That November morning started like any other. I was making pancakes in the kitchen while my 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son set the table. Their older brother Eric, 13, soon joined us, prompted by the delicious smell of bacon wafting through the air. As I doled out pancakes, I noticed a stack of books on the counter.
In November 2010, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving as a full time single parent of a very special boy who had an un-diagnosed serious mental illness. Eric was barely eleven, but he had already been hospitalized and incarcerated for behavioral symptoms of his brain differences. Before that Thanksgiving, Eric’s father and I had shared joint custody, but a juvenile court judge had decided that Eric should stay with me full time while we worked to find a treatment that would help my sweet son to manage his increasingly unstable moods. I knew I should be grateful—but instead, I felt tired, afraid, and alone.
Let’s face it: Labels are useful. For consumers, labels can point us to a trusted brand, or give us important information about how to care for a new article of clothing, or tell us what kinds of nutrients are in the food we eat.
But children are not new shoes or breakfast cereals. Every child is unique, with special needs, abilities, and strengths. Learning how to focus on those strengths can be critical when parents talk to their children about mental health conditions.
For many parents, the middle of August is the most wonderful time of the year. After hearing a thousand iterations of “I’m bored!” and waging a positional (often losing) arms race against excessive screen time, we are thrilled to cram our children’s backpacks full of shiny new school supplies and post those “milestone” first-day-of-school pics to Instagram.
When children are sick with physical illnesses like cancer, the entire community rallies around the family. Friends bring casseroles, offer to watch the child’s siblings while the parents spend time with their sick child, and flood the family with tangible signs of love and support like flowers, cards, and balloons.
My youngest daughter turns 13 in a few weeks. For the first summer in ten years of balancing work and motherhood, I don’t have to worry about the one expense that rivaled my mortgage: summer daycare. Many parents look forward to the day when their children will be old enough to supervise themselves—or even babysit other children—during summer days. But for parents of children who have mental illness, it’s a different situation. While I no longer plan summer daycare for my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter, there’s no way I would have left my son Eric, who lives with bipolar disorder, home alone at the age of 13. He would not have been safe.