The Trauma Survivor’s Guide to Parenting with a Mental Illness

If I had a dollar for every time that I cried to myself as thoughts consumed my mind that I was messing up as a parent, I could buy them something pretty expensive.

As a woman, I know that every mother deals with “mommy guilt” to some extent. We wonder if we did this or that right or if we are just screwing it all up. We beat ourselves up immensely for the smallest details that our children aren’t even upset about, and yet it’s a never-ending cycle. This is only intensified when you are a parent living with mental health conditions.

We beat ourselves up immensely for the smallest details that our children aren’t even upset about, and yet it’s a never-ending cycle. This is only intensified when you are a parent living with mental health conditions.

As a young teenager, I was diagnosed with depression after crying every day and considering suicide regularly. I honestly believed that I would not make it past nineteen years old. I don’t know why that age number stood out, but it did. In eighth grade, I started to have debilitating panic attacks that would leave me temporarily unable to even open my hands or sit up straight. It was especially humiliating that it happened multiple times in the middle of my school day, and middle schoolers can be cruel. I didn’t understand, so how could I expect them to? I felt like a freak show. I was then diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

Many years later, after enduring childhood trauma, abuse, the death of my parents and brother, everyone in my life’s addictions, and incredible amounts of stress, I had a breaking point where my mind gave out. I never had it checked, but I one hundred percent believe that I had a nervous breakdown. There’s only so much that one body and brain can take, and my nervous system was on overdrive. I lost it, and I couldn’t function mentally after it half as well as I did before. I lived in a cognitive fog, constantly waiting in fear for something bad to happen, my emotions continuously all over the place while dealing with my life that was crumbling before my eyes. Through therapy, we settled on posttraumatic stress disorder as the culprit.

Amid a lifetime of mental health disorders, I gave birth to three beautiful baby boys. I can’t even express the intense amount of love that my heart exuded with the birth of each of them. They brought me a purpose and an affection that I never knew existed. They gave me peace in a lifetime of chaos. Even while I was living through abuse, they gave me hope that one day, life would be different. Being called “Mommy” was the sweetest title that I wore as a badge of honor, and I wanted nothing more than to be the most present and nurturing parent that I could be, especially growing up feeling neglected.

I have come to realize through my healing that perfectionism is one of my trauma responses. I am incredibly hard on myself, and I set the bar very high for everything that I do. On the flip side, I act oppositely with other people, and that is why I have gotten myself into toxic relationships. So, when I had my nervous breakdown and started exhibiting PTSD symptoms, I hated who I saw in the mirror. I couldn’t control my lack of emotional regulation. I became like an animal who was stuck in a cage so long that started to fight back for its survival. The problem was that my children had to live through this with me. I couldn’t see many nights that they adored me regardless of my imperfections.

The problem was that my children had to live through this with me. I couldn’t see many nights that they adored me regardless of my imperfections.

I wanted so badly to be better for them. I thought for so long that staying in a relationship with their dad was the best thing for them, and in some heroic way, I was martyring myself for their sake. I now know that getting out and showing them stability was the greatest gift that I ever gave them. In leaving abuse, there are so many obstacles that a survivor must go through mentally, physically, and emotionally. I realized that I was going to have to go through all of that while raising three young boys practically by myself. It felt overwhelming and intimidating, but I loved them more than the fear of whether I had the mental strength to do it or not.

In those dark moments when my mental health was broken, I watched those three little boys persevere and even encourage me. They were resilient and gave me the bravery to keep fighting. They had their own hurt and struggles through that time as they lost their father in many ways, but they never quit telling me how much they loved me. Many days were ugly. I mean, ugly. I screamed more than I like to admit. They saw me cry countless times even when I tried to hide it, but then, some days were filled with beauty and success. Little by little, with God by my side, I began to peel off the layers of what unresolved trauma had entrapped me in for so long, and they watched a woman overcome incredible odds to take her life back. They were proud of me, and that meant everything.

Little by little, with God by my side, I began to peel off the layers of what unresolved trauma had entrapped me in for so long, and they watched a woman overcome incredible odds to take her life back. They were proud of me, and that meant everything.

If you are living with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions as a parent, I want to begin by telling you that you are not alone. Many parents endure this every single day, whether it’s depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, etc. We wouldn’t second guess if a mother or father had cancer or a heart condition, but for some reason, the stigma of mental health issues can make us believe that we are inadequate or weak if we are struggling with something in our minds. We must begin to change the narrative about mental health, and it starts from within.

God cares about your mind. He created the brain that you may believe isn’t functioning in the way it should. He knows you, inside and out, and the moment that he made you a parent, he believed that you were special enough in his eyes to create life. Don’t beat yourself up if you are living with mental illness. Find ways to heal, cope, and treat it. Your children see your heart just as Jesus does. Some days may be better than others, and that’s okay. There’s no blueprint on how to parent children no matter where you come from. Raising kids while living with mental health conditions isn’t easy, but God gives us the grace daily to overcome it and love our babies. After all, he is the perfect example of a father’s love towards his children. We are his kids, and he is always there to nurture, comfort, and love us.

In case no one else has told you today, you are doing a wonderful job. Moms and dads, we are in this together.

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