The Cost of Mental Health in Parenthood: A Personal Story

June 13, 2017 Krista Hager

“Spider! Spider!” Addy exclaimed.  Glancing over I scan the room, quickly retrieving my shoe off my foot, ready for an instant squash if it comes to that. “Oh no.” Chills crawl up my spine, and I take a deep breath.  It’s not a spider.  I really wish it was.  No this intruder is at least 3 inches long, hard-shelled, crunchy, brown, has six legs, and an antennae. A cockroach.  Damn.  Two years ago I would of screamed while jiggling my body about, shuddering away the inevitable.  I don’t know why, but I know that’s what I would of done.

But she’s looking at me.  And for some reason she is scared of this “spider” and is awaiting Mama to fix it for her.  Wrapping my shockingly steady arms around her, I lower myself to her level and calmly explain to Addy, “It is fine.  Mama will remove it from the home.  It cannot hurt you.  Thank you for letting me know.”

Instantly, Addy visibly relaxes her shoulders and assuredly nods her head in agreement, “Mama take care of it.”  I quickly gate off Addy in case the chase goes awry and trade out my weapon of choice for my husband’s loafer that is laying on the kitchen floor.  (Guess he should of picked up those shoes after all).  And IT WAS ON.  I will spare you the gory details, but “Mama took care of it” with a swift efficiency of execution I was unaware I possessed.  Whew.  Crisis averted.

This got me thinking though, how hard it can be for parents, constantly having to present our calmest self possible to our children.  Our most put-together version once upon a time (pre children) we only had to call upon during interactive work hours or social occasions.  Personally speaking, I have a lot of crazy inside of me, which comes out to haunt me at times in the form of bouts of anxiety and mild depression. In the old days, when I was feeling off and not myself, I would hole up in my apartment, avoid social contact that weekend, and binge watch television until I felt recouped enough to reconvene with the world.  I no longer have that option.

Oftentimes, people speak of the struggles of parenthood in terms of lacking “sick days.”   Simply put, you can never check out of being a parent, even if you are sick.

But there is a different type of “sick” that we don’t often talk about in parenthood that is not only depleting, but all consuming.  I fear a parent’s mental health can be one of the most neglected aspects of his or her life.  The conversation is beyond the advocated “self-care” type of “spa day” “golf day” or “night out.”  The issue lies in the patterns created to mask symptoms every waking moment.

Last Friday I had a bad day.  Just “one of those days.”  Nothing in particular happened. A small fight with my husband the night before that we hadn’t had time to resolve before he went to work, followed by an unexpected heap of social anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.  What went wrong?

The “cockroach” went wrong.

All those self doubts crept into the cobwebs and infiltrated my thoughts slowly but surely.  “What am I doing with my life?  What will my children think of me if I have nothing to show for myself?  I am different.  I talk too much.  I am desperate.  I am not a good person.  I am not a good mom.  I am not enjoying my children enough.”  You know… The usual…

But I push everything down, put on my smile, and dance for my daughter.  She has seen me cry.  I even feel that it is appropriate for her to understand people have ranges of emotion, but she has only seen me cry when I am sad about “something.”  I have never let her see me sad “just because…” because I don’t know how to explain this ambiguity to a two-year-old.  So day in and day out I filter out all that I don’t want her to see and put forth my “brave cockroach fighting strength.”  But what happens when we are constantly flushing away our internal dialogue without really acknowledging the root of the issue?  Well for me, anxiety happens.

So a few days ago when I was “on the job” as a parent, a stampede of unprocessed negative thoughts and emotions entranced me into a frozen stupor.  Sitting in front of me was a hungry baby I was shakily trying to feed, and clinging to my leg was a jealous toddler that wanted “Up!” “Up!” “Up!”  And me?  I was somewhere else.

While I was spooning food into her baby brother’s mouth on autopilot, Addy attempted to climb up my leg accidentally crunching the body of her Styrofoam airplane clenched in her tight fist.  “Fix it MOMMY!!!!” she sobbed.

My heart raced.  The room spun.  I knew I had to “pull it together.”  My children need a fully functional, present mom.  So I did.  I just shut it all out.  I bent over to my daughter as calmly as possible, and softly explained, “We cannot fix what you have broken sweetheart, but look you made it into a butterfly!” Her sobs slowly softened to a high pitched purr while her lips spread upward slightly, resembling a smidgen of a smile.

I exhaled, and went back to feeding Henry.  Usually this parenting ingenuity would warrant a self high five, but not this time.  I was still feeling “off” because mental health is not something you can simply power through.

To be human is to be a little broken.  But I worry about the mask we put forth in parenthood where there is no space to be “sick.”  Are we molding into the confident assured personas we present to our children, or are we just putting casts on broken bones we have yet to properly set?