The fear of struggling with my mental health as a parent

With a history of depression and anxiety, struggling with my mental health as a parent is a constant fear

When I got married, I didn’t attach the same sentimentalism that many do to their wedding day. Nevertheless, I obviously wanted it to be a great day.

I wasn’t worried about the day not running smoothly or a drunken, unwelcome uncle causing a scene. It was my depression that I was worried might decide to gatecrash the day in my head.

You see, when you’ve experienced depression, you know its onset can come at any time. With time, you learn to observe triggers and you develop coping mechanisms for when you notice it lurking in the background. But you can also be blindsided by its unexpected arrival.

When you’ve experienced debilitating depression, its spectre is omnipresent. A dark cloud that exists at bay, moving in to cast an inescapable shadow of mental and emotional darkness. That might seem illogical on one’s wedding day but depression doesn’t discriminate when it decides to announce its presence.

Photo by Alex Plesovskich on Unsplash

It’s for that reason that now as a parent, the fear of succumbing to the dark cloud of depression is something I remain in fear of.

Being a parent is the best thing that has ever happened to me and most parents will attest to that. The overflow of reward and fulfilment, and being able to see your child’s development before your eyes, is incomparable. However, it can also be a challenge. While outweighed by the great experiences it brings, it can be emotionally and mentally draining, especially with the pressures of modern parenting.

With a history of depression, I wondered if that dark cloud would darken my skies and derail me as a parent.

With a history of depression, I wondered if its dark cloud would darken my skies and derail me as a parent. Prior to becoming a dad, this was constantly at the back of my mind. What if I become depressed while we were expecting? If I did, how would I be a supportive partner for my wife and how would that damage the relationship with my unborn child let alone my perception of myself as a dad? And what of postnatal depression? I was worried about this being something my wife might experience as many women do. I was also concerned that I might fall prey to it, especially given my own history.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

One of my coping mechanisms in managing my mental health, and in combating depression and anxiety, has always been exercise. What if the demands of parenting just didn’t permit me time to workout? Was I destined to fasttrack myself to becoming a blurry eyed, sleep deprived parent, sleepwalking my way to a spiral of reacquainted depression?

As parents, we sometimes forget that we are still human. Parenting can take us to places we didn’t think existed. Being able to function with punctuated and reduced sleep or having a level of patience we didn’t think we had, makes the once impossible, possible as a parent. Yet despite overcoming the challenges of parenting, we still have to be mindful of our wellbeing. Alas, the reality is that parenting itself can often provide a distraction that causes us to neglect that.

Everything becomes secondary to our children and a lack of emotional and mental self care becomes almost accepted as part of the parenting experience. We fail to acknowledge the impact that disregard has on the quality of our parenting. For most parents, there aren’t any days off from parenting. What other job is so unrelenting and still doesn’t give you time off to recharge and afford yourself the opportunity to mentally recalibrate? It begs the question, why are so many of us therefore remiss when it comes to looking after our mental health as parents?

I want to be the best parent I can be and while subjective, that places a high expectation one’s self. Add the commitments of our professions, as a partner and anything else, and we naturally run the risk of taking ourselves to the edge.

Reaching that brink can topple us mentally. It’s therefore a place that isn’t conducive to anyone’s mental health. Although when you’re a parent, scaling back on your responsibilities can leave you feeling you aren’t doing a good enough job. It also doesn’t help that a feeling of inadequacy is one that accompanies depression.

If I were to perceive myself as an inadequate dad, depression would find a way of supporting that, such as the curated images of parenthood that are projected straight to our devices via social media. Depression has a knack of “proving” just how worthless you are and all the evidence to the contrary just isn’t enough. Moreover, what truly fills me with dread is feeling so inadequate and being in a place so dark that even my son’s smile couldn’t uplift me.

It’s a terrifying thought that one could experience such lows but more so as a parent where there’s little scope to escape from business as usual. Yet it’s a fear I know from experience is one that is valid.

I’m currently writing this during the lockdown where my son’s nursery has been closed. Like most parents during this time, especially with young children, that’s brought little respite for my wife and I and it’s even more difficult when you’re working from home. The lockdown is inevitably taking a toll on the mental health of many people, as will the coronavirus pandemic generally, but I thought I was doing fine. That’s until one day I just inexplicably felt overwhelmed. I don’t really know why but my mental capacity had been reached and I felt like a shit dad for it.

I craved just an intermission from my uncompromising stance in my role as a dad. That might usually have been brought by going to work everyday or if my son was with my in-laws. But during lockdown, that wasn’t possible. Above all, I was scared that this could be the sucker punch of depression as a parent that thus far, I’d managed to largely evade.

Thankfully it wasn’t. Being able to tag team my son with my wife meant I could get the let-up I needed but I felt useless for it. In retrospect, I realise I shouldn’t beat myself up or feel guilty for needing a moment to breathe. As parents, we aren’t robots and we are allowed to have off-days and to require space to reset our mental health. That doesn’t equate to a bad parent; it just means we’re human.

…it’s ok to have a bad day. After all, if your child is happy and safe, is it really that bad a day?

The lockdown also has me in awe of single parents who don’t have a co-parent present who they can share the load with. Although that doesn’t mean that emotional and mental reset, somehow sought, isn’t necessary. It also means that it’s ok to have a bad day. After all, if your child is happy and safe, is it really that bad a day?

As a father, there’s arguably also an element of toxic masculinity at play here. We’ve been conditioned to not show ourselves as yielding in what we’re able to take on for our children, and indeed our partners.

Sadly, that’s exacerbated by the slowly changing perception of dads as the secondary parent who isn’t that involved. Consequently, conversations around the mental health of dads haven’t really taken place in earnest until recently. It was only in 2018 that NHS England began offering mental health screening to fathers whose partners were suffering from mental illness.

On some level, vestiges of that toxic masculinity running the background probably contributed to why I felt overwhelmed recently. I wasn’t trying to show any compromise in my parenting, let alone as a partner to my wife. It’s a counterproductive approach but as parents, too often we allow ourselves to be consumed by guilt for seeking a break. That’s despite it leading to us being a better and more effective parent due to bolstered mental health.

I’m fortunate that I have a partner who understands and appreciates the importance of good mental health and with whom I can share the joys and demands of parenting. If that means giving each other a break, we can and will do that.

That doesn’t mean walking away from being a parent but it does mean the opportunity of some breathing space, no matter how temporary, isn’t completely elusive. It also means the need to pause, or admitting you’re at capacity as a parent, can become normalised as it should be.

Since becoming a parent, my mental health has been in a better place than it once was. Perhaps contributed to by the absolute lows of depression I’ve experienced prior to becoming a dad, I’m more aware of the importance of seeking good mental health than I might have been. I have my coping mechanisms and I have a repertoire of triggers to assist my defence against depression. That doesn’t change the fact that I remain in fear of struggling with my mental health as a parent. It does, however, mean I’m in a better position, with a better perspective, to fight it should it occur.

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