Even with celebrity parents like Kristen Bell and Hayden Panettiere putting mental illness in the spotlight, there’s no “What To Expect” for raising kids while struggling to stay stable. It can feel like you’re the only one toughing out the chaos in your house and in your head.
To remind you that you’re not alone, parents with varying mental illnesses have shared their stories with TODAY. Here are the seven things they wish they’d known about having children and staying healthy.
1. Don’t wait to get treatment.
From the age of 14, Shawn Henfling “could go from zero to righteously angry over nothing.”
“I was never that violent, but I did my share of patching up walls and patching up knuckles,” the stepfather to two recalled.
Henfling, now 38, believed his temper was just part of his personality until he was diagnosed with depression in 2009. Since starting therapy, he’s been able to repair the relationships his rage affected, especially those with his stepchildren, 16 year-old Nicole and 19 year-old Austin.
“It’s broken a very icy layer that there was between (me) and Austin especially, but myself and my daughter as well,” said Henfling, who lives in State College, Pennsylvania. “That’s one of the few things I’m very proud of having done as a parent.”
Now an advocate for mental health awareness, Henfling’s message to others in his situation is clear: get help. “I should have gotten help two decades sooner than I did. I missed out on a lot of life and a lot of my children’s lives,” Henfling said.
“Had I gotten treatment sooner, I wouldn’t have been a perfect parent, but I certainly would have been a better one.”
2. Self-care is a big part of staying healthy.
Like any father to a 4-year-old, Lorne Jaffe of Queens, New York sometimes feels overwhelmed. However, the 42 year-old’s depression and general anxiety disorder tend to amplify his distress, filling his head with “about a hundred negative thoughts per minute.”
But Jaffe has discovered a surprising solution: going to the movies alone, after his wife has put their daughter to bed. “The movies are like a safe place for me,” Jaffe explained. “I don’t know what it is—I go to a theater, and I start to feel calmer.”
Shawn Henfling leaves the room to read a book. “If things start to get bad, I have to separate myself,” he said. Although Henfling can find it difficult to take this time for himself, he understands that it makes him a better father and partner.
In fact, “putting yourself last is selfish,” parenting author and family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa explained. Not only does it teach kids that love means ignoring one’s own needs, it takes away your “best chance at a long, healthy, productive life” as a parent.
When managing mental illness, it’s even more crucial to keep self-care a part of your routine, Gilboa added. Whether that involves exercising, taking medication, or going to therapy, “do what you’re supposed to do even on the days you don’t feel like doing it,” she advises. “It’s probably your illness telling you that it doesn’t work.”
3. Don’t pressure yourself to have a perfect pregnancy.
For both of her pregnancies, Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn, Virginia tried to do everything right.
Marshall learned she was expecting her first child two years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I. Concerned about possible birth defects, she made the decision to go medication-free during the pregnancy. She also insisted on breastfeeding, believing that it would be healthier for the baby.
But when her son Owen was four weeks old and nursing round-the-clock, Marshall was admitted to the hospital with postpartum psychosis. It was a setback that convinced Marshall to switch to formula, which she used for her daughter as well.
However, before her second child was even born, Marshall found herself in the hospital again, this time as a result of tapering off her medication for the pregnancy. After resuming treatment, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Vivian.
“Looking back now on the two experiences I had with my pregnancies, I wish I had stayed on my medication and…I wish I hadn’t forced myself to breastfeed,” Marshall, now 37, told TODAY. While she’s at peace with the choices she made, Marshall said she regrets putting so much pressure on herself.
Carly Snyder, a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York, is familiar with this dilemma. Many of the mothers she sees wonder whether they should jeopardize their mental health for the sake of their child.
In fact, your stability and the baby’s development should be of equal concern, Snyder says, especially when it comes to your medication. If your unmedicated mental illness would make the pregnancy intolerable,”that then becomes dangerous for the future child.”
4. Be honest when talking about your illness with your kids.
Jennifer Corter and her 5-year-old son Syrus share a morning routine: she takes medication for purely obsessional obsessive compulsive disorder, and he takes his vitamins. It’s helped start the conversation around Corter’s condition as Syrus gets older.
