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Parents are not defined by our mental health, and here's why

Tori Bowman Johnson

Tori Bowman Johnson

Tori, a freelance writer, has worked in production, talent management & branding since her agency role at Vivien’s Model Management in Melbourne in 2011. Tori has recently launched, The First Word; a conversational podcast for women, particularly those who juggle young children & paid work. Tori is also a very proud mum of two little boys.
Created on Mar 05, 2024 · 6 mins read

Like most individuals and fellow mothers, I live with a sprinkling of mental health related hurdles. Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and (the following condition is not a mental health issue but it’ll soon become clearer why I am mentioning it), Hashimoto’s Disease. It took 21 years to clinically diagnose the 1st ‘sprinkling’, 32 years to identify the 2nd, and it took the birth of my second child to diagnose the 3rd.


While each of these hurdles has the ability to trip me up, I count my lucky stars daily. Everything is treatable and manageable with the right support.

Having said this however – and in the light of honesty – these hurdles can make me feel weird. Loopy. Off with the fairies. Different. Alone. And without a doubt, always curiously asking myself, “Am I the only one to feel this way?” and ‘Am I the only one to experience life through this unusual lens?”

No. I am not. Neither are you, if you’re wondering.

In my world, I take prescribed medication every morning to minimise symptoms of these so-called ‘sprinklings’. On top of this, for the duration of my day I use two other tools to extinguish potential fires before they ignite. These tools are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (a goodie) and; surrendering to a series of physical and mental compulsions (an imperfect habit).

 

Understanding OCD


Here we say hello to OCD. My pain in the ass nemesis, but also my clutch.

For context, as defined by the International OC Foundation, “Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life, and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviours an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease distress.”

For me personally, the obsessions present as thoughts and mental images of ‘bad things’ happening, a lot of the time. At its core, I am scared of change and death. I pander to this fear by trying very hard to construct a sense of control and certainty through compulsions. Like, “If I do X, then Y will not happen.”


Compulsions and magical thinking


The compulsions present in a variety of ways. There’s the dependancy on routine, verbal mantras, a fixation with numbers, an emphasis on right & left (for example if my left shoulder touches a wall, my right must follow suit), crossing and uncrossing my legs, and the need to click my tongue a certain number of times to block any unwelcome thoughts from entering my mind.

Giving into a compulsion lets me believe that I’m preventing the distressing thought from coming true. This is often referred to as ‘magical thinking’. Magical thinking is one of the many branches hanging from the OCD tree.

Now. When you throw a baby into this picture, things become a little fractured. Goodbye to a sense of control. Goodbye to a sense of certainty.


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When OCD meets parenting


With children, especially newborns, a person’s ability to extract exactness from the day or the week ahead, is no longer viable. But despite the baby brain fog, it’s pretty astonishing just how quickly the mind will recalibrate to ensure the OCD continues to thrive.

When I had my first baby, I very quickly adjusted the way I perceived routine. 

Instead of structuring days and weeks to include particular activities, I introduced sequences within the home and a rule. 

Everything had to be ‘just right’.

Before I sat down to do something (eat, express milk or even feed the baby), a number of other things had to be done first. The pillows had to be arranged on the couch. My coffee had to be re-heated (and not just once). I had to vacuume the kitchen. I had to have perfectly made each bed. Take the rubbish out. Restock the change table… I was fighting hard to secure every inch of control and certainty.

New compulsions arise


While this ‘just right’ compulsion claimed prime real estate in my mind, my fears and obsessions became more distressing because with babies, comes an enormous amount of risk. The fragility of babies means that something bad could happen to them at any moment.

To combat this I welcomed a brand new compulsion. Yay for me, not. I began forcing myself to imagine the worst possible outcome in every new setting the baby and I experienced. Bath time, driving with the baby, rocking them to sleep. Disturbing? I agree. But for some inexplicable reason, I would rationalise this behaviour by telling myself that I was ‘wishing away’ the possibility of any worst case scenario from actually happening. This is another example of ‘magical thinking’.

This pattern of behaviour infiltrated the way I experienced social media. Due to the algorithm, a lot of the content I was shown revolved around sick children, people living with cancer, women losing babies and individuals living with physical deformities. Unlike depression which manifests as an internalised series of feelings – OCD can become visual.

Circling back to the start of this article, I’m sure it’s become easier to understand why I tend to feel weird and alone in my thoughts. Especially as a mother. Mothers are meant to have their shit together right? And all of the time.

Crikey, what absurd pressure. And what a load of BS. Moving on.

The final ‘sprinkling’: Hashimoto’s disease


To lastly acknowledge the 3rd non-mental health ‘sprinkling’, my Hashimoto’s diagnosis followed the birth of my 2nd child. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that can lead to hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid. As your thyroid gland is responsible for excreting hormones that affect your heart, digestive function, brain development and bone maintenance (so just about everything). When mine switched itself to ‘snooze’ my body and cognitive function experienced extreme fatigue. I said goodbye to my short term memory.

Why is this relevant to mental health? Good question. The loss of short term memory meant that I couldn’t remember if I had engaged in a compulsion. 

So for assurance sake, I would repeat the compulsion. It was here, my GP advised a psychologist.

Parents are not defined by our mental health


So this is the point at which I will stop my story and instead say this – while these mental health sprinklings create complexities, they do not define me. And whatever mental health hurdles you’re dealing with – they do not have to define you either.

“Motherhood is not goodbye to womanhood, adulthood or ‘life-hood.’ If motherhood has taught me anything, it’s that women can get through almost anything.”

One great way to cope and to seek support is to engage in open & honest conversations where you allow yourself to unload and ask for help in the form of listening. This could be with a therapist, a friend, your mum, your partner. If you can’t say the words, try and write them down.

The reason I choose to outwardly acknowledge my story is to remind mothers (and people in general), that if you do feel different from the pack and therefore weird, alone or even inferior… so do most other people at one time or another.

Think of it this way. No two individuals share the same DNA. Meaning, there is no ‘normal type of person or parent’ when it comes to the human species.

There is just us. 

 

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