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.
I’m a recovering perfectionist. In my writing, I’m always looking for a better way to phrase things (I’ve revised this sentence four times). As a teacher, I’m always tweaking my lesson plans and assignments to try to make them more effective and inclusive. And as a mother of four children, I sometimes agonize over being the best parent I can be, knowing firsthand that a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. Some days, that means I’ve been pretty anxious, stressed, and sad. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in parenting a child with mental illness is that it’s okay to doubt myself—and even more importantly, it’s also okay to trust myself too.
After my 2012 blog about parenting a child with mental illness, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” went viral, I received numerous suggestions about ways to help my child. A surprising number of these comments focused on my son’s diet. “I guess I shouldn’t have let you eat Red Vines or drink root beer,” I joked to Eric, who has always had a fondness for those sugar-laden treats.
Spring Break is my family’s favorite time to travel. Because we live in chilly Idaho and our grandmas both live in sunny southern California, we usually schedule a trip that includes some combination of theme parks, beaches, and family visits. For most families, juggling such an ambitious schedule is a challenge, but in my family, we have always had to plan for an extra complication: my second son’s mental illness.
I’ll never forget the day that my then four-year-old son Eric told me he just wanted to be a zero. “It hurts too much, Mom,” he said, referring to the anguish of sensory overload that sometimes caused him to melt down in public or lash out at his preschool peers. I hugged my little Buzz Lightyear close—Eric loved his hero so much that it was hard for me to talk him into changing out of his Buzz-themed pajamas. What could I do to help my child?