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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 19-May-15 11:47:07

Guest post: "I'm a single parent with mental health issues - where is the support for my family?"

Martha Roberts on what it's like to live with bipolar affective disorder while caring for her son alone

Martha Roberts

Journalist and blogger

Posted on: Tue 19-May-15 11:47:07

(40 comments )

Lead photo

"Sometimes, I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of responsibility and lone decision-making."

The other day, my eight-year-old son caught me dancing in the bathroom. "Not that you'd ever want to, but if you did that in a nightclub you'd probably catch a man." Hilarity filled our house, as it so often does.

Our relationship is pretty close. We're bound by a mutual love of Miranda, Friends and absurd gags (he recently divulged that his book of choice on Desert Island Discs would be a joke book – that's my boy). We are glued together by blood and the searing love that springs from it and, for better or worse, we live this out against the backdrop of being a single-parent family. In this "buddy-free" system, teamwork reigns supreme.

These happy times are frequently punctuated with self-doubt: Why hasn't he lost as many teeth as his friends? Is he happy at school? Am I doing enough to stimulate him outside it? These worries are all too familiar to most parents, but my parenting angst is compounded by the fact that as well as being a single mum, I have bipolar affective disorder.

There are times when parenting is hard for everybody, even when you're hunting in pairs. Equally, lots of people love being single parents - and are psychologically healthier as a result of being uncoupled. But when you're feeling mentally unwell, it's hard to feel that doing it all on your own is working at all.

When I'm having a 'wobble' – a zinging, terrifying mix of depression and agitation – every mundane task seems gargantuan and every choice I have to make on my own seems terrifying. I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of responsibility and lone decision-making, and wonder if this might be the last time I come up for air.

When I am ill, I wish someone else who cares for him as much as I do could scoop him up and say, "Come on – shall we go to the park?", so that I can fight the tears and demons for a while without feeling like I'm handing him a sad memory.

When I'm having a 'wobble' – a zinging, terrifying mix of depression and
agitation – every mundane task seems gargantuan and every choice I have to make on my own seems terrifying.


My son is amazingly compassionate. He understands the concept of me 'not feeling well in my head'. He understands this is an illness and nothing to do with him. Despite me insisting that I can look after myself and that the 'ill phase' will pass, he tells me it's okay, that he wants to be there for me ("because I love you") and that there's nothing that his solution (a hug, a box of tissues and a glass of milk poured out into a Lego tumbler) can't solve. Although he doesn't know it, my son locks me into life.

But his words of comfort worry me. They make me acutely aware that with just me and him in the house he has to cope, and he has no choice. I worry about his future, too. The statistics make for uncomfortable reading: the ONS has found that children from single-parent families are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as those living with married parents. It feels like our little family unit has fallen victim to a Catch 22: my depression contributed to my divorce, and now I'm a single mum, those pesky stats tell me that the risk of me becoming mentally unwell has risen, as has my son's.

Why, then, is there not more help out there for single parents? Let alone single parents with mental health issues. Around 50 per cent of parents with a severe and enduring mental illness live with one or more children under 18. My local mental health trust offered a gardening course when I asked what support was available for parents – I should be grateful for anything in the current climate, I suppose, but I'm not sure how that's relevant to helping me look after my son. I rely instead on friends, many of whom are single mums too, who understand the pressures of raising a child alone.

Before the election, Gingerbread launched its Single Parents Decide campaign, which shines a light on the issues that matter most for single parents, including affordable childcare and securing decent incomes. I think there also ought to be a political commitment to help single parents with mental illness.

I can't help feeling that we – single parents battling chronic ill health – are a subclass, and one most politicians don't want to touch with a barge pole. Mental health is marginally more fashionable for politicians to talk about than it used to be, but single parenting most definitely isn't. For the most part we aren't economically powerful, so why bother trying to court our votes? Add mental health into the mix and we are arguably so niche as to be arcane. But of course, the consequences of failing to support single parents with mental health issues may be catastrophic, for both parents and children alike.

I cast my vote on May 7th knowing that none of the parties, really, had thought of me and my situation. But I live in hope that I'm doing it right, that growing up with me will leave my son fortified rather than felled, and that, sooner or later, we'll get the extra support we really need.

A version of this article appeared in Psychologies magazine.

