Finding peace as a depressed parent

Obviously I struck a chord with the last post about being a parent who deals with depression, given the larger than usual number of page views. What I take from that is that I’m definitely not alone.

But if the post seemed a bit gloomy, I think it’s also important to present the other side of the issue: hope.

I believe that most people do the best that they’re able, given the circumstances they have. Maybe that’s naive, but I do tend to believe the best in people.

I’m sure there’s some percentage of the population that truly doesn’t care how they affect others and don’t care about being better. But I think that if you’re reading this and feeling bad about how your depression affected your loved ones, you’re obviously not in that category of those who don’t care.

If you care about how your depression affected the people you love, it can be almost unbearable to think about. That’s actually a good reaction because it means you want to do better. And you can.

But the truth is that nearly every parent messes up their kids in some way. Maybe some people more or less than others, depending on their resources and self-awareness and self-actualization.

I’ve honestly never met anybody who didn’t have some complaints about their parents at some point in their life, whether their parents were too strict or too smothering or too distant. (For the sake of this post, I’m leaving out those whose parents were abusive, just because that’s not a topic I can take on today. But I know you’re out there and I see you and validate you.)

Even people I’ve known who would otherwise say they had good childhoods were still affected when their parents got divorced, for example. Most of us are scarred in some way. What matters is that you learn lessons from how you grew up and change what needs to be changed. As the saying goes, either you get bitter or you get better.

None of this is to say that all decisions are equal or that we can do anything we want to our kids because they’re resilient. Some of us have addictions, whether to the internet or spending or alcohol, that damage our families. Those usually have roots in how we grew up, too–they’re all part of the same effort to emotionally escape the uncomfortable parts of life. Like anything else, though, once you’re aware of it, you can change it.

But what I am also saying is that eventually we have to forgive ourselves for messing up, for not being the people we wanted to be or the parents we wanted to be.

I may not have done everything right as a parent. My kids may have been affected by my depression. But I’m proud of a lot of the things I did do as a parent, too.

I wanted them to know that home was a safe place without a lot of fighting or instability. I was honest about my mistakes (in an age-appropriate way, of course) and I apologized for the things I did wrong. I wanted them to have a good moral compass and to be helpful and compassionate toward others. I wanted there to be a distinction between adult and child, not that one was more important than the other but to keep the roles of each separate.

I didn’t want them to be selfish or greedy but to appreciate all that they had. I wanted them to have a sense that as family, we’re all in this together and everybody has some responsibility. I wanted my kids to gain the competence and confidence from knowing how to do things for themselves. So far, I can say that I feel like a success in all these regards.

I do also think there’s a way to improve yourself, even if you’re not in a place where you can access good therapy or find appropriate medication. You can start some type of mindfulness practice, whether it’s reflective journaling or meditation or prayer or yoga.

I’m living proof that if you put effort into mindfulness practices, it will change you. If you read some spiritual or mindfulness types of books or even websites or books about recovery, it will change your focus. (I’m really loving Russell Brand’s Recovery, which I think is very valuable reading despite being personally unsure about the 12-step aspect and only having “soft” addictions of my own.)

You can’t keep doing what you’ve always done and expect anything to change. You have to put in a little bit of work to get better–even if at times all you can really do is a little bit of work on yourself.

Once you start the work on yourself, the results won’t be instant. Depending on how much you hurt people, it may take a while for them to trust you. Don’t let that faze you; just keep getting better. And when you do begin that work, protect it. You can’t be around negative influences or you’ll fall back into negativity, too.

But what I can say, especially if you’re a parent living with mental illness of some sort, people will notice the work you do on yourself and the results from it. That especially includes your kids. It’s never too late to start trying to learn how to be more in touch with your emotions, to be calmer, to experience less fear, to be more stable. And the benefits of that work are far-reaching and will be a positive role model for your kids. It could potentially change things for generations to come.

Forgive yourself. Then get to work on getting better.