Motherhood And Mental Illness—A Business Founder's Survival Guide
It's #MentalIllnessAwarenessWeek right now—a time for shame-free discussions and stigma-free education of mental illness. In this essay, a biz founder talks about living with bipolar disorder while juggling work and kids.
The moment I became a mother was equally the most wonderful and terrifying time of my life. In those precious first minutes of Olive’s life on the outside, my heart grew tenfold and my brain nearly exploded with an overwhelming sense of responsibility for her every basic need and happiness.
Like many new mothers, I was filled with anxiety—constantly worrying if she was getting enough milk, if she was sleeping enough, if she was sleeping too much (this worry didn’t last long), if I was burping her correctly, if the swaddle was too tight, if she was gaining enough weight. This list was endless.
But on top of all the “normal” worries, I was besieged by another set of fears—fears of my potential shortcomings associated with being a person living with bipolar disorder.
Officially diagnosed at age 27, after many years of therapy and failed treatments for the wrong thing, I waited over five years to grasp my illness before becoming a mother. Not to suggest that there is any “set” amount of time to wrap your brain around something out of your control. There isn’t.
But once I did become a mother, I knew that letting our perfect little being down was not an option, and I was determined to develop a set of coping skills to go above and beyond my medication cocktail—a cocktail neither bump nor breastfeeding friendly. Basically, I had to make my bipolar, my bitch.
To keep it simple and manageable, I started with five basic rules to ensure that I was taking care of myself in order to take the best care of her. Maybe they'll help you too!
Rule 1: Ask for help (and surround yourself with people willing to help when you ask)
Don’t even think of not asking for help. In most cases, ask for help before you even need it. If my personal experience with metal illness has taught me anything, it’s that when one actually needs the help, it could be too late.
Tell your partner (if you have one, like I did) specifically what you need from them. Perhaps you outsource tasks like bath time, diaper duty or bottle washing to give yourself a moment to catch your breath.
As baby becomes less baby and more full on child, a history of delegating specific responsibilities to others will ensure that you’re not doing all the heavy lifting—allowing you more time to find balance and less opportunities to feel so overwhelmed that you literally forget how to function.
Rule 2: Get your zzz’s
Every mama is sleep deprived, but if you’re living with a mental illness (especially one like bipolar) you CANNOT neglect your sleep. I doubt seriously if you were a diabetic mother, you would stop your insulin. Right?
In many ways, the correct amount of sleep performs as a drug. Communicate with your family and all those in your “village” so that they fully understand the importance and help keep you in check. As mothers we often neglect our basic needs, or feel guilty for evening needing them in the first place, but if we want to be the best we can for be our babes, then we have to be sure we are taking proper care of ourselves too.
Rule 3: Take a bubble bath
When your world is spinning out and you can’t seem to stop your brain from going down a rabbit hole (perhaps a dark one)—run a hot bath, load it up with some calming, good smelling stuff, and take a soak.
You’ll be amazed at how 10 to 15 minutes can reboot you to your best self. (Or at least your better self.)
Rule 4: Forgive yourself
I can’t speak to exactly what you are going to beat yourself up for as a mother, but it’s likely that you are going to do it.
For me, it was baby food. I didn’t make it from scratch, and in a pinch, I didn’t even buy organic. I know—gasp, right? For some reason, this left me feeling like a complete failure when the reality is, that if your child is fed and healthy, then you are doing great as a mom.
I let the baby food thing go (among other small, often trivial things) and became a much happier person. I also made the conscious decision that my life was not going to look like a Pinterest board and in no way have my children suffered from this! The pressure for perfection is real and it's ridiculous.
Rule 5: Hone your coping skills
When my therapist introduced cognitive therapy to me, I actually laughed out loud. As if floating my “bad thoughts” down a “make believe” river was really going to help. Guess what? It did.
Of course it took some practice, but developing a set of real, coping skills is critical. Perhaps the river thing won’t work for you—but maybe it’s meditation, or prayer, or yoga, or a combination of all of the above.
Allow yourself the time to handle stressful situations that are more challenging for those of us balancing motherhood and mental illness. Put it on your to-do list if you have to. But do it. For you. For your children.
Four years and another baby later, I can honestly say that I am still a work in progress. My journey into motherhood with a mental illness is a continuous one, filled with ups and downs, mistakes and corrections.
I’m learning the importance of speaking my truth and walking my walk openly. From my experience, there is no other way to thrive and survive this magical phase of life.
Morgan Hutchinson is the owner and founder of fashion retail site BURU, and the mother of two kids.
Update: The headline of this article has been changed to use more appropriate person-centered language. The words we use have power and meaning—this is something that Girlboss takes incredibly seriously in our reporting on—and publishing personal stories from—all people and experiences. For more information on the importance of person-first language, check out this resource, and we look forward to digging further into issues like these in the future.
Words: Morgan Hutchinson