When I repeat over and over that anxiety doesn’t make me a bad parent, it’s not because I think you might not believe it, but because I’m not sure I do.
Just shy of eight months ago, my partner gave birth to our daughter. She is gorgeous and smart and happy, and I love her so much I don’t know how to contain it. I work from home so that I can spend as much of every day as possible basking in her smile and the sound of her laugh. So far, she is an only child, but she is not the only thing I have to take care of from day to day.
My anxiety was diagnosed three years ago (though I’ve had symptoms much longer) and I carry it in my chest the way I carry my daughter in my arms. In some ways I feel like my mental illness is my child’s evil twin. They both demand massive energy and resources. They both sometimes keep me awake at night. My daughter makes me happy, reminds me to focus on small beautiful details, makes me overflow with gratitude. My anxiety makes me cry, reminds me to obsess over everything I’ve ever done wrong, and magnifies the weight of every awful thing I read about in the news until I feel completely stymied by how to navigate the world at all.
But it doesn’t make me a bad parent.
My daughter is reaching an age where, although actual language is still to come, she is capable of communicating with the people around her, and more importantly, of receiving communication from us. As she grows and her intuition develops, I see how my emotional state affects her mood. If I’m stressed, so is she. If I’m irritable, so is she. Some days, seeing my own mental health reflected in her behavior is enough to pull me out of my own thoughts and back into the world. It’s a reminder to be present, to be mindful, to take better care of myself so that I can be well-equipped to take care of her.
Other days, it’s not enough. I hate to say that. I hate to acknowledge that there is any obstacle I can’t overcome by loving her, but some days, my fears and my insecurities and my deep knowledge of all the ways I am failing drag me down, and I turn on a Disney movie so my daughter will watch the bright colors instead of seeing me cry.
But even on those days, I am not a bad parent. Even on those days, she is clean and dressed and fed and taken for walks and read to and sung to and played with and tickled. The dishes are washed and the laundry is folded at least every couple days. I am fortunate enough to have a partner and co-parent who can pick up some of the slack on my worst days, but even when I’m at the end of my rope, my daughter receives the best and most loving care I can give her.
Being mentally ill does not make me a bad mother; still, I struggle with even acknowledging it, much less reaching out for help. I am afraid to admit, even to my therapist or my partner, that there are days I do not feel capable of doing more than curling up with my daughter in my arms and going back to sleep. Between the social pressure to be a perfect parent at all times, the stigma of mental illness, and the ableist notion that everyone in the world should be judged by their “productivity,” I have to fight through shame and fear to confess that some days even taking my child for a walk to the park feels like more than I can manage. When I repeat over and over that anxiety doesn’t make me a bad parent, it’s not because I think you might not believe it, but because I’m not sure I do.
Our cultural narrative about mentally ill parents is that they damage their children—sometimes through abuse, sometimes through neglect, sometimes just through vicarious suffering. Google “mentally ill parent” and the whole first page is resources for the children of mentally ill parents seeking to overcome the damage their mothers and fathers have wrought on their lives. Our go-to scapegoats as a culture are bad parents and mental illness. We don’t take communal responsibility for the well-being of our neighbors; the United States as a whole is still enamored with a Wild West mentality where every person or family is in charge of their own individual fate. If something bad happens, it’s either because the family failed (usually because of bad parenting) or the individual failed (usually because of mental illness, because it’s easier to just say “They were crazy!” than really dig into the complex and entangled reasons why people do bad things), not because society as a whole let us down.
So it’s no surprise that we have so little compassion for the lived reality of parenting while mentally ill. Depictions of mentally ill parents in pop culture never seem to resemble the figures I recognize from my own community, the moms and dads who go to therapy and do their self-care and take their medication and drink enough water and eat enough vegetables and get enough sleep because keeping their anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder under control is crucial to the stability of their families. Fictional “crazy” parents are always screaming or throwing things or disappearing for days on end or narcissistically manipulating everyone around them, and while it is true that some mentally ill parents do these things, it is also true than many abusive and neglectful parents are not mentally ill. Parents make bad and wrong and hurtful choices because they lack the resources to do anything else, or because it’s how they themselves were raised, or for countless other reasons. Certainly, let’s call out child abuse and neglect when we see them, but let’s not demonize mental illness for everything anyone does wrong.
Having a mental illness and dealing with it responsibly takes time and energy, which are in short supply when you are also raising a child. Mentally ill parents have unique concerns, yet we’re not encouraged to reach out for encouragement or assistance or in fact even acknowledge that we exist. When our children grow up, they’ll have support groups available to overcome the damage we’ve caused them, but we don’t have support groups to help us parent them better today. We deserve recognition. We deserve support. We deserve to claim our own stories without shame, without being sidelined or vilified.
My anxiety is a challenge I face every day, and while I’m doing that I also make lunch and sing my daughter silly songs and push her on the swings. It’s always going to be part of my life and part of who I am as a parent. My anxiety will be in the room for my child’s school play, her soccer game, her college graduation. Sometimes it’s going to slow me down, but I’m never going to let it stop me from taking care of my daughter and of myself. I’m going to do my part to redefine what it means to be a parent with mental illness, because there are so many of us, and we’re doing the best we can.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).