This Sunday morning, I got up, had my tea, made waffles for my family and went back to bed where I burrowed under the covers and cried. I stayed there, crying off and on, knowing that there were at least a thousand things that needed doing and that I couldn’t face even one of them.
Luckily, I’ve been depressed often enough and my meds are working well enough that I recognized the slippery slope that leads to a lengthy stay in the hell of depression. So I got out of bed.
I am also lucky to have a husband who knows the signs of a slide.
“When is the last time you ran?” he asked.
“I haven’t run in two weeks,” I said. “I’ve been resting my back. It hurt every time I ran. Then it was too cold and I hate the treadmill. I think the treadmill is the problem.”
“Does your back hurt now?”
“So run. It’s warmer.”
So I ran. Not on the treadmill and not on the boring streets of my boring subdivision.
I ran through the woods of a nearby park. Except for splashing directly into an icy puddle, it was a perfect run. Not long—not like I ran pre-injury—but my back didn’t hurt. And my mood improved faster than a typical bipolar shift could ever accomplish. Post-run, I happily ticked projects off my to-do list and still had enough energy to want to teach the kids bridge after dinner.
Following my miraculous recovery, I was all set to insist that the parenting blogs, myriad self-help books and Oprah are right: the best way to parent is by making yourself your top priority.
Certainly that advice seems a no-brainer. When I’m stressed out, I’m prone to yelling and sarcasm. Coupled with a tendency to over-react to every misdeed, it’s not a recipe for parenting bliss. Even when I manage to keep the irritability under wraps, my children know I’m simmering below the surface. The guilt I feel over being a less than model mom (on a really bad day, I am convinced I’m the worst mother ever) feeds my stress and the cycle continues.
Still, the only subjective evidence I found for the I-am-number-one approach to parenting only infers it’s a good idea. The American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress In America survey found
69 percent of respondents recognized that their personal stress affects their children, and only 14 percent of children said their parents’ stress didn’t bother them. In addition, 25 percent to 47 percent of tweens reported feeling sad, worried or frustrated about their parents’ stress.
If that weren’t inducement enough to refuse playing games that suck out our souls (Hot Wheels, anyone?), consider another study that found that parental stress actually imprints on childrens’ genes. So, I’m not just damaging my kids’ self-esteem when yell because I’ll go crazier if I play another round of Monopoly, I am changing their DNA.
But then I ran across two studies showing that child-centric parenting makes parents happier people. Both studies were conducted by Claire E. Ashton-James, Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn on a total of 322 for the two. Study one showed the child-centric parents were significantly more likely to report being happy and state that parenting gave their lives meaning. The results of study two indicated:
more child-centric parents had greater positive feelings, less negative feelings, and experienced more meaning in life during child-care activities. In addition, the well-being of more child-centric parents was not affected negatively throughout the rest of the day, suggesting that the child-centric approach to parenting does not hurt parental well-being when parents are not taking care of their children.
So what’s a crazy good parent to do?
Without a subscription to a fancy academic database, I can only surmise that none of these studies specifically investigated parents with neurodiversities. Because we aren’t typical, what applies to neurotypical parents doesn’t necessarily apply to us.
In my experience, how I’m taking care of myself has a profound impact on how I’m able to care for my children. People with bipolar disorder thrive on consistency; getting enough sleep and sticking to a regular schedule go a long way in avoiding triggers for both manic/hypomanic and depressive episodes. When my children are on break from school, my schedule is, well, it’s no schedule at all.
I also know that getting plenty of solitude and running keep my moods more stable. And, of course, remembering to take my meds is essential to my ability to parent successfully. So, for me at least, there are elements of self-care that must take priority over everything else I do.
But once the essentials are covered (and except for playing Hot Wheels and Monopoly), there is nothing more important than my children and their welfare. Every career decision I’ve made since my son was born has been for my children’s benefit. We spend our money on music lessons, gymnastics classes, clothes, field trips and school dances for our kids. We live where we live for our kids. My husband and I work on our relationship for us, but primarily for our kids. I stop crying and get out of bed for my kids.
As the child-centric parenting study showed, caring for my children also brings me great happiness. Time spent talking with my son, having manicures with my daughter and, yes, playing games with them, brings me lasting joy. I can’t imagine a life without them.
For me, parenting and self-care are inextricably entwined, but keeping my bipolar disorder under control simply must come first. What about you? What comes first? Your self-care or the kid’s?