How we raise our children while battling mental illness
All parents navigate different challenges as their children grow and develop from one stage to another. But mental illness might make it harder for one to navigate through the routines and challenges of family life.
Tabitha Wafula 32, is married with two children; a son who is two years old and a daughter who is six months old.
She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011. “My parenting journey has been full of ups and downs. On my low days, it’s really challenging to navigate through the day. Sometimes it’s even hard to get out of bed, shower, eat or do anything! I just lie in bed all day mostly on depressive mode and worse, battling suicidal thoughts,” says Tabitha.
“You can imagine how hard it can be to take care of two babies who need a lot of attention, love, care and are entirely dependent on you when you can’t even take care of yourself,” she adds.
She shares how her little ones don’t understand her condition since they are still babies, but when her son sees her crying, he also cries along with her.
She offers: “The craziest thing I have ever done was to leave my children in the house while they were still sleeping and went outside past midnight hoping that something bad will happen to me. Fortunately, nothing bad happened and my life was saved by God’s grace. Sometimes when my son is irritating me and I snap, I beat him up and pour out all my frustrations on him. It’s really sad because later when I am calm, I end up feeling so guilty and sorry for him.”
As a mother who also identifies as a woman with a psychosocial disability, she is currently working on herself, hence every time she feels low, depressed, angry or in a bad mood, she asks her mother for support to help her look after the children as she recovers and becomes mentally stable.
“The hardest part about being a parent battling a mental health condition is the fact that I feel like I am never enough to be a good mother, especially when I am mentally ill and admitted in a rehabilitation centre. There is also the fear of not being sure if I will recover after a relapse and bounce back to taking care of my children,” she says.
She is grateful that on the bad days, she gets a lot of support from her husband and her mother, who are her caregivers.
“They really come through for me. Caregivers play a major role in our recovery process and they are important people in our mental health journey. They provide a strong support system,” Tabitha says.
She is currently doing mental health advocacy to create awareness so as to end the stigma and discrimination against people living with disabilities.
Christine Miloyo is a social worker and mental health advocate currently working as a teacher. She is also a mother of two children aged nine and five years. Christine also suffers from bipolar mood disorder.
“As a parent with a mental health condition, it hasn’t been rosy. To begin with, losing my first child in my early 20s while still in campus took a toll on me as I had to defer my studies. Secondly, raising these children single-handedly with no job for so long hasn’t been easy as I had to depend on my parents and siblings for almost everything. Thirdly, hospitalisation due to mania and depression makes me leave the children unattended, which doesn’t settle in well with me. Finally, juggling between, work, family and advocacy isn’t easy. But I am thankful to the fact that my family has been supportive,” she explains.
Her children, she says, understand that she is sick and needs to take her medication every day. “Every day, they remind me to take my medication. When I was expecting my second born, I used to really vent out on my son. I was going through a lot. There was also this time when I had been taken to my grandmother with my daughter who was a week old at that time. I ran away with my son and went back home, leaving my daughter alone in the house! We had to pick her the next day. These are just some of the crazy things I have done due to my condition,” Christine says.
Knowing her triggers and warning signs and getting help before things get out of hand has helped. “I also joined various support groups, which have helped me learn tips on coping as a bipolar mum and know that I can use alternative modes of correction instead of caning and yelling,” she shares.
She says the hardest part about being a parent battling a mental health condition is the unpredictability of her condition.
“Not knowing how tomorrow will be makes me really sad since I cannot pre-plan due to the uncertainties. Being unable to hold a job for long due to my condition was so unfair to my children since I couldn’t give them the life they always wanted. Depending on medication I take for stability and sleep is something I don’t like at all. The anger outbursts, running away from home is too much, especially for my family and the children. Not being able to manage a relationship is sad for me since I deny my children the chance to live in a complete family and experience the love of a father. Being the only parent they depend on, I just have to work extra hard to be stable so that I can be the best mother,” she says.
Though she gets the right support on those bad days, sometimes she can’t help, but feel she is a burden to her family and prays that she will get better, so that she can take care of the children by herself.
Njeri Ndaru, a psychologist, mental health advocate and teen mentor says it can be hard for a parent with a mental health disorder since society expects a parent to be ‘perfect’ and ‘strong’ for the children.
“Unlike now when we have some sensitisation on mental health matters, people used to associate mental health disorders with witchcraft. As a parent, it can be hard if you have not yet gotten a diagnosis since people don’t understand why you react the way you do. For those whose problems have been diagnosed, it becomes simpler when your family embraces you and helps you to deal with it,” says Njeri.
“When you have a disorder, there are both the good and bad times. During the good episodes, show love to the children, be there for them and do everything that you can in your position. A relative can take the children for a week or month. But if your family is not supportive, it will be tough because you have to get a balance for yourself, your spouse and your children,” she adds.
According to the expert, many parents with mental health disorders do not disclose their condition to their children, which makes it hard for both of them. “If a parent can try to explain to their children what happens to them during particular times, the children can understand them better. Some parents with mental health disorders have to take some medications, which they end up refusing due to the side effects,” she says.