Last summer (pre-pandemic), a girlfriend and I set our pack of kids loose on a public playground. After an hour or so of chasing each other under an August sun, the group was justifiably red-faced and sweaty, pushing to be first in line at the water fountain.
Perfectly ordinary, right? So much so that my friend did not bat an eye. Her children drank cool water from the fountain, bracing their hands against the pebbled cement. I feigned a smile, working my hardest to appear nonchalant—this is just a water fountain, I told myself. This is an ordinary kid thing, and it’s OK.
But I couldn’t help but intercept my kid on her way to get a drink of water. And the earth-shaking tantrum she threw as a result—in the park and then on the entire four-block walk back to our car only exhausted her even further. It was the simplest of solutions. All I had to do was let my daughter have a sip of water, yet the consequence of doing so had the potential to torture me for months. The idea, however unfounded, of my daughter picking up any sort of infectious disease from the fountain overshadowed any need she had in that moment.
I feigned a smile, working my hardest to appear nonchalant—this is just a water fountain, I told myself. This is an ordinary kid thing, and it’s OK.
This is motherhood with contamination-focused Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I see the invisible risk in everything. My brain is wired to track any possible trail of germs. And in the moments I push myself to override these instincts, I’m served with days—if not months—of anxious and obsessive thinking.
Of course, a good therapist and medication help a great deal. But give me a big dose of stress in the form of say, a global pandemic, and poof! There it is again—my OCD.
When it comes to my children, I’ve often wrestled with finding the best approach: do I protect them from the truth, even when it’s ugly, or clue them into it? In many situations, like when the topics of death and dying randomly come up, I feel like it makes sense to casually change the subject. But when we’re talking mental health, I think there’s great value in being an open book.
There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, and certainly plenty of misplaced shame in asking for help. And while I can’t hope to revolutionize the world with the small choices I make, I can help shape the experience of two little people growing up in it.
While I can’t hope to revolutionize the world with the small choices I make, I can help shape the experience of two little people growing up in it.
I want my girls to live without judgment of other peoples’ struggles. I want them to know that something like mental illness does not define someone’s character. And I desperately want them to have a well of coping skills, should they ever need help navigating similar issues of their own.
So instead of shielding them from the ugliness I live with, I let them watch me battle it. I do my best to keep things matter-of-fact and mundane. I don’t want to scare my children or ever make them feel unsafe. Rather, my goal is to show them that sometimes I have big feelings, and sometimes, because of the way my brain is wired, I have fears that don’t have their roots in reality.
I tell them that I am safe, but I need to take time to calm my mind and my body. And in those moments, I show my girls what it means to move forward in the face of fear. So, I take deep breaths, move my body, and soak in the sun—knowing that with each step I take, I am modeling for them just what it means to practice lifesaving self-care.
Read More: How I Parent Through Anxiety and Depression