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This blog details the extra challenges you face parenting as a person with borderline personality disorder, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). This applies to those whose own parents have not been the best role models. Blog post written by guest blogger and a mother who wishes to remain anonymous.
I am 10 years old. My parents are drunk and fighting. They have broken the living room table. I call for help and the police come and take Dad away. He sleeps in a sobering center. Actually, they should have taken Mom away, too.
I have dragged all the furniture and placed it in front of my bedroom door. Mom is standing outside screaming and saying that she is going to kill me. I’m crying.
I am seventeen years old and standing right on the edge of the platform where the train will soon come out of the tunnel. I tense my body and charge to jump. In a split second, the train has passed. I hate myself. I can’t even kill myself.
I go to college and the pressure becomes too much. I lose control and the will to live. I am admitted to the psychiatric hospital with razor blade wounds all over my body. Finally, I am enrolled into a program in intermediate psychiatric care and receive treatment that helps.
I am attending a lecture arranged by maternity health services. The midwife calms the expectant parents in the hall. She says that becoming a parent isn’t as difficult as you might think. Our experiences of being cared for by our own parents will guide us in caring for our children.
I feel doomed to be the worst mother in the world. I read book after book. All the books say the same thing: the relationship I had with my parents, and my connection to my mother, will affect my own ability to give my children a safe and secure relationship.
My daughter is the finest in the world. I love her insanely much. However, I don’t deal with the anxiety very well. I’m terrified. Terrified of sudden infant death. Terrified of losing her. Terrified of diseases.
Sleep gets worse and worse. In the end, it’s too much. The pediatric nurse notices this and sends me directly to the psychiatric emergency room. I am prescribed antidepressants and the calm returns. I wonder if I have hurt my daughter for life by having postpartum depression.
There are Child Development talks at the preschool. I do not care so much if she has learnt different skills, or what the educational plan looks like. I mostly wonder if they think she feels secure. The preschool teacher looks a little surprised and replies, “yes, she is! You couldn’t find a more secure and self-confident child.”
Having children after growing up with parents who were not good enough, is scary. What you read is not encouraging either. In many books, the message is consistent: if your parents were not good enough, your chances of becoming a successful parent aren’t high.
That was not the case for me. On the contrary, I discovered that my experiences with mental illness was often an asset to me. Even when the postpartum depression was at its deepest, I was able to read and meet my daughter’s needs better than most.
When I think about it, it makes sense. I grew up with parents who, in one moment, were kind and caring, and in the next, scary and dangerous. To deal with it, I needed to become really good at reading their state of mind quickly. The ability to read emotions is very valuable when having a small child. What was once a survival tool, later became a fantastic asset as a parent.
My upbringing gave me a personality disorder, emotionally unstable personality disorder (formerly called borderline personality disorder). For much of my adult life, I have worked to repair these injuries. This means that relatively recently I have had to practice skills I should have learned as a child. Through therapy, I have gained a language and a theoretical understanding of feelings that most people do not have. It is also a tool that has made me better as a mother.
Finally, there are few who are self-conscious in their parenting. These parents were probably the ones who grew up with parents who were not good enough. It has made me read more, listen more and work harder.
I’m not saying it’s easy. But with enough effort, I think most people who grew up in an insecure environment can turn their experiences into their own advantage. You can become a better mother in spite of the difficulties. No matter what the parenting books say. But it does not happen by itself. As a parent who has experienced severe mental illness, I think life is so unfair that you have to work harder to be good enough. And that you have to ask for help, time after time.
Becoming a parent means that you need to be confronted with your childhood again and it can really hurt. You tear into old wounds and in some ways gain a new understanding of what was missing in your childhood, but also of all the good things that were given. Sometimes even good memories can hurt.
For me, emotions could change quickly. There were moments when I was angry and sad about the bad childhood memories. Other times I would question myself. I remembered good times and wondered if I had judged my parents too harshly.
At the same time, there is an image of happy mothers-to-be. As a person with mental vulnerability, I often think that happiness is difficult to achieve. Pregnancy is overwhelming. It’s difficult to find happiness easily.
For me, it was 9 months of psychological crisis.
In a way, I think a psychological crisis can be helpful. The pregnancy was the last chance for me to deal with my problems before a completely new little baby would come into my life and become fully dependent on me. I had to learn to keep it together.
In saying that, the right amount of psychological crisis is best. I crashed just below the surface. If there is one thing I regret today, it is that I turned down antidepressants. I worried too much that the medicine could harm the baby. In addition, I had some kind of idea that I was good at ‘hardening up’.
Today, I know better. Mothers with untreated depression can lead to significantly more problems than most medications used for mental illness. Treating depression with the most common antidepressants, SSRIs and SNRIs, is significantly better for the child than experiencing the depression / anxiety itself. Treating depression as early as during the pregnancy is also important. This way you can avoid crashing once the baby is born.
