Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Promise For My Son on His Birthday

On this, my son's ninth birthday, I am reminded of the question many parents ask me about mental illness: "Can I prevent mental illness in my child?"

Clearly, we do not know enough about the brain to know if mental illness will ever be preventable. I already had signs of mental illness when I was six years old and now that Jeffrey is nine, I hope that maybe the genes have skipped him, but you really never know. Even though we don't know if we can prevent mental illness, I know that there are things we can do to not make it as likely or if it happens, make it less detrimental. An unsupportive, shaming, and emotionally abusive environment (at any age) contributes to mental illness either by possibly triggering it or making a current illness infinitely worse, so this is my message to my son:

Dear Jeffrey,

I promise to always recognize your inherent worth and dignity. I will not expect you to be anything other than you are, and will always encourage you to follow your interests, talents, and passions in life.

I will never shame you, making you feel as though you are bad. There are only bad behaviors, not bad people. So, if you do something that is not so great, you admit it, learn from it, and move on.

When you act out (and we all do it) I will always first ask "Why is this happening?" and never answer "Because you are a kid/teenager." I will commit to discovering what is behind what is going on so we can fix the situation rather than making accusations about your character.

When tragedy strikes and life is hard, we will deal with it together as a family. I will never hide things from you and treat you as though you can't handle anything. Hiding difficult things from you never allows you to experience your own emotions and deal with life in your own way. It is an insult to you to treat you as if I decide your emotions for you.

As a family, we will practice gratitude and joy so you will always know that even when life is scary, we still have things to be grateful for and things to enjoy. We learn together that joy in life is worth all the risk.

Katie & Jeffrey. Copyright: Jeff Norris
I will not dismiss your feelings and opinions. I will listen to your wisdom. By far, you have taught me more about compassion, respect, love, and justice than anyone else has. I will strive to never invalidate your beliefs, but instead listen to them and consider if they are also something I believe. I will be comfortable with the fact that we will not always agree on everything.

I will support you in following your own intuition and not teach you that you have to do something someone else said based on their age, class, or status.

I will listen and truly consider the situation if you tell me I have been unkind. Just because you are my child does not mean that you do not have the ability to evaluate something I am doing. Your perspective is very valuable.

All things I do, I do to help you on your path in life. If I think something is unsafe or could hurt you emotionally or physically, I will explain to you why. I will always build trust with you so that even in times that I need you to do what I ask, you feel confident that it is because I too have a perspective that is valid and not because I think I have power over you.

When I mess up, I will say I am sorry. I will not hide my failings. Everyone fails, failure is how we learn. I cannot learn to be a better parent unless I admit where I succeed and where I fail. You will not learn to know you deserve to be treated with respect if I never admit to making mistakes.

I will try my best not to project my issues, needs, or wants onto you. I will remember that just because something is a problem for me, that does not mean it is a problem for you. I will try and help you through the problems you have, not the problems I had or the problems I think you have.

I will not let my anxieties limit your life. I will let you have fun, take risks, and explore the world even if I fear that nothing is safe.

I always want you to know that you are never responsible for my actions or emotions and if I ever make you feel like you are, that is wrong of me and unacceptable. I will also never ask you to prove your love to me with the common parental statement: "If you love me, you will... (listen to me, do what I said, wear what I want you to, have the job I want for you.)"

I will strive to practice what I preach. I can not tell you that you have inherent worth and dignity and then proceed to insult myself in a myriad of ways or let other people treat me badly. I am honest with you that this is hard for me and I am still learning.

We will have fun as a family in everyday life rather than thinking fun and joy only happen in the "extraordinary" moments in life because truly the everyday is what is extraordinary.

I won't give you more freedom than you can handle or less freedom than you deserve and have earned.

I will remember that this letter to you is a covenant, a living document between you, me, Daddy, and the Spirit of Love. This promise will change over time as I learn to be a better parent and we travel through life together.




  1. I wish you had been my mother. Thanks for sharing your poignant letter.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. I know I mess up as a parent and my son will probably have things he needs to work out with a therapist about what I did, but I do hope he at least knows I tried my hardest.

  2. Katie,

    I appreciate this beautiful, heartfelt open letter to your son. There were times when I felt abandoned by my mother who has bipolar disorder. I saw similar cases in the media and my friends and family's experiences with parents who are mentally ill as well. Thank you for showing me having a mental disorder does not necessarily mean one will be neglectful to their family. It means a lot to me as I struggle with my own mental health. I hope one day to be a good mother, as I see you are.

    1. Thank you for reading!

      I seriously worry that I neglect him. And actually, I know in some ways I do. He just told me the other day that I am always sleeping. He is right because often I just can not function. However, I have been trying to schedule in more game time with him. I just hope he can tell me if I am not doing a good job and that I have some ability to change my behavior. He seems to know what is the illness and when I might be able to do a bit more.

      It is way too common that those of us with mental illness do neglect our kids or treat them badly. I think I was just lucky to start therapy at 19 and learn about family systems theory. And in reality, I think denial of the realities of our illness is in the end what causes the neglect. People in my life who could not admit or deal with their mental health issues are the ones who did hurt me. The denial not only comes from the person, but also from the mental health system which fails to care for the whole family. My husband goes to my therapist sometimes and so does my son to check on how they are feeling.

      Since you have the ability to see any mental health issues you have and you have made a conscious decision to be a good mom, I bet you will be the best mom you can be! That is really what our kids want from us.

  3. Because of the bipolar [spirit] I have lived with since my childhood, I have always felt "less than," until I found Recovery International and practiced hard since 1963. Still, I was sure I was the worst mother in the world. Recently, my 53-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, had a stroke, and passed away this past Valentine's Day. His last email to me ended like this: "All my love to the best Mom ever." How can I doubt that?