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Parenting with Mental Illness

Natalie Frisk is the Curriculum Developer at The Meeting House. She is married to Sam, mom to Erin Penny, and follower of Jesus. Natalie has juggled with her mental health for almost 10 years.

I’m cocooned in bed and I can hear my toddler ask my husband, “Is mommy still sleeping? It’s daytime!”
My husband responds by saying, “Mom is sick today.”
“Why is she sick?”
“Her heart is sad.”My daughter is three, and while she may not understand the full realities of a mom with a general anxiety disorder and occasional bouts of depression, she sees the results on a regular basis.My husband explains that my heart is sad. She comes into my bedroom and kisses my heart. It’s the medicine she knows that works for her. But it doesn’t quite cut it for me. I may spend a couple of days in bed; I might not be able to function as a parent for a while, but my daughter knows that it’s not her fault. It’s because mommy is sick.And I know that if I were sick with a heart condition, kidney condition, or blood disorder, I wouldn’t feel the way that I do about my illness. But I do. It is more difficult to talk about. It is more difficult to ask for help. It is more difficult to not feel like an inadequate parent. And yet, here I am.

Despite the fact that there should be no shame in mental illness, there is often a veil of shame worn by many affected by it. Compound that with the perpetual guilt of parenting and you have a dynamic combination. It’s dangerous. And it’s hard to not allow that to suck you into a darker place.

And so, when I am in a season of health and feel like I have a clear view at my world, I can reflect on things that are important for me, and our family, when more tumultuous times strike.

So, here is an attempt at listing out my best practices of parenting with mental health issues:
Open Conversation

  • With my spouse: This may be the most difficult of conversation practices. Sometimes I find myself falling deeper and darker, and I haven’t told my husband what is really going on. He can see that something is happening but I can mask it with various excuses. And so, my aim is to communicate my ups and downs with my husband as best I can (I’m a work in progress).
  • With my child: As I mentioned, my husband and I try to communicate to our daughter, in language that she can understand, what is going on with me. At this stage, we tell her when my heart is sad. She understands that. As she grows older we will modify our language to paint a clearer picture as she can process more. But this is not something we hide from her, nor will we ever.
  • With my friends: My biggest fear in regards to community is that I am a burden to my friends. But I know if and when the shoe is on the other foot, I want to be there for them. And so, this is a conversation that continues to push me beyond my level of comfort. I know it’s important, but it’s also quite terrifying. During my darkest and lowest times, I have recently committed to share my scariest of thoughts with at least one close friend (aside from my husband). This makes me feel incredibly vulnerable but also much more safe. These conversations are important & some have potentially saved my life but oh so intimidating.

Self-care

  • …is not selfish: In parenting and in ministry, self-care can feel selfish. There are so many needs and things to be done that self-care often falls further and further down the list. However, self-care allows me to care for others better. And I can write this now, say it, and even believe it, but practicing it is another thing altogether. It is not selfish. Self-care (sleep, balance, prayer, professional help) is so important. It makes me a better parent.
  • …is family care: When I take care of myself, I can take care of my family. If I do not take care of myself, my capacity for my family (and community) decreases exponentially. When I am my best self, I am the best wife I can be, and the best mother I can be. Self-care is family care.
  • …is physical, emotional, and spiritual: Self-care goes far beyond a shower every day, and more or less three square meals. This stuff is the bare bones. And though, different seasons mean different things, finding space for physical care (sleep, good food, medication), emotional care (supportive friends, walks outside, counselling) and, spiritual care (time in prayer, time in Bible, time with Jesus, time with mentor) is of the utmost importance in staying a healthy version of myself.

Community
Outside of the handful of people that I share the very core of my struggles with, I have a beautiful extended community of friends within my home church and beyond who walk with me and I with them. When I struggle, they offer to take my daughter to the park. When they experience different things, I attempt to return the favour. It’s a dance of community.

Often, it is hard to share our needs with our community because it makes us feel exposed. Our culture wars against us in so many ways that vulnerability is perceived as weakness, and we should be able to do it all ourselves. This is a lie. We need each other. I need my community. In certain seasons, I need them desperately. That doesn’t make me weak, that makes me human.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from mental illness or a mental health issue annually. If you’re reading this, chances are you or someone you know is parenting with a mental health issue. Consider what you can do for yourself and for others. Let’s talk.

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