Parenting With Mental Illness | Paula Hanson

What did the therapist say to the trousers?

“Unfold your feelings”

(Joshua Hanson, age 9)

A few weeks ago at the dinner table, my son excitedly announced that he had made up a new joke that he wanted to share. It was this very joke. Joshua proudly wears the title of chief joke maker in our family and is super chuffed that I am sharing it with you all. After congratulating him on his latest comedy, there was a touch of sadness that settled in my heart. This sadness caught me unawares and I saved it until after the bed time routine to really understand it.

When everyone was all tucked-up, I was finally alone with my thoughts. What was this sadness that broke through the laughter at dinner time? Then there was a knowing in me, the familiar feeling that I have met on many occasions over the years…mummy guilt! You see, over the last couple of years I have been battling with an Eating Disorder. This illness has had a profound effect on my physical and mental health but also on our wee family. At one point I was even hospitalised for a couple of months. It hasn’t been easy.

Parenting can be challenging at times, and can be a guilty profession! Add mental illness into the equation and many of us experience a weighty burden of needless guilt. A well-known public-speaker, Brene Brown, explains there is a crucial difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is the feeling we experience when we have done something wrong and shame is the accusation we level at ourselves believing we are wrong. In these moments what I was actually experiencing was shame. I don’t think I am alone in this, I think a lot of us carry unnecessary shame around unmet expectations of ourselves. The reality is that most of us are just doing the very best that we can in the circumstances we find ourselves and with the resources that we have. We want the best for our children and family, and yet so often we add to our struggles by layering shame upon shame.

This “mummy guilt” that emerged on hearing my son’s joke, had its roots in shame around the fact that Joshua, aged 9, knew what a therapist was…Why did he have to know this? Why did he have to know about the struggle at this young age and that his mummy needed to go to therapy? This part of me was so focused on shame’s narrative that my mind started to run away with imaginings about how I had ruined his life and that he would forever be doomed because of my struggles. I couldn’t see the truth of the matter. Sound familiar?

After some time ruminating over these destructive thoughts I was able to take a step back and breathe. As I reconnected with my here and now, I could see more clearly. I stepped out of shame and embraced truth. Life is not always straightforward or plain sailing: there will be ups and downs for us all; moments of joy and laughter, and moments of pain and grief. There will be times of health and strength, and times of illness and frailty. These paradoxes make up the richness of human experience and what we call life. Mental or indeed physical illness should never be a cause for shame or regret because they are interwoven into the fabric of all our lives. The perfect, flawless, life and childhood does not exist. Do I wish my kids did not have to journey through my illness: absolutely! I would happily bind them up with cotton wool and protect them from everything that life would throw at them but then how would they ever learn to navigate their own storms as they move out into the big wide world without me?

Perhaps we can reframe things and see times of illness as opportunities to walk hand in hand with our children through the storms. As I mentioned, my kids know I see a therapist, in fact they know his name and are often curious about what I do there. I relish these times because opening up conversations with our children around mental health is powerful. They are so receptive to these concepts. Normalising mental illness and how to access help can only be a good thing. This generation is growing up better able to talk about their emotions and not being afraid to express their feelings.

There were times when I was very ill that my wider family and community around us stepped in to nurture and “feed-in” into my children’s lives. My kids often talk about the times when various people came to play and most importantly the treats they brought! Having that community support nurtured a sense of togetherness and connection that was healthy for my babies, when things were difficult. Drawing on support and seeking help is so important to our recovery and helps support the whole family. Where “mummy guilt” had me convinced they would be scarred by my absence in hospital, the opposite was true. They often talk animatedly about the big field in the hospital grounds where they played football or the canteen where they had a hot chocolate. What we imagine isn’t always reality!

Let’s keep listening and loving ourselves as we heal, and model this to our little ones. Let’s endeavour to keep walking the path hand in hand with our children, showing them the strength that can be felt despite the ups and downs life brings us all. Let’s empower them to become resilient humans equipped for real life. Let’s throw off shame and embrace the truth.

Keep going, you’re doing awesome!

It’s ok to unfold your feelings.

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You can find Paula at Whispers from the Heart

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