Gentle Parenting With A Mental Illness

I have been diagnosed as rapid cycling bipolar ii. I like to tell people it’s “not the crazy crazy kind of bipolar” but who am I kidding? I am crazy as hell some days.

My mental illness results in lots of anxiety, sometimes an undercurrent and sometimes a tidal wave, and depression that ranges from feeling blah to contemplating the height of rooftops. And then there are times when I have so much charisma and energy I might just choke you with it. No, really, the downside of all that upswing is a short temper and frequent irritability.

Admit it, I sound like fun. I often wonder how my poor husband manages to handle it, but I’m trying to teach myself that I just have to leave that problem up to him while I try to navigate how to be the best me.

I also have a two year old daughter and have chosen to parent her in the way my instinct and intuition tell me is right, gently and without violence. That means I don’t believe in spanking and I do my very best not to yell and apologize when I do. Leaving some leeway for toddler tantrums and boundary exploration, I don’t leave my daughter to cry or ignore her while she just “gets over it”. But, I also don’t believe in permissiveness or spoiled children.

So. It’s a lot to manage.

Over the past two years I’ve learned a lot, and seemingly nothing all at the same time. I have come so far from the person that started I this parenting journey as and, yet still, every day still feels like a new challenge. Sometimes I pass those challenges and other times I don’t.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

I need to extend my gentle parenting ideals and even techniques into all of my relationships.

I am the worst at this. Seriously, the WORST. As a parent my goal is to never automatically assume the worst of my child’s intention and motivation but as a person I seem to do it all the time. As a parent my goal is to take time to frame my child’s behavior with the circumstances of her day or week (Are we traveling? Is she tired? Hungry? Under unusual stress? Etc.); as a person I forget and take each moment on its own, paying no attention to the truth that there’s a whole life of explanations happening around us. You get the idea. I have a grace for my child that I oftentimes can’t muster in any other relationship.

But I’m working on it. And I’m aware of it. I believe that my success or failure as a gentle parent will hinge on my ability to move those ideals into all areas of my life. I cannot parent in a way that is separate from who I truly am and expect to be successful.

Also, I’d like to be less of a bitch.

Self-care is essential, it should be both cherished and protected.

I must learn to take the time or necessary steps to feel okay, to feel well. I must not allow myself to feel guilty, or allow myself to be made to feel guilty, about this.

There are some specific things that I, personally, need in order to be able to function at my best. I need time alone, or at least time where I am left alone, every single day. It doesn’t have to be long or involved but it has to happen. If I’m turning down your invite it may be because I can’t stand to be entertaining for one more minute. I need sleep. I can go short bursts without it as necessary but, sooner rather than later, my need for sleep is going to show in increased and intensified mood swings. And I need down time. I need time to just sit and rest. I need to relax. I need to turn my brain off and just watch tv or surf the web mindlessly. I need mindless moments because the other ones are seriously, really, intense. As I posted once, if you want to know what the bipolar mind sounds and feels like, listen to all of your Pandora stations. On shuffle. Forever.

It’s okay to say no.

For all of the above reasons (needing time alone, needing to rest, needing to sleep) and because I need to find and stay in balance, I have learned to say no when the answer should be no. If an invitation or an obligation is going to unpleasantly sway me too far out of balance, I am more likely to say no than I am to suffer the consequences. It is hard for me when people take this personally or with offense, but it’s the one thing I’ve gotten pretty darn good at.

Being able to let go of what has come before is vital.

If my daughter spent the whole morning screaming and woke from her afternoon ready to snuggle and play, I need to let the morning go. If she throws all of her food on the floor and spits her milk everywhere (again) and then tells me she’s hungry in an hour, I need to move past the mess.

The same is true for myself as a mom. If I lose my patience and slam a door before I manage to calm down, I need to let it go. If the day is endless and I use the television to speed it up, or carve myself out a few moments of breathing room, I need to let that be okay. And when I yell, as I inevitably do (though less now than before), I need to apologize for losing my temper and then I need to move the heck on.

It’s important to say I’m sorry.

When I mess up, and I do and I will, it is important to apologize. When I assume, when I lose my temper, when I use my mental illness as an excuse, when I don’t get it right, when I am a bitch… it is important to say that I am sorry. It’s not enough to feel it or to try and show it without words. The humbling reminder of the words is essential to maybe getting it right next time.

The house does not have to be clean and dinner does not have to be amazing.

I mean, there’s nothing to elaborate on here really. The house has to be livable, not immaculate, and dinner has be sustaining, not life changing.

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