In my 20’s, I diligently tended to my mental health. I went to therapy weekly, exercised daily, and journaled all my thoughts and feelings. This all did wonders to help me manage my anxiety and panic disorder.
Then, at 28, I had a baby, and to say that things began to slide in terms of my mental health care routine would be a huge understatement.
I think it’s natural and necessary for parents to push their needs aside when they have children. At first, I found motherhood all consuming, the power of the love for my child like nothing I had ever experienced before. That feeling that you would literally lay your life down for your child is real and not an exaggeration for most of us parents.
And beyond those primal feelings of love and protection, parenthood is a 24 hour job, the needs of our children — especially when they are young — endless and unrelenting. And with parents stretched so thin in terms of finances, childcare, and general support, it is understandable that so many of us end up putting our needs at the very bottom of the list.
The thing is, neglecting our mental health is a critical misstep, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our children. For example, studies have linked maternal depression (which affects up to 1 in 9 women) to developmental and cognitive delays in children. And although many of us might not realize it, a dad’s mental health issues can have a significant and lasting effect on his children as well.
And yet, mental health care is often not just at the very bottom of most parents’ lists, but often simply nowhere in sight.
All parents know the importance of taking their children to the doctor for check-ups, and even the busiest parents will go to the doctor for themselves if something is bothering them physically. We diligently schedule our “date nights” or “girls’ nights out.” We believe that tending to our physical health, our social lives, our personal grooming, and household chores are still essential, even after we become parents.
But so many of us parents flat-out neglect our mental health. It’s not just the stigma surrounding therapy and other mental health care, or the fact that many of us think we just don’t have the time (although both of these are certainly factors at play).
We think it’s common, acceptable, and even necessary for parents to feel stressed. Normal to feel desperate, harried, and exhausted to the bone. We have normalized (and perhaps even glorified) it to such an extent that many of us don’t even realize it when we are suffering from something like anxiety or depression.
Even as a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I spent the first few years of parenting pretty much in denial that my anxiety symptoms had stuck around, and were actually starting to get completely out of control (thanks to those lovely hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation, which are both pretty much recipes for disaster to anxiety sufferers).
I stopped seeing my therapist soon after my first child was born because I thought I would just tough it out. I thought there was something almost valiant in that. And goodness knows I was certain I didn’t have time to make it to my appointments anymore.
The truth is I wasn’t prioritizing my mental health anymore, and by the time my son was two-and-a-half, I was in the middle of a full blown anxiety breakdown, my panic attacks perhaps worse than they’d ever been. I was lucky that it was fairly easy to work with my old therapist again, and was able to much feel better within a year or so.
But it was at that time that I became painfully aware of how very easy it is for us parents to brush aside our mental health needs. Even those of us who once understood the importance of therapy and other methods of self-care can easily fall prey to the notion that mental health care isn’t necessary for parents.
Now I’m a bit of an advocate for parents to take their mental health seriously—as seriously as they address their physical health, their finances, their careers, and their parenting. We need to take it seriously for ourselves, but also for our children. Even beyond any studies out there that show how profoundly our mental health affects our kids, I think we all know on an instinctual level how quickly children absorb the emotions of everyone around them.
Yes, in ways our children are more resilient than we realize, but they are more vulnerable than we might like to think, especially when it comes to how they are affected by the people who they rely on most.
None of us are perfect parents. But children don’t need perfect parents. They need parents who make an effort to prioritize what is most meaningful and necessary in life, both for their kids, and for themselves. Most importantly, they need parents who can learn from their mistakes, and are able to show their kids what it means to seek help, heal, and feel better.