As a parent, you’re always conscious, I think, of trying not to live life through your children. The implication of such ‘living vicariously’ is that you are trying to live the life you never had. What I never realised was that having children would mean living life through them – not the life I never had, but the life that I did have. That I would be transported back to my own childhood.
I remember a couple of years ago, crying at a friend’s house during a play date in which a small ‘gang’ of girls had told my son they didn’t like boys and didn’t want to play with him. He seemed (at least outwardly) fairly unaffected by the whole thing and went off to play by himself, so it wasn’t any outward emotion or evidence of unhappiness, that had disturbed me.
It’s a common human experience to feel sad when those we love feel sad; or to feel happy when they feel happy. It is the essence of what it means to have empathy. I don’t know – I have no conceivable way of knowing – whether what I experienced that day, or in many subsequent days, was simply empathy, but perhaps ratcheted up a notch to reflect the fact that those with BPD often experience feelings more intensely. All I can say is – it felt as though it was happening to me.
A similar situation arose a few months ago, when my son was pushing around a friend of his at school, who had started to say that he didn’t want to play with him anymore. Very quickly, I spiralled down into suicidal thinking. My therapist thought that I blamed myself and felt the situation as a criticism of my parenting. While that may be true, I don’t think that rejection of my parenting was the major contributory factor to how I was feeling – that would imply that I was facing the situation as an adult and a parent. The biggest factor was a much more all-encompassing sense of rejection of self.
Was I being self-centred, making the situation ‘all about me’? All I can say is, it didn’t feel as though it was about me – it felt as though it was happening to me. Of course I hurt because my child hurt and not just because I did; and part of my despair was over the thought that he might, one day, end up feeling as unable to cope with the world, as I did. But at the same time, that sense of rejection went right to my core and left me feeling worthless, and the sphere of rejection grew outwards until it felt as though everyone was party to that rejection in one form or another.
I was living parts of my own childhood through my son, but with a twist – reliving the life I had had, but with the thoughts and emotions I never did. At least, not on a conscious level.
Just as therapy is helping me to discover how I really think about myself, being a parent is inadvertently opening a door on feelings I may have had about myself when growing up, but locked away because they were too difficult (or risky) to handle. I can’t really remember how I felt about the verbal and emotional bullying at school – how I dealt with it on a day to day basis. I had some wonderful friends, my academic pursuits defined me and I needed the structure that a school day provided. Those things undoubtedly resulted in my enduring memory that I ‘loved school’. But they pass over a whole part of my school experience that I have until now ignored, but that having children has brought not only back to memory, but back to lived experience. And not only back to lived experience, but back to un-experienced thoughts, fears and emotions.
The terrifying thought is that this journey of re-living and of discovery, has only just begun. At some point my children will experience the death of a loved one; complete rejection by a friend; disappointment or failure of some kind; a broken heart. I know it may sound self-centred to worry about re-experiencing those things, and of course I wish that they never had to experience them at all. But I know they will, as we all do. I just wish that the person they had by their side to help them through, was someone whose experience had left a legacy of wisdom, and not a legacy of fear. That the person they had by their side would be someone who already knew how it felt to be them – not someone who was discovering their feelings for the first time. That the person they had to stand by them would be someone who could stand in their shoes and yet stand firm – not someone who would tremble.
I’m sure that there are common threads here, for any parent. Our children will always remind us of our childhoods, the good times and the bad. They will always ‘take us back’ – but if you’re a parent with BPD, or someone with BPD who is thinking of becoming a parent, I think it’s important to be aware of what that ‘taking back’ involves, and of what might surface in the process. Somehow I feel naïve for not realising earlier, that my children’s emotions would transport me back in time, but with the insight and self-awareness of an adult.
I hate to give advice, because I am the furthest thing from wise, and because everyone is unique – but I believe that anyone considering starting a family, whether or not they have mental health difficulties, should think about the implications. Everyone’s life changes in at least some ways when they have a child, and thinking through what those changes might be, and what they might mean for you, can only be a good thing. Nothing can prepare you for having a child, but the more ‘surprises’ you can try and pre-empt, the better – there will always be more to come!
Many people think long and hard about when might be the ‘right time’ to start a family. In some ways, I think there is never a right time – there is no ‘perfect age’ at which to have children, or the ‘perfect stage’ in one’s career. But as a general point, I would encourage anyone with BPD who is thinking about starting a family, to think about it in the context of their recovery. I wish I had known about my diagnosis before I had had children, and had been aware of how it would affect me and my parenting. I wish I had sought help and had had therapy years ago, so that I could have been further along in my recovery and possibly been better equipped to deal with the challenges I face now. Life changes and stress points exacerbate BPD symptoms, and there are few more significant life changes than the birth of a child.
Wherever you are in your recovery, you will probably still be triggered, to a greater or lesser extent, by the things that toddlers do; you will probably still react, to a greater or lesser extent, in the way that toddlers do; and you will probably still be transported, to a great or lesser extent, back to the most difficult parts of your own childhood. However, being further along in your recovery may give you a few more tools at your disposal, both cognitive and emotional, for dealing with all those troubles.
I have tried to end each of my posts on ‘BPD and parenting’ on an uplifting note, because above all, I want to show that it is possible to have a mental illness and to parent – not perfectly, not even always consistently or according to our intentions, but thoughtfully and responsibly, and with validation, acceptance and great love. I want to end this little ‘series’ by thanking my children for teaching me. They challenge me and fascinate me; they confuse me and inspire me. And yes, okay, sometimes they irritate me (but never was a truer word said than “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”*)! By being themselves and giving me a little window onto their souls, they are also helping me to open up a few more windows (and doors) into myself, and that, ultimately, can only be a good thing for us all.
* quote by Carl Jung