Why is Having a Child with a Mental Health Condition so Traumatizing?

When a child is diagnosed with a medical condition, or is injured,  we all pitch in. We create calendars and sign up to bring meals or entertain siblings. We offer our friends and family unconditional support. But when your child is anorexic, or addicted, or bipolar, nobody brings a casserole. 

Why is that? Because we don’t tell anyone. We isolate ourselves to protect against the rawness of our reality or our fear of other people’s judgment. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s all our fault and the judgment isn’t real. It 100% exists, in the background. I’m just saying I’m open to the idea that it is optional. 

Let me start at the beginning. I was rolling along nicely as a developmental psychology professor and mother of three. My husband and I put in all the appropriate efforts when it came to love and attention and reading and afterschool activities and weekend playdates and balanced nutrition and sleep hygiene. The effort involved in modern parenting was palpable but we felt like we were then guaranteed certain returns on our investments. After all, according to science, if anything goes wrong in child development it’s all the mother’s fault. Ergo, if I played by the rules then I could create healthy and well-adjusted children through sheer will and determination. 

I’m being flippant but I’m not. Science didn’t blatantly say “mothers are to blame for children’s behaviors,” but not-so-subtle clues suggest that experts may nonetheless believe it to be true on an unexamined level. Any person can head on over to Google Scholar to quickly search for academic peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Peer-reviewed means before anything can be published, a group of other scientists has to scrutinize and approve it to make sure it’s high quality research. The problem is, if they are all drinking the same Kool-Aid, then they can only ever offer the illusion of objectivity. 

So, according to the ‘objective’ research (as of 10/10/22), there are 1,920,000 studies linking maternal depression to child development, compared to 189,000 studies that mentioned paternal depression as a contributor to children’s developmental outcomes (that’s less than 1% of studies linking parental depression to child well-being, in which moms are typically already the predictor of interest). Sadly, I’m not cherry-picking my facts. A search of maternal stress and child outcomes yields 2,510,000 studies compared to 259,000 linking paternal stress—again hovering around 1% compared to moms. How about the impacts of maternal substance abuse? That weighs in at 2,280,000 hits compared to dads who only pull in 289,000. Uncanny! Another 100:1 ratio. Finally, dads get some honorable mention when it comes to paternal education and child development. They attract 358,000 likes. Mom’s education is overwhelmingly the favorite with 2,600,000 followers. But now she’s giving up close to 1.4% of the spotlight. Watch your back moms! Dads might finally be important one day, according to science. 

So anyways, everything I believed about motherhood was socially constructed. I was going along with what science said and believed that my children’s behavior was a reflection of my capability as a parent. Then our daughter contracted PANDAS. This is a cluster of neurological symptoms that have a very sudden-onset and dramatic impact on behavior and personality. The leading hypothesis is that it is an autoimmune response to strep bacteria. In Rheumatic Fever, the immune system mistakes the lining of the heart for strep bacteria. In PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus), it confuses the basal ganglia (a region in the brain that processes thoughts, appetite, behaviors, sensations) for strep bacteria. This unfortunate error leads to crippling intrusive thoughts, sensory overload, extreme physical discomfort, behavioral and emotional regression, separation anxiety, rigidity, pathological fears, and in our case, extreme starvation. The second leading hypothesis is that PANDAS is made up. This leaves room for an uncomfortable amount of speculation. 

So I was betwixt and between. My daughter was flagrantly mentally ill and in the throes of a devastating eating disorder. This all happened rather suddenly and we ended up in the hospital. Since I was already an expert in knowing this was all my fault, I couldn’t help but notice that the doctors and therapists were generally on board with that hypothesis and each expert took a keen interest in my story as a way of understanding what went wrong. Did I have an eating disorder? Did I suffer from mental illness? What is my relationship with my daughter? How do I set and enforce rules and routines at home? It was clear that my daughter was broken. Moreover, to everybody’s disappointment, I couldn’t fix her. And this is despite being the likely source of the problem. 

On the one hand, I was an expert who believed that children’s developmental trajectories were determined by millions of interactions between genes and the social environment, built over time. This is our shared understanding of how human development works. With the mother as the epicenter around which child development swirls. I know what some people are thinking. They are thinking: ‘Yes, that’s right. Mothers give birth to the babies so fathers are probably only 1% important. Even science agrees.’ 

Well let’s take a look at why we believe what we believe. Who came up with this notion of the gene x environment interaction that has become our leading framework for understanding human development? Many people. Urie Bronfenbrenner was one. He was my favorite developmental theorist in graduate school. He came up with the bioecological model (which suggests nature and nurture interact synergistically) well before our technology caught up and proved him true. Here’s the problem: I was a history major in undergraduate school. So I can’t help but situate knowledge in historical context, and I’m a lunatic for primary sources and patterns.  

So Urie Bronfenbrenner comes on the scene in the 1950’s-1980’s with this genuinely solid idea that ‘children develop in an environment of relationships’. But then he kind of goes and ruins it by interpreting reality through an extremely narrow lens. He could only ever imagine mothers as present caregivers and fathers as absent disciplinarians. So he published all kinds of nonsense in highly regarded academic journals, subjected to the rigor of his objective peers, that speculated the decline of children’s wellbeing was directly related to the disturbing trend of women entering the workforce. Women who worked were inherently damaging their children, irrevocably. All of this nonsense is of course still available in such journals as Scientific American and American Psychologist, continuing to pretend to be professional wisdom. You just have to go back several decades. Take my childhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s for example. That was the height of some of our best mother-blaming research. You’ll remember such hits as attachment theory and parenting styles from your college psychology 101 classes. These concepts, demonstrating the importance of mothers as omnipresent and vigilant and involved, became conspicuously on trend just after women entered the workforce. What would happen is that parents would be recruited to go to a lab with their child. The child would then have this or that reaction to their mother’s disappearance from the lab room and subsequent return. Observations would be collected, judgments would be rendered about the dangers of bad mothering. But, why moms in the first place? Is it because we truly are more important? No.  It’s because in the 1970’s and 1980’s it would have been preposterously bananas to expect a man to take time off of work to tend to a child-related errand when he had important bread-winning to do. The problem being that the scientific method requires legitimate research be grounded in or expand upon prior research. So we are primed to continue to repeat the same old stories before we even formulate our questions. 

When I was in graduate school in the 2000’s, we collected questionnaires about children’s home environment in a study of children’s behaviors at school. Do you know what we did with questionnaires that dads completed? We shredded them. Including fathers in a study introduces noise and missing data. There is nobody to compare them to so their data is deemed unreliable, from a statistical perspective. Focusing on the mother tells a cleaner story. But it misses most of the point.

So this brings us to the other hand. I could instead accept that we barely understand what we are talking about when we attach morality to mental health in place of biology. I mean really, we really don’t know what we are talking about. Brains can get scrambled for a variety of reasons. Occasionally they benefit from some tinkering and rewiring. Judging them in the process doesn’t exactly speed things up. That goes for you too, parents. If you allow yourself to let go of the belief that you are to blame, you allow all other parents in a similar boat the same grace. This pep talk is for moms and dads. Just because dads only get 1% of the credit, doesn’t mean they don’t feel 100% of the pain. What if it’s nobody’s fault? What would happen then?

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

Thank you for reading this post. You may enjoy reading Lady Garland Tames Her Dragons available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

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