By Martha Roberts

Twitter: @martharoberts01

ssd Tue 19-May-15 13:09:25

Martha, I don't have experience of the things you are going through, but I can empathise and send you thanks.

And your son sounds wonderful, just wonderful. With everything else going on in your life, you can be assured you're raising a great human being.

26Point2Miles Tue 19-May-15 13:11:01

as a lone parent to 5 I don't share that view at all,but sorry,Miranda for an 8 year old???

MyGastIsFlabbered Tue 19-May-15 14:43:59

Yes 26Miles...that's the pertinent point of the guest post hmm

I'm a recently single parent with depression (which surprisingly has got a lot better since leaving my husband) but I'm terrified of getting another bout whilst looking after my boys, 5 and 2. They're too young to understand what's going on. I'm just taking each day as it comes, trying to learn that some days being just 'ok' is good enough & not driving myself to distraction trying to be superman.

textfan Tue 19-May-15 15:26:15

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Mumite Tue 19-May-15 15:39:52

I'm a single parent with complex PTSD so thank you for writing this article. I'd be interested - without any suggestion of "blame" etc, but just in terms of cause and effect - in getting a breakdown of the ONS statistics for single parents where there has been parental break-up (which could impact on mental health of the children) and us so-called "choice moms" who have had children whilst single (e.g. via sperm banks). I'm glad you featured the good times in this article too, as there are so many, even though it can be so hard at times, being responsible for another whilst being so vulnerable.

Fatstacks Tue 19-May-15 17:09:10

Just, wow 26.2 confused

FeelTheNoise Tue 19-May-15 17:26:40

Can your DS' school help him to access Young Carers? They really are good at prompting childhood normality for kids who live with someone who is ill.

He sounds fab grin you both do x

FannyPlant Tue 19-May-15 18:10:54

I'm a single parent of an 8 year old and I have bipolar. I can completely understand where you are coming from. In some ways, I feel it makes me a better parent, in other ways I feel like I'm giving her nothing but stress for later life. flowers

ArseForElbow Tue 19-May-15 19:26:46

I'm a single Mum witrh Bipolar and have 2 DC. I worry about the future a lot. flowers

meglet Tue 19-May-15 19:42:09

good post.

In a nutshell I've had useless 'help' from my gp when I've been to him with depression. The counsellor I finally got after 3 yrs said <<think head tilty>> "can you do something nice for yourself everyday?". I pointed out I was a working lp with little help and no I probably couldn't. she didn't get it. Then there was the time they prescribed me anti d's for my IBS. half a tablet floored me so I stopped after 3 days, I had to be on the ball at work, not off my head on pills. When I pointed this out to the gp he said it would be ok after 3 or 4 weeks and I'd get used to them. I replied I was a LP and who was going to look after my young children and do my job whole I got used to the tablets. He didn't have an answer to that.

LithaR Tue 19-May-15 20:21:47

I'm a single parent to a 5 year old ds. I have severe depression and my ds has a asd. So far I've only had the social services threatening to take him away if I don't care for my health more. I can't put a foot out of line. Hate feeling so trapped but at least my son still loves me and is my only reason for existing.

Albadross Tue 19-May-15 21:18:52

I have a personality disorder (hopefully to be renamed as 'complex trauma disorder') and a 2 year old DS. I'm not a lone parent but my partner works away often and also has anxiety.

I recently completed 18 weeks of therapy, and I was pulled up several times on not spending enough time doing the 'homework'. They knew I was a parent (the only one in the group), but they just said I needed to 'prioritise therapy and make time'. Anyone who is a parent will understand when I say that you can't make time if your child needs it. I need a very specialist form of therapy which is only really available privately, but it's by no means a cure, and it requires a hell of a lot of hard work on my part.

