I had a friend once who thought he had parenting all figured out. He was 21 years old, not in a relationship, and had no kids. The only experience he had to speak of was his own dysfunctional relationship with a violent, alcoholic father and a flighty mother, who suffered a thousand ailments but really only had a terrible case of Münchausen syndrome. Oh, and he always had his trusty bible handy, which he quoted from often.
He said to me, “Jason! You’re making this too hard! All you have to do is feed, clothe, and give a kid a room. Buy them a toy once in a while. If they act up — smack em! You know the bible says ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child!’”
To get to his level of stupidity would take a lifetime, but he always thought he knew more about everything because Jesus was on his side.
After I unrolled my eyes from the back of my head, I stared at his glazed eyes and tried to formulate an intelligent response. The best I could do was croak out, “Seriously?”
What he and many like him don’t understand is that parenting is hard enough on its own. Yes, you must provide food and shelter. But you also have to give love and guidance. You become a doctor, counselor, teacher, nurturer, provider, banker, and giver of unconditional love. Everything you must do is hard enough as it is.
But it’s much harder when you suffer from a mental illness.
I was barely in my twenties when I first became a father. While thrilled to have a son, nothing I had done up to this point prepared me for what I was about to face. I’d read the books and watched the videos, but I couldn’t get help understanding what I was supposed to do when I felt worthless and wanted to end my life.
How was I supposed to be responsible for this little life when I couldn’t take care of myself? I’d failed all my pre-birth tests. While my wife struggled with pregnancy, I worked and ignored her. I did go to all the ultrasounds and OB-GYN appointments, but I was so wrapped up in my own pain that I never showed I was happy and didn’t provide a healthy and welcoming environment for my struggling wife.
I admit I was distant during that time, and while I would love to use my undiagnosed illness as an excuse, the truth is I was selfish and stupid. I was never happy with what I had, and I did things that now seem unconscionable to me.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that as I stared into the red, chubby face of my firstborn. All I could think was I had to stop living only for myself and start being responsible and caring to the people in my life — especially this little bundle of joy.
Did I do what I promised? No. As my illness grew worse and my other sons were born, I became more distant, until my wife, tired of a loveless marriage and never being able to count on me, sent me packing and left me to my own devices.
Don’t get me wrong — I was the best father I could be under the circumstances. The kids grew up happy and healthy. They never wanted for anything, and when I wasn’t working 20-hour days, I spent as much time as I could with them. But I was sick, and as much as I tried to hide it, they knew I wasn’t like other fathers.
When their mother and I split, I tried to hang on to a relationship with all three, but the divorce sent me into a death-spiral, and those years could best be described as hell.
Eventually, I needed distance from the places that held so many bad memories, and I moved to the other side of the world. I know I did the best I could, and I needed to focus on myself, but moving 8500 miles away from my children didn’t bring them closer to me. I didn’t think it would, but I hoped that they would remember the good times and know that their father was doing what I had to do to be a happier, healthier person.
I rarely talk to my boys, but I know they are grown up and have their own lives. They have responsibilities and bills to pay, and sending a message to their father is probably the last thing on their list. I know I didn’t always stay in touch with my parents after I moved out — so I understand. But, as I did with my parents, they will one day make time to rekindle their relationship with me. They will know I’ve always been here waiting with open arms.
That’s what you do when you love someone.
I don’t feel like a failure as a parent, but I do feel like there was a lot I could have done differently. As I started my second marriage, and the possibility of children was discussed with hushed voices in the dark, I committed that I would do things another way this time, both with my new wife and with whatever children would come along.
I still had a lot of issues. My mental health is always a concern because it could go the wrong way at any minute. I had to get a semblance of control over my illness so I could take my job as husband and father seriously.
There were a lot of roadblocks these past eight years that I’ve lived in the Philippines. For every step forward, there were two steps back at times. There was a suicide attempt and more psychotic episodes than I can count. There has been depression, anxiety, panic, addiction, anger, fighting, yelling, crying, and hurt feelings on all sides.
Now, I have two more beautiful children, and I’ve had to develop a style of parenting that works with my illness. I’ve had to swallow the pain and change the way I do everything.
I still have bad moments where I lose my temper and scream at people and days where I can’t get out of bed and adult no matter what I do. Despite it all, I am a kinder, gentler, caring, selfless, cheerful version of the man I used to be.
I don’t have all the answers, and mostly make it up as I go along. My illness has taken a disturbing trend where, as I get older it gets worse, but I will stay vigilant and always protect the people I love. I will always work every day to be a better parent and husband, and try to be the best human being I can.
As long as we try, the effort is not wasted.
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Jason Weiland is a writer, blogger, freelancer, and mental health advocate living a dream life in a place he only dreamed of as a kid. He talks about difficult issues but has never lost his sense of humor or willingness to understand others and help when he can.
He would love to connect with you on social media.