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Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldeman On Mentally Ill Parents

By Sierra Black |

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldeman sat down for a talk with the Takeaway about Ayelet’s bipolar disorder, and how it affects their family life.

Chabon and Waldeman try to treat her mental illness like any illness: something the family deals with together, without shame or guilt.

Waldeman wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until after she became a mom. In the course of trying to figure out how to have a smooth, loving relationship as a family, they realized together as a couple that Ayelet wasn’t just “really moody.” She was sick, and could get treatment.

“The reason I get treatment is for my family,” Ayelet says.

Their top priority in communicating with the kids about it is always to make sure the kids don’t feel responsible for Mom’s mental health. They focus on making sure the kids know this is not their problem. The kids didn’t cause it, they didn’t do it, it’s not their problem to deal with.

“It’s just sort of a topic for conversation in the family,” Michael said. When Ayelet is having a mood swing, both parents encourage the kids to talk honestly with their father. They know they can tell him, “Mom is being mean”, and that he’ll be comforting and supportive rather than harsh.

Mental illness remains a topic of stigma in this country. It’s often invisible, and can be hard to distinguish from simply problematic behavior. Where is the tipping point between “moody” and bipolar? Psychologists have metrics for that, but for struggling families these can be murky waters.

Do you or your coparent live with mental illness? How do you manage the ways your illness touches your children’s lives?

Photo: Dean’s Life

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About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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13 thoughts on “Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldeman On Mentally Ill Parents

  1. goddess says:

    Easier said than done. If they are LIVING WITH a mentally ill parent, it IS their problem to deal with. IT’s a dysfunctional family unit and trying to deny the very real deficits and damages is piling on more dysfunction.
    It’s not fun, it’s not normal, and it’s a;lifetime problem.

  2. nolamom says:

    I don’t believe anyone is saying living with a parent with a mental illness is fun or “normal” -whatever that might be. It sounds as thought they are addressing the illness rather than hiding it, which is often a large part of the battle. I think it is really smart to have the communication between parent and child when the mother is cycling so that the children know it is not their fault their mother has an illness.Also, that they have a relationship were sharing their feelings is encouraged is very helpful for all involved. Of course they are affected, but it sounds as though they are active in reducing the effects. BTW, I say this as someone who works in the mental health profession and has depression.

  3. Kikiriki says:

    They didn’t say they were denying it, they said they were making sure the kids know that it’s not their fault their mom is sick. How is “encourag[ing] the kids to talk honestly with their father” and having him be “comforting and supporting” piling on more dysfunction? Did you even read this article?

  4. Rachel says:

    It’s also important to be honest about dealing with one’s mental illness as a parent because children of parents with mental illnesses are more likely to develop mental illness themselves. Modeling a strong support network, proper health care, and good medication habits is vital. My mother still hasn’t gotten herself together and won’t admit her illness… but my son will see that his very happy mommy has to work a little harder to stay that way… and I think that will inspire him whether he develops depression or not.

  5. goddess says:

    Nola- I spoke as a child of a person who suffers severe debilitating depression and anxiety disorder- and one I’ve parented since my 20′s. Yeah Kiks, read it, just re-read it and still think it glosses over too much. To be honest, I believe kids need to be raised by more mentally healthy individuals than bipolar and/or severely depressed parents. Just talking from the trenches too.
    Rachel good for you. I’ve been blessed to not have inherited the mental illness from my own parent, and for that I am eternally grateful. I’ll be parenting my parent well after my kids have left the nest.

  6. leahsmom says:

    I think there are generally different attitudes about mental vs. physical illness, though. Women with chronic illnesses that impact daily life (diabetes, MS, cancer, mobility impairments) are often encouraged and supported to have children – whereas women with mental illness are met with reactions such as “you are damaging your kids!” No one has ever told me I’m damaging my kids by forcing them to have a mom with juvenile diabetes – but they have told my bipolar friend the same thing. Yet, my diabetes makes me unavailable to care for my children at times, leads me to inexplicable (to them) tears on occasion, and can even be dangerous if I don’t manage it. Yet people have castigated her for doing the same things they praise me for. To me, this is one of the best examples of how mental illness is stigmatized. If you want to say that only the supremely fit should parent – I’m actually fine with your making that argument. But you damned well better include me in it, and not only my friend – we’re neither of us supremely fit, and so you should either exclude us both on that ground, or ntiehr.

  7. jbuchana says:

    CommentsMy wife and I both have bipolar, both well into recovery and rarely unstable. We are foster parents, and our case workers have nothing but good to say about our parenting. My 26 year old son seems to have no problems caused by my illness.

    As leahsmom commented above, it is stigma that says that we can’t be good parents.

  8. goddess says:

    I agree- debilitating physical conditions can be very damaging. However, I think that dysfunction and codependent behaviors are usually worse when mental illness is involved.
    As for whether to include you or not, – depends what hardship your kids are enduring- and how bad it’s likely to get.
    I’m not advocating the removal of children in these situations- but rather the forethought of those people afflicted with serious illnesses BEFORE they have a family. And maybe a conscious and unselfish decision to not put kids through it. Your choice, not mine.

  9. LindaLou says:

    You guys aren’t even talking about the same thing. There is severe, untreated mental illness and there is mental illness that is being managed with drugs and therapy.

    @goddess, if you really feel that way, then you shouldn’t ahve had children either. Just because you aren’t afflicted by something hereditary, doesn’t mean it’s going to skip right over your children as well. You still carry the genes. So, yeah I guess it was your choice too.

  10. goddess says:

    And you’ve done a DNA assay on me eh? No? I have. Don’t worry your pretty little head.

  11. LindaLou says:

    Predictive genetic testing is not available to determine if people are at risk for mental illness, silly. At least do a quick google check before you post such ridiculous things.

  12. monteli says:

    Goddess is ignorant of her prejudice against mental illness. Ayalet is an example of a person who is highly functional–Harvard Law Grad.–and has managed to keep the illness at bay. Anyone can come down with serious illnesses in mid life during the years of child rearing. MS, Cancer, Stroke.

  13. Heather says:

    I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and can say from experience that the answer to the question of whether or not a person with a mental illness should have children should really depend on that individual’s personal diagnoses, including the severity of the illness, and how successfully it can be managed. However, these questions can ONLY be addressed ahead of time if the illness is DIAGNOSED ahead of time. The individual in this article was diagnosed AFTER having children, and I believe that their method of dealing with it is one of the best I can think of in regard to their childrens’ health. Making sure that the kids know that THEY DIDN’T CAUSE MOMMY TO GET SICK is so crutially important. And making sure they can openly talk about their emotions and recieve support from dad is vital. These parents are coping with a tough illness in the best, most responsible way possible, and I think they should be applauded.

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