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Will My Mental Health Struggles Affect My Son? I’m Starting To See They Could Help Him Weather Life’s Storms | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

I’ve been having a tough time with my mental health lately. Anxiety and low mood have been compounded by my son’s repeated night wakings, and after settling him I have been lying wide awake, heart racing with adrenaline. Averaging three hours of sleep a night, it was inevitable that I would burn out with exhaustion eventually, requiring time off work.

Just typing these words, and the thought of you reading them, makes me feel shame. Shame that I haven’t coped better, shame at the burden it has placed on others, and shame that I’m feeling this way, when, considering the pain and trauma others are facing, I am lucky. That feeling of shame always creates in me an impulse to write. When I first started this series, mere weeks after giving birth, a female journalist I have known for years suggested that I was too vulnerable to be doing so. Yet if we never create work from a place of vulnerability, I am not sure what writing is for.

It is hard to accept feeling vulnerable as a parent. You are supposed to be strong for the small human(s) you are caring for, and so being confronted with the notion that you might fall apart and therefore let them down only adds to feelings of despair and self-disgust. It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with my mental health in the past; I have written about it in this newspaper, and my memoir, The Year of the Cat, is partly about how you make the decision to have a baby – with all the fear that can entail – when you have a history of anxiety, in my case post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are those who argue that it’s fairer not to reproduce, and I have been moved by friends’ and readers’ experiences of how it can feel to grow up with a parent who isn’t coping. In my lower moments this past month I have been haunted by the character of the chronically depressed mum in About a Boy, and the impact that her mental illness has on her unhappy son, Marcus.

On the other hand, one in four of us experience some form of mental health issue in any given year, and as with other medical conditions and disabilities, implying that such people should never become parents is deeply ableist. Some of the best parents I know are those who have lived with anxiety and depression, and they have been inspirational in my decision to become a mother.

I have been lucky in that I received support, first from an NHS psychology service specialising in women’s health, and then from the perinatal mental health team. I didn’t write about it at the time, because I didn’t know how to. I was quite rightly discharged after we concluded that I – thankfully – wasn’t suffering from a perinatal mental illness, but I credit the extra support, especially in the early months, with the fact that I was able to cope so well with a difficult premature birth and early motherhood. If only all new parents could access such help.

Becoming a parent involves seismic life and hormonal changes, and can awaken in us feelings about our childhoods and family relationships of which we may not have been previously aware. Suddenly you see the way that you were parented – for good and for bad – through new eyes. Your relationships – with your partner, your friends – often shift, as does the way you think about work. In other words, it’s a lot, before you even consider the effects of sleeplessness.

A mental health nurse told me that the best thing for anyone suffering from mental illness is sleep, which is of course mostly off limits to new parents. Until I became a parent, I had never really thought about how lack of sleep is just taken as a given, how you are just supposed to get on with it, despite everyone wryly commenting that it’s used as a method of torture. We know that people feel their lowest between 4am and 5am – during the darkness before the dawn, as I try to remember to think of it – and I have been awake far too often during these hours in recent weeks. Even when my husband took on the nights, which he has done over and over again, I would lie there awake in the next room with an inner anxiety monologue that would not stop.

I’m not better, but I’m in a better place. Little things have helped – seeing my son happy, which he is, despite this tough patch of mine. When I blow bubbles, he and the cat congregate and compete to pop them, which is just so joyful. My husband offers unwavering love and support, as do my friends and family. One friend, a masseuse, gave me a free massage. Another gave me some CBD oil, which now has me sleeping like a log even between wakings. A third took me out for a wonderful lunch. A fourth came to the playground and we ate cannoli and drank coffee while we pushed the baby on the swing. The past few weeks have confirmed for me that we have not evolved to parent in such small units: humans need people.

I’ll be getting more therapy, in the hope that it can help prevent me burning out again, but I’ve already been trying to put what I’ve learned from therapists in the past into practice to make it easier to cope. Practising gratitude has been so helpful because it is not just about reflecting on the good things in your life, but it actively rewires your brain so that you become more attuned to the positives around you. Lying there in the dark, in despair, I found myself focusing on the fact that my family and I are safe, warm in our beds, while other parents and children, particularly those in Gaza, one of the most densely child-populated places in the world, are not so fortunate. A friend who is a GP always says that it’s good to be grateful, but it’s also OK to say you’re having a shit time. Maintaining perspective, however, and feeling empathy for others, can be a galvanising force; a reminder to focus on solidarity and hope.

Instead of causing us shame, hard times can teach us things. I am coming to understand that my struggles, rather than holding my son back, will allow me to pass on to him some of the tools to weather life’s storms.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

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