As a parent, you’re almost guaranteed to experience guilt at some point. Many of us experience it daily- an inner voice reminding us of all the things we’re doing wrong when it comes to parenting. And parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. So despite how self-assured some parents may seem, the truth is we’re all winging it out here.
However, some of us wing it better than others. As a parent with mental health issues, I find myself burdened by guilt doubly so. Despite my attempts to be a strong parent, when I’m gripped by depression and anxiety I find it difficult to be the parent I want to be. Which begs the question- how transparent should my struggles be to my children?
For many years, having my children witness my mental health issues was yet another source of guilt for me. However, as the years progressed, my stance on this has changed. Despite my discomfort and guilt, I truly believe that not shielding your children from these hard things can be an asset for their growth as people. From the shadow of watching someone struggle, they can grow compassion and resilience.
My anxiety affected my parenting from the very first years of my oldest son’s life. I had him young and was gripped by panic in social situations with other parents where I felt I didn’t fit in. This had the effect of isolating us socially. Although I had the opportunity to go to playgroups in those early years, I would either leave early in a sweaty anxious haze, or I wouldn’t go at all for fear of that panic.
My depression had a far different and less specific impact. There were many things we missed, games not played, and memories not made. Even now it hurts to think of the years that passed as I barely held it together, going through the motions just to keep up the semblance of a normal life.
The impact of mental health issues goes beyond the typical stuff you hear about like not being able to get out of bed. The day-to-day, even with treatment, can look like irritability, mood swings, and physical pains. Although I never sat my son down and told him the depth of my troubles, it was there in plain sight. The shadow that clung to his mother, everywhere she went.
At 16, my son is kind and sensitive. He is quick to give hugs and is very emotionally aware. I spent many years worrying that seeing me struggle with life would be a detriment to him, but I believe it had the opposite effect. He has a deep sense of empathy, and he was shown the complexity of human emotion, and that it’s ok to feel hard things.
I often see memes and articles circulating about the necessity of being strong for our kids, and not allowing them to take on the burden of our troubles. While this may be true to some extent, I think there’s something to be said for allowing them a glimpse into the fact that parents are people too. That adults aren’t perfect. That life is hard, and it’s ok to feel heavy things.
There is no handbook for parenting, but we do know this- kids learn from what they see. So if you are a parent who struggles, know that you are teaching your kids what it looks like to feel difficult things, and keep trying anyway. That in the messy imperfection that might be causing you guilt, you may be doing an incredible job of showing them strength after all.