I'm just trying to survive, and that alone is draining.

textfan Tue 19-May-15 21:36:05

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

textfan Tue 19-May-15 21:37:40

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ekhinat Tue 19-May-15 22:04:40

Hi there!. Im sorry to hear you find it really hard at times. But I want to share with you my story because it may give you hope and strength to keep working at it. By the conventional therapist I might have been a woman suffering from borderline disorder and acute post traumatic stress. Luckily I didn't bump into such therapist. I was not stigmatised by my own therapist as well. After quite a few years of psychotherapy I am healthy and happy. I have learnt a great deal of things. I have learnt a lot about me, about my personal history, about how the mind is constantly developing. And that loving relationships are vital. Learning about all those things together with the help of the right therapist have turned me into a better version of myself. I am the real example which illustrates that psychotherapy works. I had to fight hard and stand the difficult moments in this process. But oh its so worth it. Even more so when I have a child. You are worth it.

ekhinat Tue 19-May-15 22:08:12

My post was for lithaR

Owllady Tue 19-May-15 22:12:12

I second getting in touch with your young carers group. They are usually searchable through carers UK. The one my children access (as sibling carers) is open to all, run on a very limited budget through the voluntary sector but it really helps and works x

LokiPokey Tue 19-May-15 22:44:20

As someone who suffers with depression but does have a DH who works full time, I often wish I had help during them periods where I can barely get myself out of bed, let alone raise a child. I'm too scared to tell anyone that I'm struggling or ask for help in case they try to take my DD away.
I can only imagine how hard it is for all the parents out there suffering whilst raising their children alone flowers

StrongAsAnOx Tue 19-May-15 23:20:23

Thank you for posting. That ONS stuff is a bit scary. But it needs to get out there and you have done that. Well done.

browntoad Wed 20-May-15 00:14:55

I'm a lone parent diagnosed with severe recurrent depression, an eating disorder and personality disorder. I'm fortunate in some ways that my mental illness is too severe for my GP to fob me off - I get regular meetings with my psychiatrist and CPN, I've had several prolonged courses of psychotherapy (lasting over a year, but it wasn't effective and the therapist had her own issues), I'm on an expensive set of medication (after trying just about every other antidepressant going) and I've been offered a variety of support groups. So there is more support out there I think, but it helps to have had some determined suicide attempts behind you, been threatened with child protection for neglecting your child because your depression means you can't get out of bed, and if your mental illness has had such an impact on your life that you haven't held down a job for almost two decades. It seems that if you can manage to muddle through and show capabilities over and above that (which I can't), then they simply brush you aside with the cheapest pills.

Oh well, I suppose all the bullying reports from SS and the negativity from my psych at least means that I had a huge bundle of evidence for my PIP and ESA submissions, which meant I was able to get the highest rate. For me, that's been the most useful form of support, because I have the choice to spend it on nice things and activities that actually make me feel better, instead of being stuck with the things that they have on offer but which offer no interest for me.

madforgreentea Wed 20-May-15 02:13:26

It goes without saying that it's a moral outrage that we don't care more for the most vulnerable in our society and that we view human worth in such narrowly defined economic terms.

I'm not a single mum but I know what it's like to have mental health issues in the mix with parenting and I salute you, all of you, and urge you never to give up. You really are the most amazing parents precisely because the challenges you have are so much greater.

Please hang in there. Your tenacity and resilience set you apart and your value to society is immense, especially in terms of what you teach us about the strength of human endurance and compassion. I don't believe that children with such dedicated and loving parents are destined to a life of metal health issues. In my view there's just as much risk for children with parents who argue constantly or who may seem very stable but never be physically or emotionally available. There are plenty of parents out there who don't have mental health issues and yet don't really listen to or respond to their child's needs. children can tell the difference between parents who really care, even when they're struggling. And there's a maturity with children who've had to cope with having parents who have not been as well as they've wanted to be, whether physical or otherwise. Human suffering and pain are sadly components of real life and what we want in society are children who grow up to be compassionate and caring. What better people to contribute to society than those who really know where the battle lines are drawn and know what these struggles are made of.
I salute you.

ChaiseLounger Wed 20-May-15 04:07:51

I salute you too.
I can't see this getting any better, the support suddenly materialising though.

Saltedpeanuts Wed 20-May-15 08:50:11

I have in the past really needed help with the children on occasion. There is absolutely no practical help available, however desperate you are. I asked about the children being looked after for a few days when I needed to go into hospital. My GP told me that if I asked for a short term foster placement to cover this, I would never see the back of Social Services, and very strongly recommended that I cope without any state help.

browntoad Wed 20-May-15 09:05:46

I don't know if that's really true Saltedpeanuts. I've had two interventions from SS and they were signed off fairly quickly once any short-term issues were ironed out. Social services simply don't have the money to keep hounding people once their work is done, they are struggling enough as it is. But I suppose if you can manage to cope then they aren't going to prioritise you for support, as there are more desperate situations out there.

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