Parenting and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse

March 8, 2013 Randye Kaye

The love begins the moment we know we are pregnant - or perhaps even before that, as we dream about the child we might someday have. Then, with each passing day with our child- from the womb, to birth, and as the child grows -our love grows, and the commitment strengthens.

Parental vows may be unspoken, but they are as strong as steel. We witness such vows all the time at weddings, but we parents silently take the same vow from the moment we know we are parents:

I, Mom/Dad, take you, son/daughter, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

All parents - indeed, all spouses too - know that hopes and dreams must alter as pieces of reality sets in. Our child may be a different sex than we had envisioned; he/she may be born with a birth defect; he/she may want to be a scientist when we had always hoped for a musician in the family. Reality may test our vows, but love is powerful enough to help us ride the waves - and when love seems harder to access, vows take us the rest of the way.

When Mental Illness Tests the Family

When illness enters the family picture, vows are more seriously tested. When that illness is a mental illness, the test is even more difficult. Sometimes, we feel like we want to give in, and give up. But that is never an easy decision, and we never escape guilt and doubt no matter what we do. This is true for every family member of someone diagnosed with mental illness that I have met.

Parents, though, seem most bound to the idea that "we

[caption id="attachment_1362" align="alignleft" width="170" caption="Outgrowing the "Band-Aid Syndrome""]Band Aid[/caption]

could have done something to change it" - maybe because, when our children were younger, we often could. It's the "band-aid-on-the scrape" syndrome: Once upon a time, we at least felt like we had had some power in making hopes and dreams come true for our kids.

But the tests grow more complicated as our children grow, especially when that growth includes mental illness.

  • for better, for worse - this may include
  • homelessness, substance abuse, accusations, psychosis
  • for richer, for poorer - as many families go broke, spending any savings or college funds on care that may or may not make a difference, and seldom permanently
  • in sickness and in health - the "sickness" comes all too frequently, treatment may not work, recovery is often only partial and always precarious
  • to love and to cherish - yes. always. but difficult when your child has irrational, sometimes even harmful, thoughts
  • till death us do part - too many of our children are lost to suicide.

Definition of "Success" in Parenting and Mental Illness.

I must admit, I am a little bit jealous. Although my book Ben Behind His Voices is selling steadily (nice) and (better) reaching families who and professionals who seem to need its message most, it has yet to break through to the same degree as some other recent books that address similar issues, at different stages of life.

What gets more national attention? Tales of measurable success, perhaps (USC Gould Law School Professor Elyn Saks' The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness). Celebrity authors (Jenny McCarthy's Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism). An adorable young child, willing to be interviewed and filmed on Oprah even before a book was written (Michael Schofield's January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and a Father's Struggle to Save Her).

And yet - most of us living with mental illness in the family exist somewhere in the middle. Our loved ones are neither heartbreakingly young and adorable, nor successful to point of being an endowed professor. Nope, we live - if we are lucky - in the world of ordinary miracles, like when we have a stable day, or our loved ones make it through a family function without incident, or when they achieve the things many are fortunate enough to take for granted:

  • decent school grades
  • a job
  • a hug
  • a friend.

My son Ben is now 30 years old. The definition of his success is mostly up to him now - and yet it will always reflect, in some ways, on the family who loves him.

Our vows are easier to keep these days - Ben is currently stable, and has a life - with school, friends, and sometimes even employment. But this could all go away in two days without treatment - as has happened in the past.

If that happens again - despite hopes and prayers - we will rely on our parental vows to get us through the pain. After all, that's what vows are for.

No one said it would be easy.

APA Reference
Kaye, R. (2013, March 8). Parenting and Mental Illness: For Better or Worse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Randye Kaye

March, 26 2013 at 11:19 am

Thank you, Randye, for responding. Yes, NAMI's Family to Family course has helped my husband and I tremendously! We just had our last class and we were talking about how much we are going to miss it! I would highly recommend it to anyone who has a loved one with a mental illness. Yesterday we took our son to hospital 2 hours away for pre-trial court ordered treatment. He should be there at least 45 days. Hopefully, that will be long enough for him to finally gain some insight. In the meantime, my husband and I get a much needed break. I don't mean to sound selfish, but as you know, it is just so difficult day after day dealing with his illness.

