Have you ever been out shopping and witnessed a child have one of those nuclear meltdown kind of tantrums? The parent is obviously embarrassed and frustrated and they must take action. They can reprimand the child, they can snatch them up by the arm and hurry away or in some cases they can even just ignore it. There are probably a hundred different ways to deal with it and it doesn’t seem to matter which one they choose. That’s because a good percentage of the shoppers that witnessed it have already made a judgement about their “bad parenting” skills.
Being a parent that happens to have bipolar disorder feels a lot like that to me. Some people only need to hear the words bipolar disorder and they have already made a determination of my wife’s qualifications without ever seeing an interaction between parent and child.
When my wife and I started discussing having children we spent a lot of time talking about our fears. We were both concerned about whether we would be good parents, but she was also concerned about whether she would pass bipolar disorder (or another mental illness) on to our child. She was afraid of her illness “messing up” our child. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t share her concerns. We were only a few years into our marriage at the time and the roller coaster ride that is bipolar disorder had already made me question more than once whether I had the strength to stick with it. We continued talking about it for about a year until we finally decided that the most important thing we could give our child was love and the rest would work itself out.
She was pregnant within a month. So we got to work. We read a lot of books on parenting, we talked to friends and family with children. We were ready, we had a plan. We thought we were prepared for anything. But we were wrong.
At six months old our son stopped breathing and turned blue while we were feeding him. It was terrifying. We were able to revive him before the ambulance arrived and he spent the next 4 days in the hospital as they tried to figure out what was causing his silent seizures. My wife never left his side.
For the next 5 months we had a heart/lung monitor that we had to attach to him every time he slept to let us know if his breathing got shallow or if his heartbeat slowed too much. On average it went off 3-4 times a night and it was louder than a police siren. My wife was usually already in his room before I could even get out of bed.
At 11 months, the seizures stopped with no real medical explanation. We were still concerned but more than anything we were just thankful to have a happy and healthy little boy.
I’ll be the first to admit the toddler years were hard. There were a lot of manic and depressive episodes in that time. We tried to shield him from it as much as possible, but it wasn’t always effective. My wife did her best to stick to the routine and made sure she found the energy to spend time with him. During one depressive episode he was determined he was going to cheer her up by singing to her and he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working.
We were really fortunate during those years that he never once thought that he was the reason that she was sad. I wasn’t so fortunate however, as he believed for about a year that every time she was depressed that I was the cause (read more about this from the author's wife's perspective here).
At 5, we found a book called The Bipolar Bear Family: When a Parent Has Bipolar Disorder by Angela Holloway. It did a really good job of explaining the illness in terms he could understand. He asked questions for a few weeks after that and even started to notice when her moods changed. He’d usually ask if that bipolar bear in her brain was acting up again. When episodes got bad he would spend a little time trying to cheer her up but if that didn’t work, he just gave her some space and hung out with me.
In a few months our son will turn 9 and I can tell you that it has been the best and the hardest experience my wife and I have ever gone through. She still wonders often whether she is a good parent, and she still worries that she will mess him up.
In the past few years even with all of the episodes she has experienced there has not been one day when she hasn’t been there to get him ready for school, to make his lunch, to help him with his homework. She tries to always take an interest in the things he is interested in. She goes to every doctor’s appointment and is the first person he wants when he is sick or injured.
As far as parenting goes we disagree a lot but always find a compromise. We make bad decisions occasionally and then we change tactics. She comforts and I discipline. She’s his favorite (he’s a Momma’s boy), and I’m the backup plan when she’s busy. When we have a concern about our son we discuss it. When he has an emotional problem or seems to be affected by one of her episodes, we consult with her therapist about whether therapy for him should be considered.
Are we perfect? Not even close. Do we make mistakes? Daily. Are we good parents? I guess that depends on your definition.
My therapist told me once that she believed “good parents” were the ones that were constantly questioning whether they were “good parents”. The reasoning was that they were constantly focused on how to raise their child and were willing to evaluate and adjust their parenting strategies as situations changed.
Our situation changes every day as I’m sure it does with any parent. It’s hard juggling a job, college classes, gym classes and every other aspect of adult life while simultaneously having to coordinate homework, after school activities, play dates, and the never ending string of birthday parties he “needs” to attend. Bipolar disorder is just one other thing that has to be factored in.
For those of you thinking of starting of family my advice is this: Make a plan and be prepared to throw it out and start over if it doesn’t work. No two children are the same and what works for one may not work for another. Work together to make sure you and your partner are building a happy and healthy environment for your child. Discuss any concerns you have about your child with your doctor or therapist. Be open with your child about your illness when they are old enough to understand. Ask for help or advice when you need it. And most important, be prepared to fail sometimes, because like that parent dealing with the nuclear meltdown, some days that’s how you’re going to feel. The good news is you will have plenty of chances to make up for it.
Read more of Ron's posts here.