The first time was tough for me. I could not fathom that it would go well. The anxiety for me was focused on my daughter’s health. I panicked about sudden infant death, and for the first few weeks I could not sleep while she slept. I sat awake and watched her breathe. I followed every piece of advice I received that was reasonably credible. I tried to do everything right according to the book. And I cried. Crying over my weakness. Over my inability to defend her against anything that was dangerous. Over the fact that I gave birth to a child who was dependent on someone as weak as me. Because it was so hard to love her so much that it hurt.
Thankfully, I had asked for help properly during the pregnancy. When my daughter was born in late spring, I was immediately reported sick for 4 weeks by a doctor at birth, referring to my mental illness. The father could therefore be with me continuously for three months after the birth, through a combination of sick leave, parental leave, saved money and holidays. For those who suffer from severe mental illness, it is vital to have support and not be left alone especially with the tumult of emotions that comes when you have your first child. Feelings and reactions will come, the question is, in what form.
For me, my anxiety came because of concerns for my daughter’s health. But it can be expressed in other ways. It can be difficult to embrace a child and connect, precisely because you are not able to absorb the emotions. This does not mean that you do not love your child, but that you do not dare to feel feelings of love for fear of the pain that love can bring. For me, that feeling of emptiness occurred right after the birth. In only those short hours, it brought me panic and terrible feelings of shame; I had given birth to a child I did not even love. For me it passed after a couple of hours, for others it takes weeks or months. It is a common reaction, but a reaction that few dare to talk about. It is a way of expressing fear, depression and anxiety, not actual lack of love. However, just like anxiety, there is a strong reason to seek immediate care.
The first few weeks of having a baby is a period of sleep deprivation. This is a dangerous combination with mental illness. This is where the other parent, or another close relative, must be present to ensure that you are allowed to sleep. Because without sleep, the breakdown is more likely realized. Depression, due to lack of sleep, is therefore an important reason to seek care, especially if you have mental health issues. My experience is that psychiatrists, the psychiatric emergency department, health center doctors and basically all other doctors have a full understanding that sleep is vital. They are generous with giving sick leave to those who have a history of severe mental illness.
The first year is important. During the first year, the connection between you and your child are established. It is the foundation for how your child’s mental health develops later in life. 3 out of 4 children have the same attachment pattern to their mother, as their mother had to her mother. For many of us with a tough childhood, it is therefore very important that our children should belong to those 1 in 4 who develop a different attachment pattern.
The attachment pattern is possible to influence. The more you know about attachment and young children’s needs, the easier it is to understand what promotes a positive attachment. Basically, it is about responding to the child’s signals, being there and giving love. But knowing how to do it can be difficult when you are overwhelmed by advice from all sides. Also it can be difficult if you do not have the experience that comes from having had parents who did the right thing.
Therefore I think that those who have had a hard time, need to have a more theoretical parenting course than the average parent. I think you need to read more about children’s development, attachment theory and more. You have to know more.
In addition to the knowledge, I also believe that good parenting is based on responding to the child’s feelings and needs. I encourage those who have experienced serious mental illness decide on this parenting philosophy. Jesper Juul and Lars H Gustafsson are two people who have written many good books about a parenting philosophy that benefits children’s attachment and mental development.
Validation, invalidation and own limits
It’s easy to recognize that the many things that can affect children badly, should never be done. For example, it’s obvious that violence, violations, etc. must not occur.
Other things are more difficult. One of the most difficult is the difference between emotional validation and invalidation, in combination with setting the right boundaries.
Validating children’s feelings means confirming them. You show that their feelings exist and that the feeling itself is not wrong. And by validating their feelings, as a parent, you do not judge the child for feeling so.
To invalidate a feeling is to tell the child that their emotions are bad and harmful. You show that the feeling is wrong and discourage the child from feeling a certain way. In people who have developed emotionally unstable personality disorder, invalidation has always been part of how parents acted towards their children. The child’s feelings have been systematically pointed out as incorrect, exaggerated or otherwise troublesome.
Validation does not mean that the child should always get what he or she wants, or that the child’s needs should always be met. Actually, it means that the feeling should be respected. An example is a child who starts crying and says she is hungry on the subway. A validating reaction may be to give the child something to eat. Another validating reaction may be to say “Wow, I did not know you were going to be hungry now. I have nothing you can eat. But as soon as we get home, I’m going to cook dinner! ”. A disabling reaction could be “Stop crying! You just ate. You can’t be hungry now. ” In the latter case, the child does not get what they want, and they are deprived of their right to define their own feelings.
A challenge with not validating your child’s feelings is that it is a relatively well-accepted way to act against children. At the same time though, it can cause great harm. For those who grew up in a family where invalidation has been the norm, it can therefore be very difficult to both detect invalidating reactions and to subsequently learn to react differently.
Petra Krantz Lindgren (in Swedish) has a lot of advice about how to avoid invalidating children.
