Managing Your Mental Health As A Parent: What To Do Dear Sugar Radio is a podcast offering "radical empathy" and advice for the lost, lonely and heartsick. This week the Sugars help a new father who thinks he's selfish because he isn't happy.
NPR logo Managing Your Mental Health As A Parent: What To Do

Managing Your Mental Health As A Parent: What To Do

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Courtesy of WBUR
Dear Sugar Radio
Courtesy of WBUR

Today the Sugars talk parenting and mental health. In this letter, a new father who struggles with bipolar disorder wonders if his young daughter is in danger of adopting his "self-hating" feelings.

Dear Sugars,

I write to you today as the new father of a beautiful baby girl and the husband of a lovely, supportive wife. I recently finished my Ph.D. and am in the midst of trying to land a job.

All that to say, my life is full of the new joys of parenthood, a sense of completion, and the excitement of new horizons -- or at least this is what I imagine I should be experiencing. Instead, I'm experiencing a severe blue period flare-up, one of the most severe that I've faced in years. It's been hurting so bad that my body actually aches and it's literally making me sick.

I've suffered from a mild case of bipolar disorder for years, which means I can more or less function even during low periods. But I'm hating myself for hating myself, if that makes sense, because of all the good in my life. Especially our new baby. Why can't I be fully present when I'm with her? Why hasn't what I thought would be the utter joy of having her in my life ended the selfishness that is my self-loathing?

Sugars, let me be totally clear here: I'm in the care of mental health professionals who have taken good care of me for years, and I have a solid support network. I don't demonstrate any self-hating behaviors in front of my daughter (though I'm worried I might do so unconsciously). I care for her, feed her, put her down for naps and bed — all with smiles and giggles and snuggles, even when my own pain sometimes makes me not fully present.

But the questions remain: Why haven't I gotten over this narcissistic self-loathing when I have a new life that is now dependent upon me for care and love? And perhaps most importantly: How can I make sure I don't pass down any self-hating behaviors or attitudes to her?

Father Of A Newborn With The Same Old Blues

Cheryl Strayed: The same old blues. I think that one of the biggest shocks of my life is that whenever anything really good has happened to me, there's this feeling like: Oh, now I'm going to be different. And my life is the same. My life is the same. It's still me in here.

Steve Almond: Right, your inner life is the same. I think what happens is we become conscious of the story we're telling about our lives. There is this sense of: This should just be the happiest I've ever been. And anything that violates that story we've told about ourselves is not just something unfortunate — it's a character flaw, it's some failing. I've gotten everything I wanted, why hasn't my inner life shifted? And in fact, why has it shifted in this dramatic direction toward self-hatred and loathing? Well, the first thing we would both say is: "You have a biological illness."

Strayed: And it doesn't leave you when you have a baby or get your Ph.D. or have a wife you love. I think one of the most painful parts of the letter is that he expresses this feeling of: There he is smiling at his daughter and cooing at her, and he's aware that he's acting in ways that aren't reflective of how he's feeling inside.

Almond: He's faking it.

Strayed: That's right. And not to diminish that he's struggling with bipolar disorder. But I also want to say: part of being a parent, in my experience, is doing just what he describes. Sometimes it's ecstatic and joyous, and sometimes your mind is elsewhere and you're frustrated or bored. And it's OK. It's OK to have a negative feeling inside even when you're, for the sake of your kids, pretending to feel happy and playing whatever games you're playing.

This is a man who struggles with bipolar disorder, which sometimes means he feels sad even when he doesn't have a reason to. This is who he is. And this is who he is as a father, it's who he is a scholar, it's who he is as a husband. The work that needs to be done is not how to fake it better, it's how to accept himself for who he is better.

Almond: I'm so glad you said that. Just because you have a beautiful baby and you have the ideal in your head, that's not going to undo who you were before you were a parent. And actually, it exacerbates or exaggerates who you are. My impatience, my anxiety has not diminished because I have kids. It's harder. It's deeper, but it's harder.

Strayed: I think what we're saying to you, Father Of A Newborn, is that you're OK. You're doing the right things — you're aware of managing this disorder and you want to lessen the impact on your daughter. It is going to have an impact. We have the parents we have. If you have a father who's impatient or a mother who worries a lot, that's the kind of father you have and that's the kind of mother you have. If you have a father who has bipolar disorder, that's the father you have. And that doesn't have to be a negative thing.

The fact that you're looking at your daughter and laughing with her — that is what she needs right now. That's what's teaching her who you are. It's not about whether you're feeling conflicted inside. She sees your smiling face and this is what she will carry into her life forever.

Almond: And as she gets older, Father Of A Newborn, if you treat what is sorrow and pain as "narcissistic self-loathing," then that's what she'll learn.

Don't teach her that lesson. You're in pain right now. You expected to feel elated, and instead you're in a tailspin. She needs to see you managing that as best you can, not beating yourself up for it. Because that she will pick up on, and that's how she'll treat her own unhappiness. And that's very unfair to her, just as it's unfair to you.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. This week is a special episode for Father's Day. They further consider this letter from Father Of A Newborn With The Same Old Blues, and take a letter from a young woman yearning for a connection with the father who abandoned her as a child.

You can listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.