What do you do when one or both parents have a pre-existing mental health condition?
The first few months of babyís life are amongst the most stressful for parents (or so Iíve been told; I lack the experience to say it with any authority). A combination of sleep deprivation, lifestyle changes, routine changes, and lack of partner intimacy all play a part in challenging any new parentís mental health.
So what do you do when one or both parents have a pre-existing mental health condition? This is my reality as a sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder with a partner who suffers from Schizophrenia. Our experiences have prompted me to speak up about a topic that is highly taboo.
No matter how well you prepare, things can go wrong.
My partner expressed concerns prior to the birth that a newborn may trigger him to relapse, and so we developed a safety plan. My own mental health stabilised with the pregnancy, so the plan was that he would escape to the garage when it got too much, take a breather while I cared for Bub, and then come back in when heíd had a chance to reset.
Even though my own mental health was stabilised, we had a safety plan for me as well; I have a community worker who was happy to increase her visits to twice a week if needed and to seek intervention if required. There was also Mothers and Babies to monitor Bubís development, and Child Mental Health to monitor bonding.
We even had a worst-case scenario plan: if we both relapsed, my mother in law would take over care of Bub until one or both of us was well.
It seemed foolproof and we thought we had all bases covered.
What we failed to plan for was external circumstances creating more than the anticipated new-parent stress, and the subsequent effect on my partnerís mental health and the knock-on effects for me and, ultimately, Bub. We didnít count on it sneaking in so stealthily or escalating so quickly.
Mental health issues do not make a bad person.
Getting help in the early stages was tough; most people put the problems down to the normal stresses of having a newborn and tried to help by offering to babysit. That did ease the pressure a little, but it didnít address the problem. It lay low and then one night, it escalated suddenly and I found myself having to leave late one night and escape to my parents.
It was a tough time, with parties on all sides being confused and upset. There were fears that Bub would be used as a pawn, and there were fears that one or the other parent would lose contact with Little C. Grandparents on both sides were worried they would be shunted outÖ
It was ugly, and it was messy, and it was terrifying for everybody. Until we sat down and talked.
It took a week and some space, but the opportunity came when L was lucid and his mother was calm and my parents had time to understand that L was unwell, not abusive, and we all sat down and talked.
All parties acted like adults and reassured L that nobody was blaming him and nobody was taking his son away. His mother was reassured that nobody was going to stop her from seeing her grandson, and my parents were reassured by L that he knew he was unstable and understood why I had removed us from the situation. We worked things out. It wasnít reasonable for Little C and I to return home for now, but we worked out a way to keep things as normal as possible for Little C until Lís mental health is stable.
Make the distinction.
L is not a bad person because he is unwell. He is a father who loves his partner and child more than he has ever loved anyone else, and he happens to be unwell.
There is a lot of stigma about mental health, and there is a lot of fear and prejudice. Thankfully for my family, I have been around both family violence and mental illness and I can spot the difference between the two. Mental illness causes unhealthy behaviours, while family violence is a deliberate pattern of behaviour.
When L is well, I couldnít ask for a more supportive partner. Before I met L, I had very little confidence and I was very down on myself and I was actively suicidal. Through Lís support and encouragement, I discovered depths I didnít know I had, and I discovered that my boundaries were far wider than I ever thought possible. L taught me to believe in myself. That is not an abusive person. Lís illness causes him to see someone who isnít me, and he reacts accordingly. His illness causes him to become paranoid, and he reacts accordingly. This is not him.
When he is lucid, I still see the L I know and love. Thankfully my family sees it too, and they also stand by him.
Mental illness does not define the person, and my son loves his father just the same.
No matter what, kids come first.
This is the most heartbreaking part of dealing with a mental health relapse when kids are involved. No matter how much you understand your partner, you still need to put your kids first. In my case, it became necessary to remove our son from the situation because even though L is not physically aggressive, his outbursts were affecting me and subsequently affecting Little C.
Walking out on L was hard because I know heís in pain, but Little C is a baby and he needs to be protected.
This doesnít mean you canít support your partner through their suffering. I make contact with L daily and get a feel for his mental state, and if he is lucid I offer contact with Little C. His mother is on board and provides a safe place for L to spend time with his son, and I organise one grandparent or the other to watch Little C at other times so I can support L in person when heís not doing so well. L is pretty good at letting me know if heís stable enough to be around Little C that day, and will refuse to see him if he is not stable enough. Iíve only had to make that call myself twice.
If they are seeking help, they deserve support.
Donít fall into the promises trap (where they promise to do better but continue the behaviour), but if your partner is genuinely seeking help, and they are taking responsibility for their illness, they deserve your support. They cannot help what is happening to them, and they are suffering.
Make sure your children are safe, and then support your partner if it is safe to do so. And donít be afraid to get outside help if you need to; the police will do welfare checks if you are concerned about their wellbeing, but you cannot check on them yourself.
Admitting that you need mental health support is hard, especially when youíre afraid of what it could cost you. Take this fear away from them by offering support, and you will aid in their recovery.
If you are unwell, get help.
Mental Illness is not a crime, and you deserve support. If you are the unwell parent and you find that your life is falling apart, itís okay to ask for help. You love your kids, and getting help is the best thing you can do for them right now. It will take time to get the help you need, especially if you rely on the public system, but it is worth it.
And if youíre afraid of losing your kids, donít be; the system will support parents who actively seek help. They only frown on the ones who try to hide it. At the end of the day, it is the wellbeing of your children that they care about. By getting help, you are putting your children first.
My son was a very fussy baby. He only settled when he was being held, he didnít nap for very long during the day, he was very uncomfortable after a feed (more so in the evening) and he never slept through the night.