Why Having Bipolar Makes Me a Better Mom

Cheryl with Kids

Yes. You read that right. I think that having a mental illness actually helps me be a better mom than I would have been without it. Although, about 95% of the time, I believe the exact opposite. Probably 3% of the time, I’m not sure. That final 2% of the time, when I’m feeling stable, thinking clearly, and resilient to what life throws at me, I can see how this part of my life that I kind of hate is making me stronger and better in many ways.

It is easy to believe that having a mental illness makes me a worse mom. When I’m in a mixed state (depressed and hypomanic at the same time), I’m incredibly irritable. I get really angry really fast over relatively small issues. I have to put myself in time out and sometimes I even lock myself in my room, leaving them on their own. Sometimes I’m depressed for months at a time and it’s all I can do to listen for about 5 minutes after school as they tell me about their day. I cry a lot. I have had three extended hospital stays in the past 4 years. Probably the hardest thing for me is knowing that my children worry about me.

I spend a lot of my time beating myself up for all of these egregious flaws in my parenting. That is actually one of the main drivers when I think of the reasons to end my life. I am afraid that I am irreparably damaging these four little people who deserve the kindest, most loving, nurturer far more than the mother they have.

Mother's Day

This is a picture from last Mother’s Day.  My smile belies the guilt and anguish I was feeling as my kids brought me breakfast in bed and I felt indescribably undeserving.  But today, while I’m in a healthy place, I can see that the very things I wish my children didn’t have to experience may be the same things that shape them into more capable, self-assured, and compassionate people. So, I’m writing this list to remind my future self that these little people not only need me, but maybe, just maybe they are also lucky to have me.

They’re learning to admit mistakes, apologize, and that even though we have strong feelings, we still need to respect others. I’ve always been a perfectionist, so admitting I’m wrong is hard. Especially with my children. But the past couple of years, I have learned to admit my mistakes as quickly as I can. I can still be in a tempestuous rage, but I can come to my children and say, “I’m really angry today because of my sad sickness (what we call it in our home). I shouldn’t have yelled at you/said that to you. It was wrong. It’s not right for me to be so angry with you even if you made a mistake. Your mistake was not that big of a deal. I am just struggling to handle my feelings today and that is 100% a problem with my sad sickness and 0% because of you. This is not your fault. I am sorry. Even if I still sound mad right now, it’s not because of you. Can you forgive me?” And if things are still really bad, I tell them I’m going to take a time out in my bedroom until I can be kind.

Children deal with irrational feelings too. Because we talk about it, they are learning that even if you feel mad, it doesn’t make it okay to act out and hurt someone else. And when we do act out, or make a mistake, the right thing is to take responsibility, apologize, and ask for forgiveness.

They are also learning that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to experience emotions. And hopefully, they’re learning that there are healthy ways to deal with both.

They are getting professional help when it’s needed. Three of my four children have had at least a little time with professional counselors. Do they need counseling only because of the trauma caused by having me for a mom? I don’t know. It’s impossible to separate that out. But I think they are fortunate that they have parents comfortable with therapy, willing to seek out that option for help. I recently talked to a woman who has dealt with perfectionism and anxiety her whole life. She wistfully wonders how things might have been different if she had started therapy at 5 instead of 50. I think a lot of parents don’t utilize therapy because they are concerned about the stigma, think that things have to be very severe in order to warrant it, or simply don’t even think about it. I am very familiar and comfortable with this method of treatment and haven’t hesitated to get my kids this excellent form of help.

They’re learning compassion. Children are by nature, largely egocentric. My kids are learning to recognize that other people (including Mom) have challenges, struggles, and hard feelings too. They are learning to look outside themselves and see that they aren’t the only ones who have bad days. They ask me how my day was. They pray for me. They hug me. And they tell me that they love me and they’re grateful I’m their mom. Sometimes it hurts me to see that they are learning more grown-up concepts like these because of my weaknesses–but at the same time, I’m so gratified to see the compassionate and caring people they are becoming.

They are learning to help and be self-reliant. When I’m not doing well, my kids have had to step in and fill in for me. That includes taking care of each other, making simple meals, and one time my daughter even had to bring me my medication when my anxiety was so crippling I couldn’t even get out of bed. Again, it is easy for me to hate myself for forcing them to grow up in this way. But, when you see the pride on a child’s face after she makes dinner for the family, it’s pretty rewarding. It’s more than even that though—I’m discovering that being able to take care of their mom brings them great fulfillment, pride, and joy.

They have a wider circle of love and support. I am painfully aware that I am not always as present—physically and emotionally—in my kids’ lives as they would like. Whenever possible, I force myself to be as present as I can emotionally stand. But, I do my best to find other people to compensate for me. I have been very open with their teachers and other adults in their lives. I explain my illness to these people and then ask them to help fill in for me. I ask them to give all the extra love and attention to my kids that they can. And people have been incredibly generous with their love for my children. So maybe I’m not as available as some moms, but I’m providing my kids with a whole support network of people they can turn to when I’m not there.