“I’ll try to tell him, ‘Mommy’s sick, but it’s a different kind of sick. It’s in my head,’” said Corter, a 26-year-old living in New Jersey. “He doesn’t truly understand it yet.”
Corter hopes to empower Syrus to discuss his own mental health and prevent the kind of breakdown she suffered after his birth. “I wouldn’t want him to be ashamed to talk to anybody like I was,” Corter said. “It festered for years with me, and it all came to a head when I tried to commit suicide. And I would never, ever want him to be like that.”
Seth Kastle, meanwhile, needed a way to explain to his daughters that his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t their fault. As a former Army Sergeant, Kastle knew that his anger at home in Wakeeney, Kansas was the result of his multiple deployments to Middle East.
To make the connection clearer to his older daughter Raegan, then age 6, Kastle wrote a picture book called “Why Is Dad So Mad?” The book, which describes the symptoms of PTSD as “a fire in the dad’s chest,” has allowed military parents across the country to open up about their struggles.
It’s also made Raegan more compassionate towards her father. “She said, ‘I’m sorry that you have a fire in your chest.’ That’s something that’ll stay with me forever,” Kastle, who is 35, told TODAY.
Most children feel responsible for a parent’s illness until they learn otherwise, says Gilboa.
“Developmentally, until age 12 or 13, kids assume that anything negative that happens is their fault,” Gilboa explained. “If you’re not willing to frame (your condition) for them as one aspect of your three-dimensional life, they will think it is both new and something they caused.”
Moreover, holding back about your mental health can make your kids concerned for your safety. “If you don’t give them enough information, they’re going to make up information of their own,” Snyder said.
5. Don’t spare your partner the details.
Because both Lorne Jaffe and his wife, Elaine Borja-Jaffe, have depression, the couple has learned to speak openly about their symptoms. Their honesty has helped them to parent as a team.
“Normally, if I’m having a bad day, Elaine says, ‘Go in the bedroom, I got this,'” Jaffe explained, adding that he does the same for his wife. “We can step up for each other.”
For Shawn Henfling, such candor is difficult to achieve, as his depression convinces him that “nobody is going to care” about his pain. He even worries about telling his wife, who he said has been “supportive throughout.”
Gilboa recommends overcoming these urges to shield your partner from your distress. “If you dread telling them that you’re experiencing a flare-up of your symptoms, keep in mind that you show them respect and love and trust by keeping them in the loop,” she said.
6. Don’t be afraid to share your story.
During her first year and a half blogging about “Bipolar Mom Life,” Jennifer Marshall was too afraid of the stigma of mental illness to give her real name.
Yet when Marshall finally went public, the feedback she received was the opposite of what she’d feared.
“I got nothing but support from my whole community,” Marshall recalled. “The administrators at my kids’ preschool wrapped their arms around me, they were just so thankful…. They had relatives and friends in their circles who had been through mental health challenges.”
Marshall is now the executive director of “This Is My Brave,” a nonprofit she co-founded to help others share their stories of overcoming mental illness. “The reality is, one in five of us lives with (mental illness), so we all know someone,” she said. “Opening up can only help other people.”
7. Remember that parenting won’t always be easy, but it’s worth it.
“There’s ups and there’s downs, but my kids are the greatest piece of my life,” Seth Kastle said of his daughters, now ages 7 and 3. “They’re the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Lori Bernstein, mother to two teenagers, agrees. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, after her children were born, Bernstein said she’s nevertheless glad to have become a parent. “I would never change that, because (kids) are wonderful and they give you a reason to live,” the 52-year-old from Orange County, California told TODAY.
Even Jennifer Corter, whose fear of being “the worst mother in the world” contributed to her suicide attempt, said that her son is “truly (her) source of joy.”
It’s entirely possible to recognize what’s stressful about being a parent” with mental illness without losing sight of how much happiness kids bring to your life, said Gilboa. “Part of resilience is recognizing that there’s space for negative and positive emotions in the same moment.”
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