with psychiatric meds, I could have avoided all that.
#2 Prioritize your health
Don’t go off your meds unless your OB/GYN tells you to. There are several medications that are generally safe for use through most of the pregnancy, in that their benefits to you will far outweigh any risks to your baby. A stressed or depressed mama is just as bad – if not worse – for the baby as any potential side effects of medication might be. Also, if you’re not on medication but have a history of depression and are concerned about postpartum depression, consider discussing this with your OB/GYN. The two of you might elect to start a medication in the third trimester to reduce the chances of having to deal with such effects.
Of course, prioritizing your physical, mental, and emotional health doesn’t end when the baby is born. One analogy I commonly make is that with a mental health diagnosis on board, the brain is like a Formula 1 engine. You might be able to get away with ignoring the oil change light on your neighbor’s car dash, but if you don’t follow the exact maintenance schedule for the Formula 1 car, you can pretty much guarantee that sucker’s going to end up breaking down. To look at it another way, when you fly on the airplane, there’s a reason they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first and then take care of any kids around you: You can’t help anyone else unless you help yourself first.
#3 The same goes for sleep
My sons are 16 and 12 now, and I continue to be a vigilant hoarder of naps – not just because I’m almost 50! A psychiatrist friend of mine and I recently had a conversation about looking at sleep like medication. Whether you’re a mom or not, sleep is essential to being the best person you can be, and this goes double when you’re a parent.
#4 Be truthful about your shortcomings and forgive yourself
My boys, especially my older son, were damaged during the months that I was unable to parent them during my breakdown. I’ll always have guilt about that, but the fact is, I was sick. I missed that time out of their lives, yes, but that was completely out of my control. I cannot go back to that time and redo it now, nor can I buy my way out of it with expensive gifts (I’ve tried this), spoil them and bypass disciplining them so they’ll love me more now that I’m better (I tried this, too, and it turns out that that’s a really dumb idea). What I can do is be truthful about what occurred, be firm, and do what I can to make amends.
As a corollary, during my life as their mom, mental illness has also played a role in my having done idiotic things like being irresponsible with money. This is something that normal moms do, too – however, in my case, it has on occasions had dire consequences, because one of my manic symptoms is excessive spending. Let me emphasize: That’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation. However, while painful in the moment, being truthful with my children has been critically important to me, even life-changing. Telling them why we actually had to move out of the house they both came home from the hospital to – I lost it to foreclosure partly due to being unable to work during my illness and partly due to bad choices – ended up being life-changing, because I discovered that they love me even knowing the idiotic decisions I’ve made. I’d never believed in this kind of unconditional love before, and learning to really take in this feeling is beginning to free me from the lack of self-worth that caused me to spend above my means in the first place. Lesson: Like all those shopworn old maxims, “The truth will set you free” is a cliche because it’s true.
#5 Get help
You may have an amazing support group among your friends and family. Or, maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking with them about this part of your life, or you live far away from those you love and you need to build a new network. The good news is that many resources exist for counseling at all price points, as well as any number of crisis phone and text lines, online and real world support groups, and other assets you may find helpful. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a great place to start. At their website, www.nami.org, you’ll find lots of information and support resources. Mental Health America also has a page devoted to parenting resources on their website, located here. Finally, there is a site devoted to the topic of mental illness and successful parenting, ParentingWell.org. It’s a little thin on content, but does serve as a clearinghouse of resources.
#6 Give back when you can
This one is optional – because trust me, I know the reality of breastfeeding while your typing on your laptop and taking a conference call, time concerns are no joke – but ever since I’ve been in what I refer to as “recovery” from my breakdown, I have volunteered on a peer advocate line, working with other mentally ill folks. Outside of actually being a mom to my sons, being a mental health advocate is without question the most rewarding thing I have ever done, and has made a huge positive contribution to by own well-being. Working on the line makes me feel like I’m not alone, that I’m helping build community and erase stigma, and hopefully, lets my peers know that if I can do this, so can they.
And you know what? So can you.
If you need immediate assistance in a mental health crisis, call Mental Health America at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-6264, or text MHA to 741741.
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