They’re learning that growth and progression are a process and that no one has to be perfect today. I grew up thinking that my mom was perfect. Not because she tried to portray that. In fact, I know that if I had told her that, she would have been quick to point out proof that she wasn’t. But that belief haunted me when I became a mom and went to bed almost every night painfully aware of how much I was failing. I couldn’t understand why what my mom made look so easy was so hard for me. It’s taken a lot of years of experience—and conversations with my mom reminding me of times that evidenced that she wasn’t perfect either–to accept that no mom is perfect and I don’t have to be either.

Now, this is a conversation I have with my kids all the time. I tell them when I tried to do something and it went horribly awry. I tell them when I’m scared to try something—especially if it’s because I’m pretty sure I won’t be good at it. I tell them about when I want to give up on a goal because it seems too hard. I even tell them when I have no clue how to be the parent they need in that moment. I tell them that I wish I knew how to be a better parent, but that I keep trying and am still learning. We talk about how true living is found in taking chances, learning new things, and not being afraid to start over or try again. We talk about how there is no growth in already being perfect at something. We talk about how failing only happens if you give up and refuse to keep trying. And we talk about how our loving Father in Heaven is perfect and that we trust in Him to make up for all that I lack in my life and in theirs.

They’re growing up with an example of strength and courage. I don’t usually feel very strong, or brave. But when I have the opportunity to step outside my self-doubts, I can see that maybe having these thoughts and struggles doesn’t make me weak, but persevering in spite of them makes me strong.

This was best illustrated to me a few weeks ago by one of my boys. We were driving in the car, just the two of us. He’s obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records type of statistics and was talking to me about some of them. Then he said, “Mom, if there was a contest for the strongest woman in the world, you’d win.” I happened to be in a very deep and dark funk, so I just looked at him puzzled. He continued, “Well, you’re really strong physically. But also, you keep going even though you have your sad sickness and things are really hard for you.” And then he hopped out of the car to go to a birthday party and I just sat there in wonder. He’s 8. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of observation and then the expression of it seemed way beyond an 8-year old boy.  Even now, as I reflect on the moment, I’m at a loss for words.

It’s not that I think my kids benefit from thinking they have the strongest mom in the world. It’s that they are learning that strength comes in all different forms. And that the ability to keep trying when things are hard is one of the greatest strengths we humans can cultivate.

I can teach them that God loves them because I know His love on a very personal level.  I believe that the most important thing I can teach my children is that God loves them and to love Him back.  I have come to know God and to feel His love for me as an individual in a powerful way as I have turned to Him during the countless dark and desperate days brought on by my illness.  He is always there with arms open wide, ready to buoy me up, to comfort me, and to remind me that there is always hope.  I have a feeling I have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the depth of His love and compassion for me, but it is deep and eternal.  And powerful enough to soften my stubborn heart to trust and believe in Him and His plan.  When I speak to my children of God’s love for each of us, I speak with conviction.  I know that God and His love for each of His children is real.  I know it because I have experienced it.  I know that only our Savior Jesus Christ understands our pains fully because He experienced them when He suffered in Gethsemane.  I know this because when I have cried out to Him during afflictions I thought were unbearable, He has been there and known exactly what I need to see me through another long dark night, however long it may be, until the light of the morning begins  to shine for me again.  If suffering through the pains of mental illness is the only way for me to know these things as surely and completely as I do, then I am grateful for the chance.  I am grateful because I have such a strong foundation of faith in Jesus Christ and when I teach my kids, I know that they know that I truly know.

I dread the day that my kids learn the depth of the darkness this illness has taken me to at times. I can’t imagine what it would feel like as a child to know that your mother regularly battled a desire to harm herself or end her life. I hope that those things will be past tense by then, at the very least. But I know that that day will provide me with an opportunity yet again.

I will be able to teach them of love and faith with great profundity. I will tell them that it was only the combination of my love for them, their love for me, and my faith in God that could penetrate through the darkness of the abyss engulfing me to give me the will to hold on for another day.

Would I be a good mom without bipolar? Yes. And in some ways, certainly a better one. But there are so many conversations we wouldn’t be having and lessons we wouldn’t be learning. This illness has helped me to get down on their level, to see us as more of a team that everyone contributes to and where we all learn and grow together. I’m pretty sure I would focus a lot more on being in charge of them than on how we can all help each other. So yeah, they’d have more of some things. But I don’t think those things are better than what they gain from our unique take on parenting and family. And most of all, I think what we lose is more than compensated for in what we gain.

This article appeared first on Real Imprints.