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Parenting With Mental Illness: Part 1

By: Michelle Vasiliu

In 2015, my first picture book, My Happy Sad Mummy, was published.

My Happy Sad Mummy is a Picture Book for 3-8 year olds. It is a story that portrays the emotional response of a young girl living with a mother who has bipolar disorder.

The book allows families the opportunity to engage in conversations about this illness in a sensitive and age appropriate manner.

Using easily understandable images and words, we see “mummy” through the eyes of her child. During her mania, mummy laughs and talks all day long, but becomes so preoccupied with her own work in the garden that she forgets about her child who falls asleep with exhaustion trying to keep up with her. During her depression, mummy cries, becomes quiet, wants to sleep, and is unresponsive to her child’s enthusiasms. At times mummy needs to go to hospital, so grandma and grandpa come to help. But through all these difficulties, the bond of affection between mummy and child remains strong and true.

The front cover illustrates a young girl sitting in an orange tree looking solemn, whilst two images of her mother are on either side of her. One image of the mother has a face full of make-up, is laughing, dressed in brightly coloured and mismatched clothing and is dancing. In the other image she is on the ground crying and wearing her pyjamas. The two different images are supposed to highlight the two facets of the mother’s illness. That is, the highs and the lows. This is depicted by the clothes she wears and how she acts when she is in the garden. The little girl watches from the safety of the tree, high up in a branch. She is bewildered and concerned by both states of her mother’s illness.

The text and illustrations in the story about the mother up gardening in the middle of the night is based on something I actually did. I used this example as one to show the irrational state of mind and endless energy of the mother during one of her manic stages. In the book, it shows the mother and young girl doing a pleasant activity together. That is, gardening, including planting flower seeds. However, when the little girl tires the mother just keeps on going. Later on in the story, these seeds sprout and the little girl runs into the house excitedly to show her mother, who barely notices them. Later when the Grandparents come to look after the little girl whilst her mother is in the hospital, the grandfather spends time gardening with his granddaughter but unlike the little girl’s mother, both the Grandfather and little girl stop to rest. Afterwards, they eat cake with orange icing on top, made with the oranges grown from the orange tree in the garden. And finally, there is the scene at the end where the little girl goes to visit her mother in hospital and brings the flowers that have grown from the seeds they first planted together, symbolising their common bond – that is, their love for one another.  

My Happy Sad Mummy is unique in that there are less than a handful of books worldwide that deal with the issue of bipolar for preschoolers and early school age children.

My motivation for writing My Happy Sad Mummy came about after I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 2007. At the time, my children were three and six. I was keen to alleviate their fears about what was happening to our family as a result of my illness.

Being an author and having young children meant picture books were a big part of my life. When I was in hospital I asked the staff to help me find a picture book that could help explain my illness to my children. It took a long time before they came back to me and when they did, I was given a list of resources which really didn't meet my needs. The very few picture books on the list were very dated, or extremely difficult to source, and by this I mean, I had to go to considerable effort to obtain them. For example, I remember there being one book on the list that required me to ring overseas, which I did but never got through.

It was a very frustrating experience, and when you're sick, it makes it even more difficult.

What I wanted was a suitable book in my hands right then and there. There wasn't one, so years later, when I was well, I decided to write one myself.

Sadly, ten years down the track, there is still a very large gap in the world-wide market for children's books about mental illness, in particular, books suitable for pre-schoolers and early school age children.

In Australia, where I come from, one in five children have a parent with a mental illness. This is a lot of families. No doubt, the statistics are likely to be just as high in other countries around the world. Given there is such a high percentage of parents who could benefit from a greater availability of children’s books about mental illness, it frustrates me that there is such a devastating shortage of books of this nature.

It is a fact that many parents who have a mental illness struggle to find the right words when talking to their children about their illness. Indeed, it is not uncommon for some parents to shy away from the topic altogether.

I wrote My Happy Sad Mummy for the thousands of young children all over the world living with a parent who has a mental illness so that they may make sense of their parent’s illness.

My Happy Sad Mummy was also written for these same parents, who may need some kind of frame work to help explain their illness to their children. Simply put, it is a tool they can use to begin an on-going dialogue about why they sometimes behave in strange or distressing ways.

To learn more about parenting with mental illness watch Michelle's Psych Byte with IBPF HERE:

You can order your copy of My Happy Sad Mummy HERE.

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