The New Year is a time for taking stock of our lives. We celebrate the things that are going well, and we re-evaluate the things that could go better. Many of us write down our intentions as resolutions, macro-level goals to guide us to a more productive and peaceful new year.
According to Nielsen ratings service, the top five new year’s resolutions in 2015 were:
- Stay fit and healthy 37%
- Lose weight 32%
- Enjoy life to the fullest 28%
- Spend less, save more 25%
- Spend more time with family and friends 19%
Parents of children who have mental illness likely have far different goals. Stay fit and healthy? When will I find time to do that, between work, therapy appointments, and managing my child’s condition? Spend less, save more? How is that possible, when the best psychiatrists don’t even take my health insurance, or when I’m trying to figure out how to pay for residential therapeutic treatment that costs more per year than Harvard? Spend more time with family? It’s okay if you’ve thought to yourself at least once, “I just want some time for myself.”
As the gyms and yoga classes fill in January, there’s a relentless societal pressure to “think positive,” even in the face of ever-mounting stress. For parents of children living with mental health conditions, this stress can be exponentially greater. That’s why my five new year’s resolutions for parents focus on that pop-culture phenomenon of self-care, and no, I’m not talking about bubble baths and pedicures.
1. Be honest with yourself and others about your feelings.
Self-care starts with caring about yourself. Social scientists often talk about the importance of emotional intelligence, popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book. An important part of emotional intelligence is being able to identify the emotions that you feel as you are feeling them, without judgment. Honestly identifying your emotions can help you to manage them, even in the types of challenging situations that parents of children who have mental illness often face. It’s okay to feel sad, disappointed, or even angry.
2. Ask for help.
You may find support in unexpected places. One great way to learn about what your community can do for you is to connect with other parents through support groups and classes, like the free NAMI Basics class offered through your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As a NAMI Basics instructor, I can say this course taught me everything I wish I had known when my child was first diagnosed. You should also investigate support options like respite care for your child, so that you can take much needed time for yourself.
3. Trust yourself.
As parents of children with mental illness, we can become overwhelmed by the myriad diagnoses, medications, and therapies recommended for our children. A prominent psychiatrist once told me that he always deferred to the real “M.D.”—the “Mom Degree.” Parents, especially mothers, know their children, he said. If something seems “off,” to you, resolve this year to question it.
4. Speak up for your child.
Anyone who watches the news knows that these are uncertain times for individuals living with disabilities including mental illness. From education to healthcare to insurance to social safety nets, everything seems uncertain. But we are not powerless. Advocacy is a powerful way to transform your family’s pain into positive change. Find out who your local officials are. Resolve to show up at just one public meeting and share your family’s story. Write out a short script about what matters to your child—health care, housing, access to treatment—and call your elected officials once a week. Call the switchboard here (202) 224-3121. They’ll connect you to your representative or senator. Follow them on Twitter and let them know that mental health matters to you and your family.
5. Take time for yourself.
Whenever I am asked about the most important things parents can do for their children, I always give this response. If you’re too tired, sad, or discouraged to hope, it’s time for a time-out. I was a single parent to my children for many years, so I know how hard it can be to juggle the myriad responsibilities of motherhood. But I always found time for myself. Maybe it was immersing myself in NK Jemisen’s latest science fiction tome for a few minutes at bedtime. Or maybe I took personal time from work and went for a hike or a headed to a yoga class. Sometimes I even hired a trusted babysitter (with at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology) and went out to dinner with friends. I know this for certain: we all need time to recharge. Whatever that looks like for you, make sure that you make time for yourself.
Parenting a child who has mental illness means that your life doesn’t look like everyone else’s—and it doesn’t have to. This year, while everyone else is heading to the gym again, resolve to care for yourself, just as much as you care for your children. By being honest about your feelings, asking for help, trusting yourself, speaking up for change, and finding a few minutes to enjoy life, you can have the happy new year that you deserve.