Whatever Works

I went to a mothers group meeting once. I was quite new to the group, and I felt a bit nervous. I can’t remember how the subject came up, but one of the other mothers asked me how the Dumpling, then four months old, napped during the day. I explained that we’d moved a mattress into the lounge, so I could lay down with him and feed him to sleep there; and the moment he stirred I’d lay back down beside him quickly to feed him fully to sleep again. I was a little bit apologetic I think as I said, “It’s just easier that way.”

She just smiled at me and said, “Hey, whatever works.”

I remember feeling very relieved at her attitude. It’s something which has stuck in my mind, though, and I refer back to it often. You see, I frequently find myself in a position where I need to go with the “whatever works” option, rather than doing what I think I “should” do as a mother.

You see, I have a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder – Type II Bipolar Affective Disorder, if we want to get fancy about it. Actually, like Stephen Fry, I prefer the term ‘manic depression’, but that name has largely fallen out of use and it seems a bit pedantic to swim against the tide.

People don’t often talk frankly about mental illness, particularly not as it relates to parenting, so I thought I’d share some thoughts from my perspective. Heck, I don’t even talk about it much, mainly because mental illness is largely stigmatised still. If you watch a soap opera and a character has a mental illness, almost without fail they’re dangerous to other characters in some way. Schizophrenia is a convenient excuse for criminal insanity on television and in books. Actually, criminal insanity is a convenient excuse for just about anything, or so it seems sometimes on the 6 o’clock news. It’s not hard to see why people are often uncomfortable with the concept of mental illness.

Even setting aside the all pervasive media for a moment, in reality mental illness carries with it a number of slightly unsettling ramifications. There are several professions which are basically off-limits to people with certain mental illnesses – positions of critical responsibility, like the police, or ambulance service. There are some good reasons for this, and I don’t dispute that even if I sometimes think these policies could be a little more flexible. But the message we receive from these kinds of limits are that people with mental illness can’t be responsible people – they could go nuts at any time.

And have you spent much time with a person who’s having a psychotic episode? It’s disturbing, to say the least. By definition, a mental illness screws with the way a person thinks and behaves. This is way outside many people’s comfort zone.

So if societal attitudes carry an undercurrent (and sometimes a tidal wave) of fear: that people with mental illness are dangerous, crazy, incapable of shouldering responsibility, and just plain weird; it’s no wonder we don’t talk much about people with mental illness becoming parents. Parents are supposed to be stable, and responsible, and people to emulate.

According to SANE Australia, approximately 20% of adults are affected by some sort of mental disorder every year. (SANE factsheet: “Facts and Figures”) Twenty percent. That’s one in five. It stands to reason that there are awful lot of parents out there who suffer some kind of mental illness. I assume most of them are doing a relatively good job, given that civilisation isn’t crumbling around us.

Basically, people with mental illnesses are just like everyone else. Well, as similar to everyone else as everyone else is, anyway. We’ve all got our idiosyncrasies, we’ve all got our peculiar set of problems, and we’ve all got interesting families. Mental illness presents its own particular set of problems, especially where parenting is involved.

It’s not always simple. I have a particular responsibility to balance my health needs with my child’s. I need to pay close attention to my mental health and be compliant with treatment plans, because my son’s wellbeing is directly affected by my own. But there’s room for flexibility, which is good because even when my condition is well managed, episodes are still inevitable.

This is why I return, time and time again, to that mother’s words: “Whatever works.” The truth is that I can’t always be the parent I want to be. When I’m having a depressive episode, my toddler watches a lot more TV than I’d like. I read fewer books to him. We don’t walk to the park, because it’s too hard to get off the couch.

So what do I do? I call in my in laws, and he spends some more time than usual with Grandma and Grandpa. I leave the dishes in the sink, and I remember that he doesn’t care if he eats baked beans on toast for dinner. To be honest, he kind of likes it. Even if he has it three days in a row.

On the flip side, if I’m hypomanic, we have a great time. We dance a lot, and we run around in the playground together. I’m sure that other parents watching us in the park think I’m a little strange: my toddler just thinks I’m awesome. We draw and paint and cut and paste and make cars out of boxes and I run with him in the shopping trolley through the supermarket making “broom, broom!” noises. We sing and dance in public and I don’t care. So I suppose it all balances out.

I worry, frequently, that I’m not a good enough parent. I’m not stable enough, I’m not consistent enough. But the thing is, if I put aside my worries and just look at my child, I see a happy, healthy, confident child who’s developmentally well on track. So my ‘up’ days and ‘down’ days don’t seem to be having a negative effect on him.

Hey, whatever works, right?

Further info and some useful resources:
SANE Australia
COPMI – Children Of Parents with Mental Illness
Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by plahski on May 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    ‘Whatever works’ is a mantra around these parts also. I think it is a good one for anybody – but especially people who may be experiencing depression. Even if it is a short lived bout of post natal depression!

    I have lived my whole life with a family member (my sister) who was diagnosed with manic depression at a young age. She will be a fantastic mother. She manages her depression without drugs and knows when an episode is coming on through her sleep patterns. When she does have children she has a family support network just the same as me (obviously).

    I know a woman who has 3 children in foster care due to her mental illness. She has a well paid job and is an intelligent woman (actually sometimes it seems like high intelligence goes hand in hand with manic depression – only from my experience so that could be complete rubbish…). What she doesn’t have is a good support network or any support network at all. It makes you think – if her mental health is so disabling shouldn’t she have the community behind her helping as they would if it was a physical disability?

    She has visits with her children and they see this fun woman who loves them to bits and they don’t understand why they can’t be with her. Wouldn’t a better option have been to let her keep her kids and allow for respite workers occasionally? If your child has a disability you get respite workers why can’t it be the other way around too?

    Reply

  2. Yes, I agree. Support is really a critical factor in managing mental illness, but especially so when there are children involved. Respite is also very important in managing mental illness.

    It’s interesting how someone who can hold down a high paying job has difficulty coping with motherhood. As a general thing I suspect it might be because work is compartmentalised – you can find time to switch off from work, you can clock off at some point. Motherhood isn’t like that: the pressure is relentless, because there’s no point at which you can say, “right, I’m done for the day, I’m clocking off from being a Mummy”.

    I think that’s why respite is so important. If the kid/s can be someone else’s responsibility for a few hours, that’s a bit of downtime which can be used to lower stress levels and basically rest for a bit. I’m pretty lucky – my mother in law takes the Dumpling for a few hours at least once a week, and on the occasional weeks where she can’t do that I really suffer.

    Reply

  3. Hi cAt, thanks for such an open post.

    I’m a bit shocked, I just assumed there was support the same as for other chronic illnesses. I can see that respite would be so important, I imagine it is a matter of being aware and managing your life?

    I think anyone in that situation is doing well, even those of us with nothing like that to contend with live by ‘whatever works.’

    Reply

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