Bipolar Disorder: Motherhood

Have you ever wished that your child came with an instruction manual? I remember leaving the hospital with my first baby and thinking, “where is the manual?!? I have no idea what I’m doing!” Many parents feel this way. Most of us have someone we can call for help or advice–our own parents, trusted friends, a pediatrician, etc. 

As a mother with bipolar disorder, though, you can feel like you are all alone. The challenges that are added by your chemical imbalance can feel isolating and overwhelming. 

You feel ashamed when you lose your temper with your children because you have no emotional buffer and your anxiety is through the roof. You feel embarrassed when you are so depressed that you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning to take care of yourself, let alone your children. 

You feel humiliated when you make irrational decisions when you’re manic that make sense at the time, but you can’t explain when the mania has passed. There is also tremendous guilt because you want to create consistency and stability for your children, but how do you do that when you can’t predict or successfully manage your mood swings?

Accept Responsibility for Yourself

In order to parent successfully with bipolar disorder you must accept that you have the disorder and that you are going to need help sometimes. This sounds simple and straightforward, but it can be really difficult to do. If you are struggling with accepting your diagnosis read my post Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief

When you become a parent you accept responsibility for someone else’s life and development. If you want to be successful as a mother with bipolar disorder you have to first accept responsibility for yourself, and that means acknowledging your needs and limitations. 

There is no “cure” for bipolar disorder, just as there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. But just as someone who has diabetes can learn how to manage their disorder so that they can live a fulfilling life, you can learn to manage your disorder so that you can live well with it, too. The first step is accepting responsibility for yourself and your mental health.

What does that look like?

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

Prepare for Your Mood Cycles

First, you need to develop a plan for when you are struggling with a mood imbalance (mania and/or depression). This plan–your Mental Health Emergency Response Plan–is designed to help you acknowledge the reality that you will have times when you are struggling with a mood cycle and you need help. 

The purpose of this plan is to help you prepare for mood cycles by:

  1. Identifying the assistance you need and who can help you meet those needs.
  2. Developing a system for recognizing when you are beginning to experience a mood cycle so you can take action.
  3. Identifying your “auxiliary mode” to know what you are capable of doing when you are in a mood cycle.
  4. Learning how to “reboot” your system in order to shorten the duration of your mood cycle.

To get your free guide to develop your own Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Manage Your Disorder

Second, it is critical that you care for your disorder effectively. If a woman has type 1 diabetes and she doesn’t manage her blood sugar she could have serious, potentially life-threatening consequences that would make it impossible for her to care for herself, let alone her children. 

The same is true for a mother who has bipolar disorder. It is critical to do the work necessary to manage your disorder. This includes:

  1. taking medication and/or supplements to balance the brain chemistry;
  2. seeking counseling to identify unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, heal trauma and learn how to have healthy boundaries; 
  3. developing an effective self-care routine that includes tools like mindfulness meditation and regular exercise.

Working to take responsibility for managing your disorder is not easy. It takes persistent effort and it is hard. But life with bipolar disorder is already hard. You can choose to struggle with unpredictable mood cycles, irrational thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries; OR you can do the work necessary to learn how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life so you can live well for yourself and your family. You have to choose your hard.

Do NOT Compare Yourself to Other Moms

This may seem like a no-brainer, but moms in general have a difficult time not feeling inferior or less than, especially in the age of social media where our feed is filled with mommy bloggers and influencers showing us their perfect homes, perfect children, and perfect lives.

It is especially harmful, however, when you are struggling with bipolar disorder and you are prone to negative self talk and intrusive negative feelings. 

I wrote a blog post dedicated to this topic Bipolar Disorder: You Are Not Broken!

If you want to be a good mom to your children, you need to focus on becoming the best mom you can be and learning what that looks like, without reference to anyone else.

Learn to Say “I’m Sorry”

The next step to successfully parenting with bipolar disorder is to learn to say “I’m sorry,” and to help your children heal when you cause pain or damage. There is a tendency to feel like you shouldn’t have to apologize for things you do when you are struggling with a mood imbalance, afterall you aren’t rational, and you didn’t do those things on purpose. 

But even if you didn’t intentionally cause pain, it is important to acknowledge the hurt and sincerely apologize to show that you are trying to learn how to live well. As a mom you teach your child to apologize if they hurt someone, even by accident, because their actions, although unintentional, still caused pain. It is important for your children to hear you acknowledge their pain so they know that you are aware of it and you are sorry for it.

It is important for you to work with a therapist to learn how to help your children heal from hurt they receive because of your behavior. It is also important to work with your therapist to learn how to teach your children healthy boundaries and learn how to acknowledge and respect their boundaries.

Your children may also need to see a therapist if the pain they experienced has caused serious trauma. It is crucial to seek whatever help is necessary to help you learn to live well, and to help you build healthy relationships with your children.

Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

Eliminate Unnecessary Stressors

Finally, it is critical to eliminate unnecessary stressors and keep your life as simple as possible while you are learning how to live well with your disorder as a mother. Initially it will be beneficial to keep your commitments to a minimum so that you can focus your primary efforts on learning the tools necessary to live well, and care for your primary responsibilities. As you become more effective in managing your disorder you can identify whether you can handle additional commitments and stress. 

When you have limited emotional resources, especially when you are experiencing a mood cycle, you have to be careful to make sure that the ones who are getting your finite emotional resources are the ones who matter most, your partner and your children.

You Can Do This!

Learning to parent successfully with bipolar disorder is absolutely possible. It just takes persistent effort to learn how to:

  • Accept that you have bipolar disorder and that you are responsible for learning how to manage it in a healthy way. This includes:
    • Developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan
    • Learning to use the tools necessary to effectively manage your disorder–medication/supplementation, therapy, and effective self-care
  • Don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
  • Learn to say sorry and help your children heal when you cause pain.
  • Work with your therapist to learn healthy boundaries and teach them to your children.
  • Keep your life as simple as possible while you learn how to manage your disorder effectively as a mother. 

Motherhood is challenging for everyone. Motherhood with bipolar disorder brings added difficulty. But it is absolutely possible to parent well with bipolar disorder

You are not alone!

If you are looking for support, join the Facebook group: Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well. This is a community of mothers who have bipolar disorder and want to learn how to live well with it. There is hope and there is help. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar.

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