Mothers Seeking Mental Health Treatment
When I was diagnosed with postpartum depression after giving birth to my first son, I felt incredible guilt. Every time I stepped away from my newborn to go to another therapy and psychiatry appointment, I told myself (or perhaps my mental illnesses told me) that I was a bad mom. A selfish mom. I remember sitting in the waiting room at a reproductive mental health center and thinking, “I shouldn’t be here right now. I should be breastfeeding. I should be rocking him to sleep. I should be with my son, not away from him, talking to these doctors. I’m a failure.”
Looking back, I can see that treatment was exactly where I needed to be. I can see how brave I was for taking care of my mental health, especially in a world filled with stigma, bias, and misconceptions about depression.
By the time my friend and ERC Pathlight Recovery Ambassador Council Member, Shay, wrote “No One ‘Signs Your Cast’ While You’re Struggling With a Mental Illness,” I was on appropriate medication, going to therapy appointments weekly, and on the mend from depression. My son was almost two years old. I held him in my arms as I read Shay’s words for the first time. She detailed how, following a surgery on her foot, people gladly offered to sign her pink cast. They sent her get-well wishes. They brought her groceries and meals. They didn’t expect her to function at work or at home as she would without an injury. And yet when Shay sought treatment for mental health struggles such as depression, PTSD, and anorexia, no one “signed her cast” because there was no visible wound. Rather than receiving the compassion we often do when we have a physical health issue, people criticized her and struggled to understand.
As I held my son and read Shay’s blog, I wished I could sign every mother’s mental health cast. Her postpartum anxiety cast. Her eating disorder cast. Her PTSD cast. I wished we lived in a world where mothers could openly talk about having a mental illness without fear of being judged or criticized. I wished “mom guilt” wasn’t so rampant in our culture.
I’m not the only mother who has felt shame for seeking mental health treatment; I know this now. In the midst of depression, however, I felt like I was the only mom who struggled, the only mom who took time away from her kids for treatment. But the truth is, many parents worry about missing out on big moments in their kids’ lives and struggle with guilt and shame while they are seeking care. Below, my friends Shay and Kara Richardson Whitely share how they also struggled with “mom guilt” as they pursued recovery, and what helped them to keep going. May their words help you feel less alone. And may we all sign their casts by dropping words of kindness, validation, and encouragement in the comments!
Kara Richardson Whitely:
My therapist once asked me if recovery was hard for me when I traveled. While most times I bobbled back and forth with her questions, as a mother of three kids, my answer was a resounding “no.”
When I was on the road for work, I had far more power and presence about my meals. This is something I’ve really focused on since seeing an eating disorders specialist for binge eating disorder. When I traveled, I could take time to feel. I could have a moment of gratitude and process what was around me. Of course, since the COVID-19 lockdowns, this oasis of calm has vanished.
Mealtime for a mother can be a constant flurry of demands, from getting the kids to help to breaking through the chaos of dinner conversation.
This has been something that I’ve struggled with since becoming a mom, that is, finding my way to recovery while also being a mother.
It was in those first few months of being a mom that I was sleep deprived and constantly bingeing. It took months of guilt, stress, and feeling overwhelmed to know that I needed help. It was then, while trying to care for a new baby, that I realized I needed to start caring for myself.
The decision alone is not enough to make it happen. The declaration to my family is not enough to make it happen. My therapist wasn’t going to make it happen.
I needed to find time for my recovery, not just going to appointments (which were quite a journey to New York City). But in my home, I had to find my recovery in my everyday actions. That mean asking for what I needed – whether it was a break so I could catch up on some sleep (even if I never actually caught up) or taking some time for meals (instead of grazing throughout the day).
When it came to those meals, I had to find ways to be mindful in the moment, in whatever moments motherhood threw me (and sometimes with a toddler throwing food right at me). There are a lot of deep breaths and sometimes exaggerated sighs at the table.
When I can, I take my time with my food. Sometimes I sit and process my meal when everyone has left the table. This isn’t always possible with the sometimes-breakneck pace of parenting. This little pocket of peace reminds me the meal is finished and I can move on.
Taking time to live my recovery doesn’t always fit easily into my life. But just because it isn’t a portrait of perfection doesn’t mean I can’t find ways to make it work.
If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I take a moment. I turn on some music to switch up the mood. If that isn’t enough. I make a call to my friends, family, or therapist.
As my kids are older, I ask for more help from meal preparation through clean-up.
I make mealtime conversation an opportunity for everyone to be heard and validated.
So yes, traveling was an easier time for my recovery but it’s an escape. Motherhood has helped me practice (but believe me, it isn’t perfect) recovery in the now.
The date was January 3, 2012. I had flown to Denver the previous day. I stood outside of Eating Recovery Center, feeling ashamed. I had been unable to stop my eating disorder behaviors, and if you asked me, I could not have told you why. My mother had already told me that I was not a good parent because I was selfish to have an illness and leave for treatment. I gazed up at the treatment center and thought of my spouse and son. I desperately wanted to do better for them but was unable to do so. A few hours later, I walked into the center and started my journey back to health.
I felt horrible that I was leaving my one-year-old son. But what I realized in the coming days was, no matter what others thought of me or how I felt about leaving my young son, I could not be a good parent unless I got help. My choosing to temporarily be away from them and do the work that I needed to do would allow me to be present emotionally and physically for my son in the future.
What I realize in looking back on that rock bottom time of my life is that leaving to get help was one of my finest parenting decisions, albeit I did not view it that way at the time. My son does not remember me being gone, but he does remember me being emotionally present for him and all his preteen emotions now. He remembers the parent who can share popcorn and soda with him at the movies. My recovery has allowed him to have a parent who has successfully broken the generational cycle of trauma and abuse. Giving that gift to him has been very healing for me, and I am ultimately glad I made the decision to prioritize my recovery.