Dealing with conflict
Young, newborn children need parents who respond and try to meet their child’s needs both directly and, if possible, completely. As the child grows out of the newborn phase, the child’s needs cannot always be met. Conflicts will occur.
Getting through the first year is complicated for everyone. Children will test their independence and their own will. But conflict is often extra complicated for those who have had major mental health issues. Emotionally unstable personality disorder is based on the fact that emotions tend to be dramatic and fluctuating. And if there is something that does not work in the parent-child relationship, it is often the parents who act dramatically. As a parent, you have to find a way to stay calm, even if it is extremely difficult. Sometimes, it is okay to fail (within reasonable limits of course), but only occasionally.
I believe that as an adult you benefit a lot from reading and understanding children’s development. Children aged 2-3 are not manipulative, as they have not yet developed the mental abilities required to be manipulative. It may feel like they are intentionally provoking you, but they are not. A child never deliberately tries to quarrel and then make amends.
The years of therapy you have gone through have focused on developing abilities to cope with everyday life. The situation with a small, defiant child is completely new. It places new demands on new abilities. Things that therapy has never dealt with. It is highly probable that this will provoke a feeling of hopelessness in your parenting. It is highly probably that you will need the support of a psychologist. This does not mean that you are about to crash, but that you have found a new corner of your psych that needs help to heal. You are a little bit closer to healing.
Those who have had mental illness, have probably had difficulty regulating emotions in a way that is appropriate for the situation. Part of the disease is that emotions become too great and loses proportion. For a healthy person, it’s just a minor setback. For someone who cannot regulate their emotions, it becomes a disaster. This is because it is difficult for some to put the event in a larger context.
Young children also haven’t developed emotional self-regulation. To the environment, it may seem like an insignificant setback e.g. the child’s favorite pants are dirty and they must therefore wear another pair of pants for preschool. But for a young child it can be perceived as a disaster that results in a total meltdown.
The parent’s role is to gradually guide the child to learn what a proper emotional response is.
The child’s feelings need to be validated, but at the same time, you must help the child find a suitable relationship to the event. For the two-and-a-half-year-old lying on the floor and crying, the parent needs to be able to show empathy and at the same time, handle the event in a calm way to show that there is no danger. The adult should not be drawn into the drama, at least not a majority of the times.
Coping with a child with a lack of emotional self-regulation when you yourself have a lack of emotional self-regulation, is difficult. Really difficult. For me, it helps to actively think about the situation. I say to myself, “the child cannot regulate their emotions and I should guide the child to learn to do so“. By doing so, I step out of the situation and thus am less easily provoked myself (for the most part). I can do this because, for the most part, I have become better at regulating my emotions. If this is you, you must seek help to learn to exert control over your emotional state. Otherwise it will be difficult to teach your child.
Predictability is vital
Growing up without being able to predict my parents’ parenting is something that is completely incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. Predictability is parents consistently being able to meet the child’s needs well enough, and reacting in a reasonably predictable way. Predictability from this perspective does NOT mean that you should react the same way every time, or that you must not get angry or make mistakes sometimes. This does not mean that there should be cooked food on the table every day. However, this means that there must be enough food to eat, so the child does not have to go without food. Sandwiches for dinner are sometimes okay.
Anger and loud noises are common in all families, but parents must not fight. Or destroy things.
In short, the child must be able to trust that the parents are there, are acting as ‘parents’ and will do a good enough job as parents.
When a mental slump goes deep enough, this will not work. I have promised myself that it will never, never happen to me. So far, I have had a life of joy with my daughter. This life has made me succeed. Every year that passes now, makes me more and more whole. Now I never think it will be an issue.
But for someone with my upbringing, to always stay in a reasonable good condition does not come by itself. It’s something I always have to work on. I take medication, just to prevent relapse. I go to therapy every time I encounter new setbacks and difficulties. I have extra contact with the children’s medical center, despite the fact that my daughter is extremely safe and secure. I’m always sober with my kids. And so on.
To be good enough
Those who have had a serious mental illness will have to fight harder to be a good enough parent. But it is important to fight hard enough. Do not chase the impossible and try to achieve the unattainable. If you manage to achieve predictable, reliable parenting and are able to validate your children’s feelings, then you’re psychologically strong enough. You’re doing great! Pursuing perfection does not help the child or anyone else.
Giving advice is always difficult. But if I were to give some advice to the person sitting at the maternity ward and listening to the same lecture I was listening to, it would be:
- It is perfectly possible to be a good enough parent, even with a history of severe mental illness.
- Parenting for those who have had a difficult childhood, requires more theoretical knowledge than for those who can trust their intuition and experiences of being children of parents who are good enough.
- Read about attachment, emotional validation and emotional self-regulation.
- Be sure to get support from a psychologist when you encounter minor or major setbacks. The situation may require abilities you do not have.
- Seek help for the slightest problem and adversity.
Do you have your own experiences? Own tips and advice? What do you think? Feel free to comment below: