Better days

I had a much better day than yesterday and so did my husband. I’m getting better about learning that down days and setbacks are temporary. That ratio may change if and when my husband declines but for now there still seems to be a good balance.

We had hours to talk and catch up, making up for the time we didn’t have earlier in the week. That important connection between us was restored. Whenever we don’t have that time to connect, I really feel it and it takes a toll on me. Perhaps I am too emotionally dependent on needing contact with him. Certainly it will make it much harder once he’s gone.

Then I went out and ran a couple errands. After he went to bed and everyone else was asleep, my middle son Adam (he’s 19) came out to talk to me. We ended up having a good talk for over an hour. As the parent of older kids, those kinds of opportunities are rare and I greatly value them.

He’s the least ambitious one of my kids and he’d probably readily agree with that statement. He has no plans for college at this time and just wants to get a job as soon as he gets a car (which should finally be very soon, I hope.) But he reminds me so much of my dad in every way: appearance, laidback attitude, desire for a lot of free time, not being concerned with material wealth. It’s interesting how alike they are since they never really spent enough time together for my dad to have been a big influence.

I suspect Adam may end up taking a similar path as my dad, which will likely present some financial struggles that may impact any kids he has, like it did for me. He’ll probably be content with a job that provides the bare minimum and few opportunities for advancement. But if he’s like my dad, he will be happy with life and won’t be stressed about money (because almost nothing stresses him out.) He’s truly pretty content with simple things in life. At the same time, also like my dad, he’s very interested in current events and has a lot of pretty intelligent opinions and philosophies.

Some of the most interesting things Adam said related to his perspectives on how we’ve raised him and about how he views the concept of authority figures. He feels like he learned from me and my husband what not to do—namely, that he feels that we both work too hard and that I in particular don’t know how to relax. He’s not wrong; I’m looking at trying to get a part-time work-at-home job in addition to freelancing, up to the limit of what I can earn on disability. Despite genuinely needing disability, I’m not content to just do nothing.

But despite that, he also has no criticisms about the way we’ve raised him. My oldest had a lot of criticisms about our parenting and was very vocal in expressing them. Adam found that disrespectful and felt that it showed a lack of perspective about how bad some other people’s childhoods were. Apparently, a lot of Adam’s friends had pretty bad childhoods and nothing we did even came close.

Interestingly, his views on authority also mirror mine. He’s respectful of authority figures and behaves appropriately toward them, but he doesn’t actually believe in the concept of any human being valued above any other. And that’s interesting to me because I’ve always felt the same way. I think that’s largely why I’ve found it so much easier to be a parent of teenagers than little kids.

When you have little kids, you have to be in that role of authority figure to guide them, which is not a role that comes easily to me. It’s necessary to make sure they turn out okay but it always made me uncomfortable. The idea of telling kids what to do with the explanation of “because I’m the parent, that’s why” is the complete opposite of my philosophy. I didn’t think that was a justified answer to anything and I tried hard not to use it.

Now that they’re teenagers, I can relate to them more or less as equals. They understand that our respective roles require them to treat us with some deference, but we also wield that power with great caution. I’ve always felt that as humans, even when they were little children, they were still sovereign individuals. It was my job to guide them, keep them safe, and share my values with them, but I always felt they would ultimately make up their own minds and become who they were supposed to be. I just didn’t want to fuck up too badly.

I never felt that I was above them—nor that they were above me, either. I’ve known several people who were so child-centric that all of the parents’ needs had to take a backseat, even in circumstances where it wasn’t necessary. I was never the kind of parent who, even when they were babies, said I couldn’t take a shower (for example) because my children’s needs were so all-consuming. I see that as unnecessary martyrdom that leads to children thinking they deserve more than their parents allow for themselves. If you teach kids that the world revolves around them, how do you expect them to ever become concerned with the needs of others?

So it’s interesting that he sees things the same way and doesn’t think he would do anything differently if he has kids. He appreciates the fact that we strive for mutual respect between adults and kids. Now that they are becoming adults themselves, we can help guide them along the way but we won’t often do anything for them that they can do themselves. Nor can we really force them to do anything they don’t want to do. Yes, we help when they’re struggling, but they try hard to take care of themselves, too.

It makes me feel happy and gratified that what I was trying to do seems to have paid off. He feels respected but he also respects me enough not to take advantage of me. He wants to be truly self-sufficient. He said he sees us like older and wiser roommates, people who are his equal and deserve to be treated kindly. And I’m thrilled with the fact that he doesn’t feel a lot of pressure or disrespect coming from us.

He also said that he really admires that I’m open about my shortcomings and try to work on them. He believes everyone should put in a similar effect but that few people actually do.

We don’t get a lot of time for those one-on-one talks, but every time we do, it makes me feel like I didn’t screw up too badly. He may never be the most ambitious or motivated person for traditional paths, but I don’t think that all the pushing in the world would have changed that. Instead, I feel like I’m respecting his right to choose his own path, just like I have accepted my trans daughter’s path as her own.

I truly believe that you can’t control your kids’ paths in life. The harder you try, the more likely they are to be unhappy with both their lives and with you in particular. They’re not lesser beings just because they’re younger or because I gave birth to them.

And every time we have one of these talks, or I exchange funny memes with my youngest, maybe I’m building the kind of relationship that will make them want to stay in contact with me once they’re out of the house. Not because they want what material things I can give them, but because they know the respect is a two-way street and I’m not going to try to change them. I truly like who they are as individuals.

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.

Depression and parenting

I know I just wrote the other day about reflections on my parenting and the fact that my oldest feels like his childhood was magical. And I should probably be re-reading that right now.

But instead, I’m thinking about the effects it had on my kids to grow up with a mom who had untreated depression and garden-variety mental illness. There are so many studies out there about how detrimental it is to grow up with a depressed and anxious mother.

I did try to get treatment, but so many of them either didn’t work or I didn’t like the side effects. Ironically, now that I’m on effective treatment, I can see more clearly that I needed it all along. Choosing to be ill because I didn’t like the side effects of medication wasn’t fair to my kids or my husband. At the time, I thought I had everything under control without medication, but looking back, I can see that I didn’t. I was fooling myself to the detriment of my family.

They say that kids who grow up with depressed mothers are more likely to have depression or anxiety themselves, and what a surprise that my kids do. Even though I’m now modeling how to take care of myself, I wish I had done so sooner for their benefit.

I’ve always had this mentality that I should be able to pick myself up by my bootstraps and just not be depressed, even though it doesn’t work that way. I’m now getting social security disability not only for my multiple sclerosis but also for my depression.

Yet I’ve never really taken my depression all that seriously. And right or wrong, I’ve perceived that nobody else who knew me took it very seriously either. If my parents knew, I believe they were probably too depressed themselves to know how to help me. I am also pretty sure, based on things she’s said, that my sister thought I should just bootstrap myself out of it.

There was even another mom in the online mom’s group I was a part of for nearly 20 years. She was on disability for mental illness and people always tried to build her up and tell her how brave she was, etc. Why wasn’t anyone telling me the same? These moms knew I was depressed, often suicidally so — in fact, that’s what led to them funding my move back here. So I can’t say that they didn’t care because they obviously did. I just wonder if they, too, thought I could bootstrap my way out of it with a change of scenery.

Looking back, I can see that I was already pretty sick when I moved here. But I got worse because of the MS pretty shortly thereafter, and depression is itself a major symptom of MS.

I don’t blame anyone for anything. I’ve forgiven my parents years ago for the things they did that weren’t so great. I understand now that they were doing their best and sometimes made the wrong call, just as I have. I now recognize a lot of what I grew up with as the result of their untreated depression.

They chose to put me in a harsher social environment with people who were not my economic peers so I could have a better education. When you have a bright kid but not a lot of money, it’s hard to know what to do. I ended up doing the same with my kids and it was similarly as hard on them as it was on me.

How can I hold a grudge against my parents when I ended up largely doing the same thing with my kids? Their hearts really were in the right place, as mine was, even if in many cases the outcome of what they did had an unintentionally detrimental effect.

Even when I’ve told a couple people I thought were my friends about traumatic things in my childhood, it wasn’t to try to get them to feel sorry for me or to suggest that I was still resentful about those things. I just thought I was sharing things that would explain a little more about why some things were triggers for me.

I don’t think anyone else is responsible for me but myself. Do I have things in my childhood that kinda messed me up? Sure, but I think most people do. And I’ve been working for the past several years quite intently on trying to move past them and get better.

But the hardest part of seeing more clearly and starting to get better is that you also see your mistakes. And I feel like my biggest mistake by far was allowing my depression and anxiety to go untreated for so long. I hope it’s not too late to undo some of the damage that has done to my kids.