March, 19 2013 at 1:51 pm

I wanted to add how much I loved your above article. My son was very intelligent, played and loved baseball, excellent writer, great student, loving , and not a mean bone in his body. He too, from the time he was 10 years old, would beat me in scrabble and would regularly beat my husband in chess. I wake up in the middle of the night grieving the son that I have lost. I have been advised by many to put him in a homeless shelter as he will not abide by house rules, mainly "must take medication". He needs to be in the hospital right now, but because of a "loitering" charge 2 years ago he has been declared incompetent to stand trial so we are awaiting the forced treatment.
Maybe that will help. In the mean time we will have to hospitalize him as he is in a constant relapse, his symptoms are so extreme.......again, hoping for a miracle.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
March, 20 2013 at 3:38 am

oh, Nancy - I can relate to so many things in your comments, and hold you in my heart today. The grief of letting go of "the son you lost" and then doing what we can to work with this "new normal" takes so much courage, patience, and adjustment. I don't know if you've read my book (if you have, then I'm repeating what's in there...), but I did have to make the decision to "make Ben homeless" so he could get a bed in a group home and we could be free to be a supportive family instead of policemen and social workers - and our relationship improved, and Ben qained more independence. But it was far from easy, even tho it was the right decision at the time.
Has NAMI Family-to-Family helped? That saved us by giving us info and support we sorely needed. There are also speaker meetings and support groups. Nothing can yet "fix" our sons, but in the meantime we don't have to feel so alone.

March, 19 2013 at 9:26 am

Your book Ben Behind His Voices was such an inspiration for me and gives me hope even though my son refuses to take his meds He is 26 and been hospitalized 8 times in 4 years. The doctors struggle to get him stabilized because he is so noncompliant.But they finally do,and he agrees to treatment and then once he is out, he stops his meds and won't keep his appointments. Within days, we are right back where we started. He lives with us and he will not shower, brush his teeth or pick up after himself. He basically wreaks havoc on our home with his odd behavior. We are definitely hoping for a miracle, because everything that we have tried has failed and we are running out of ideas.

Randye Kaye
March, 11 2013 at 7:30 am

Thanks to you both for writing. In our case, ben's meds are a cornerstone of his recovery. I'm sorry, Melanie, that it hasn't been your experience...every case is different , but we kept searching until we found the combination that finally worked. I hope you find it too. We all want to see those "ordinary miracles."...

March, 11 2013 at 7:22 am

Thank you so much for this article!My daughter who is nearing 30,my youngest,has been thru mental illness hell.First came the OCD.I knew it was a very serious condition and right away got her into therapy.It was recommended that she be seen by a specialist.He tested her and wanted her to go on medication.She was 9 years old.He wanted her to start Prozac.This was in the mid 1990's.It was a very difficult decision but she was suffering so much I thought we should try it.She had her first hospitalization in 6th grade.She was swamped with psych meds.So it went just getting worse and worse.Supposedly,the prozac triggered a latent bipolar disorder.Her teen years were a nightmare,of course for her first and foremost,but as her mom,I cannot even begin to describe it.It was like watching your beloved child sinking in some sort of pernicious quicksand and everything you did to try and save her made it worse!Fast forward many years and tears later.At the moment she is living in Florida with her husband and his family.She has left and gone back again several times.There is a massive amount of sad things in her her husband's family, past and present.He is an alcoholic.My daughter's physical health is very bad in a number of ways also now.As is my physical and mental health.At least we are still breathing is the most positive thing I can say most of the time.

Elizabeth Later
March, 11 2013 at 6:04 am

Thank you for this beautifully written article. Last week my son, for the first time in almost a year, spontaneously smiled at me across a restaurant table. It was an "ordinary miracle", as you call it.

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