I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a wash cloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.
I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:
‘Are you ok?’
I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:
‘Did I just try to drown my baby?’
I am recovering from an acute psychotic episode, a patient in the mother baby unit of a private psychiatric hospital. I am now well enough to look after my baby, but I am battered by the experience of psychosis. So I don’t trust the contents of my head. And the media has taught me that I will never be a good mother because I live with a severe mental illness.
That was nearly nine years ago. I’d like to travel back in time and tell myself:
‘You can’t see it now, but this illness will make you a better parent than you would have been without it.’
The media doesn’t tend to report good outcomes for the children of parents with mental illness, especially when that mental illness includes episodes of psychosis. We hear about murdered, neglected, abused, bereaved children, children who are scarred by what they have seen, and children who are removed from their homes as a result of a parent’s mental illness. And yet, many of us are doing a better job of parenting precisely because we are living with a mental illness.
Great parenting requires insight. In psychiatry insight means recognising early symptoms of your mental illness and can be the difference between surviving that illness or not. In broader terms insight means learning about yourself, and how you interact with others, including your children. Gaining insight means allowing your weaknesses to breathe down your neck, acknowledging them, and finding ways of working with them. It is an uncomfortable process, and usually requires some structured psychological education, whether it’s one on one sessions with a psychologist or programs such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Parents living with a mental illness will at some point be faced with the choice between doing the hard work to gain insight or attempting to parent without it. Parenting without it is like catching a butterfly with a sledgehammer. Ineffective at best. Tragic at worst.
Parents not living with a mental illness often remain unaware of the concept of insight or may be unwilling to sit through the discomfort of gaining it. These parents can absolutely survive without it. They can generally also parent without it being a butterfly versus sledgehammer situation. But they may not be as self-aware as a parent who has had to earn insight and psychological tools out of necessity.
I don’t believe perfect parenting exists for any of us. I know some days my parenting is sub par. If I’m tired, over scheduled, or just having a bad day, my weaknesses rise to the surface and take over. I can be impatient, short-tempered, controlling, a perfectionist, and a black and white thinker. But none of these things are due to my mental illness. They are just unhelpful personality traits.
However, thanks to my mental illness I now have enough insight to be aware of these traits, which I may not have been had I never had to confront them. It means I can apologise to my children if they have been on the receiving end of one of my weak areas. And if I notice these same traits bubbling up in them, I can gently teach them self-awareness, which might save them years of psychological work in the future.
An insightful parent – whether they are living with a mental illness or not – can gift their children emotional intelligence and the tools to help them make their way in our imperfect world. And surely that possibility makes the discomfort of confronting our weak spots worth it.
In addition to a lot of hard work, access to high quality mental health care and an absence (or at least low level) of stigma in the patient’s life are necessary to develop insight into a mental illness. Frustratingly stigma around mental illness is still rampant and access to high quality mental health care in this country is means dependent and can be inconsistent. As a result, not everyone living with a mental illness is afforded the opportunity to gain timely insight.