This article is part of the Here. Now. essay series, which seeks to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, and improve accessibility to treatment and support for teens and parents in metropolitan New York.
As I have been ill on and off for the past three years, dealing with severe depression and anxiety, it has been a struggle to be there for my daughter. My daughter will soon be 7 years old, and the past few years she has had to endure different aspects of my illness. There have been many social outings, including birthday parties and even going to synagogue, that occurred without my presence. I know this has sometimes been hard for her as she wants me there, but my illness has kept me away for various reasons. It has occurred to me, however, that along the way, watching me deal with my illness has taught her several important life lessons that I’m grateful for. Here are 10:
1. I am not superwoman. When I am depressed, I usually can’t fold laundry, cook dinner, help her practice her spelling, or focus solely only on her. She knows from experience that I can only do what I can, and that that is good enough.
2. She has learned that I am not perfect. My memory is a bit muffled due to depression and the after-effects of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), and I forget things daily. She is good at reminding me to write things down, but there are times when I forget something she told me. While she still may be frustrated because of that, she knows that I am just a human being who makes mistakes.
3. She has learned about chronic illness. She knows that Mommy has depression and that that means mommy has a boo-boo in her head and in her heart. She knows Mommy gets tired often and easily and that this won’t go away with “pink” medicine (amoxicillin). I tell her often about my various medical appointments and she is now accustomed to my driving to Boston each week to see my therapist. This has given her a glimpse into what life is like for many people with chronic illness.
4. She has learned about helping others and giving back (tzedakah). Two years ago we started to raise money to benefit our local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness). I had interned at the New York City chapter in college and it holds a special place in my heart. I made sure my daughter understood that we were raising money to help people like me, who have boo-boos in their heads and hearts, and we have done the annual walk in May to raise money for the past two years. She now looks forward to the walk and takes it seriously. She has said numerous times how we are doing a mitzvah.
5. She is learning that life is not always easy. I never wanted to shelter my daughter from what the real world is like. Of course, I knew I needed to do so in an age-appropriate way, but it has always been important to me for her to know that sometimes you need to stick with something even if it is hard or sad. I have talked with her a lot, more recently, about how my chronic illness is not something I am happy about, but it is something I must accept as part of who I am.
6. She is learning independence and patience. As an only child, she has learned to be independent in her play, learning, and activities. Those times when I need a break and tell her that I need to rest for a bit, she may not always like it, but she can rally and play with her toys and be patient while I take some time for myself.
7. She is learning that everyone has emotional and physical limits. There are times when she will burst into tears because of feeling slighted in some way, and she’ll say that she is tired. I have made sure she knows that everyone feels that at times. No matter what my depression makes me feel, it is important for her to understand her own feelings and her own limits. She has learned to take a break when she is tired and that that is not the best time to take on a difficult task.
8. Daddy is an amazing protector and provider. When I first became ill, my husband and I had to change things up in terms of running errands, cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. I was living my life as superwoman and it was only when I became ill that I realized how unhealthy it was, not only for me, but for my husband and our daughter. Our daughter thinks nothing of her father bringing her to her dance class even though Mommy is home. While they have always been very close, their relationship has only grown because of my illness and as strange as it sounds, I would not trade that for anything.
9. She has learned to trust others. One of the most important elements of our continued functioning as a family has been the asking for and accepting the help of others. This has been through numerous play dates for my daughter, pick-ups and drop-offs, and endless dinners from our community friends. My daughter has been very aware of these acts of tzedakah and mitzvot on our behalf. I explained why we were getting dinner delivered by our school friends several times a week, and she knew why she was often going to her friends’ homes for play dates rather than having them at our home. The result of this has been her growing ability to trust other adults and to allow herself to rely on them and feel cared for by them.
10. She is learning that it takes a village to support each one of us. I have been extremely lucky in my life as I have always lived amid amazing villages. These communities have always been there and I honestly would not know how to live without them. Throughout the past three years, I have been trying to instill in my daughter that is it OK to want and need support from family, friends, synagogue, work, school, etc. Each of us does not live in a silo, and the love and care I receive only strengthens me, emotionally and physically. She bears witness to this constantly and I hope as she becomes older, she will be better able to recognize and appreciate the villages that surround her.
It is not easy being a mommy while having depression, and while these are all ongoing lessons, I hope my daughter benefits from my efforts. They are being taught to her out of love, hope, and faith.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.