(Trigger Warnings: Mental Illness, Anxiety, Panic Attacks)
Here’s my current take on the whole parenting situation: parenting young kids is like threading a needle while riding in the back of a moving pickup truck. Also, the truck is being driven by three small children, and one of them is screaming because one of her sisters spilled her drink. Oh, and the drink spilled on my laptop, but that’s no big deal because she’s not currently using it to watch My Little Pony.
Let’s get back to the needle threading bit because that’s what I really wanted to talk about.
Before our oldest child was born, I spent a lot of time thinking about what sort of parent I wanted to be. What I came up with was more or less a description of my own parents minus a few things I was certain they’d done to ruin my life. This model worked pretty well for me right up until the panic attacks started.
Everyone who has panic attacks experiences them differently, but imagine having a massive heart attack while waiting to be pushed out of an airplane and you’ll get the flavor of my worst attacks. These would hit me without warning, and I had no idea what to do about them, so I did the sensible thing and ignored them.
When I finally did seek help a year or so after my first attack, I was diagnosed with Adult ADHD and a co-morbid anxiety disorder. Two years later, I’m finally approaching something I would call “healthy” (but not “normal”) with the help of medication, therapy, and a life coach who specializes in ADHD.
So why is all of this important for a parenting site?
First, I want to encourage everyone, but especially parents, to seek help if they need it. Many mental illnesses have a hereditary component, and there’s a good chance my own children will inherit my ADHD. I knew there was something wrong long before my first panic attack, but I lived in denial because I didn’t have anyone in my life to show me the way past the fear and cultural stigma of mental illness. I want to be that example for them, and for anyone else that needs it.
And even if they don’t inherit my ADHD, it can still impact their lives. My anxiety quickly turns to depression if I don’t manage it properly, and the children of depressed parents experience mental health problems at a much higher rate than the general population. Yes, I know the relationship may not be causal, but I also know that I’m a better parent when I’m healthy.
The second reason I think this topic belongs here is that even if you don’t deal with a diagnosable mental disorder, parenting can make you feel like you do. It’s stressful, exhausting work, and you can burn out fast. I started having panic attacks because the lifetime of coping mechanisms I’d evolved stopped working the instant I became a parent. All my mechanisms of control broke at once because I was suddenly in a situation where the idea of controlling anything was a joke.
When that happened, I felt scared and angry. Even worse, I felt shame because I didn’t have any of the overwhelming joy I was supposed to experience upon becoming a parent.
Sound familiar? Maybe? OK, then I’ll tell you how I manage.
1. I prioritize sleep.
I didn’t say that I “get enough sleep”. I’m convinced that I’ll never get “enough” sleep ever again, but I make it a priority. That means trading off a lot of things. I used to stay up late to clean the house, but now I just aim for “livable” and go to bed.
2. I prioritize quiet.
I meditate, and it has helped me a lot. I’m never going to manage the twenty minutes a day that my meditation app recommends, but at least once a day I step away from everything. Sometimes all I can manage is to hide for two minutes, cover my ears, and count my breaths. It still helps.
By the way, you can do this in the shower if you’re into multi-tasking and daily showers.
3. I prioritize fun.
I do something fun every day. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. In fact, I intentionally don’t make it elaborate because that will backfire and become a chore.
I bought a big pack of pencils and a notebook, and I try to draw something every day. Sometimes I draw with my kids, and sometimes I don’t because they’re always demanding that I draw them cats.
I’ve also been known to wad up a sheet of paper and use it to play catch with myself.
4. I prioritize connections.
I try to talk to another adult every day. I’m married, so that makes it easier but not inevitable because sometimes we’re both too tired to form words at the end of the day.
If you don’t have a significant other, or if you’d rather not talk to the one you’ve got (totally legitimate), then even saying a few extra words to the clerk at whatever store is closest to where you live. That sounds like a joke, but its not. There have been times when a four line conversation at the gas station or coffee shop kept me going.
5. I gave up on threading that needle.
Did you think I’d forgotten my needle metaphor? Hah! I never forget a metaphor.
The big thing I’ve learned in nearly six years of being a dad is that I’m never going to thread that needle. My kids aren’t going to grow into perfectly formed adults possessed of zero emotional baggage and perfect self confidence.
It’s not my job to thread that needle, anyway. I only have to hold on to it until they’re old enough to thread it themselves.