Mental illness and motherhood

My sister is bi-polar and for as long as I can remember we’ve juggled family life with her recurring episodes of deep depression and manic highs. We’ve lived through the teenage years of drink, drugs and rebellion followed by her 20’s and her first foray into motherhood and now her 30’s with baby number 2. And all in the shadow of her bi-polar.

Many people struggle to understand mental illness as one day, or even for weeks on end, a person can seem completely ok and then pow! Something hits! And suddenly all the wheels come off!

So imagine the scene when there are children in the mix. How much more complex it becomes when a mother’s needs outweigh those of her children. And how the children themselves learn to grow up in this unusual and often very adult environment.

Luckily we live in a society where there is plenty of help and experts at hand but ultimately bi-polar is incurable. Living with it is a life sentence and keeping it under control is a daily struggle for those who suffer from it. Medication is a means to retain some sense of internal balance but when external factors come in to play then anything can happen. From a simple argument through to more serious issues like a death in the family. These are all likely to tip the equilibrium and provoke an episode. And in the midst of all this are nappies to be changed and children to be fed.

My sister’s latest episode comes on the back of a recent family loss. A valid excuse some might say. And indeed we all felt low. But the issue at hand is how to manage the extreme emotions of someone with bi-polar with the everyday demands of motherhood.

There are 11 years separating my niece and nephew and so we now have a teenager and a toddler both battling for their mother’s attention. Both with very different needs but equally needy of a mother’s love and support.

At 14 years old my niece is overly mature for her years having seen and experienced many difficult episodes. She belongs to the “young carers” association, a group especially established to help and bring together children like her. Has my sister been a good mother to her? Yes. For much of the time. But does my niece suffer as a result of her bi-polar? The answer is also yes. There is a co-dependency that exists between them. Established many years ago and nurtured through time with each taking turns to look after the other as needed.

My nephew, fast approaching 3, is new to all this. He may not yet understand the strains of having a bi-polar mother but over time he too will become aware of the nuances. And how will a male child cope versus his elder sister? Only time will tell.

Many people have asked me over the years (usually after a particularly dramatic episode) whether or not a person suffering from bi-polar should have children? Isn’t it selfish? But ultimately who are we to decide who and what makes a good mum?

On any given day my sister can be firing on all cylinders and 99% capable. She loves her children like any other mother and is fiercely proud of their achievements so far. She keeps a clean house (dare I say it cleaner than mine!) and loves to cook. Yes she is dependent on medication and yes she has episodes throughout the year but so too do many other mothers suffering from a whole host of other illnesses. And let’s be honest, even us so called healthy mums can be prone to the odd lapse!

Mental illness is and always has been a slightly taboo subject. Slowly the walls are coming down and people no longer need to hide behind them but us mothers need to support each other and especially those suffering with mental health issues. In the 2 years since my daughter was born i’ve experienced some amazing highs and some terrible lows of exhaustion, tiredness, and feelings of general inadequacy. It seems this comes with the territory of being a mum. So I can only imagine how much harder it must be to feel all of these things and more as a sufferer of mental illness.

My sister’s journey is far from over and so too is our family’s. She’s battling on the frontline but she’s got us troops behind her. Motherhood and mental illness might not make the best equation on paper but life has a funny way of making things all right.

Love Claire