Parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. For most jobs, you get a handbook on the first day. For the most difficult job we get in life, that’s some pretty crappy orientation. Sure you get nine months to read books and ask questions and figure out what you think you will do, but once that baby’s born and you strap him or her into their car seat and drive away from the hospital, it seems like your life becomes a series of “shit, what do we do?” conversations with your significant other. (And once you’re a seasoned parent you’ll feel free to have that conversation with yourself. Daily. Out loud. In the grocery store.) Things have a way of not working out even slightly like you imagined. And every single day you question your ability to parent. You feel like you’re failing so badly that you begin to question your ability to do something as basic as pick out your own clothes in the morning.
On my blog and in my Facebook posts, I try to make people laugh. I want people to understand that they’re not alone—we’re all floundering. But sometimes in my desire to get people to relate, I feel completely alone. As much as most of you can relate to having a child that makes you pull your hair out by the roots, not everyone can understand or relate to the level of stress that parenting puts on me and my husband on a regular basis. You see, we have a child who has been labeled with a half a dozen diagnoses from the health care professionals that she has seen; anxiety, depression, ADHD, ODD, OCD, PTSD, and school phobia, to name a few. Some days she shows signs of all of these, some days she has none. I don’t like labels for this very reason. Putting a label on her doesn’t make anything easier. A label doesn’t cure a kid. The only thing a label does is have people claim to “understand” your life. As in “what’s wrong with Johnny? Why does he act that way?” “Oh well he has XYZ.” “Oh, that explains it. But, hush, let’s not talk about it.”
Anxiety, depression, those all fall under the umbrella of “mental health”. Nearly 1 in 5 people are suffering from a mental health disorder. And yet, talking about mental health is still taboo. You can’t physically see something wrong. There’s no lab test, no scan, no real way to know for sure what’s going on in someone’s brain. A lot of people don’t think it’s real and won’t acknowledge it. Because people don’t want to fully acknowledge mental health, most people still don’t understand. They don’t relate to what is going on in your life and they look at you different—like, why can’t that kid’s parents get it together? Why is their kid lying on the floor of the classroom curled up in the fetal position? They must have terrible parenting skills. why is she fine one day and a blubbering mess the next? They real should discipline her better.
I used to think like that…back when I had one kid and he was easy. Back when I had one kid who went to school without a problem. Back when I had one kid whose biggest fear was going in the basement. Back when I had one kid without crippling anxiety, I knew what everyone else was doing wrong. Now these days, I don’t even know what I’m doing right.
Parenting any child is difficult—like riding a unicycle—practice makes perfect, but you still fall off from time to time. Parenting a child with a mental health issue is really challenging—like riding a unicycle blindfolded with one leg while a rat nibbles your arm kind of challenging. Not only are you wracking your brain on how to get through a day in the most “normal” way you can manage, you never know when the day is going to implode. From the moment you wake up to the moment they go to sleep, you’re walking on eggshells. You never know when your happy child is suddenly going to be paralyzed with fear of a fire drill and refuse to go to school for three days. You never can plan out a day and expect any of it to go according to plan—you might have to have to stop in the ER because your child thinks she’s dying from anxiety induced stomach pains. You can’t go to your other child’s baseball game and leave her alone because she says she hates her life and wants to die. You can’t go to the gym because your child is hysterically crying because she can’t calm herself down because she’s stressed out because she thinks everyone’s talking about her even though they’re totally NOT. Or you can’t even go to work without her clinging to you because she’s terrified of something happening to you. Or her. And what’s worse—you don’t know how to help her. You can’t even assure her she’s safe.
With a child with anxiety, you run the gamut of emotions similar to grieving, because in a way, it is a grieving process. You’re grieving the loss of your child’s normal childhood. You’re grieving the fact that you are just as helpless as she is. First you’re in denial—-there’s nothing wrong, your kid is just being a brat. You need to tighten the reigns, take away her phone, be stricter about bedtime. No more sugar! No more TV!
Then comes anger. Why the hell can’t she get it together? Okay, maybe she’s depressed, maybe she’s anxious, but holy crap not every day of my life is rainbows. Does she think I want to get out of bed every morning? No, I don’t! But damn it, I get my ass up and do it. Does she think I don’t worry about things? I suck it up and deal! She’s making me furious! And that anger gets projected onto your kid. Why does she hate us so much? Why does she do this to us? And you’re screaming and yelling and there’s tears. Every. Single. Time.
After that comes bargaining—with your kid. If you get ten stickers you can go to the movies. If you get fifteen, you can have a sleepover. She tries for a few days—she’s determined. But she never makes it. It’s not potty training or a chore chart—she doesn’t have control all the time. She can’t help herself from becoming anxious about a school project or getting nervous about a basketball game.
And this is what sends you spiraling into the next stage—depression. It breaks your heart that you can’t do this on your own. You can’t make your child better as much as you want too. You are going to have to make some pretty difficult choices. It breaks your heart that you may have no other choice but to medicate your child, maybe put your child in an inpatient mental health facility, or home-school her. You’re devastated to think your child may never know a “normal” life. You have failed in your mind.
Finally, you get to a stage that we haven’t gotten to quite yet—acceptance. Being able to say “This is not my fault. This is not her fault. This is something we have to tackle together. And conquer together.” Because if she had any other disease, diabetes, cancer, sickle cell anemia—people would see it that way—YOU would see it that way.
People don’t talk about mental health, especially when kids are involved. They don’t talk about kids being depressed and anxious and fearful because in a lot of people’s minds, it doesn’t happen. What do kids have to worry about? Kids are resilient—kids don’t get traumatized and have it affect their whole lives, right? I can’t talk about this with too many people—they don’t understand, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but that doesn’t help me feel less alone, less helpless.
I think it would be lovely if everyone would just be honest about how parenting scares them. I think it would be great if people didn’t get caught up in what other people were posting about their oh-so-perfect lives and worry that they don’t stack up, that they’re failing. Maybe we could go around with stickers on our chests. “Hello, my name is John—I’m afraid my kid is an asshole because he likes to burn bugs.” “Hello, my name is Chris—my child bites stray dogs, I think he may have rabies.” “Hello, my name is Heather—my child’s anxious, how about yours?”